Rethinking the Social Sciences: A Multi-Lensed Perspective for Curriculum Transformation

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Rethinking the Social Sciences: A Multi-Lensed Perspective for Curriculum Transformation *

* This paper originated as a talk at the 1994 summer institute of The New Jersey Project at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.


What happens as a more inclusive perspective is used to inquire into the relationships, institutions, and functioning of human societies? How does an approach that uses lenses of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity shift, alter, or transform the subject and content of disciplinary knowledge bases and the methods and approaches to knowledge production that currently prevail in the academy? In other words, what will change and how? What will we be able to see and know about the interactions of individuals and groups that previously has been inaccessible or obscure in academic studies of human society?

Obviously answering these questions is "more than a notion;" but as with other adventures it begins with small steps. What I hope to do is to take a step, to uncover and examine a few of the "taken-for-granted" assumptions and approaches which are embedded in foundational thinking across the social sciences. As I trace some of the shifts and modifications in what we know and how we know it that are suggested by remaining mindful of differences in human experience, I will address, as well, the affective dimensions of this work.

First, though, I think it is useful to remind ourselves of the nature of the context of this overall project of rethinking the disciplines and curriculum integration. This work is, as I see it, an effort to move away from the limitations and challenge the confinements of positivism, the prevailing paradigm of knowledge construction that assumes the existence of a universal, generalizable Truth which is accessible through the exercise of abstract reason and the observation of phenomena as they exist in a "natural" state. It is useful to remember that positivism itself emerged in dynamic tension with theories of knowledge that had predominated for several centuries; positivism was the product of an effort to expand what humans could know, how they could know it, and who had access to that knowledge. The point is that what constitutes knowledge, how it is constructed, and who can participate in its construction and use is neither a given nor transhistorical; it is a product of human interaction and historical change replete with the dynamics of social organization and transformation.

If we think of the positivist paradigm as one that now limits what we are able to see and how we can view the world in order to know it, then the work of curriculum integration might be thought of as a project to expand and clarify our view of the world. In thinking about the questions and reformulations suggested by scholarship on sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and gender, I find myself returning again and again to an image that suggests the possibility for multiple angles of vision. It is the image of a prism which, as all of you know, is a multi-sided, transparent object that refracts light from different angles. Pivoted to allow light to pass through its different sides, a prism facilitates a multifaceted view of any subject on which it is focused. Scholarship which offers an inclusive perspective, that enables us to view ideas, events, and relationships through the facets of different and connected critical social categories will expand and shed light on a much greater range of human thought and behavior than knowledge generated by a positivist paradigm. Let me try here to suggest what a refitting of the disciplines with critical social lenses might provoke with regard to our thinking about a few central assumptions and approaches in the social sciences.

Assumptions in the Social Sciences

Social sciences share the goal of conducting research in order to establish general observations and explanations of human behavior. Whether the discipline is psychology, and researchers are investigating patterns of human psychosocial development - economics, with economists probing relationships of productivity and exchange - or political science, with researchers examining political participation - each discipline has directed its attention to the behavior and experiences of a small group of humans who are privileged by systems of social hierarchy. …