Could it be time to rethink the social sciences altogether?

Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Network Science at Yale, asks why the social sciences remain divided by the same disciplinary boundaries while the natural sciences have abandoned some departments and replaced them with others, typically representing research made possible by new technologies. He suggests that it may be time to rethink the structure and applications of the social sciences overall. Read his argument here and tell us what you think. 

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Comment by John McCreery on July 25, 2013 at 2:40pm

Sorry for the misunderstanding. But isn't this the way of the world? In network analysis terms, someone with a low network centrality score has less chance of being heard than someone with a high network centrality score — especially so given the likelihood of a power law distribution between the two scores. Elitism isn't just academic, and if anyone knows how every voice can be heard by anyone except an omniscient God, I would like to meet them.

Comment by M Izabel on July 25, 2013 at 2:08pm

John, I think you misunderstood my comment.  I agree to everything Christakis wrote.  His backround in human nature laboratory, network science, and medical sociology is the context and subtext of his article.  I have been writing about prescriptive anthropology as  opposed to descriptive, new anthropology that is beyond traditional, scientific anthropology or anthropology as hard science, experimental anthropology, and even anthropology as socio-cultural physics or network and systems science since I became a member of OAC.  With eight hundred words, Christakis stirred up the hornests' nest. I made a lot of comments and wrote a dozen of blog posts, but they failed to start a deep, long conversation here.  That, to me, is academic elitism.     

Comment by John McCreery on July 25, 2013 at 1:33pm

Alex Golub (who posts as Rex on Savage Minds) was upset by what Christakis wrote. His post on Savage Minds makes many useful points. Still, however, I suspect that neither Rex nor M. Izabel has thought carefully enough about the context in which Christakis' views are published in The New York times. The following is what I wrote this morning in reply to Rex:

Thanks to my sagacious spouse, who is a fan of public radio, I found myself listening this morning to an interview with Dr. William Newsome, head of Stanford University’s neuroscience program, who has recently be named one of the two co-heads of BRAIN, the brain-mapping initiative for which the Obama administration is seeking $100 million in funding this year. A number of things struck me in the interview. First was how he described the multidisciplinary research that now shapes neuroscience, with significant input from chemists, mathematicians, physicists and electrical engineers, as well as neurobiologists. I note the strong connections with STEM disciplines. These are connected with his second point, that progress in neuroscience is heavily dependent on development of new technologies, some of which are still on the drawing board or with development barely underway. I take particular note of the fact that the NPR interviewer comments that the problems being addressed cannot be solved by isolated, stove-piped disciplines and what seems to be a shared premise, that developing new technologies not only requires a lot of money; it creates new markets for the industries that supply them.

Turning to recent issue of Science, I read a lead editorial that warns of the dangers of shifting money from basic research to fields that may now seem to have greater impact and promise quick fixes to current problems. But again the argument is phrased in terms of basic research creating whole new industries.

The only social sciences I know of that can make similar claims are both problematic. Financial economics produced derivatives and hedge funds and created huge new markets accounting for a massive share of global economic activity — but also resulted in massive disasters, e.g., the financial collapse of 2008.

The sociologists who developed social network analysis provided basic concepts now being exploited in data mining, e.g., by Target to identify women in the early stages of pregnancy to sell them more baby stuff (a story which got a bit of play a few months ago) and, of course, by the NSA, filtering everyone’s Internet and phone traffic in search of terrorist networks. The sociologists in question don’t like being blamed for that. But, as followers of SOCNET will know, what really has their noses out of joint is the intrusion of physicists into what they thought of as “our field.” The physicists are, on the whole, better mathematicians and have all sorts of models for physical processes, e.g., phase transitions, that sound really cool. Being physicists they also get more press.

Reading Rex on Christakis while knowing these things, I can appreciate his anger at what seems, on first read, a casual dismissal of the achievements and potential of traditional social science disciplines. But I also suspect that Christakis, who moved from Harvard to head up a new neuroscience program at Yale, may have a clearer perspective on the politics of academic restructuring. And there really is no mystery why certain STEM fields get tons of money while traditional social science doesn’t. What do we do that requires the development of new technology, creates new industries, or stimulates sagging economies?

P.S. I haven’t been able to find a URL for the interview I heard this morning, but my Google searches found me this one, Dianne Rehms interviewing NIH Director Frances Collins about the BRAIN initiative.

Comment by M Izabel on July 25, 2013 at 12:26pm

What he wrote did not sound  new to me.  I went back to my old blog  posts and comments.  A dozen of my posts suggested experimentation  and appropriation of natural and physical sciences in Anthropology.  I even had  a post entitled "Experimental Anthropology".  I also wrote about computational anthropology. I had many comments about  anthropology tackling contemporary issues and solving current problems. I wrote some that were about network and system analyses as new tools for anthropologists to explore.  What l got  after reading Christakis was academic elitism.  One needs a PhD and an academic position in a university if she wants people to value her ideas.     


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