christakis vs. dirk vom lehn

Dirk vom Lehn is a lecturer in the Department of Management at King’s College London. His research focuses on ethnomethodology in organizational settings. He asked if I could post this response to Christakis’ NY Times article on the need to update the social sciences.

Stagnating the Social Sciences? A response to Nicholas Christakis?

In his recent piece “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences” published in the New York Times on July 19th, Nicholas Christakis calls for interdisciplinary research that creatively links the social sciences to other disciplines, in particular the natural sciences. I very much welcome his efforts to open a debate about the future of the social sciences. All too often scientists create separate enclaves of knowledge that, if joint up with others, could lead to important new academic, technological and political developments. There however are a few problems with Christakis’ argument. I wish to briefly address three of these problems here:

I am surprised Christakis puts forward the argument that “the social sciences have stagnated” over the past years. He gives no empirical evidence for such a stagnation of the social scientific disciplines and I wonder what the basis for this argument is. If he was to attend the Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in New York in August he will see how sociology has changed over the past few decades, and he will be able to identify specific areas where sociologists have impacted developments in policy, technology, medicine, the sciences, the arts and elsewhere.

His argument ignores also the long-standing cooperation between social scientists, technology developers, computer scientists, medics and health services providers, policy makers, etc. etc. etc. For example, for several decades social scientists, computer scientists and engineers have collaborated at research labs of PARCs,  Microsoft and elsewhere, jointly working to develop new products and services.

Christakis refers to the development of new fields like neuroscience, behavioral economics and others that “lie at the intersection of natural and social sciences”. Because “behavioral economics” is popular also with policy makers let us take this new field as an example: one of the key findings of this new field is the importance of “non-rational action” for people’s decision making. I very much enjoy the creative research undertaken by scholars in this field, but it is quite surprising that it gets away with by-and-large disregarding 100 years of social scientific research. Critique of arguments that prioritize rational action over other types of action has been key to Max Weber’s famous work in the early 1900s, Talcott Parsons’ discussion of the utilitarian dilemma, Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments and many other sociologists’ research and teaching.

Speaking of Garfinkel and his breaching experiments: Christakis suggests that social scientists do not use lab experiments in their teaching. He might be pointed to Garfinkel who used experiments or “tutorial exercises”, as he called them, on a regular basis to have students discover how people organize their action and interaction that bring about society. Experimental research has been conducted also by Carl Couch and the Iowa School since the 1960s with the aim to identify the key elements of social relationships. And, there are a considerable number of more social scientists who have used lab experiments to understand social action and interaction.

However, it has been noticed since that time that society does not happen in the lab. Therefore, in many social scientific disciplines lab experiments are rarely seen as the best way forward to find out about the organization of society. Garfinkel, for example, has continued to use tutorial demonstrations in his teaching but increasingly looked into the organization of the everyday world as it manifested itself in waiting queues, traffic jams and elsewhere. And the Iowa School and its experimental approach has largely vanished whereby its methods and findings can be found in symbolic interactionism and other areas. While the influence of experimental approaches has diminished, naturalistic, ethnographic and video-based research has come to the fore, most notably in workplace studies, in studies of interaction in urban environments and public places as well as in online environments. This body of studies builds on a history of more than 100 years of sociological ethnography, going back, for example, to Robert Park, Everett Hughes and the Chicago School of Sociology. Here, sending students into the field, i.e. into workplaces and schools, onto city streets, on street-markets, into museums, into parks, into Second Life and other virtual worlds, etc. has been at the center of education, training and research as it allows students to discover first-hand how society works. Scholars also increasingly use video-based research to explore the practical organization of work in complex organizations, such as operating theaters in hospitals, control rooms of rapid urban transport systems, museums and galleries, etc.

Christakis’ article is an unfortunate case of a contribution to a debate that means well in steering up discussion about the future of the social sciences, that however ends up playing into the hands of those who have launched an “attack on the social sciences”, as Sally Hillman, Executive Officer at the American Sociological Society, has called it in the association’s newsletter ‘footnote’ in June. Senators and members of the House Science Committee have suggested to “defund” Political Science at the NSF and proposed bills that “would […] prevent NSF from funding any social science research” (Hillman June 2013).

Articles like Christakis’ imply that current social sciences have little impact on society, policy makers and knowledge development more generally, whilst research in the natural sciences, in their view, has more “impact”. They, however, overlook and disregard social scientific research that has been forgotten because scholars and policy makers follow the latest fads and fashions, such as so-called Big Data research and the opportunities of brain-scans, rather than using and further developing the existing theoretical, methodological and empirical basis of the social sciences. Moreover, they pretend that the social sciences and the natural sciences basically could achieve the same impact, if only the social sciences would make appropriate use of scientific methods. Thereby, however, they ignore what social scientists have shown over and over again over the past 100 years or so, i.e. that the social is fundamentally different from nature; it always is already interpreted when the social scientist arrives. The ‘social’ requires interpretation of a different kind than nature as encountered and then interpreted by natural scientists. Furthermore, people often change their behavior in response to the research process and in response to social scientific findings. Nature remains nature. Apples keep falling down from trees.

I am all in favor of interdisciplinary research and benefit enormously from my cooperation with scholars and practitioners in the computer and health sciences as well as in the arts and humanities. I also find Christiakis’ research interesting and important. However, to use the need for interdisciplinarity as an argument for the defunding of established social science disciplines would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. The social scientific knowledge base developed over the past 100 or more years is too precious to sacrifice just for instrumental reasons; i.e. to satisfy policy makers interested in saving money or to show “impact” however that is defined.

While the social sciences rely on and advance their knowledge base they have not been stagnating. On the contrary, they have prospered and further developed by virtue of discussions at discipline-specific conferences and in their journals as well as by cooperating with a wide range of other disciplines.

Dr Dirk vom Lehn
Lecturer in Marketing, Interaction & Technology
Department of Management
King’s College London
Franklin-Wilkins Building, 150 Stamford Street
London SE1 9NH

Tel. +44 20 78484314
Twitter: @dirkvl

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Written by fabiorojas

July 27, 2013 at 12:16 am

Posted in academia, fabio

9 Responses

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  1. “They, however, overlook and disregard social scientific research that has been forgotten because scholars and policy makers follow the latest fads and fashions, such as so-called Big Data research and the opportunities of brain-scans, rather than using and further developing the existing theoretical, methodological and empirical basis of the social sciences.”

    Scholars in sociology have forgotten traditional research because everyone is now using big data and brain scans? Maybe we read different journals, but it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of research going on in sociology still uses traditional methods and theory. I don’t understand why so many people seem to view methodological approaches made possible by new technology as something that threatens the social sciences. The same argument could have been made against the use of regression analysis and statistics when basic computing resources became available in the 20th century.



    July 27, 2013 at 1:41 am

  2. (Friendly note: It’s spelled with a Chr like Christmas, not Kr like Kringle.)



    July 27, 2013 at 4:16 am

  3. JD, where do you see the word ‘everyone’. To me it seems like you are in complete agreement with the author of the post.



    July 27, 2013 at 6:28 am

  4. I’d like to support Dirk’s argument. Christakis’ article left me perplexed – not only regarding what he writes about social sciences, but also regarding the natural (and other) sciences. To give context: I am a Professor in Human Computer Interaction and thus profit immensely from the kinds of work that Dirk describes, partially using similar approaches in my own research.

    The new field of ‘big data’ that Christakis mentions as a new discipline (?) is one of the new developments within my own field, Computer Science (thus not a natural science). Yet in CS, there is no talk about defuncting any of the traditional areas (unless they wither by themselves or become unimportant for teaching) – rather there is debate on whether we risk following pure fads and hypes that might in 10 years have turned irrelevant at the cost of all-important basics/core questions of the field (and at the cost of equipping students with basic skills and knowledge). Similarly, I don’t see any Physics or Chemistry departments being closed down (even while new interdisciplinary disciplines become established). I am rather surprised that there has been no uproar from more ‘traditional science’ people on Christakis’ article…

    While not a social science expert and thus not aware of all that is going on, I support Dirk’s description of the new areas of research in social science, which form new subfields, and maybe sometimes disciplines. I don’t think there was anything like STS (Science Technology Studies) or Gender Studies or Work Sociology, or Media Studies 100 years ago. There are constantly new divisions (sub-organisations) founded in the society of sociology – the question is when a trend or fad proves itself to be substantial and (self)sustainable enough to justify a new field. Many of these new areas are highly interdisciplinary and collaborate with e.g. the technical sciences; Dirk has highlighted the role of social science for interdisciplinary work in Computer Science. This includes work that mixes elements of lab experiments with traditional social science methods.

    Christakis’ attack on social science for not using laboratory experiments gives me the impression that he knows little of how social science works (he makes it sound as if they don’t do any empirical work at all) and of the differences between research methodologies (i.e. lab experiments versus fieldwork, quantitative versus qualitative). Social science students might not do lab experiments, but they do empirical studies. Whether it might be a good idea to ALSO do lab experiments in social science is yet another question.



    July 27, 2013 at 9:49 am

  5. For those wishing more material about this debate, here is another text that makes arguments similar to those of Christakis:

    Registration is free.



    July 27, 2013 at 2:28 pm

  6. One of the problems of questioning curriculum and policies is not only their implementation but also understanding and countering the social and political conflicts related to the state of each subfield, the process of translation of a policy into each of the levels of the University field, and the subsequent process of validating implementation and consequences. As we know about government investigations there are many ways to obfuscate an investigation and many investigators are too remote from the reality of a specific contexts to realize how policy implementation causes conflicts or how conflicts in the subfield interfere with policy translation. Even ethnographic methods may not be effective because no informers exist who can indicate the basis of the problems. Researchers would need to go deepcover to get a handle on how policy change affects and interferes with daily operations of any particular context. In the case of interdisciplinary studies, a department’s officials may resist acknowledging the “minor’s” a student selects or the work of colleagues that integrates other fields, or that is considered odd/far afield/even immoral! The boundaries between fields and departments are guarded, there are gate-keepers. Take for example the nonsense about prerequisites, having to get permission, or not being able to find professors who will take on advisement. These problems are clearly about politics: about taking risks in contexts where more powerful individuals will react. One of the critical issues today is getting validation or confirmation for one’s hypotheses and findings. The typical mode of validation is statistical but this form of agreement gathering by conforming to the requirement for addressing reliability or probability, does not address actual agreement and the formation of a research programme via the recognition of a common problem or concealed contradiction.


    Frederick Welfare

    July 27, 2013 at 3:57 pm

  7. Most behavioral economists work toward subsuming experimental and field results which *would seem* to undermine rational action, back into some kind of framework which can be described by optimization subject to constraints. This work looks nothing like old institutionalist economics, which is more closely aligned with Weber and the rest of straight up sociological criticisms of rational action. The “people aren’t rational rah rah rah!” side of behavioral economics has been championed by psychologists, not economists. Behavioral economics is mostly another branch of micro theory and game theory by now. People who claim economists are just reinventing sociology with behavioral economics clearly do not read behavioral economics.

    Otherwise I agree with most of what von Lehm wrote.


    Graham Peterson

    July 27, 2013 at 6:17 pm

  8. I see no shortage of lab experiments in social science if you count, as I do, social psychologists as social scientists. Open up any issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and you’ll find lots of experiments designed to test causal hypotheses. Sociology hasn’t given up on experiments either with more sociologists going to the field and doing experiments in more natural settings. See, for example, this study in the most recent ASR.

    My sense is that social science has never been as methodologically diverse or healthy as it is today, with scholars from the different disciplines borrowing from one another and updating the most cutting edge quantitative and qualitative methods.


    brayden king

    July 27, 2013 at 11:32 pm

  9. Thanks for the friendly responses and the additional information given. As anonymous said, JD, I was referring to a selected few, not to every sociologist, in the bit you quote.

    Jeremy, thanks for that. not sure where the ‘k came from in parts of the url. but that small spelling hopefully has not done any damage to the argument. Hope to see you next week :)

    EH, thanks for your useful comments on the relationship between social science and computer science. Re lab experiments see below Brayden’s very interesting and pertinent addition to my post.

    Guillermo, thanks for the link to Sociologica. I read articles published in the journal quite regularly but had not seen the one you pointed us to.

    Frederick, many thanks for your intervention. Practicing interdisciplinarity in teaching and research indeed is challenging. I ope it became clear that I support interdisciplinary while I would hope t can be achieved without giving up the theoretical and methodological cornerstones of existing disciplines as well as without ignoring the existing body of empirical research.

    Which brings me to Brayden’s contribution. Many thanks for highlighting the important contributions of recent experimental sociological, social psychological and related research. Karen Cook’s work on trust, of course also worthwhile mentioning here. And there are many others. Rather than stagnating, sociology and other social sciences are, as you say, methodologically diverse and healthy.


    Dirk vom Lehn

    July 31, 2013 at 11:07 am

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