Years and years ago, I earned a bachelors degree in cultural anthropology. I thought at the time I might end up in academia, but graduate study didnt work out. This past couple of weeks, Ive taken a couple of sociology lectures for another note-taker who was away. Most of my classes in the last three years have been in dentistry or other clinical sciences, so I found the sudden familiarity a little jarring, like Temuera Morrisons New Zealand accent in that Star Wars prequel. And kind of embarrassing, actually. Blimey (I thought), we humanities students really think were all that, dont we?
Lest you think Im solely ragging on sociology: last semester, I took one of the two weekly lectures in an economics paper, to which I had much the same reaction, although there it was more comfortable because, as a former humanities student active in politics, I have a long-established habit of looking down my nose at the Commerce Division. And Health Sci too, now I come to think about it medicalization is a favourite tut-tut word in certain academic circles. Well, Commerce deserved it, Health Sci didnt, and we in Humanities really werent holding the high ground we thought we were.
Let me try and explain what its like. When I was a kid, one of the many books knocking around our house was a shabby little paperback from about the 1960s entitled 100 puzzles for kids or something, and I remember it because it actually had 101 puzzles but the last one was a trick one that didnt have a proper answer. A hotel has fifty rooms, and one day fifty-one people turn up wanting accommodation. The hotelier thinks for a bit. He puts the first guest in the first room, then takes the second guest aside and says If you could just wait here while we get this sorted out. Then he puts guest number three in room number two, guest number four in room number three, and so on until guest number fifty-one is placed in room number fifty and the hotel is full.
Now this was one of the first hints I had that my brain doesnt work quite like other peoples. According to the book, most people are bamboozled they know theres a flaw somewhere, but they can turn it over and over in their heads for hours before they suddenly go Of course! The second person hasnt got a room! But to me, reading the puzzle, it was so obvious that the second person hadnt got a room that I turned it over and over in my head for hours wondering what the mystery was supposed to be.
In economics and sociology, its not a guest who hasnt got a room; its a foundational concept that hasnt got a basis. You introduce that concept, and proceed to derive the rest of the course from it. It becomes a sort of base-camp assumption for the students thoughts, like mass-energy conservation for physics students or Darwinian natural selection for biology students. By the end of the first semester, its become so familiar that they assume anyone who questions it is simply ignorant.
The difference is that mass-energy conservation and natural selection have been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. But economics is based on the idea of the rational self-interested individual, and sociology is based on the idea of the social construction of reality, and both of those ideas are as dodgy as a newly-trumpeted health benefit of a luxury food. Both disciplines then proceed to build a genuinely valuable analytical edifice on top of their shonky foundations; the effect is rather like the movie versions of The Da Vinci Code and Twilight, where the film-makers efforts, heroic though they were, just couldnt bridge the gaping flaws in the source material.
Ive observed academic economists cavalier attitude to evidence first-hand, in lectures. Health science lecturers (frankly) go on and on and on about associations and p-values and sample sizes and correlation not being the same as causation. Economics lecturers are like Greece had powerful unions and lots of public spending and now their economy is going down the tubes: there you go, kids, cause and effect. (Also they have chronic tax evasion and they blew the national budget on the 2004 Olympics but meh.) That is a paraphrase, but not an exaggerated paraphrase, of an actual lecture I attended. Note-takers are not allowed to ask questions or argue with lecturers; only students can do that. But Ive talked about some of the flaws of economics before (and some others before that), and while I was writing this, Danyl McLauchlan over at the DimPost put up an on-point piece entitled Economics and propaganda, so I wont expand further here on what hes already said. In case you cant be bothered following the link, heres the money quote:
[Bryan] Caplan... believes that capitalism is moral. If you work hard it will reward you. [Thomas] Piketty claims the opposite. That it is an amoral system in which wealth simply aggregates to itself.
Unfortunately theres no way for a layperson to tell whether Piketty is correct because the response from his economist peers are neatly divided along ideological lines. Left-wing economists say hes right, right-wing economists insist Piketty has been debunked. Hes dead wrong.
Because my values are left-wing Im inclined to think Piketty is right. But I also trained as a scientist, and I know that a gut feeling based on my prior values isnt good enough when youre making huge decisions about the political economy. Economics is supposed to be a science, and economists certainly view themselves as such, and tend to be far more confident in their findings than, say, climate scientists, or geologists, or psychologists, or any other field that deals in uncertainty. But as a non-economist I find that every time I encounter the discipline it looks nothing like science and is indistinguishable from either politics and political activism or marketing, but is made more insidious and more powerful from its presentation as a cold, objective set of facts against which there can be no argument.
All of which comfortably confirms my old prejudices against Commerce. Sociology, on the other hand, overlaps so far with cultural anthropology I couldnt tell you where to draw the boundary. Sociologists and anthropologists are as devotedly progressive as economists are devotedly libertarian. (Both use the word liberal as a pejorative.) So its been a bit of a rude awakening to find that the discipline I trained in is exactly as flaky as the one Ive always scorned. Fortunately, politicians and Treasury officials dont listen to sociologists, so its a lot less urgent they hang on economists every word. But still.
The particular sociology paper that Ive stood in for these past couple of weeks is titled Concepts of the Self, which is a warning right there. Last weeks lecture was all about Freud Freud! and his theory of the repressed subconscious. The more I learn about Freud the more dumbfounded I become that any feminist theorist ever gives him the time of day. His repressed-subconscious theory began with the observation that his hysteria patients (a hysteria patient is by definition female, just so you know) indignantly denied having the hots for him when he could tell they totally did have the hots for him from habits they had like rummaging in their purses, that being a substitute for masturbation, you see. But I got that from Richard Websters book Why Freud Was Wrong; it wasnt mentioned in the lecture.
Why Freud? Because he was an early challenger of the Enlightenment concept of the rational individual, apparently. I would like to hope the throw-away dismissals of said Enlightenment concept followed from a more explicit critique in a previous class; it does have a number of problems, not least Descartess idea that the mind is not subject to biology and John Lockes picture of the individual as a blank slate. But I cant be certain, because I remember using the word Enlightenment as a sneer in cultural anthro but I dont remember anyone spelling out why. More to the point, disparaging the Enlightenment is (in my experience) a red flag for coming arguments along the lines of Science says fluoride protects your teeth, but science also invented racism so there you go.
If someone had confronted me with this while I was studying anthro, I would have said Science works by testing hypotheses against real-world facts, but first you have to think up the hypotheses, and mightnt you be constrained by your cultural prejudices without realizing it? Scientists should welcome criticism of their assumptions. I havent changed my mind, but I no longer think sociology or anthro are up to the job. This weeks lecture referred to the Western socioeconomic system as late capitalism strongly suggesting capitalism is going to end soon. What makes anyone think they know that? Last week we heard that, due to the one-child policy, China was seeing an epidemic of very spoilt male children. Um, isnt the idea that parental attention spoils children exactly the kind of thing a scholar of human interaction should question?
Science needs philosophy. Id never argue with that. But sociology isnt philosophy. It doesnt ask philosophical questions. This weeks lecture presented a theory splitting the self into the me-self, which is what youre referring to when you say I or me, and the I-self, which is the agent doing the referring. Which is all well and good, but the I-self cant be the end of the story, or youve just explained the self by positing a smaller self inside it does the smaller self have an even smaller self doing its agency, and so ad infinitum? Thats a fatal philosophical problem with many purported models of selfhood, consciousness, will, and so on, but it doesnt challenge the Enlightenment, so it doesnt get a mention.
Economics rational-self-interest assumption and sociologys social-constructivist assumption are sort of mirror images of each other. Certainly the two disciplines produce neatly opposed political leanings. Economists vote with rich people, sociologists with poor people. I guess that explains why politicians listen to economists and not sociologists. Which makes it extra ironic that the two assumptions both have the same basic flaw: both conceive of the human mind as something outside of, and prior to, biological nature. Social constructivism generally begins the story with psychoanalysis, an infant noticing that their mothers breast is being withdrawn (or whatever) and drawing conclusions or making decisions about it. The idea that the minds structure might partly grow into shape, without anyone having to think about anything, isnt on the table.
And yet, as I said earlier, both economics and sociology have built solid edifices of analysis on top of their shoddy foundations. Economics has given us game theory, which mathematically demonstrates the importance of mutual trust in any transactional relationship, and the concept of interdependence. Ecologists often have occasion to borrow economic concepts to describe the flow of resources within living systems. As for sociology, the skills cultural anthro taught me for analysing the dynamics of complex social systems stood me in good stead later on when I studied IT at Otago Polytechnic and had to design databases. I also owe my understanding of privilege to my anthro training; I have learned the difference between That doesnt happen and That doesnt happen to white men like me. And sociology is quite right to stand on guard against essentialism. Its doing good work helping to remove the dead hand of Plato from Western intellectual life. I just wish it werent so eager to replace it with the positively skeletal hand of Hegel.
Can anything be done to set these two disciplines on a sounder evidentiary footing? Well, there is a third discipline purporting to explain human interaction, and its done kind of the opposite of what theyve done. If economics and sociology are the Da Vinci Code and Twilight movies solid film-making on top of terrible source material then evolutionary psychology is Ralph Bakshis abortive Lord of the Rings adaptation solid source material, terrible film-making. You dont get scientific concepts much more firmly established than evolution, and perhaps thats encouraged an anything-goes attitude in what conclusions evo psych studies derive from it. Theres been a lot of flaky work on gender, yet it doesnt take much ingenuity to derive basic feminist concepts from evo psych if youve got a sociologists caution about essentialism.
As it happens, there already exists a school of economics which takes evo psych findings into account: its called behavioral economics. So far theres no such thing as evolutionary sociology. Sociology got into a terrible snit when evo psych, in the form of sociobiology, appeared on the scene, and it hasnt got over it. You still find people citing Marshall Sahlins The Use and Abuse of Biology, which is (yes, Ive read it) an exemplary exercise in how to miss the point and look foolish in front of your opponents. Now, since I was a student, science has become a much less embarrassing thing for progressives to admit theyre interested in; and religious hyperconservatives have picked up the old postmodernist canard that scientific discoveries are social constructs. But it might be a bit much to hope that this will draw the leftie postmodernists in the Humanities Division down off their high horse.