No undead but bags of ah-ha!

International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences
June 6, 2003

This 26-volume encyclopedia, also available online, is a monumental effort to bring together knowledge from across the globe in the social and behavioural sciences. The editors are two distinguished international scholars, Neil Smelser, a renowned sociologist (formerly the director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University), and Paul Baltes, a leading developmental and cognitive psychologist from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin (currently director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the institute). They appointed 52 international section editors for each of 39 subject areas or fields, from nine countries (the US, Germany, France, Sweden, Canada, Italy, Australia, Switzerland and the UK). The bulk of the section editors are from the US (35), with Germany the second largest grouping (nine), which obviously reflects the editors' academic networks, although the international advisory board of 86 scholars is more broadly based and represents more than 22 countries that have a significant presence in the social and behavioural sciences. In addition to section editors and an international advisory board, there were more than 4,000 contributors involved in writing the entries - an editorial task of gargantuan proportions, particularly in cross-referencing and ensuring minimal overlap.

Of the roughly 4,000 contributors, just over half are from the US, 10 per cent from the UK and Germany each, 2.5 per cent from Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and France each; and then there is at least one contributor from a further 50 countries. The fact that the US predominates is not surprising, given its pre-eminence in the social and behavioural sciences. Nevertheless, there is a good representation of authors from across the developed and developing world.

The field of social and behavioural sciences, as perceived by Smelser and Baltes, is very broad. It includes: economics, urban studies and planning, sociology, area and international studies, linguistics, archaeology, logic of inquiry and research design, evolutionary sciences, law, developmental/social/personality/motivational psychology, gender studies, institutions and infrastructure, genetics/ behaviour/society, statistics, expressive forms, anthropology, geography, demography, psychiatry, philosophy, health, science and technology, public policy, cognitive psychology and science, history, mathematics and computer sciences, religious studies, organisational and management studies, biographies, behavioural and cognitive neurosciences, ethics of research, political science, media studies, history of the social and behavioural sciences, education, and clinical and applied psychology.

I was initially surprised to see included some sub-areas such as history, mathematics, urban studies and planning, but their social and behavioural implications were spelt out in the relevant entries. Indeed, the editors suggest that their selection of section topics was based on a variety of criteria: some were overarching disciplines (for example sociology, geography, anthropology), some were sub-areas of an existing discipline (for instance clinical and applied psychology), some were topics that permeated all the social and behavioural sciences (such as statistics, computer science, logic of inquiry and research design), and others were "intersecting fields" that affect a number of, but not all, subject areas (genetics, behaviour and society, health, gender studies and others).

The editors could have organised the volumes according to some a priori taxonomy but instead have decided on an alphabetical approach. They argue: "We judged the modern social and behavioural sciences to be less tied to an a priori conceptual order... the evolution of communities of science responded also to other questions, interests in particular problems, social relevance, as well as priorities of funders of scientific research." Given the range of disciplines and subjects covered, it would have been almost impossible to have devised a taxonomy or any classification system that could have encompassed all of the disparate but sometimes overlapping subjects in the social and behavioural sciences.

This encyclopedia is in the tradition of other major works, such as the first-ever encyclopedia of the mid-18th century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica . It is not a dictionary of word definitions and concepts but rather, as the authors suggest of encyclopedias generally, it is "designed to offer comprehensive, well-organised, integrative, inter-thematic, and intensively cross-referenced presentations in depth". This is certainly achieved in this set of volumes, with each construct comprehensively explored, and major references from the relevant literature embedded in the concept and well integrated with other related constructs within the encyclopedia.

The breadth of the articles is overwhelming. As a "taster", there are articles on actor network theory, psychiatry of adolescence, advocacy and equity planning, sociology of age, genetic aspects of alcohol, agonistic behaviour, crime and gender, consumer economics, environmental risk and hazards, media effects on children, Monte Carlo methods and Bayesian computation, Marxist archaeology, synaptic mechanisms of memory, anthropological aspects of modernity, taste and taste culture, political lawyering, the underclass, self efficacy and health, the history of the concept of introspection, measurement theory, attitudes and beliefs in parenting, population composition in race and ethnicity, public interest law, the archaeology of ritual and symbolism, sibling order effects, social utopias, visual methods in the social sciences, the history of violence, and philosophical aspects of trust.

In addition, there are occasional biographies of great historical figures such as Darwin, Locke and Lorenz, and entries on those of more specialised interest, for example Alfred Binet (IQ), John Bowlby (child development), Raymond Cattell (personality theory), Erving Goffman (sociology), Melanie Klein (psychotherapy) and George Stigler (economics). All the biographies are of deceased scholars, which avoids the inevitable disputes associated with the inclusion or exclusion of living scholars. However, the omission of the living is regrettable, since so many of the social and behavioural sciences have come of age over the past half-century, which means that some leading economists, psychologists, sociologists and demographers are excluded because they are not yet dead.

When I explored the entries in my own field of stress and health, I was pleased to see nine extensive, "intersecting" pieces on stress and cardiac response, stress and coping theories, stress and health research, stress at work, the psychology of stress in organisations and so on.

These entries are comprehensive and well written - in a number of cases by leading people in their specific field. The theoretical part of these entries is excellent but the research input is less up-to-date than I had anticipated. This could be because fewer up-and-coming academics, as distinct from senior scholars, have been used as contributors, so that history, theory and classic studies are reported more often than recent research breakthroughs. This is not a major problem, though, because there are other scholarly sources for such material. The significant science in terms of theory and major findings and their interconnections, is included and is thoroughly reviewed.

George Homans suggested in his classic book Social Behavior : "No science can proceed without its system of categories, or conceptual scheme, but this in itself is not enough to give it explanatory power. A conceptual scheme is not a theory. The science also needs a set of general propositions about the relations between the categories, for without propositions explanation is impossible. The theorist shoves different aspects of behaviour into his pigeonhole, cries 'Ah-ha!' and stops. He has written the dictionary of language that has no sentences. He would have done better to start with the sentences." This encyclopedia, on balance, provides the metaphorical sentences and the inter-relationships between them that help us to understand the social and behavioural sciences better.

It is interesting to note the trouble taken by the editors to ensure quality control. Not only did section editors and general editors read through all entries, but they also used their international advisory board and independent experts to elicit emendations. Most remarkable is that each piece was intended to be written by only one author, thereby ensuring that a senior academic did not offload the task on a junior research assistant. This one-author-per-entry brief was generally followed, but the editors found that some academics wanted a co-author, so they agreed that these contributors could work jointly as long as the co-author was an established academic or recognised scholar.

With any encyclopedia, one can always say that some entry should be better or that a particular theory or piece of research should have been included. Overall, however, the coverage of this encyclopedia is comprehensive and the individual contributions are well written, thorough and scholarly. Arnold Toynbee wrote in The Prospects of Western Civilization that "man is astonishingly good at dealing with the physical world, but he is just as astonishingly bad at dealing with human nature; therefore an inch gained in the understanding of and command over human nature is worth a mile gained in the understanding of and command over physical nature". This encyclopedia advances us nearer an extra mile, than a mere inch, in our efforts to understand human nature and behaviour.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

Editor - Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes
ISBN - 0 08 043076 7
Publisher - Elsevier, 26 volumes
Price - £8,935.00
Pages - 18,567

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