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In his July 19, 2013, New York Times piece, “Let’s Shake up the Social Sciences,” Nicholas Christakis claims the social sciences have low prestige because, unlike the physical sciences, they have not developed creative interdisciplinary programs. Based on my extensive experience in academia, I am quite confident that creativity and interdisciplinary programming are not missing from the curricula and work of social scientists. The lower prestige of the social sciences exists for the same reason as does their lower external funding: United States culture is focused on producing/protecting private money and wealth and the vast majority of work in the social sciences is primarily about advancing the public good.
I was struck by Christakis stating: “…everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class. There are diminishing returns from the continuing study of many such topics.” In fact, not everyone does sufficiently know about these phenomena, or understand them effectively. Only about 29 percent of the U.S. population attains a four-year college education. While there are alternative sources of information, it is primarily through the general education requirements of a college degree that people learn about power relations, racism, and inequality. Many college graduates, especially in the physical sciences, are able to systematically avoid these courses. Additionally, many high schools no longer offer a single sociology course and the social science courses they do offer are often basic and perfunctory.
Contrary to Christakis’ claim, the social sciences have far surpassed the physical sciences in interdisciplinary endeavors. For example, social science programs have been combined to form degree programs and/or departments such as urban & regional studies; law enforcement; undergraduate social work; gerontology; criminal justice; women and gender studies; social psychology; political economy; community studies; minority and ethnic studies; social justice; human services; social responsibility; industrial psychology; school psychology; peace and conflict studies; paralegal studies; public administration; international relations; historical archeology; behavioral economics; American Indian studies; East Asian studies; African studies; Latin American studies; and American studies. Many of these interdisciplinary fields include sociology, which is one of Christakis’ advanced degrees.
Christakis expects the social sciences to create interdisciplinary programs that include physical science disciplines, but, does not have the same comparable expectation of the physical sciences. Notwithstanding, there are, indeed, examples of social science-based programs crossing over to include the physical sciences: cognitive science; environmental studies; earth science; econometrics; psychometrics; law enforcement forensic science; social ecology; and GIS mapping.
Why not lobby for the physical sciences to integrate more social science content into their programs? There is a significant need for such interdisciplinary curricula. Try these titles: genetic modification and social ecology; bio-chemistry and war; science and over-consumption; minerals and global stratification; environmental degradation and social problems; technology and social disorganization; pharmacology and over-medicalization; agriscience and world hunger. While we may find isolated individual course titles like these, they are missing from physical sciences programming. The reason is most external funding now comes either directly or indirectly from corporate/military sources that have little interest in having people study the damage they have done while using the tools provided by the physical sciences. If you want to “shake up the social sciences,” make sufficient public (non-military) monies available for their research and applications and increase government and media recognition for the importance of solving social problems with social remedies.
New technologies and bio-chemical innovations are not going to reduce human suffering overall or save the human species from painful self-destruction. As we have seen, many corporate/military-driven scientific “advancements” simply make matters much worse. The earth’s problems are primarily social in nature—largely about socialization, social processes, and social structures, impacting both social and physical environments. As long as the physical sciences continue to blithely carry on their corporate/military-driven research without regard for how their work will be used, it may be worth considering that it is the physical sciences, not the social sciences, that are in need of a shakeup.
John C. Alessio