The Diversity in US Social Science

By Frazer, Michael L. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Diversity in US Social Science


Frazer, Michael L., Harvard International Review


In the Winter 2010 issue, Kishore Mahbubani laments the fact that American social science has wrongly adopted methodologies modeled on the natural sciences, resulting in a baleful cultural myopia ("Beyond the Universal: The Cultural Myopia of US Social Science")."Quantification, abstraction, and emphasis on model-building and replicability led to a fundamental failure to understand the differences in human societies," Mahbubani writes, adding that the "destruction of 'area studies' made things worse."

Mahbubani's report of the death of area studies is greatly exaggerated. My office complex at Harvard houses a dozen centers for precisely such scholarship--from the Committee on African Studies to the Ukrainian Research Institute.

There are also other corners of US scholarship which have never been infected by the myopic scientism which Mahbubani describes. My own subfield, political theory, is certainly among them. Although there are as many approaches to political theory as there are political theorists, most reject methodologies modeled on the natural sciences in favor of the study of canonical philosophers from Plato onward. Such is certainly the approach of the followers of Leo Strauss--perhaps the most politically influential school of right-wing American theorists active today. Indeed, many have (rightly or wrongly) attributed the decision to invade Iraq to the influence of "Straussians" over the second Bush administration.

Not only do Strauss's followers reject the excessive scientism which Mahbubani describes in favor of the study of canonical texts, but they also reject the idea of an entirely "Western" canon in favor of the study of great works produced in a variety of cultural contexts, including Islamic ones. Strauss himself was an accomplished scholar of medieval Judeo-Islamic political philosophy, which he studied in the original Arabic. Prominent Straussians include not only Paul Wolfowitz's teacher Allan Bloom and William Kristol's professor Harvey Mansfield but also the late Iraqi Muhsin Mahdi, mentor to an entire generation of American specialists in Islamic philosophy. …

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