27 Sep 2016

The social sciences need each other

Academics spend a lot of time differentiating themselves from each other, both within and across fields. Economists will try to find "unique" data sets or invent "novel" theories to pull ahead of peers. They will also say how much better is their perspective than that of sociologists or psychologists.

The thing is that economists -- and every other practitioner of the "social sciences"-- are only providing one perspective of a complex topic -- human behavior -- that is perhaps best considered in diverse ways.*

I'm been thinking of a way to arrange social sciences along some sort of line that shows their differences and relations. Williamson's diagram of institutions of varying durations (see the figure and read this post) inspires me to suggest the following arrangement.

Highest and slowest to change is the layer of culture that we are born into and affects our perspectives and actions. Anthropologists study culture as the key to understanding the range and thrust of our behavior.

Just below are the political scientists, who study the formal and official bodies we use to govern ourselves.

Then come the sociologists, who study how group dynamics and identity affect our choices and behavior.

Going closer to the study of individual choice, cooperation and autonomy versus collection, we get the economists who think that individual (ir)rationality plays a big role.

Finally, at the most fleeting and individualistic level, we get the psychologists who try to understand how we internalize and rationalize what we do and don't do.

My big thought here is that it's not just useful, but crucial, that we get different disciplinary perspectives on "an issue" (formal employment, say) before rushing to "robust" conclusions.

What are your thoughts on this?

Bottom Line: The best part of working in an interdisciplinary environment is finding novel ways to understand what you think thought you understood.
* The hard sciences and humanities are also complementary at approaching their "larger dimensions" of human existence.

1 comment:

Beth said...

I always think of them as different levels of 'zoom' analogous to in physics: quantum, classical, special and general relativity... Behaviour at the micro level (individual or within the body) is different from social interactions which is different from herd-like or group-think behaviours which are different again from macro scales. Saying you can understand behaviour fully from one zoom is like saying all of the universe can be described using classical physics..

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