orgtheory.net

we don’t need no other stinkin’ disciplines

Fabio

What would we think about an astronomer who burst into a conference of chemists and presented a new version of the periodic table that ignored all chemistry from Mendeleev onward? At best, most folks would say that the astronomer was ignorant of basic science. At worst, the astronomer would be considered an arrogant lunatic. Sadly, the equivalent behavior is considered normal within the social sciences, where each discipline often allows its members to re-invent and rehash ideas in other disciplines and proceed as if the other disciplines did not exist. Consider the following comment from Peter to Wednesday’s post:

wild lack of critical thinking that many sociologists evince toward work that claims to show the triumph of some sociology-affirming narrative against some outsider.

Jeremy, I think that’s an insightful thing to say (and here I go a bit off topic). But it sounds so, I don’t know, unreasonable. Why should we give the benefit of the doubt to economic, psych, or biological explanations over sociological ones? Do you imagine economists giving the benefit of the doubt to outsider narratives over market ones? Or psychologists? Or biologists? Really?

I once was at one of those over-and-over sessions on economists-meet-sociologists-meet-economists, and the economist on the panel said he has from time to time read good sociology – in fact there was this really neat study of life insurance and cultural changes in the US!! Of course, he didn’t remember who it was or what the details were, despite the fact that Viviana Zelizer was sitting next to him at the panel. My point is that the baseline in every discpline is to favor one’s own explanations and to be skeptical towards others. Why discount the sociology-affirming narrative so easily?

I know that in an ideal scientific community there would be a deep openness towards other perspectives in the interests of scientific truth. But of course we don’t live in an ideal world, but a scholarly-partisan one (this was why I was thinking that we fall back on more status-ordering games in my previous comment).

The social sciences are embarrasing in this respect. Any self respecting physical scientist knows the basics of chemistry, physics, math, and other subjects. Though there’s a prestige hierarchy in the physical and biological sciences, there isn’t a knowledge hierarchy where chemists, for example, just assume that most biology is simply wrong and redo basic biology.

In the social sciences, it’s routine to find economists who rarely read sociology or anthropology, and there are socioligists who think that the concept of incentive is simply useless. Though there’s a lot of wonderful stuff happening in the social sciences these days, relations between social science disciplines resemble turf war, rather than an attempt to integrate what has been learned from many fields. With respect to Jeremy and Peter’s points, modern sociology should be an attempt to integrate what has been learned from cultural studies, evolution, and economics to build a more thorough theory of social life.  I look forward to the day when economists have a basic familiarity with Bourdieu, sociologists know about marginal analysis, and everybody believes people are the outcome of natural selection.

Written by fabiorojas

December 28, 2007 at 5:05 am

15 Responses

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  1. What incentives do the players have to integrate? ;-)

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    stevphel

    December 28, 2007 at 6:24 am

  2. Why should a physicist learn math? Or a chemist learn biology? Knowledge gets better if we integrate. Why this has yet to occur in the social sciences is unclear to me.

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    fabiorojas

    December 28, 2007 at 6:31 am

  3. Though there’s a prestige hierarchy in the physical and biological sciences, there isn’t a knowledge hierarchy where chemists, for example, just assume that most biology is simply wrong and redo basic biology.

    There’s a middle ground here even in the hard sciences. For instance, there are many instances of physicists disparaging certain kinds of biology: E.g., Feynman asking a biologist for a map of a cat (and being bemused that instead of a map biologists were forced to learn the names of all that stuff by rote), or Luis Alvarez complaining that “I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re not very good scientists, ‘They’re more like stamp collectors.” That “stamp collecting” jibe goes back to Rutherford who said “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.” Here the put-down is not so much that biology is false as that the sort of knowledge it produces is boring, like the telephone directory, and basically not worth bothering to learn. The attitude is the same as Coase’s remark about institutionalist economics — “a mass of descriptive material waiting for a theory, or a fire” — or the line sometimes put forward by economists in conciliatory mood that sociologists are a fine bunch whose job is to accumulate qualitative illustrations and quantitative surveys that economists can then theorize properly about. So prestige and knowledge can’t be so easily separated, I think.

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    Kieran

    December 28, 2007 at 12:32 pm

  4. While I very much agree that we should always try to know and incorporate what other disciplines have said about our question or topic (especially if we are going to attack them!), I think it’s very tough to use the natural sciences as a guide for how we conduct our interdisciplinary affairs. The difference can be put in Abbott (1988, 2001) terms: if disciplines (as professions do) compete by subsuming the problems associated with one discipline into the core metaphor of the other discipline, the natural scientists have much clearer limits to such competition. While there are some jurisdictional border issues, there is a clear hierarchy of the domain covered by each of the major natural science disciplines. Everyone acknowledges that biologists study phenomena that rely on processes studied by chemists, while chemists study phenomena that rely on processes studied by physicists. And the training of each of these disciplines reflects this hierarchy (though I would argue that this is in fact a case where ‘prestige and knowledge *can* be separated’ insofar as we think biology is now higher status than chemistry; presumably, biologists’ status rises because they cover a portion of the chemical domain that the consumers of scientific knowledge care much more about). In our case though, our core metaphors are basically rival ways of characterizing *all* of human action. In particular, no one can say where the social begins and the economic ends. Accordingly, there are extremely few topics that are ceded by sociology to economics or by economics to sociology. So while it’s *important* to try to be above disciplinary competition (e.g., when it comes to using and referencing ideas when it comes to handing out jobs or funding), it seems impossible for us to ever have the interdisciplinary relationships that the natural scientists do.

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    ezrazuckerman

    December 28, 2007 at 2:22 pm

  5. Sorry. The last sentence of my post should read: “So while it’s *important* to try to be above disciplinary competition (e.g., when it comes to using and referencing ideas; though unrealistic to do so when it comes to handing out jobs or funding), it seems impossible for us to ever have the interdisciplinary relationships that the natural scientists do.”

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    ezrazuckerman

    December 28, 2007 at 2:26 pm

  6. I don’t want to hijack the thread, but I had a longer response. MT doesn’t seem to trackback to WP anymore (maybe it’s time to switch back to WP). Anyhow, it’s here.

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    Peter

    December 28, 2007 at 3:00 pm

  7. I fixed the link, Peter.

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    Kieran

    December 28, 2007 at 3:04 pm

  8. Peter:

    In response to the post on your blog, I would say the following:

    a. I apologize if you think I characterized your position as that of a moron who thinks we should completely ignore other disciplines. (I’m not sure you meant me, but I couldn’t tell; so just in case.)

    b. I completely agree with you and Wendy G.that training needs to be disciplinary first and foremost. This is the vision we had for our new economic sociology phd program (http://mitsloan.mit.edu/phd/esp.php). Students need to be clear about what conversation they are entering, what it takes to contribute the conversation; and the conversations are primarily within discipline.

    c. I take all of your points about Fama. (I would actually argue that it’s a lot worse than that, but I won’t get into that here). Though I wouldn’t use him as my source for what the debates are in finance. Over the past ten years or so, there is a lot more interesting work in finance that can be made compatible with sociological thinking (there are even some citations to soc journals these days!). Among the reasons I stopped doing work on financial markets a few years ago was that I thought I had no one to talk to on the other side. (the other problem was that there seemed to be no one to talk to on our side either). But I think that’s less and less true.

    d. I’d rather err on the side of self-criticism than self-righteousness. Not only is it the more comfortable position morally (of course, now I’m being self-righteous) and the more productive position intellectually, but it reflects the self-confidence that we indeed have useful ideas to offer and are not worried about acknowledging that others have good ideas too. If at the end of the day, they are too closed-minded to appreciate our ideas, so much the worse for them.

    Thanks, btw, for the note about my work.

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    ezrazuckerman

    December 28, 2007 at 3:45 pm

  9. This is a frequently visited topic here at orgtheory (see some previous discussions here and here). Why does interdisciplinarity/multidisciplinarity keep coming up? I think it’s because organizational studies is already deeply interdisciplinary and efforts to redirect the course of the field are futile. I think there will always be a disciplinary role for sociology in org. studies, but it will likely be in conversation with people from other disciplines (psychology, economics, and organizational behavior more generally). My reason for being optimistic about this interdisciplinary future is because the quality of work at the interdisciplinary nexus has improved. People, many whose training comes from outside of sociology but who often pass as sociologists, are doing incredible research that draws on diverse disciplinary perspectives. Theoretical advancements are being generated by people working in an interdisciplinary environment.

    My sense is that trying to hunker down and redefine how sociologists are different and distinguished from the rest of the field is probably more harmful to the discipline than would be seeking to form strong ties between the disciplines. Ezra is right that some disciplines may be less receptive to our offerings than others, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be more opportunities among the next generation of scholars (i.e., you already see this to a degree with Freakonomics students).

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    brayden

    December 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm

  10. Interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity: pshaw. The future belongs to transdisciplinarity, the continued rise of academics who are not so much bringing together different disciplines as waking up one morning and realizing they don’t really belong to a discipline. As for sociology, it’s been more a cloud/confederacy than a discipline for more than 30 years anyway, bound together by a determined resolution to ignore the wild number of pairwise combinations of self-described sociologists who have nothing whatsoever in common intellectually except leftward politics.

    I should make clear my own problem with sociology and “biology” is worth a post in itself, but the issue is less maybe that sociology needs to know “biology” but that when sociologists profess to be offering papers that show a triumph for “social factors” over “biology,” then, yes, they need to have a coherent and informed idea of what they are talking about on the “biology” side.

    The self-disrespect in sociology that Peter talks about is something that troubles me, too–even though I realize that I sometimes post things that reflect and contribute to it–but I think one manifestation of that is a tendency of some to be uncritical toward bad work that claims to affirm traditionally sociological ways of thinking. Sometimes it feels like a discipline motivated toward affirming that what we learned in graduate school–or, worse, what we thought when we entered graduate school–was Right All Along.

    Peter: You should join Scatterplot.

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    jeremy

    December 28, 2007 at 6:49 pm

  11. Transdisciplinarity. I like that.

    Just a random thought: perhaps one of the reasons “disciplinarity” is a problem is our fetishization of the deductive model. That is, we tend to run around “applying” our disciplinary models to cases rather than approaching particular problems in a more open-minded fashion and seeing where we end up. Too often, being “theoretical” means you know what the data are supposed to say before looking at it. I’m not sure that’s how good science actually works much of the time.

    For a while, I was really into Critical Realism, and in particular the idea of retroduction, which continually asks, “What would have to be true for me to be seeing what I’m seeing?” (Or something like that.) It was asking this question over and over that eventually led to the main argument of my dissertation and to a lot of great stuff in other disciplines. That’s my experience, anyway.

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    Steve Vaisey

    December 29, 2007 at 4:27 am

  12. […] Jeremy Freese, trolling the comment threads at our good twin site: As for sociology, it’s been more a cloud/confederacy than a discipline for more than 30 years anyway, bound together by a determined resolution to ignore the wild number of pairwise combinations of self-described sociologists who have nothing whatsoever in common intellectually except leftward politics. […]

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  13. if i ever teach contemporary sociological theory, jeremy’s “cloud/confederacy” sentence is going at the top of the syllabus.

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    gabrielrossman

    December 29, 2007 at 6:28 pm

  14. Interesting to compare the progesss of sociologist Jeffrey C Alexaxander from Talcott Parsons through neofunctionalism to the strong program in cultural theory, with an alternative program. http://www.the-rathouse.com/EvenMoreAustrianProgram/EMACulturevsGMProg.html

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    Rafe

    December 29, 2007 at 8:09 pm

  15. […] psychology, and other social sciences to better understand how organizations work. I’ve defended that view on this blog before. But is the field truly interdisciplinary or is it multidisciplinary, […]

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