Fate of Social Science
the Fathom.com article "The Future of Social Science" sociologist Anthony
Giddens set out his vision for the future of the social sciences, writing
that "social sciences must deliver enlightenment. There has to
be a role for engaged theoretical reflection." It is precisely
on this front that Professor Peter Abell (right), challenges him in
expresses his concern about the popularisation of a "social theory"
favoured by academics of Giddens's ilk. He warns that the convenient
application of user-friendly labels could engender an easy disregard
for real "sociological theory" and for a proper understanding
of social, cultural and political mechanisms.
share with many other social scientists the view that much of what is
currently termed social science--particularly what is usually called
"social theory"--does not pass muster. So entering a debate about the
future of social science is, for me, quite tricky. It is difficult to
broach the issues without running the danger of offering offence--something
I dislike doing. Notwithstanding, these issues are of such great significance
that they need a public airing. Indeed, I am giving voice to views which
are often expressed in private but are rarely committed to paper. I
hope in so doing I am contributing to an open and constructive debate.
A reply to Anthony Giddens
In the article
"The Future of Social Science" Anthony Giddens highlights what he terms
"the four great debates"--globalisation, technology, everyday life and
economic redistribution and justice. He claims that one cannot "really
be a social scientist ... without situating yourself in some way in
these great problems." I have considerable sympathy with his message,
but I daresay that others would provide a different list of great debates;
for example, demographic changes, environmental issues and the socio-bio-cognitive
understanding of the brain. But my argument is not so much to do with
whether his list is a good one or not but, rather, with the intellectual
orientation he brings to it. This, I hasten to add, is not so much a
matter of Giddens's personal orientation but of the broader perspective
of "social theory," of which he is a major proponent, and which inevitably
colours his remarks.
What I mean by
"social theory" will, I trust, become evident as I proceed; I want to
draw a sharp distinction between this sort of "theory" and sociological
There is no doubt
that "social theory" attracts all the trappings of conspicuous success
both within sections of academia and also in the wider world. One need
look no further than the remarkable career of Anthony Giddens himself.
But, to name just a few others, Manuel Castells, whom Giddens quotes
with such approval, has with his book The Rise of the Network Society
attracted a great deal of favourable attention, as have many of the
French social theorists, like Pierre Bourdieu, who is equally celebrated.
For social scientists
like myself, this is a puzzle, because the sort of theory they proffer
does not to any significant degree contribute to the progress of either
empirical or theoretical social science. Indeed, I would go so far as
to say that because of its ever-seductive terminology, and in spite
of its lack of rigour, it offers a net impediment. It diverts attention
from serious matters. If so, how can this be and whence the applause?
In fact, we need a sociological theory of social theory which provides
some explanation of the demand for, and thus supply of, the genre, despite
its tangential relationship to rigorous social science. But before all
that I need to show how it is that "social theory" fails to engage with
the social sciences as I, and those who think the same way I do, understand
The great globalisation debate
Let us start
with Giddens's comments about the social sciences. The social sciences
he describes "deliver enlightenment" (sure, yes, if possible); "engage
in theoretical reflection" (yes, but of what sort?); "bring scholarly
disciplines into popular and public consciousness" (yes, but making
sure we sharply distinguish between the two); and "embrace the norms
of scientific rigour" (yes, but what are they?).
Perhaps the easiest
way to come to grips with the nature of "social theory" embodied in
his paper is to consider just one of his great debates--globalisation.
So what does Giddens tell us in his many works about this issue? It
is a complex concept that is not just confined to "economic or financial
markets" but also concerns "institutional transformation" and is driven
by "new systems of communication rather than economic exchange." Furthermore,
it may be reshaping the nation-state. One may perhaps cavil at some
of this, but no doubt a little thought would reveal many more things
which might in some loose sense be associated with the concept. (I recently
gave a group of students at the University of Chicago five minutes to
come up with some of the likely socioeconomic consequences of changes
in information technology. They delivered more than 30.) The point being
that most of us as reasonably well informed observers of contemporary
society are capable of doing this sort of thing. No doubt some are better
at it than others, but as Giddens opines, the newspapers are full of
it. What remains unclear is precisely what "scholarly discipline" is
revealed by putting such commonplace observations through the mill of
social theory. To paraphrase Giddens, it is all "public consciousness"
and little "scholarly discipline."
Although it may
serve some useful purpose to coin the word "globalisation" in order
to more effectively focus our attention upon a number of socioeconomic
processes or mechanisms which conceivably may be connected in rather
intricate ways, the word does no more intellectual work than to alert
us to this possibility. Certainly, in the absence of any analysis of
these mechanisms it makes no sense, from a social scientist's viewpoint,
to speak of the "consequences of globalisation." To do so is to engage
in little more than social commentary which at best has only a tangential
relation to any recognised social science. If we are to "deliver enlightenment,"
"engage in theoretical reflection" and "embrace the norms of scientific
rigour," we have to completely change gear and engage in serious analysis
of the interrelated mechanisms.
Although I believe
it is essential that we should put the founding fathers of social theory
firmly behind us (or treat them as economists treat Adam Smith), a historical
parallel might help to make the point. Consider Marx's now largely discredited
(but perhaps more accurate in his own time) theory of capitalism. Marx
certainly wrote of the consequences of capitalism (and for the present
purposes we might see the word "globalisation" as playing an equivalent
role to that played by the word "capitalism"). He did so, however, on
the back of a detailed (and for his time highly technical) exposition
of the complex mechanisms he supposed were driving capitalism. Furthermore,
the legacy of his analysis still controversially motivates rigorous
and technically sophisticated socioeconomic theory today; for instance,
John Roemer's The General Theory of Exploitation and Class.
It is this rigorous
social-scientific analysis of mechanisms that is entirely lacking from
(specifically) treatments of globalisation such as David Held's A
Globalising World and Castells' The Rise of the Network Society
and more generally from "social theory." Why this sorry state of affairs
should have arisen, I shall return to later.
Labels and concepts
The future of
the social sciences cannot rely upon "social theory." The coining of
terms and listing of trends is no substitute for the technically demanding
job of engaging in rigorous theoretical formulation. Much is, of course,
going on in this respect concerning international trade, capital (debt
and equity) flows, the market for corporate control, normative and institutional
change, faltering national jurisdiction and many other things. Each
of these areas of study develops theories in its own right, designed
to reveal the inner workings of complex mechanisms. It might be thought
to be helpful to bring them together in terms of a "portmanteau" concept,
like globalisation, describing the evolution of a global world (cf Marx).
This seems in some sense to be what Giddens is driving at and, certainly,
what Castells is after.
challenges in achieving this objective in a rigorous manner are, however,
immense, and they fall way beyond the style of listing trends which
might or might not reverse and dreaming up possible consequences. Further,
things are not advanced by an infusion of eye-catching but ultimately
unintelligible words and phrases like "nonlinear history." Indeed, one
of the most disconcerting aspects of the writing of social theorists
is their easy resort to ill-specified, technically sounding terminology,
in what I can only assume is an attempt to add to the scientific standing
of their prose. Castells, for instance, is replete with such terms and
Giving a name
to complex interconnected sociohistoric mechanisms is, of course, a
temptation which can befall us all, but building associations without
a deep understanding (empirical and theoretical) of the subprocesses
at work rarely helps. As we all know, that can lead us to classify whales
as fish. I am not necessarily arguing for secure microfoundations--however
attractive this might be. Notoriously, for example, Darwin hit upon
the macro theoretical mechanism of natural selection whilst embracing
the incorrect micro (genetic) theory--transmission through blending
rather than through particulate Mendelian mechanisms. It may be possible
to establish sui generis macro mechanisms (the evolution of global society?)
that are consistent with a wide range of alternative micro assumptions.
The skills required to theoretically model these are no doubt many,
as they invite an understanding of the intercalation of many submechanisms
which are of a strategic nature. But "social theory" as currently practised
can at most exert only a marginal impact upon this endeavour.
The need for sociological rigour
Let me try to
suggest in the briefest outline what would need to be achieved. We might,
for instance, taking nation-states and global cooperations as strategically
interacting players, wish to understand the impact of trade flows, debt
and equity flows upon the changing regulative jurisdictions of states
(i.e., changing institutions). These selfsame changes will then feed
back upon the flows. If so, where might we be going? This is where theory
proper starts. Theorists will have differing views about how to begin
to model these issues, but to do so cogently will involve, in my view,
a technical grasp of network theory (something that Castells, incidentally,
has no real grasp of, despite his title), both cooperative and non-cooperative
game theory, and system dynamics (the latter with apologies to economist
readers). The theoretical model grows out of a technical grasp of these
sorts of frameworks. I may have the wrong ones, or there may be others,
but the point is that one cannot make a serious contribution to "social
science" without something of this sort.
Is this, however,
an argument for killing social theory off? Why not allow it to flourish
alongside attempts to establish what, for the want of a more general
term, I shall call sociological theory? Indeed, for many years I took
precisely this view, believing that eventually competitive forces would
drive social theory to the wall. So far, I was wrong--for, if anything,
the evolving story goes the other way round. Social theory has not only
come to dominate sociology but is now making incursions into other disciplines.
So lawyers, geographers and others seem to be at ease with it. Why should
this be so, if it does not reach any recognised standards of "scientific
rigour"? Thirty years or so ago, when I first entered sociology, there
was a distinct promise, particularly in the US, that rigorous sociological
theory might be about to gain a firm foothold and displace the established
sterile textual debates about the classical authors. This would prove
a false dawn, as nonrigorous social theory progressively swept the field.
At that time the rapid expansion of sociology disproportionately attracted
those who were referred to as possessing an "arts orientation" (you
may recall the two cultures debate raged at this time). The burgeoning
population of sociologists demanded, and were increasingly supplied
with, a nontechnical approach to the discipline.
were "trained" with minimal exposure to either statistical or formal
reasoning, and social theory expanded in importance to complement this
intellectual deficit. Indeed, if one inspects examination questions
set under the heading of "Sociological Theory," there is little evidence
of the need for sustained reasoning at all; rather, students are invited
to critically compare different "theorists." This usually amounts merely
to knowing what two or more social theorists have opined. The paramount
problem with social theory rests with its failure to provide a systematic
framework within which one can reason and solve problems about complex
mechanisms. And this has arisen because of the wilful evasion of the
technical rigour which is inevitably involved in any serious theorising.
concept of paradigm has been put to effective ideological use by many
social theorists in an attempt to justify their evasion. They avidly
embraced the idea whereby the social sciences (notably sociology) are
inherently multi-paradigmatic and thus, apparently legitimising their
activity as but one among many, all equally demanding of our attention.
So social theory was in demand, supply was forthcoming and legitimised,
students became teachers, publishers colluded and, to use one of their
own terms, social theory was "reproduced." Supply and demand came to
happy equilibrium, driving out what I have termed sociological theory
proper. But why doesn't the latter disturb the equilibrium?
Surely, if genuine
sociological theory attempts to rigorously elucidate the nature of complex
social mechanisms, it should eventually displace social theory in the
rough-and-tumble of competitive evolution. The reasons this has not
happened are twofold. Firstly, advances in sociological theory are slow
and laborious, demanding attention to the inherent technical problems.
Secondly, and more importantly, social theory in fact shifts the objectives
of social inquiry (and, thus, criteria of evolutionary success) away
from the causal explication of complex mechanisms to a form of social
commentary and speculation wrapped in a technically sounding vocabulary
("nonlinear history," "reflexivity," etc.). Students like this, they
want this. They ask for no more, and pack lecture theatres.
We might, however,
note that the apparent legitimisation of social theory as a paradigm
is in fact misleading. Paradigms as Kuhn envisaged them do compete,
and eventually one displaces another. Allegiance to alternative paradigms
is, however, usually based upon mutual comprehension--proponents of
the alternatives, whilst rejecting each other's standpoint, fully comprehending
the opposing position. Social theory is not like this. Because it is
formulated in a manner which is intended to pass around the implications
of technically rigorous social science, it is not in Kuhn's sense a
paradigm. It is, rather, a fugitive framework.
I can bring this
point out by considering Giddens's mention of "three principles" to
be observed in the treatment of the future: the future or "history will
surprise us," it is "non-linear" and our predictions might be "reflexive."
Take the last first. This is a well-established idea whereby the conceptualisation
and/or predictions about social phenomena, proffered by the social scientist,
may have a causal impact upon the behaviour of those towards whom it
is directed. Giddens quotes Robert Merton (by now largely a historical
curiosity) in this respect and gives us a couple of homilies of which,
again, most of us are aware. I don't think anybody who is really versed
in the literature on these matters (e.g., the theory of responsive sample
spaces and the game theoretic interpretation of the effects of predictions)
could offer a treatment of the issues in these terms, particularly to
an audience of social scientists in a leading social-science institution.
To put it succinctly, Giddens's treatment is not a "reflexive" response
to the technically rigorous literature which impinges upon these matters.
And this, unfortunately, is true of social theory in general.
Conclusion: A future of surprises?
suggesting the future will surprise us is hardly surprising. Who denies
this in contemporary social science? It is generally recognised that
any predictions we may make are innovation-vulnerable--some more than
others--and there is considerable technical literature about this. Indeed,
as many social commentators have observed, nobody predicted the precise
timing of the Soviet demise, though a number of scholars did indicate
its vulnerability. It is, of course, an intriguing question as to whether
such rare large-scale complex events are ever, in principle, predictable.
Again, there is a technical literature on these matters which has to
be mastered to enable one to advance ideas in a cogent way. As to the
nonlinear nature of history, it is, I am afraid, like many terms that
"social theorists" deploy, impossible to be clear about what is implied.
Things will have to change.
The London School of Economics and Political Science.