Social Science in the 21st Century Issues Now Emerging Will Shape Fields: Globalization, Environment, Changing Values, More. SERIES WRAP-UP Series: INSIDE THE SOCIAL SCIENCES. Part 9 of a 9-Part Series

By Rushworth M. Kidder, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 7, 1990 | Go to article overview

Social Science in the 21st Century Issues Now Emerging Will Shape Fields: Globalization, Environment, Changing Values, More. SERIES WRAP-UP Series: INSIDE THE SOCIAL SCIENCES. Part 9 of a 9-Part Series


Rushworth M. Kidder, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IT'S not quite true to say that social scientists are born and not made. But the eight individuals interviewed for this series have one thing in common: Their youthful experiences significantly shaped their choice of careers.

- Daniel Bell's upbringing in New York's Lower East Side and Joyce Ladner's education among Mississippi's rural poor impelled them into sociology.

- For economist Alice Rivlin, a driving force was family dinner-table talk about public policy; for anthropologist Eric Wolf, it was a rich menu of cultural differences in his own family.

- Demographer Samuel Preston did his first survey in 8th grade - a few years before political scientist Thomas Ferguson got involved in high-school student government, and not long after Brewster Smith enrolled in psychology at Reed College as a "self-conscious adolescent" trying to figure himself out.

Unlike their counterparts in the natural sciences, they were interested in figuring out how people, rather than the natural world, behaved. "I wanted to understand motives," says Professor Ladner. For Professor Wolf, the real question about people is "what makes them tick?"

Yet each of them, in different ways, struggles to define the curious middle ground that the social sciences occupy between "hard" science on one extreme and the humanities on the other.

Are the social sciences really sciences? No, says Professor Bell. There are no universal social laws to be discovered, he says. Nor can you ever "isolate for particular variables" and set up controlled experiments.

Murray Weidenbaum, agreeing, feels more comfortable talking about "general conclusions" than about "laws." Social scientists, he says with a chuckle, are "very chintzy about enacting legislation."

While many of the interviewees spoke of the interdisciplinary nature of their field, a number of them were reaching out less toward the sciences than toward the humanities. History, in particular, attracted several of them. For Bell, history deals with culture "in a narrative, humanistic way." Professor Ferguson lambasts his colleagues in political science for "weak intellectual traditions" that often fail to match "the craft standards of even bad history."

Yet for some social scientists, scientific methodology provides a useful model. Dr. Rivlin, who sees the economy as "a very complicated system," notes that economics is "a science" in that it tries to "analyze data to figure out how (the economy) works." And Wolf, while avoiding the term "laws," speaks of "lawful regularities that come out of discovery procedures" in anthropology.

Most agree, however, that their fields - or at least significant parts of them - are moving into more "scientific" methodologies. Some find that helpful: Ferguson plumps for more use of statistics, and Professor Preston notes that the mathematical models used by demographers still yield great insights into social trends.

But Professor Smith is concerned that psychology is moving so resolutely into neuro-physiology and computer modeling of the brain that "the emotional life" is being overlooked. And Ladner worries that the complex mathematics increasingly found in sociological journals is understood by few of her colleagues. She longs to see sociology pay more attention to "real live human beings."

That very debate about the role of scientific methodology points to a central distinction between the natural and the social sciences. …

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Social Science in the 21st Century Issues Now Emerging Will Shape Fields: Globalization, Environment, Changing Values, More. SERIES WRAP-UP Series: INSIDE THE SOCIAL SCIENCES. Part 9 of a 9-Part Series
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