Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Are there 'laws' of social science. . . . . or is this just science-envy?

Many in the social sciences try to formulate all sorts of 'laws' of society, culture, and the like.  For decades, social sciences (including much of anthropology) have tried to make generalizations, implicitly or otherwise, of this sort.  My old graduate school professor, Leslie White, a terrifically thoughtful and interesting scholar, tried mightily to liken culture and its change ('evolution') to a force for the use and dispersion of energy--in a way, to make it a branch of chemistry or physics.  Sure, humans are made of chemicals and must follow laws of physics, energy, and so on.  But I think it didn't catch on or get us anywhere, certainly not as more than a vague generalization, after the fact. But White, as did other anthropologists, characterized a hierarchy, a kind of inevitable parade, of world cultures--from hunter-gatherers, to early agriculturalists, on to nation-states.

The burden, or scourge, of science envy?
Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and others have tried their damnedest to 'legalize' their field, to make it respectably precise, quantitative, and law-like.  That is, having the kind of bedrock basis, a set of universal dynamic premises, as are found in physics or chemistry--or even biology.

Ever since I was a graduate student in anthropology (but coming from a math and science background), I have thought that this was a kind of pretense, a bad case of physics-envy.  In the decades since then, I  have seen this take various forms and technophilifications.  Simple descriptions and informal attempts at generalization about world cultures, as in the above sort of hierarchy, have seemed to me forced.

There are those who, under various terms like post-modernism, argue against this sort of thing, often noting that what is written is, or perhaps necessarily is to be understood in the eye and careerism of the writer.  Their idea has been something akin to suggesting that we should accept the difference and not try to force things, indeed, instead to read social 'science' (or, for some, any science) as a social structure, to 'deconstruct' the explanations and behavior of scientists to show what they are really up to, vis-à-vis what they say they are doing.  They are not like physics and chemistry, and should learn to live with that fact!

Well, a riposte by social science can include assertions that people are, after all, physical beings and that their cultures are their ways of living in the physical as well as social world, the latter of course also being 'physical' and therefore there must be some regularities, limits, or 'laws' of social life.

So are there, or must there be, rules, constraints, causes, or regularities, ineluctable truths that are formal enough to be called 'laws' when it comes to behaviors, societies, and cultures?  Maybe it is just not as mature as the classical 'hard' sciences.  How can we know the answer--what kind of evidence could we bring to bear?  Or should social science professors' careers and activities be judged in different terms?

If social-science fields don't have legitimate analogs to the laws of the physical sciences, then what are the causes of the societal regularities that we observe, from language to courtesies and so on, that clearly lubricate human life if not, indeed, being fundamental to it?  Can they have no 'cause'?   Can the 'causes' be unique to each circumstance--and if so, is that in itself a 'law', and if so,  how does the law work or get enforced?

These are not new questions.  For the past two or more centuries (or, maybe, going back at least to Plato and Aristotle et al.) these sorts of questions have been asked.  Surely life, of individuals and above all of societies, in humans and other species, has orderly patterns!  Do these not reflect 'causes' of some sort?  If so, are they in some way 'universal' in their nature even if locally ad hoc in their results?

Can there be a real 'science' of society?  This has nothing to do with whether there should be departments with such names in universities!  Human society is, after all, built on layers of pretense.  But if no such science is possible, how is it that societies, chaotic in many ways, do have regularities!  These include social and family relations, property rules, boundaries, governments, status and wealth stratification, wars, borders and on and on.  Every society has at least some form of these attributes.

If social sciences are not really 'sciences' in the sense of physics and chemistry, which are based on rather simple universals, then what are they based on?

The questions are not new. They were written about by the ancients.  But I think that, other than various kinds of bureaucratic aspects of academic life, the questions are still largely unanswered.  Perhaps they are not yet well-posed questions--perhaps social and cultural causation needs some other kind of approach than imitation of physics.  But if that.....what?


Kirk Maxey said...

It seems that you would want to write extensively here about the writings of E.O. Wilson, and of the evolutionary psychobiologists who have come after him. People engaging socially are signalling cooperation, asserting power and dominance, seeking broader access to resources, those being mainly food and mates, establishing norms based on genetic innate values such as fairness, purity, loyalty and caring, and enforcing those norms. Genetics is hard science, and the shifting of gene frequency through evolution is a theoretical grounding that can support many disciplines. The biggest weakness I can see in social studies wanting to be sciences is they just make shit up - blast off some epistemological eruption of nonsense and expect anyone to take them seriously. That's postmodernism, critical theory - all lead to nonsensical outcomes (biological males decimating women's sports, for example) and are unable to make insightful predictions about anything.

Ken Weiss said...

I'm probably less of a Wilson (and ev-psych) fan than you are, and I personally think his otherwise excellent book(Sociobiology) would have been better without its final chapter; but while I wouldn't argue with your list of attributes, they aren't unique to humans and (to me, at least) their assertion is largely non-human-specific, or purely sort of ad hoc (or post hoc) and descriptive and so on. I'd say they are that way in the same sense as (I think) you are asserting: making things (expletive deleted) up, post hoc, in hypersyllabic terms to give them a panache of 'science' technicality.

Genetics can be 'soft' as well, when it goes beyond its rigorous purview (e.g., asserting about 'genes for' things like criminality, etc.), where many geneticists, or others wanting to appear to know something about genetics, try to assert, I would say, their personal view of the world and society etc.

Then, this can lead to sociologibabble, careerist assertions mimicking deeper understanding about things simply observed.
And that, in turn, I think, masks the real challenge of understanding genetics and its role (or not) in the life and evolution of organisms and ecosystems.