The LSE Impact Blog have been hosting a debate on the future of the social sciences, in anticipation of this event tomorrow evening, with Nicholas Christakis, whose article on the need to 'shake up' the social sciences made a bit of a stir last year. A more recent article by Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald lept enthusiastically aboard Christakis's bandwagon, from a British context.
The tenor of this debate irks me. It employs the rhetoric of 'modernity' and 'anti-conservatism' in a similar way to Tony Blair, namely, to back all critics into corners where they do not all justifiably belong. So I wrote this piece in response. The heart of my argument is this bit:
Goodall, Oswald and Christakis demonstrate scant curiosity about what the social sciences are, or where they came from. The unspoken implication is that they are simply a junior off-shoot of a naturalist project which began around the time of Francis Bacon. Is it not significant that they emerged in late 19th century Europe, in the context of the collapse of Victorian liberalism? Would it not be useful for one of their neuro-economists to know that the aspiration to ground decision-making in the physical body has been a repeated obsession of behaviorists over the past century, which has run into a pattern of familiar failures and crises during that time? Viewed this way, it might be possible to ask about the status of the social sciences in 2014, as something other than mere understudies to the natural sciences. A new form of ‘interdisciplinarity’, possibly a new vision of experimentation, may be the welcome result.
The difficulty is that this would involve placing demands on the natural sciences, as well as on the social sciences. And this seems to be the one thing that Goodall, Oswald and Christakis cannot countenance. The shared terrain rests on various acts of forgetting on the part of the social sciences (a forgetting of history, a forgetting of the reflexive nature of human beings), but no acts of learning on the part of the natural sciences. It involves no searching questions regarding the natural sciences – such as their status within the American military-industrial complex – but merely encouragement to the social sciences that they should become equally co-operative. Is this really what we mean by interdisciplinarity?
Head along to the LSE tomorrow evening to carry on the debate.