Has postmodernism killed social science? 1

October 15, 2004

Do postmodernism and its related ideas provide new and useful insights? Well, if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Max Steuer finds that they leave him with a case of indigestion

There are deep divisions in social science between those who support postmodernism, poststructuralism and related ideas, and those who regard these schools of thought as being unworthy of any place on a university course. These divisions are more evident in some social sciences, such as sociology, and less evident in others, such as economics, but they can be found in all the social sciences.

I believe that postmodernism and its relatives are not new ways of developing, or advancing, or improving social science, but alternatives to social science. But before we get on to whether they are good or harmful alternatives, I should first describe what I mean by postmodernism and what links it to the other theories listed above.

Everyone seems to agree that the term postmodernism cannot be pinned down, or even given any clear or distinct meaning. To a lesser but significant degree, this applies to what I am asserting are some related approaches to understanding society. These approaches share a claim to make a persuasive case against the old or traditional way of doing social science. It is true that some advocates of postmodernism are not opposed to traditional social science and see a place for both, but others are entirely hostile to science, be it natural or social, and wish to replace the traditional concepts of doing science with "newer" ideas.

The following quotations illustrate both this rejection of science and the ambiguity of thought that these thinkers hold to be a positive feature.

David Harvey, professor of geography at Johns Hopkins University, says in his book The Condition of Postmodernity that it may be necessary to "dissolve the categories of both modernism and postmodernism into a complex of oppositions expressive of the cultural contradictions of capitalism. We then get to see the categories of both modernism and postmodernism as static reifications imposed on the fluid interpretations of dynamic oppositions." Harvey does not set out any clear goal as to what would be achieved by following his advice. It is difficult to imagine any observations that one might make to determine whether he is right or not.

Ben Agger, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, writes in his book Postponing the Postmodern : "I characterise science as fiction, a literary account that creates a believable world." There cannot be much doubt as to where he stands regarding the status of science. What he intends to put in its place is less clear.

All these schools of thought have common roots in continental philosophy and literary criticism. Indeed, you never know where useful statements will turn up. Here is a description from Dean Koontz's novel The Face of the deconstructive approach that runs through these theories: "Corky taught literature from the deconstructionist perspective, instilling in students the belief that language can never describe reality because words only refer to other words, not to anything real. He taught them that whether a piece of writing is a novel or a law, (presumably a scientific law) each person is the sole arbiter of what that writing says and what it means, that all truth is relative and philosophical texts actually have no meaning other than what each person wants them to mean." This kind of relativist position is another common thread running through these schools.

But so much for defining the common features of these schools of thought. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If postmodernism produced social science research that added to our understanding of anything, from the mechanism of a common currency to how juries decide, it would have some value. The claim that postmodernism is beneficial should rest, in my view, on the judgement that it provides useful insights. As a sceptic, I believe that this claim is unfounded. It may have produced some insights, but these are not particularly new.

Indeed, researchers have known from the beginning that we face, for example, problems of bias in social science. Reflexivity has also been recognised for a long time. And the claims that are new - for example, those bearing on the relativist position, or the claim that mathematics is a white male conspiracy - are, I believe, demonstrably false.

You do not leave politics when you come to the university, and anti-science politics has scored notable successes in many university departments. For those who see merit in a scientific approach to society, it is hard to sit back in a calm manner in the face of these developments.

Max Steuer teaches at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics and is author of The Scientific Study of Society , published by Kluwer. He is one of six academics taking part in a Times Higher roundtable debate, "Have Postmodernism and Social Theory Destroyed Social Sciences?", which takes place in the Hong Kong Theatre, LSE, at 6.30pm on October 18.

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