Friday, January 21, 2011

Social Science and the Humanities

The more I think about it, the more critical of social science "as such" I become. The social and administrative sciences, we should remember, have long been seen (from the time of Woodrow Wilson, for example) as a basis for more effective government. I want to stress "effective" here; I did not say "better" government. Those who have promoted social science in the twentieth century, it seems to me, have been concerned mainly with the stability and efficacy of state and corporate power through the deliberate construction of "public opinion". (See William Bottom's excellent article about this subject.) Social science, on the whole, is the process of determining what people should think about their society. Fortunately, some social scientists have taken a "critical" approach to this process, going at the same "facts" about "public opinion" through the notion of, for example, "ideology". Others really have tried to see the role that state power plays in perpetuating social problems.

But in all cases, it seems to me, social science affirms the legitimacy of the state. I don't have the presence of mind this morning I would need to make the case even partly, but I think there something inherently "statist" about conceiving of society as a set of facts, even one (very large) fact itself. Social science is, essentially, the basis of (state and corporate) policy. Even "critical" social and management science is addressed to policy makers and bureaucrats. Its first allegiance, therefore, is to what Norman Mailer described as "the vast lie about the essential health of the state, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality" (Advertisements for Myself, p. 355). Mailer, of course, was a novelist, and he conceived of the novel as a kind of social theory, i.e., the art of perfecting our "apperception" (our sense of self-in-society, we might say).

That's the difference, I would argue, between social science and the humanities. Social science believes in "the vast lie about the essential health of the state"; the humanities, steeped in its experience of what Robert Graves called "the huge impossibility of language" is committed instead to the arduous labour of "self-fashioning". If it is true, and I believe it is, that a change is coming to business education, shifting it from a basis in the social sciences to a basis in the liberal arts, then this is the change it implies. Management research and teaching in a humanistic vein would shift the emphasis from the state to the self, from policy to personality. There's room for all kinds of abuses here too, of course. We can certainly imagine a "vast lie about the essential health of the self" .... which is a great place to stop thinking about social science and turn (next week) to the questions about postmodernism that I have been putting off.


Presskorn said...

No, politics, on the whole, is the process of determining what people should think about their society.

True, your point is exactly that the distinction between social science and (conservative) politics is already conflated, but isn't there still some sense in maintaining the distinction?

After all, knowlegde is not power. Foucault's very sensible analysis charts their interconnetions, but only on the presumption of their distinction.

Thomas said...

I like the way I just put it in the comments to the previous post. Anthropology is pseudo-science; sociology is crypto-politics.

Properly speaking, politics shapes how people feel about society. Sociology gives this process "rational" legitimacy, i.e., ideological cover.

Sociology is always power exercised through knowledge--but perhaps more often simply power masquerading as knowledge.