is social science anti-democratic?

It’s often thought that social science is a tool for progress and democracy. Overall, I agree. However, there’s a sense in which social science is anti-democratic:

  • Social scientists may discover that popular behaviors have bad outcomes.
  • Social scientists may discover that popular government policies have bad outcomes.
  • Social scientists privilege experts over the “person in the street.”
  • Social scientists may find that policies favoring certain political, social or corporate actors may be bad.

You might think of this as the Ibsen view of politics and social science. And you see this already. It’s now a ritual among some politicians to trash social scientists. I’m comfortable in this position, but it does put us in tension with our sponsors and funders.


Written by fabiorojas

August 16, 2011 at 12:17 am

Posted in academia, fabio, just theory

11 Responses

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  1. Huh…um…what? Is _science_ anti-democratic? Reading this on the heels of that dreadful Sunday NYT piece on “the elusive big idea” (so it is not all your fault Fabio!). Presumably, there was once a time in which academics – and perhaps even a fair proportion of the literate public – understood that, yes, expertise should be valued over the “person on the street” and that scientists, social or otherwise, might typically hold views that varied from the “popular.” Increasingly, however, this seems a problem to be discussed, even among academics and even if, ultimately, they can heroically manage to find themselves “comfortable” with that idea.



    August 16, 2011 at 2:46 am

  2. Reminds me of Wyndham Lewis’s remark in the Art of Being Ruled (1927). He said that one the benefits of fascism would be to do away with “all the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretences of democracy” (p. 322). I think social science still serves mainly as ideological cover for what Wolin calls “Democracy, Inc.” It’s basic function is to pretend that “social problems” arise out of our ignorance of “social facts”, not the cold indifference and raw greed of corporation executives. If only we knew more about “how society works”, says (the very existence of) the social scientists, we wouldn’t have poverty, war, etc. I think the rage of the right against “liberals” is similar to the rage of fascists like Lewis against “liberal democracy”. Obviously, one is uneasy about granting them the argument. But one understands why they feel social sciences are on the other team.



    August 16, 2011 at 5:02 am

  3. I would not consider knowledge generation undemocratic, it is not an aspect of democracy that one’s opinions be shielded from inconvenient facts.

    I belive the issue is whether and when technocracy undermines democracy. Social sciences are undemocratic in the sense that it obtains a monopoly on ‘truth’. The economists have long held a priviledged position in telling what type of interventions to public finances are optimal. When policiticians then implement economically optimal policies they may ignore the fact that any economic intervention also redistributes wealth – an aspect that should be decided by elected politicians. I would imagine economists’ legitimacy has been undermined by their conflicting prescriptions that reveal they are not objective and value free — lately the (media-covered) economists do not seem to agree on merits of government stimulus (or rather, they very firmly agree it is terrible or great within their cliques).

    Since academic status in part depends on coalitions and social ties rather than meritocracy, there should always be healthy scepticism towards the impartiality of social science findings. The social democratic dream of technocratic government implementing the best possible policies is noble, but I am pretty certain that many ‘truths’ social scientists produce are far from value-free.



    August 16, 2011 at 7:33 am

  4. Surely, all sciences, and, perhaps, all art, are undemocratic? Who would vote for Damien Hirst? Who would vote for an n-dimensional universe?

    I think the problem in this post is the opening assertion that “it is often thought that social science is a tool for … democracy”. Maybe it is a mere tool, but perhaps that would be setting us up for an inglorious failure. I would rather assert that the role of social science is to generate understanding of what is going on when, for example, people mobilize arguments for/against democracy and its principles. While I agree with Henri that the outputs from social science are rarely value-free, I would hope that the aim is to produce outputs that can be claimed as impartial, or at least disconnected from the narrow concerns of the contemporary political circus.

    (I don’t want to be a tool.)



    August 16, 2011 at 8:20 am

  5. I think “monopoly on truth” overstates the role of social science in democratic societies. But Henri and I probably agree on the core issues. The social sciences are part of what could more precisely be called an epistemic oligopoly. The important thing is not concentrating the production of truth-claims in a *single* place, and certainly not with aim of producing a single, monolithic Truth, but keeping it out of the hands ordinary people, keeping the variety of beliefs about how social life works within particular bounds.

    In business life, oligopolies replace market forces with feudal contests between corporate overlords. In matters of what Walter Lippmann called “organized intelligence”, the market place of ideas is reduced to a struggle between “opinion leaders”. Social scientists participate in this oligoply (which is, properly speaking merely sub-contracting to the reigning oligarchs), competing (and just as often colluding) with journalists and the various consultants in the PR business. Together they construct a spectral entity Lewis called What The Public Wants, wholly independently of what any aparticular individual or “man in the street” actually needs or desires. That’s the point.



    August 16, 2011 at 9:16 am

  6. @Jerry

    Speaking of the dreadful Sunday NYT piece:

    “The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.”

    Laughed out loud when the piece about the disappearance of big ideas cited two theories which basically claimed big ideas were disappearing.


    Scott Dolan

    August 16, 2011 at 12:32 pm

  7. Hi, check out my Google+ profile for research into anti-democratic thought and practice as well as old and new criticisms of democracy (both from proponents and opponents of democracy):

    My earlier blog, the “Anti-Democracy Agenda”, has been archived here:



    Erich Kofmel

    August 16, 2011 at 3:15 pm

  8. Underlying the topic are some fuzzy assumptions. “… popular behaviors have bad outcomes. … popular government policies have bad outcomes. … policies favoring certain[ … ]actors may be bad.” What is democracy that the identification of problems is anti-democratic? In mechanical maintenance, problems that are discovered are fixed. It is not “anti-nechanical” to avoid failure or remediate a failure point. Ah! As the rapping effigy of Hayek reminded us, “The economy is not a machine to be fixed.”

    Have any social scientists put forth any positive programs that were beneficial and without negative consequences?

    Is the discovery of positives democratic? Prof. Mark Perry’s “Carpe Diem” blog is a running narrative of good economic news. It is pretty easy to tout market successes. Blogging is just one example. No social scientist advocated for it, yet here it is, a spontaneous order.

    “… but it does put us in tension with our sponsors and funders.”

    You cannot bite the hand that feeds you. On the other hand, in economic (versus political) cooperation, both parties voluntarily profit from the transaction. You may be afraid that telling a government agency that it is harming the sphere it regulates because doing so will cost you your funding. Yet, marketing bad news made Michael Moore a millionaire, curiously enough.


    Michael E, Marotta

    August 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm

  9. @ Michael Marotta

    You assume that economic behavior is individualistic, self-interested, and rational. But like many, you also implicitly assume that individualistic and rational behavior leads to positive outcomes without its own unintended consequences (damn rising ships).

    As we know, market activities sometimes lead to externalities or costs/benefits incurred by actors who did not agree to the action causing the externality. The problem: these externalities (both positive and negative) are not always distributed equally–for a variety of reasons including history, resource inequalities, information asymmetry, etc.

    While we would all love to go that wonderful world where actors enter markets well-equipped to exchange with one another on a level footing, such a world does not empirically exist. Governments (and social scientists) emerged to think of ways and programs to address how externalities (both positive and negative) might be distributed more equally in society.


    Scott Dolan

    August 17, 2011 at 5:05 pm

  10. I just paid $22.87 for an iPad2-64GB and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $675 which only cost me $62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from,


  11. fixed that for you:

    “However, there’s a sense in which social science is anti-populist:”



    August 19, 2011 at 7:13 pm

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