Beyond the Universal: The Cultural Myopia of US Social Science

By Mahbubani, Kishore | Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Universal: The Cultural Myopia of US Social Science


Mahbubani, Kishore, Harvard International Review


The greatest conceit of US social science is its belief that it is trying to study the human condition and its findings are universally applicable to all societies. The greatest blindness is its inability to understand how culture-bound it has become. The fundamental mistake that US social science (in economics, politics, sociology, or psychology) made was to extrapolate natural science thinking and methodologies to the social sciences. Quantification, abstraction, and emphasis on model-building and replicability led to a fundamental failure to understand the differences in human societies. The destruction of "area studies" made things worse.

Sadly, the damage done by this blindness of US social science has not been limited to academia. US policymakers educated by these social scientists have generated deeply flawed policies. Nor do these policymakers realize that they have to retool their minds if they are to understand the new era of world history that is emerging, marked by the end of Western domination of world history and the return of Asia to center stage. The greatest proof of the United States' inability to understand other societies was when its troops marched into Iraq in March 2003. Perhaps Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were a little extreme in believing that the US army soldiers landing on Islamic soil would be greeted with petals thrown on their military boots. But what was even more frightening than this massive delusion was the ignorance of the mainstream US establishment. Few US citizens seemed aware that the United States was once again seen to be pouring" salt into the deep wounds of Islamic civilization.

This insensitivity to other cultures is neither new nor limited to the Islamic world. During the Vietnam War, US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara followed the modern social science approach: building strategy and tactics by amassing data without developing a deep understanding of Vietnamese history and culture. And as his New York Times obituary said, "The war became his personal nightmare. Nothing he did, none of the tools at his command--the power of American weapons, the forces of technology and logic, or the strength of American soldiers--could stop the armies of North Vietnam and their South Vietnamese allies, the Vietcong." And now the United States will wade even deeper into Afghanistan with similar ignorance.

There is one demographic reality that few Americans understand.

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