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23 July 2013

"Everybody Knows the Fight Was Fixed": A Response to Nicholas Christakis

I am quite ambivalent about Nicholas A. Christakis' recent op-ed piece. (Fabio likes it, though, and has this today, too.) Christakis' basic argument is that the social sciences are becoming irrelevant because of complacency and redundancy. Moreover, he argues, by not changing the names of our departments or inventing interdisciplinary crossover programs to replace the established, "boring" disciplines of old, we are losing the prestige fight to the natural sciences. He wants us to declare victory over old issues and move on to new ones that are at "the intersection of the natural and social sciences." I agree with Christakis that the social sciences are at risk of becoming irrelevant and could use some shaking up, but he and I seem to diverge over both the causes of that irrelevancy and the solutions.

To start, a few loosely organized critiques.

First, we already had this positivist conversation several decades ago. Sociology has largely gotten over its inferiority complex vis-à-vis the natural sciences. The niche we have found for ourselves--a powerful and super-disciplinary position, I would argue--is to borrow the best of positivism from the natural sciences and the best of interpretivism from the humanities. Sociology, and most of the other social sciences, bridge these two methodological realms in a way that is quite productive. We do not need blindly to revisit our past.

Second, the experimental method cannot answer most of the research questions posed by sociology. (Here is Orgtheory's fun take.) This is Research Methods 101 and not a fruitful direction.

Third, the interwebs are a powerful thing and can be a great tool, but social scientists don't typically (or at least shouldn't typically) use the internet for our research because those with internet access and know-how (i.e. white, non-poor, non-rural and educated) are not representative of the larger population. For all of its advantages, internet-based research can be highly problematic.

Fourth, inventing new academic departments with flavor-of-the-month titles doesn't seem all that productive to me. It's formal bureaucratic change without any underlying substantive progress. There are plenty of social scientists doing interdisciplinary research, and indeed, we should be doing even more. I'm not convinced that organizational realignment will facilitate this, though.

Finally, and I think most importantly, Christakis thinks that we harp too often on things that "everyone knows." I continue to teach and study what "everyone knows" because consistently my students show up to my classes believing the opposite of what "everyone knows." I would argue that not only does the average person not know the central findings of the social sciences but that many people are part of a culture that actively opposes our "everyone knows" claims in spite of our overwhelming evidence. I think this is the true heart of the issue. The social sciences offer inconvenient, complex, and nuanced answers to a public who want easy, simple, and absolute.

In way of closing, let me point to my post from yesterday. We do a pretty poor job in the United States of introducing our young people to the social sciences. For all of the public concern over the dearth of math and (natural) science in our schools, compared to social sciences, we're doing an excellent job on that front. What we teach in our primary and secondary schools in the U.S. and typically call "Social Studies" is a watered-down, non-critical version of history and cultural anthropology. (Please do not read that as a slight against either of those disciplines.) Revitalizing the social sciences should really be less about what we academics are doing and more about how the public is consuming what we are doing. Oh, gosh; did this just turn into yet another call for public sociology?

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