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
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
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