Social Science in the 21st Century

Issues now emerging will shape fields: globalization, environment, changing values, more. SERIES WRAP-UP

IT'S not quite true to say that social scientists are born and not made. But the eight individuals interviewed for this series have one thing in common: Their youthful experiences significantly shaped their choice of careers. Daniel Bell's upbringing in New York's Lower East Side and Joyce Ladner's education among Mississippi's rural poor impelled them into sociology.

For economist Alice Rivlin, a driving force was family dinner-table talk about public policy; for anthropologist Eric Wolf, it was a rich menu of cultural differences in his own family.

Demographer Samuel Preston did his first survey in 8th grade - a few years before political scientist Thomas Ferguson got involved in high-school student government, and not long after Brewster Smith enrolled in psychology at Reed College as a ``self-conscious adolescent'' trying to figure himself out.

Unlike their counterparts in the natural sciences, they were interested in figuring out how people, rather than the natural world, behaved. ``I wanted to understand motives,'' says Professor Ladner. For Professor Wolf, the real question about people is ``what makes them tick?''

Yet each of them, in different ways, struggles to define the curious middle ground that the social sciences occupy between ``hard'' science on one extreme and the humanities on the other.

Are the social sciences really sciences? No, says Professor Bell. There are no universal social laws to be discovered, he says. Nor can you ever ``isolate for particular variables'' and set up controlled experiments.

Murray Weidenbaum, agreeing, feels more comfortable talking about ``general conclusions'' than about ``laws.'' Social scientists, he says with a chuckle, are ``very chintzy about enacting legislation.''

While many of the interviewees spoke of the interdisciplinary nature of their field, a number of them were reaching out less toward the sciences than toward the humanities. History, in particular, attracted several of them. For Bell, history deals with culture ``in a narrative, humanistic way.'' Professor Ferguson lambasts his colleagues in political science for ``weak intellectual traditions'' that often fail to match ``the craft standards of even bad history.''

Yet for some social scientists, scientific methodology provides a useful model. Dr. Rivlin, who sees the economy as ``a very complicated system,'' notes that economics is ``a science'' in that it tries to ``analyze data to figure out how [the economy] works.'' And Wolf, while avoiding the term ``laws,'' speaks of ``lawful regularities that come out of discovery procedures'' in anthropology.

Most agree, however, that their fields - or at least significant parts of them - are moving into more ``scientific'' methodologies. Some find that helpful: Ferguson plumps for more use of statistics, and Professor Preston notes that the mathematical models used by demographers still yield great insights into social trends.

But Professor Smith is concerned that psychology is moving so resolutely into neuro-physiology and computer modeling of the brain that ``the emotional life'' is being overlooked. And Ladner worries that the complex mathematics increasingly found in sociological journals is understood by few of her colleagues. She longs to see sociology pay more attention to ``real live human beings.''

That very debate about the role of scientific methodology points to a central distinction between the natural and the social sciences. In the former, the distance between theory and practice is almost non-existent.

But built into the social sciences is a fundamental interest in humanity - the very kind of interest that so often draws people into the field in the first place. Social scientists therefore have a strong affinity for public policy. Pure theory, while acknowledged as highly useful, is not the only platform upon which to build a career: Even so highly regarded an intellectual as Bell notes that he's not particularly interested in constructing sociological theory for its own sake.

Many of those interviewed, in fact, take a deep interest in what Ferguson calls ``the interaction between thinking and activity.'' Activity, for him, centers on practical questions of ``how things actually work.''Asked to describe the future of their fields, these interviewees had little to say about new theories that might be developed. Unlike many natural scientists, who define progress in their disciplines in terms of intellectual breakthroughs and new conceptions of the physical and biological universe, social scientists see their fields developing in response not to new theories but to today's practical social issues.

To be sure, some theoretical developments will be necessary. Bell, noting that ``most of the conceptual structures we have in Western philosophy may be increasingly inadequate to the non-Western world,'' calls for some new models to explain non-rational behavior. And Ladner, who says that ``we're reconceptualizing our traditional formulas,'' observes that ``no theory of behavior today can be developed without some serious consideration of the implications of global politics and global economics.''

Globalization, in fact, is widely seen as one of the most powerful forces defining the problems that social science will deal with in the future. For Rivlin, that means a global economy. For Wolf, it means an erosion of cultural differences. Professor Weidenbaum sees it as the source of ``a growing tension between the force of technology and business, which is global, and the force of government policy'' which is ``territorially oriented.''

Also shaping these fields:

Political units are ``cracking up in ways we can't wholly understand'' (Bell);

The rapid aging of the population (Rivlin);

The role of women and the place of international communication (Wolf);

The economic implications of such domestic problems as a decaying infrastructure, toxic and nuclear cleanup, the savings-and-loan bailout, and Medicaid funding (Ferguson);

The shift from public-sector to private-sector decisionmaking as the most important force in global affairs (Weidenbaum);

Combating drugs and teen pregnancy (Ladner);

Population issues and changing values (Preston); and

Ethics, changes in family life, and shifts in attitudes toward the environment (Smith).

Those, say these interviewees, are the problems that will loom large in the lives of young people who take up future careers in these fields.

Finally, there is a refreshing humility in the approaches of these interviewees. ``I think we do the public a disservice by not understanding our limitations,'' says Weidenbaum. Or, as Ladner puts it, ``I do not feel that my discipline fully explains those things I'm interested in.''

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