Stirred, not Shaken- a Response to “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences” by Nicholas Christakis in today’s New York Times

An Opinion Article entitled “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences,” in which Yale sociologist-slash-physician Nicholas Christakis (most sociologists try to diagnose society’s problems, but he can actually write them a prescription)  appeared in today’s New York Times.  In it, Christakis reflects on what he characterizes as a Darwinian evolution of the natural sciences since his days in graduate school, with departments like anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry disappearing or gaining relic status while departments of neurobiology, systems biology, and stem-cell biology have risen to take their place.  Meanwhile, he suggests, the sociologists are still stuck with the same majors your grandfather might have encountered (sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology, and political science).  His read of this stability is that it is “not only boring but also counterproductive”- this because the seeming inability of social scientists to “declare victory” on particular areas of research limits research at the frontiers of discovery” and undermines their credibility with the public.

Christakis’s solution includes a mass redeployment of practitioners to new fields (he gives social neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, and social epigenetics as possible avenues), manifested in the creation of “social science departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science”.  He makes a quick pivot from research to pedagogy near the close, hypothesizing that these new departments could better train students by challenging them to investigate in “labs” using “newly invented tools” that make it “possible to use the internet to enlist thousands of people to participate in randomized experiments.”  In the end, though, his key premise and conclusion is more about changing “institutional structures”- he offers up departments of biosocial science, network science, neuroeconomics, behavioral genetics, and computational social science as possibilities (probably no surprise, but Christakis is also the very recently-named director of the Yale Institute for Network Science). 

Let me be the first to grant Dr. Christakis’s point that there is a depressing dearth of engagement in the social sciences with recent developments in computer science, biology, genetics, and technology (with the possible exception of statistics, a hot even if often misunderstood commodity in most social fields, where the lag between the social sciences and health sciences is more like 5 years rather than 15 or 50).  But to cite the work of Janet Weiss (the current dean of the graduate school at U Michigan and with an interdisciplinary background and set of research interests after Christakis’s own heart), I would argue that while we might agree on this as a problem, Christakis’s “theory of the problem” (his “this-caused-that” story of how the problem comes to be) seems underdeveloped, and it leads him to “theory of desired outcome” (what you want to happen, and how it addresses the problem) and “theory of intervention” (what can/should be done to cause the desired outcome, and how it fixes the problem) heavy on department reorganization that are likely to have unintended consequences. 

First of all, the “Go-west-young-man!” frontier mentality doesn’t exactly work for the social sciences.  Quotes like “everybody knows…that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class.” may not be saying “race and stratification doesn’t matter anymore”  (although I’ll bet it won’t take long to find examples of those reading it that way), but even his clarification that “There are diminishing returns from the continuing study of many such topics.  And repeatedly observing these phenomenon does not help us fix them” seems at least a bit dismissive.  I’ll give you that, yes, in the natural sciences once you have determined that the heart pumps blood and you have observed that in n=1 billion patients, you can pretty much close the book on the “does the heart pump blood?” question.  But here’s the difference- my heart pumps blood pretty much exactly the same way as it did for my ancestors in 1843, or 1955, or 1021 or what have you- our understanding of that process has changed across those time points, but what we are observing has not.   But saying that way that racism plays out today and the way health care is stratified today is the same as it was even ten years ago is fallacy, and if you build public policy around the way things were in 1955, I’m going to predict that it will probably not go well for anyone.  This is why studying things like race, and even using some of the same ol’ methodologies as our predecessors, have real and continued value over time.

Again, I don’t think that’s really the central argument Christakis is trying to make, but it has real implications for his solution that social scientists “devote a small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields.”  That’s because inasmuch as a subject becomes “settled” in sociology, anthropology, political science (and to a degree, psychology and economics), it is also time-stamped (for delivery to the historians, many of whom, by the way, also consider themselves to be social scientists); racism in 1995 might be settled(ish), but racism in 2013 is still pretty fresh because the social sciences are largely about context, and contexts change.  That means that there is not a potential wellspring of untapped research bodies that can simply be redeployed at no cost to public policy by recognizing that certain strains of research no longer have value.  This isn’t like a natural scientist saying “ok, gravity is thing, let’s check that off the list”.  This is more like a biologist saying “Ok, we figured out what samples of this incredibly fast-evolving strain of bacteria looked like 2 years ago, so I don’t think we ever need to check in on it again.”   Tackling the frontier of research requires either recruiting new researchers into the field or redistributing existing resources among research projects that, for the most part, all have real value.  So, with that in mind, let’s turn to Christakis’s solution.

First and foremost among the limitations of the article is that Christakis fails to make a compelling argument for why “departments” are the correct unit of analysis.  He offers no reason, for example, why departments can’t keep their name while evolving in their research and pedagogy.  The research conducted in chemistry departments, biology departments, and electrical engineering departments today little resemble the research they were doing 20 years ago even if their names have remained stable.  This is in no small part because research funding, which drives research agendas just about everywhere except at the Institute for Advanced Study, has favored a growing emphasis on these new areas of research.  It is also because scholars in these field have an interest (in addition to the aforementioned financial one) in doing work that is both innovative and valuable.  Similarly, it is unclear why new pedagogical “tools” Christakis refers to can’t be used in existing courses, but this seems added as quick aside to his central interest in research.  I would suggest that maintenance of the current research status quo may have more to do with the availability of funding that targets this type of research, silos between existing departments, and, indeed, the concept of the “department” itself.  More on that at the close…

There are other reasons why the sort of fusion between natural and social sciences that Christakis sees as necessary and inevitable is more complex a proposition than he suggests.

  • The founding fathers of the sociology and anthropology, including Franz Boaz, saw their work as very closely linked to the traditional sciences, borrowing heavily from observational methodology and attempting to use contemporary biological tests (such as those for blood type) to link cultural characteristics to biological ones.  This early research helped lead to an explosion of new social science departments across the country.  It also served as the intellectual basis for much of the eugenics movement in the early part of the 20th century.  Although we might argue that both the methodology and goals of today’s research are wildly different, the barrier that has been put up between the natural and social sciences since that time is a historically and politically fraught one.
  • Interdisciplinary departments, committees, and majors (the latter two often serving as a transitional step before an interdisciplinary department) are not new to the Social Sciences.  Chicago’s “committee” structure is perhaps the best known and one of the longest standing.  However, with few exceptions, the faculty who staff these programs have their degrees from traditional departments- job placement in higher education is a cyclical process and development of departmental reputation takes time.  A newly-minted PhD with an interdisciplinary degree is likely to have more trouble than an equally qualified student with a PhD from a traditional discipline, and right now it’s a buyer’s market for tenure-track positions.  The dual doctorates of the author are impressive, but also reflective of a system that is heavily driven by traditional departmental divisions.
  • Full-on departments need new chairs (both leaders and seats for students), new offices, new labs, new equipment- they don’t just give those things away for free.  Colleges and universities (except the incredibly small number of school with hedge fund-like endowments) are increasingly unlikely to approve departments in this financial climate without without a clearer case for them made in terms of net tuition or research funding.  

So while I agree that there is a need for change, and while I think Christakis’s actual research is incredible and represents exactly the sorts of frontiers we should be exploring, I am neither convinced that reorganization of departments is a particularly feasible intervention, nor (more importantly) that the intended solution would bring about anything near the level of change that Christakis suggests.

What seems more likely is that the real future of this type of interdisciplinary work is not around the creation of new departments, but rather in thinking about whether there are ways to organize graduate training so that research is not driven by “departments” at all: Why is re-creating or repackaging what is essentially a political and hiring structure every time there is a new methodological breakthrough or opportunity for collaboration any more efficient than maintaining structures created for those same reasons 80 years ago?  Is there a better way to organize the training of students, hiring of experts, and cross-methodological (can I just step in here to suggest that term this has more real meaning than cross-departmental or cross-disciplinary?) research in a world where technological breakthroughs are about as regular and surprising as political soundbites?  Can we imagine networks, exactly like those Christakis studies, of researchers that extend far beyond the bounds of departmental hallways and even of campuses or countries, while allowing opportunities for casual encounters and deep collaboration that are just as real?

Private research labs like Google[x] have met with success by allowing experts to eschew organizational and titular constraints to focus on problem-based work.  I’m not claiming that a similar model is the silver bullet for higher education, and research demands span far beyond the realm of driverless cars and Google Glass.  But with the baggage that comes with any sort of change in higher education, a departmental re-organization seems like more a 1917 solution than a 2013 one, and is more like stirring around the system we already have than a true “shaking up” of what we do.

So I certainly, and sincerely, wish new cross-disciplinary departments well and hope that they are just the first step on the pathway to something transformative, but if traditional colleges and universities are not yet ready to think more innovatively about how to bring about innovation, keep your eye out for who will.

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