Thursday, 30 July 2015

A plague o’ both your houses

Years and years ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology. I thought at the time I might end up in academia, but graduate study didn’t work out. This past couple of weeks, I’ve 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 Morrison’s New Zealand accent in that Star Wars prequel. And kind of embarrassing, actually. Blimey (I thought), we humanities students really think we’re all that, don’t we?

Lest you think I’m 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 didn’t, and we in Humanities really weren’t holding the high ground we thought we were.

Let me try and explain what it’s 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t work quite like other people’s. According to the book, most people are bamboozled – they know there’s 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 hasn’t got a room!” But to me, reading the puzzle, it was so obvious that the second person hadn’t 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, it’s not a guest who hasn’t got a room; it’s a foundational concept that hasn’t 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, it’s 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 couldn’t bridge the gaping flaws in the source material.

I’ve 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 I’ve 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 won’t expand further here on what he’s already said. In case you can’t be bothered following the link, here’s 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 there’s 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 he’s right, right-wing economists insist Piketty has been “debunked”. He’s dead wrong.
Because my values are left-wing I’m 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 isn’t good enough when you’re 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 couldn’t 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 it’s been a bit of a rude awakening to find that the discipline I trained in is exactly as flaky as the one I’ve always scorned. Fortunately, politicians and Treasury officials don’t listen to sociologists, so it’s a lot less urgent – they hang on economists’ every word. But still.

The particular sociology paper that I’ve stood in for these past couple of weeks is titled “Concepts of the Self”, which is a warning right there. Last week’s 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 Webster’s book Why Freud Was Wrong; it wasn’t 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 Descartes’s idea that the mind is not subject to biology and John Locke’s picture of the individual as a blank slate. But I can’t be certain, because I remember using the word “Enlightenment” as a sneer in cultural anthro but I don’t 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 mightn’t you be constrained by your cultural prejudices without realizing it? Scientists should welcome criticism of their assumptions.” I haven’t changed my mind, but I no longer think sociology or anthro are up to the job. This week’s 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, isn’t the idea that parental attention “spoils” children exactly the kind of thing a scholar of human interaction should question?

Science needs philosophy. I’d never argue with that. But sociology isn’t philosophy. It doesn’t ask philosophical questions. This week’s lecture presented a theory splitting the self into the “me-self”, which is what you’re 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” can’t be the end of the story, or you’ve 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? That’s a fatal philosophical problem with many purported models of selfhood, consciousness, will, and so on, but it doesn’t challenge the Enlightenment, so it doesn’t get a mention.

Economics’ rational-self-interest assumption and sociology’s 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 mother’s breast is being withdrawn (or whatever) and drawing conclusions or making decisions about it. The idea that the mind’s structure might partly grow into shape, without anyone having to think about anything, isn’t 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 doesn’t happen” and “That doesn’t happen to white men like me”. And sociology is quite right to stand on guard against essentialism. It’s doing good work helping to remove the dead hand of Plato from Western intellectual life. I just wish it weren’t 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 it’s done kind of the opposite of what they’ve 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 Bakshi’s abortive Lord of the Rings adaptation – solid source material, terrible film-making. You don’t get scientific concepts much more firmly established than evolution, and perhaps that’s encouraged an anything-goes attitude in what conclusions evo psych studies derive from it. There’s been a lot of flaky work on gender, yet it doesn’t take much ingenuity to derive basic feminist concepts from evo psych – if you’ve got a sociologist’s caution about essentialism.

As it happens, there already exists a school of economics which takes evo psych findings into account: it’s called behavioral economics. So far there’s 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 hasn’t got over it. You still find people citing Marshall Sahlins’ The Use and Abuse of Biology, which is (yes, I’ve 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 they’re 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.


  1. Cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris was no friend of the idea that reality is a social construct; on the contrary, he argued vigorously against it. So was he ignorant of the foundational concepts of his own discipline? Or is it perhaps that it isn't as essential a foundational concept of sociology and anthropology as you suggest?

    If we're going to work from evidence, it seems only fair to ask how solid the evidential basis is for your conclusion that the social construction of reality is a foundational concept of sociology and/or anthropology. And once that question is asked, it seems only fair to ask how solid the evidential basis is for your conclusion that the rational self-interested individual is a foundational concept of economics. Is it possible that, in both cases, you're over-generalising? I suspect it's so.


    1. Now, guess how much I heard about Marvin Harris in six years studying cultural anthropology? Or other scientific theorists of culture, for that matter, like Jared Diamond? Zero from lecturers, and precisely one student would mention their ideas in tutorials or other discussion classes, and that would be me. But it was a rare week when you didn't hear the names of Durkheim and Foucault at least twice each. Anthropologists who dissent from the social-constructivist consensus don't get their work taught to anthropology students. That's cultural anthropologists, mind you. Linguists and archaeologists are much more comfortable with science. What especially bugs me is when humanities scholars (be they anthro or sociology or whatever) think social constructivism is a good launching-pad for a "critique" of scientific research, which they did a lot when I was there. One social-constructivist professor told a classful of students, without irony, that he'd seen a rain-dance work and that showed that Western scientists didn't know what they thought they knew.
      As for economics, I say right there in the last paragraph that there is such a thing as behavioral economics. I freely admit I'm generalizing. I don't think I'm over-generalizing.

    2. The question for me, as a reader, is this: how typical is your experience studying (cultural) anthropology as an example of the teaching and study of the subject in general? I have to consider on the one hand the possibility that the whole field is affected in a major way by a serious flaw, and on the other hand the possibility that this serious flaw affected in a major way the study and teaching of it at one particular university (the one you studied at) -- and possibly that should be restricted further to one particular period of time, the period when you were studying there. At this point I don't have the evidence to justify a choice between those two possibilities. I do have the evidence that Marvin Harris was able to have published an introductory anthropology textbook which I can find in a university library (along with several others of his works); also, the evidence that when I mention his name to a friend of mine who is an anthropologist she is immediately familiar with his name and does not respond with derision. How much weight do you think I should attach to that evidence?

      I also need to consider the possibility that the field is currently dominated by a majority view which is seriously flawed, but that a minority (perhaps small) exists that takes a different approach that is not so flawed. There is a difference between taking the position that a whole discipline is so flawed that it should be dismissed and taking the position that it is currently in need of a major shake-up in which the current majority approach is abandoned in favour of what is currently a minority approach (this comment is relevant to economics as well as to anthropology).


    3. Well, I can hardly speak from experience about the parts of the field that are outside my experience. However, such indications as I have are that my experience was typical. I have seen people teach what they knew were minority views: a zoology lecturer who didn't believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs, an anthropology lecturer who didn't believe cultural identity was important. People in that position spend a lot of time arguing their case in detail. Social-constructivist anthropologists don't do that; they refer dismissively to the "scientistic" or "Enlightenment" view as if only naïve or ignorant people would credit it for a moment.

      Yes, I was aware of Marvin Harris when I studied anthro, and I could find Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches in the University library. I wouldn't have responded with derision. Most of my anthro classmates didn't respond with derision. But neither he nor any other anthropologist of his views were brought up by lecturers or taught as being worthy of attention.