Saturday, June 30, 2007

Social sciences and social theory

Over the past couple of days, I've kept coming back to questions of the relationship among the social sciences, and the state of progress in them. My mind may have been primed for this topic by hearing Tyler Cowen (a week ago today) give a terrific talk on the place of economics in social inquiry.

Since then:

I've puzzled over an imaginary syllabus for either an introductory or a capstone course for the Politics, Philosophy, & Economics major some of us are working on developing at McGill.

I've thought about issues of disciplinary borrowing and its absence: how economists stereotypically think that no question has been studied until it's been studied by an economist (no empirical question has been studied until it's been studied by a labor economist using an instrumental variable or an exogenous shock, no theoretical question has been studied until it's been studied by a modeler), and so won't bother to read even the standard works in a field they've decided to dabble in; and legal academics stereotypically know just enough social science to get themselves into trouble, reading the works that someone happens to have cited in law reviews already regardless of its standing in its home discipline; and how political scientists, sociologists, and historians seem to have gone through a generational shift from reading one another constantly to reading one another almost never.

I've reread Elster's Sour Grapes for the first time in years, and marveled at it-- as a piece of prose, as a model of joining formal analysis to humanistic erudition, as a powerful statement about what social inquiry needs to be like that the disciplines still haven't caught up with 24 years later. And I thought: its year of publication, 1983, also saw Imagined Communities, Spheres of Justice, Nations and Nationalism. The next year The Evolution of Cooperation came out; the year after that, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Weapons of the Weak, and Taylor's Philosophical Papers. 1981: Treatise on the Family; Theory of Communicative Action.

I recognize all the sources of rose-colored hindsight bias, and how we're able to see things at a distance that we couldn't see up close. Yet I still thought: Those are books that I think all social scientists and social theorists should have a familiarity with; and I'll bet I'll still think so in ten years. And I wonder how many works published in the last four, or the last ten, that will be true for.

This all put me in the perfect mood for the pointer from Henry Farrell to this paper by Peter Hall about social inquiry and the disciplines.