domingo, 28 de julio de 2013

vom Lehn: Respuesta a Christakis

christakis vs. dirk vom lehn

Dirk vom Lehn is a lecturer in the Department of Management at King’s College London. His research focuses on ethnomethodology in organizational settings. He asked if I could post this response to Christakis’ NY Times article on the need to update the social sciences.
Stagnating the Social Sciences? A response to Nicholas Christakis?
In his recent piece “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences” published in the New York Times on July 19th, Nicholas Christakis calls for interdisciplinary research that creatively links the social sciences to other disciplines, in particular the natural sciences. I very much welcome his efforts to open a debate about the future of the social sciences. All too often scientists create separate enclaves of knowledge that, if joint up with others, could lead to important new academic, technological and political developments. There however are a few problems with Christakis’ argument. I wish to briefly address three of these problems here:
I am surprised Christakis puts forward the argument that “the social sciences have stagnated” over the past years. He gives no empirical evidence for such a stagnation of the social scientific disciplines and I wonder what the basis for this argument is. If he was to attend the Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in New York in August he will see how sociology has changed over the past few decades, and he will be able to identify specific areas where sociologists have impacted developments in policy, technology, medicine, the sciences, the arts and elsewhere.
His argument ignores also the long-standing cooperation between social scientists, technology developers, computer scientists, medics and health services providers, policy makers, etc. etc. etc. For example, for several decades social scientists, computer scientists and engineers have collaborated at research labs of PARCs,  Microsoft and elsewhere, jointly working to develop new products and services.
Christakis refers to the development of new fields like neuroscience, behavioral economics and others that “lie at the intersection of natural and social sciences”. Because “behavioral economics” is popular also with policy makers let us take this new field as an example: one of the key findings of this new field is the importance of “non-rational action” for people’s decision making. I very much enjoy the creative research undertaken by scholars in this field, but it is quite surprising that it gets away with by-and-large disregarding 100 years of social scientific research. Critique of arguments that prioritize rational action over other types of action has been key to Max Weber’s famous work in the early 1900s, Talcott Parsons’ discussion of the utilitarian dilemma, Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments and many other sociologists’ research and teaching.
Speaking of Garfinkel and his breaching experiments: Christakis suggests that social scientists do not use lab experiments in their teaching. He might be pointed to Garfinkel who used experiments or “tutorial exercises”, as he called them, on a regular basis to have students discover how people organize their action and interaction that bring about society. Experimental research has been conducted also by Carl Couch and the Iowa School since the 1960s with the aim to identify the key elements of social relationships. And, there are a considerable number of more social scientists who have used lab experiments to understand social action and interaction.
However, it has been noticed since that time that society does not happen in the lab. Therefore, in many social scientific disciplines lab experiments are rarely seen as the best way forward to find out about the organization of society. Garfinkel, for example, has continued to use tutorial demonstrations in his teaching but increasingly looked into the organization of the everyday world as it manifested itself in waiting queues, traffic jams and elsewhere. And the Iowa School and its experimental approach has largely vanished whereby its methods and findings can be found in symbolic interactionism and other areas. While the influence of experimental approaches has diminished, naturalistic, ethnographic and video-based research has come to the fore, most notably in workplace studies, in studies of interaction in urban environments and public places as well as in online environments. This body of studies builds on a history of more than 100 years of sociological ethnography, going back, for example, to Robert Park, Everett Hughes and the Chicago School of Sociology. Here, sending students into the field, i.e. into workplaces and schools, onto city streets, on street-markets, into museums, into parks, into Second Life and other virtual worlds, etc. has been at the center of education, training and research as it allows students to discover first-hand how society works. Scholars also increasingly use video-based research to explore the practical organization of work in complex organizations, such as operating theaters in hospitals, control rooms of rapid urban transport systems, museums and galleries, etc.
Christakis’ article is an unfortunate case of a contribution to a debate that means well in steering up discussion about the future of the social sciences, that however ends up playing into the hands of those who have launched an “attack on the social sciences”, as Sally Hillman, Executive Officer at the American Sociological Society, has called it in the association’s newsletter ‘footnote’ in June. Senators and members of the House Science Committee have suggested to “defund” Political Science at the NSF and proposed bills that “would […] prevent NSF from funding any social science research” (Hillman June 2013).
Articles like Christakis’ imply that current social sciences have little impact on society, policy makers and knowledge development more generally, whilst research in the natural sciences, in their view, has more “impact”. They, however, overlook and disregard social scientific research that has been forgotten because scholars and policy makers follow the latest fads and fashions, such as so-called Big Data research and the opportunities of brain-scans, rather than using and further developing the existing theoretical, methodological and empirical basis of the social sciences. Moreover, they pretend that the social sciences and the natural sciences basically could achieve the same impact, if only the social sciences would make appropriate use of scientific methods. Thereby, however, they ignore what social scientists have shown over and over again over the past 100 years or so, i.e. that the social is fundamentally different from nature; it always is already interpreted when the social scientist arrives. The ‘social’ requires interpretation of a different kind than nature as encountered and then interpreted by natural scientists. Furthermore, people often change their behavior in response to the research process and in response to social scientific findings. Nature remains nature. Apples keep falling down from trees.
I am all in favor of interdisciplinary research and benefit enormously from my cooperation with scholars and practitioners in the computer and health sciences as well as in the arts and humanities. I also find Christiakis’ research interesting and important. However, to use the need for interdisciplinarity as an argument for the defunding of established social science disciplines would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. The social scientific knowledge base developed over the past 100 or more years is too precious to sacrifice just for instrumental reasons; i.e. to satisfy policy makers interested in saving money or to show “impact” however that is defined.
While the social sciences rely on and advance their knowledge base they have not been stagnating. On the contrary, they have prospered and further developed by virtue of discussions at discipline-specific conferences and in their journals as well as by cooperating with a wide range of other disciplines.
Dr Dirk vom Lehn
Lecturer in Marketing, Interaction & Technology
Department of Management
King’s College London
Franklin-Wilkins Building, 150 Stamford Street
London SE1 9NH
Tel. +44 20 78484314

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