Restructuring the Social Sciences? What do you think?

My attention was drawn to this article by the head of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Some commentators have been highly sceptical, pointing out the massive recent failures of the queen of quantitative social science, economics, for example.

My own initial reaction is that whilst King’s claims may be somewhat overblown, and they do minimise the problems, both within social sciences and between social scientists and policy makers, they do point to some very interesting developments and possibilities in the development of social sciences. I am wondering what others think? Comments welcome!

Restructuring the Social Sciences
Gary King* January 1, 2013

The social sciences are undergoing a dramatic transformation from studying problems to solving them; from making due with a small number of sparse data sets to analyzing increasing quantities of diverse, highly informative data; from isolated scholars toiling away on their own to larger scale, collaborative, interdisciplinary, lab-style research teams; and from a purely academic pursuit to having a major impact on the world. To facilitate these important developments, universities, funding agencies, and governments need to shore up and adapt the infrastructure that supports social science research. We discuss some of these developments here, as well as a new type of organization we created at Harvard to help encourage them — the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences. An increasing number of universities are beginning efforts to respond with similar institutions. This paper provides some suggestions for how individual universities might respond and how we might work together to advance social science more generally.

2 thoughts on “Restructuring the Social Sciences? What do you think?

  1. Thanks for posting this Colin. Interesting case study (hardly a “model” since few of us are in a position to replicate or even emulate Harvard), but what got my reactive juices going was the twice stated (in the abstract and in the final paragraph of the paper) but unelaborated assumption that we, as social scientists, are (and ought to be) increasingly engaged in solving problems.

    The abstract opening makes a claim that we are in the midst of a “dramatic transformation from studying problems to solving them” — a thought that deserves critical assessment and (quite frankly) reflects an emerging collective hubris fostered by the vast improvement in our capacities as analytic thinkers and data crunchers. No doubt many of us are driven by an urge to solve social, economic and political problems, and every so often we find ourselves in a position to do so by applying our insights and talents to specific policy challenges. But history — much of it relatively recent — holds lessons for those who might fall into the trap of overestimating our ability to solve problems — and underestimating the dangers. We may be on the verge of forgetting the role of social science in the Vietnam War era (see the early work of Michael Klare), and James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like A State” puts the dangers of social science arrogance in broader perspective. Are we now heading down that same slippery slope? I hope not — and it behooves Professor King and others to take a step back from such claims — explicit or implied.

    In defense of the claim, there is the reality stated in the closing paragraph of the paper that substantial funding will not be forthcoming unless the research can be rationalized as problem-solving. Reading that, I immediately thought of a (now thankfully outdated) joke by the comic, Alan King. In the days before the liberalization of American divorce laws, the only grounds for divorce in New York State was proof of adultery. The Ten Commandments says thou shall not commit adultery, King argued, but New York says you must.

    It seems we are under similar pressure for funding — and I wonder whether we are not being forced to engage in adulterous acts on behalf of enhancing the financial position of our institutes and institutions….

  2. Hi Colin – you may have picked up my quick and dirty response to King’s Tweeted article. For the record, I am a great enthusiast for quantitative social science, not just because of my ESRC position or the work I’ve been doing with the British Academy – and we may be at a turning point, thanks to the Nuffield Foundation/ESRC/Hefce initiative.
    But King’s article was breathlessly American, exhibiting (I fear) a tendency to equate US experience with world history that shouldn’t have survived either the debunking of Fukuyama-esque neo-Hegelianism or the collapse of the US neo-liberal intellectual and institutional structure four years ago.
    Where are his examples of the application of data-inflected social science? Or rather, where are the British examples we might point to in order to support a transatlantic version? I was especially worried by his sweeping assimilation of qualitative approaches, as if he wasn’t aware of the telling criticism in for example Biernacki, 2012.
    Is analysis of ‘thick’ data streams (eg social media content) really leading to new insights?
    In another neck of the woods (inhabited by C Talbot), data in and for government are becoming more not less problematic, in terms of their validity, especially financial data. Cf the report the other day from the Commons Transport Committee: no one knows how much rail is subsidised. Makes you a bit a sceptical about King’s data enthusiasms …

    (Biernacki, R Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry )

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