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dear sociology: we are having a very special moment

In the movie The Holy Grail, one of the most insightful scenes is when Sir Lancelot charges a castle to save a maiden in distress. What makes it funny is that he charges across this open field for a few minutes and he is completely ignored by the guards. When he finally reaches the castle door, the guards act totally surprised. But of course, they should have seen it coming.

Sociology is having that moment right now. Right now, the territory of the social sciences is under pressure to expand and reshape itself. And we’ve seen this coming for a while. The forces are many. Increasing knowledge of gene-behavior links. The appearance of “Big Data,” which we’ve argued about on this blog. The demand for experiments from the policy world.

There are a few responses. We can simply ignore these trends and continue as usual. That’s what Nicholas Christakis was arguing against in his column. Or, we can uncritically accept them, a position which has some advocates. The response I’d prefer to see is a more thorough engagement, an integration of these issues into the core social sciences. Otherwise, we’ll become the discipline of 20th century theory and methods, not the place that comprehensively looks at social life.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 23, 2013 at 4:03 am

Posted in academia, fabio, just theory

15 Responses

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  1. One of the common aims of most any social science program, or of education in general, is to develop each individual’s capacity to learn independently and to question reality and its events, among other “entities.” The design of a social science program is meant to help individuals to address ideology, power, or capital without necessarily being ideological. As an open question that is not meant to be resolved once and for all, I am not sure that simply reducing current sociology or psychology to behavioral genetics or evolutionary anthropology when what is being presupposed is genetics, evolution, individual behavior, or the methods of ethnography will help us to address the problem of macro-structures (eg SES) channeling certain groups and populations into preferable existential circumstances. So, I auger for social scientists to hone their craft and focus in on the known conceptual schemes, including causal or antecedent-consequent analysis, that might lead to empirical insights and more comprehensive and comprehendable social-political-economic policies.

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    Fred Welfare

    July 23, 2013 at 4:37 am

  2. Engagement with natural sciences is needed. Integration is more of a center activity at the moment than a fundamental restructuring of the current disciplines and interdisciplinary department.

    Let’s not be politically naive. Letting more “scientific” subfields (and methods) become dominant at the expense of current research areas, as Christakis is explicitly calling for, is giving up the core advantage and insights of sociology— the role of culture and social structure in human activities– which cannot and should not be reduced to genetics, only studied through the “gold standard” of laboratory experiments, or become a subfield of applied mathematics as economics became in the 1950s.

    I do support an expansion of sociology and the social sciences more generally to a consider a more “comprehensive” view of social life. But should we relegate the current core interests to a minor role as Christakis is calling for?

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    William Ocasio

    July 23, 2013 at 5:18 am

  3. Could you provide a direct link to Nick Christakis’ NYTimes column, please?

    Like

    elizp

    July 23, 2013 at 2:08 pm

  4. Guillermo

    July 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm

  5. Why the assumption that new departments equal new thinking? Christakis’ own favorite, biological anthropology “hived off” from anthro proper at Harvard, suggests that this is just bureaucratic scorekeeping, not intellectual development. Evidence that the current organization is hampering discovery would be interesting, but no such claim is presented or defended.

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    andrewperrin

    July 23, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  6. Agreed, this is the time in sociology’s life when it starts to get hair in new places and feel things it never has before.

    Professor Ocasio: I’m of course 100% with you that we ought to not be naive about academic politics. But at the same time, you are taking for granted the political schemas which say, somewhat oddly, that materialism, positivism, behaviorism, and mathematics are an encamped bundle in competition for space with their opposites.

    I don’t see any a priori reason this list should operate as a unified bundle, and on closer inspection, of course — virtually none of the links among the methods and theories in that bundle *are* a priori linked. The links are an incident of a historical trajectory in social science, and I don’t think it’s at all clear that they need be at explanatory and predictive loggerheads with the core interests of sociology.

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    Graham Peterson

    July 23, 2013 at 5:08 pm

  7. It seems like this kind of interdisciplinary integration is occurring. But for at least the near term future there will continue to be a middle status conformity to it all. Elite departments will innovate but middle status departments still need to focus the academic product to appeal to relevant audiences.

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    someone

    July 23, 2013 at 5:21 pm

  8. “I’m of course 100% with you that we ought to not be naive about academic politics. But at the same time, you are taking for granted the political schemas which say, somewhat oddly, that materialism, positivism, behaviorism, and mathematics are an encamped bundle in competition for space with their opposites.”

    No one here is arguing that computational technologies, mathematical methods and insights from the biological sciences are an entrenched camp in competition with the “real” social sciences. The situation is there is a justified degree of caution and skepticism regarding the ability of these conceptual and methodological schemes to “revolutionize” the social sciences in the ways their proponents claim. And there is also concern that these other fields will seek to colonize the social sciences, leading to a dominance of reductionist biological, neurological and mathematical paradigms. Considering the mess economics got into by becoming such a mathematized discipline,would you say we need more or less of that?

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    Guillermo

    July 23, 2013 at 5:42 pm

  9. I, for one, don’t think that sociology should have its agenda dictated by entities like “the policy world.” Isn’t relative autonomy from outside interests one of the most important conditions for producing quality science?

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    Big Z

    July 23, 2013 at 6:56 pm

  10. Graham Peterson: “Professor Ocasio: I’m of course 100% with you that we ought to not be naive about academic politics. But at the same time, you are taking for granted the political schemas which say, somewhat oddly, that materialism, positivism, behaviorism, and mathematics are an encamped bundle in competition for space with their opposites.

    I don’t see any a priori reason this list should operate as a unified bundle, and on closer inspection, of course — virtually none of the links among the methods and theories in that bundle *are* a priori linked. The links are an incident of a historical trajectory in social science, and I don’t think it’s at all clear that they need be at explanatory and predictive loggerheads with the core interests of sociology.”

    The links between positivism, behaviorism, and to some forms of mathematics and materialism are
    an incident of a historical trajectory as you state but I think it is more than a mere historical coincidence.

    These perspectives share epistemological and ontological assumptions and also that the
    focus of social science should be on finding ahistorical truths. From such a world view dominant approaches to the natural sciences are a good model for the social sciences.

    There are ahistorical truths in the social sciences, driven by psychology and biology, and I am all for studying them. But history, culture, and context are necessary to understand social phenomena, in my judgment- particularly organizations– and behaviorism and positivism won’t cut it and neither will strong versions of materialism. As for mathematics, statistics and simulations are useful tools, but relying on closed-form mathematical models as in economics serve more as rhetorical devices to privilege some forms of social science as somehow more scientific.

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    William Ocasio

    July 23, 2013 at 10:36 pm

  11. I’m curious what anyone here has done in the way of spending more time with, say, computer scientists, informally and formally (e.g., in colloquia) to share ideas about models for human action.

    I think we have a unique opportunity now to create more nuanced pictures of human action that can spread through disciplines. When I spend time with data scientist friends (and others moving into the field from the hard sciences), I am struck by how much they imagine data to speak for themselves – they find it novel that I think interpretation influences social scientific model-building (not to mention the shape of the social world being modeled). And so, in my limited experience, it has been a fun challenge to try to get on the same page with them about how interpretation might matter. My sense is that, when they pay attention to social scientists, they tend to pick up the work of scholars who do elaborate math like they do – economists and computational linguists, for example – and I wonder how that may be shaping their perspective. But there is also some genuine interest in having more models, and a sense that they are wading into unexplored territory. I would think that now would be a good time to begin to have conversations about such territory, while new disciplinary areas are still forming.

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    Anon

    July 24, 2013 at 6:46 pm

  12. Professor Ocasio: This is delayed, but maybe worth mentioning. I don’t think the old complaint that X methods are ahistorical works. Biology and geology are fractionally (though importantly) described by mathematical theorists. A lot of the work in these sciences proceeds like sociology, establishing categories, taxa, and classifications, and watching how those sets interact. Moreover, there is nothing ahistorical about even mathematical theory — dynamic systems are a principle component of theories in biology, economics, physics, and so on. Moreover my moreover, it’s well-accepted among the mainstreams of these disciplines, including physics where mathematical physics is distinct from theoretical (proving theorems is different than deriving explanatory models with more relaxed assumptions), that the work they’re doing is largely inductive, and the kind of heuristic search, trial and error, and updating that for instance ethnographers champion as their territorial monument.

    The material world is not ahistorical, nor is the interaction between the social and material worlds ahistorical. I’m not for the kind of position that says there is a neat ethics-free, materialist explanation for everything human and that we can get at it with enough mathematics and statistics and behaviorist assumptions — but the distinctions you’re raising don’t exist.

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    Graham Peterson

    July 30, 2013 at 8:56 pm

  13. Graham:

    I did not mean to imply that methodologies are by themselves ahistorical. Sorry for the confusion. In my own work I have applied statistical analysis (more specifically event history analysis) to study the effects of historical contingencies.

    I also agree with you that the material world is not ahistorical and that the interactions between material and social are not ahistorical.

    My point was (and is) that behaviorist and positivists perspectives in the social science are ahistorical as are some, if not most, mathematical and materialists approaches (albeit not all). For example network analysis may or may not take history seriously. As an example Mark Mizruchi’s recent book on the networks of corporate elites in the U.S. clearly does.

    That being said, there is a tendency of many materialists explanations to privilege ahistorical findings as somehow more scientific.

    I have never met Christakis and don’t know his work very well. But my interpretation of his column, and of some of his work (see below) is that he appears to privilege perspectives that do not take history seriously. I could be wrong.

    What I object about Christakis position is not that he values the application of natural science methods and insights in the social sciences but that he denigrates other approaches as ones that are somehow less deserving.

    http://christakis.med.harvard.edu/pdf/publications/articles/127.pdf

    P.S. No need to address me as Professor.

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    William Ocasio

    July 30, 2013 at 10:27 pm

  14. Thanks, William.

    That’s great that you brought up networks as an example of material and ahistorical work. Let’s take an example from transportation economics, which occasionally applies networks to solve shortest-path problems. You’ve got all the ingredients you’re citing there: materialism (roads, geographically-imposed costs, people moving around), mathematical optimization (finding the shortest path), and behaviorism (the assumption that agents will want to maximize their travel efficiency, and “voting with their feet”). Except, none of these methods do anything other than describe behavior (something that economics and psychology are notably good at) — they do not explain why people are motivated to go see Grandma on Christmas and want to get there as soon as possible (or not!). For that, I agree that we need history. But I think it’s damaging to continue to bolster the idea that history and these other methods are in much of any way separable.

    Networks after all evolve over time. And what do networks measure when you ask informants if they’re friends with so and so? Certainly not some strictly material association just because their cell phones dial one another regularly. I see sociologists using the term “structure” to mean roughly “social connections, and the material doings, like visiting grandma or making trinkets,” and the term “culture” to mean roughly “connections among symbolic ideas and meanings which dictate the why and how people will do their doings and goings on of visiting grandma and making trinkets.” I too could be wrong, but the definitions seem to denote a distinction without a difference. That said — methodologically — there is a difference between watching people mill around a room and bump into each other, and watching the colocations of different verbs and adjectives in a large corpus of text.

    If Christakis is arguing some vague form of the old “we should get as far away from the Humanities and as close to Biology as possible,” then I agree whole cloth with your concerns. I just want to try to move these debates beyond “history vs. static allocation” and “meaning vs. material” so that we can understand how these manifestations map into one another. I hope we agree that neither deserves extraordinary privilege over the other.

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    Graham Peterson

    July 30, 2013 at 11:55 pm

  15. Read up on Christakis a bit. Really interesting work. But most of what he said about economics is wrong — neuroeconomics, behavioral economics, and lab and field experiments are not headed for or deserving of their own departments — the interdisciplinary departments at Caltech and Ohio for instance, and various research centers like Esther Duflo’s development lab running RCTs at MIT, do a fine job of servicing these specialities.

    Moreover, his statement that “everyone knows monopoly power is bad for markets” demonstrates his complete ignorance of what’s going on in economics. There is an entire mainline field of economics dedicated to studying monopoly (Industrial Organization) because it is not at all intuitive or clear when and where monopoly power is bad for markets, and how to pick a solution off of a menu of alternatives, if it is.

    His own specialty, networks, has massive interdisciplinary centers and conferences dedicated to it, and has been edging into garnering its own departments. Nobody’s stagnating in social science — social science is just extremely hard to do, and we remain in a situation where there are enormous conflicts between theories of behavior.

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    Graham Peterson

    July 31, 2013 at 1:04 am


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