Drive Marx from the temple

October 9, 1998

Aidan Foster-Carter argues against divisions among the social sciences

I am a social scientist: out and proud. That this is a noble and a necessary calling I hold to be self-evident. At every level, from great-power rivalry to household divisions of labour, social science is as fascinating in theory as it is urgent in practice.

Yet social science is constantly on the defensive. While no one has to make a case for natural science, the very words "social science", inspire fear and loathing in many quarters, including - suicidally - within the profession.

The United Kingdom once had a Social Science Research Council, but it was rebaptised the Economic and Social Research Council. Weird to ditch science in favour of economic determinism just as Marx was losing favour.

But it is the same story all over. Woe betide the pro vice-chancellor who tries to group economists, political scientists or lawyers, under the logical rubric of social science. Spluttering, outrage. But why not? What else are they?

Some object to the "social", others the "science". "Social" is suspect as being half-way to socialism or, worse, sociology, both of which have become as uncool as they were once trendy. So what label should we use? "Human science" or is that too like biology?

Behind these word wars is the fear among economists, political scientists et al, that to be "social" would be to dilute their truths and lead to a takeover by sociologists. I sympathise, given what goes on in sociology these days. Yet resistance is wrong.

The disciplinary divisions of the social sciences - economics, politics, sociology, geography, etc - are arbitrary and pernicious. Unlike the vertical hierarchy that links physics, chemistry and biology, each an emergent subset of the former, the modern social sciences are horizontal rivals, whose battles to stake out their turf have ravaged the common ground.

Social sciences (plural) are the enemy of social science (singular). Social reality is indivisible. To study economy, polity or society in isolation produces a partial picture. So when the ESRC wants to research work, say, it has to put Humpty back together again with trans-disciplinary projects.

If mine is a minority view, this is because these half-truths are entrenched. All across the planet, university departments of economics, politics, sociology and the rest churnout half-educated graduates who know only economics, politics or sociology. Worse, the brightest adopt these identities, enter the respective professions, publish articles incomprehensible even to their colleagues and inflict the whole sorry farrago on the next generation.

A Lenin or a Pol Pot would blow it all up and start again, but non-psychopaths must proceed by degrees. Joint degrees, for a start. All social science degrees should be joint honours in two or (preferably) more disciplines.

But we need to start earlier. At A level, economics, politics and sociology are in decline. In France, everyone does philosophy at school. I dream of a British baccalaureate, where all school-leavers would be au fait with manifest and latent functions and indifference curves.

The alarming truth is that society is no longer interested in knowing itself. I blame sociology for ditching science and soaking itself in Attitude and Platitutde. Marxism and feminism should be driven from the temple. As social movements they have their place, but as social science they are trespassers. I am also inclined to evict postmodernists, for all too literally undermining our foundations.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University.

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