People often ask me to define sociology, nearly always because I’ve just told them I’m a sociologist, but sometimes because the person asking me is also a sociologist, and none of us are actually that sure. I’ve got a few distinctions I keep at hand:
- Social workers help people. Sociologists just study them.
- Economists study how people make choices. Sociologists study how people aren’t able to make choices.
- Psychologists study individuals. Sociologists don’t believe individuals exist.
- Anthropologists never saw a category they couldn’t “problematize.” Sociologists never saw a category they couldn’t turn into a two-by-two table.
- Political scientists are positivists. Sociologists cross-dress as positivists.
None of these characterizations are true, in any of their directions. You can find a sociologist to disprove any of these distinctions, which, some might say, is part of the problem with sociology. We don’t have a clear sense of who we are.
In a recent article at The Smart Set, Michael Lind proposed an ideal university whose most important characteristic is its abolition of the social sciences. Sociology and all its siblings cannot escape the error of the “physics envy” that motivated their existence. Lind’s got a problem with social forces or anything bigger than the mess of individuals making their own individual decisions. It’s an ironic critique for someone who had just been criticizing rational choice theory (whose central conceit is exactly the same criticism), and it’s made more difficult by Lind acknowledging institutions, which is a category so capacious as to include everything from marriage to I.B.M. Yet whether Lind is right is less important than what the criticism represents: Something is rotten in the state of social science.
The article refers to similar debates in international relations, political science, and economics, all about the wrongheadedness of hyper-precise mathematical models and the absurdity of presuming a lab-like science of the social, one in which variables can be isolated as cleanly as they can be in physics. These debates are made more relevant by a recent paper showing how hard it is to reproduce some of psychology’s most important findings, and while the problems with psychology are not as big a deal as they might appear (it gets a bit wonky, but it has a lot do with P-values), they do raise the question: Is the science in social science worth defending?
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