Warning: don't ignore the scientific, society needs it

June 4, 2004

Hostility to the science in social sciences will harm the disciplines and diminish their role in public life, writes Max Steuer

When I sat down to write The Scientific Study of Society some ten years ago, there were three obvious problems facing social sciences.

Talking to my non-economics colleagues at the London School of Economics, it was apparent that they had almost no idea what was going on in economics, while the economists had almost no idea about the other social-science disciplines. This overspecialisation could be having an adverse effect on research in social sciences.

The second, and rather shocking development, was the growing number of academics in social science departments who were hostile to science in any form, to the point of denying the possibility of studying society in a scientific way. They were encouraging irrational modes of thinking in students and this was not helping the image of social sciences in wider society. It may also have had something to do with the third problem, namely, the underuse of social sciences in public policy. For almost any serious investigation, it was taken for granted by many in government that it was better to turn to lawyers for guidance, not to social scientists.

One surprising reaction to my book points to a misunderstanding with serious implications. This is a view of science as having to do exclusively with statistics. Frances Cairncross, chair of the Economic and Social Research Council, wrote to me: "Your book... sounds rather purist to me. My own view is that 'science' means statistical methods and quantitative analysis, which is fine in its place and often neglected by social scientists. I admire, for instance, the burgeoning of behavioural economics. However, without the study of institutions and history, social science becomes a rather sterile discipline and ignores at its peril the endless ability of human behaviour to surprise." This mistaken view bears on some of the problems that plague social science.

Behavioural economics is an important development, and I agree with the study of institutions, which is one of the dominant themes in modern economics and in much of the other social sciences. Economics professor Ariel Rubinstein remarked that when it comes to behavioural matters, we are all boundedly rational these days. Science has to do with interconnected explanations and with the appeal to evidence. Pure theory is part of the endeavour, as is making careful observations, sometimes guided by informed intuition and sometimes specifically aimed at testing theories.

Few scientists cover the whole range of scientific activity. Science is a collective endeavour. Not only do social scientists typically work on a small problem, they usually work on one aspect of that problem.

It is important to emphasise the interconnected nature of scientific explanations. The structure of scientific understanding is not neat and fully coherent. One of the types of scientific work that scientists undertake is attempting to resolve contradictions and to make the structure of ideas more consistent. Those members of social science departments who do not address the body of science and attempt to improve it are misleading students. Their activity is not connected to that body of inquiry and is unscientific. It also differs from science in its often casual disregard of evidence or, worse, its willingness to invent evidence. Few members of social science departments who opt to do something other than social science, such as "social theory", are tolerant of scientific activity, maintaining that social science, and maybe all science, is an illusion.

They think that social science cannot be "done". The best way to deal with them is to provide lots of counter examples, and therein lies the heart of my book.

Social science is like natural science, with some differences of degree.

There is a smaller role for experiments in social science than in natural science. Often, statistical inference can play the role that experimentation would play if it were possible. But statistics do not encompass the science in social science. A related misunderstanding on the part of some laypeople is the view that sometimes the facts can speak for themselves: collect the data on homelessness and we will know how to deal with the issue. This is a false hope. Attempts at explanation, open to revision and improvement, are vital to science.

The view of the science in social sciences as having only to do with statistics implies that much of what matters about society falls outside the range of scientific inquiry. This in turn means that science need not be a big part of social science departments. And, bingo, the door is open to all sorts of unscientific inquiry. Eventually this results in the authority of these disciplines going up in smoke and little use being made of them in public policy. In the early days of sociology, the goal was to develop an all-encompassing theory of society in which economic and political life would be understood as coming under that general theory.

There is no evidence of this kind of activity in the mainstream journal literature today. But one way of looking at postmodernism and social theory is as an attempt to revive that early goal. This time the attempt is not to be limited or hobbled by sticking to a scientific approach. But my concern is that this activity should not come at the expense of social science or be confused with social science or go under the banner of social science.

One might argue that we have learnt more about society from art, history and philosophy than from social science. This is possible. But it is beside the point. Science, including social science, is an important activity. No one is obliged to do it, but those who wish to go under that label do have an obligation to do science.

Max Steuer teaches at the London School of Economics and is the author of The Scientific Study of Society , published by Kluwer.

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