What’s the matter with social science?

Missing Persons: A Critique of Personhood in the Social Sciences
Mary Doulas and Steven Ney 

Here’s a good way to irk sociologists: suggest that the science has been wrung out of social science. Durkheim came to teach us that social facts are things, subject to examination and experimentation. Sometimes it’s hard to believe social scientists believe that. The most minimal scientific rigor often seems to be missing from a lot of contemporary social science.

Mary Douglas and Steven Ney, the authors of  Missing Persons, think what’s gone missing is the social. More specifically, what they think has gone missing is the discrete unit of society, the person. Douglas, an anthropologist, and Ney, a political scientist, are concerned that in the rush to emulate the hard sciences, what social scientists have chosen to work with is a Platonic, humanoid creature. It walks, talks and behaves as do humans but it is strangely unencumbered by relations with other human beings.

The authors think they know how this happened and the story is not the usual one. The human being in a vacuum is none other than our old friend from Econ 101–homo economicus. You may recall that this gent (call me a sexist but in his limited capacity for human interaction to me he was always a gent) is a completely rational actor who reduces every economic decision to its rational essence and makes the decision that results in the greatest personal return. In the classic summation the aggregate effect of these personal decisions results in the greatest good.

We could (and Marx did) argue with all this. The authors, though, point out what the Marxists often overlook–that the value of classical and neo-classical economists to policy makers in a capitalist economy is that it works and is supported by some very elegant math. I used to believe that the economists had physics envy. They might, but Douglas and Ney have convinced me that the other social sciences have economics envy. That explains the efforts at quantification and the focus on individuals being acted upon by institutions (which were, we should remember, built by humans).

Why is any of this of interest to anyone beyond social theorists? Consider a proposition: marketing (direct marketing even more specifically) is applied social science. So why do people buy? It’s a central consideration of every marketing conversation every day. Here’s one possible answer: ” The main objective of  consumption is to achieve the desired pattern of social relationships.” (p. 54) Conceptually that makes a lot more sense to me than high-falutin’ nonsense like the theory of reasoned action.

The true value of this book lies in its anthropological approach. Douglas and Ney propose a 4-quadrant model that they believe puts the person back into the social sciences. It’s an interesting framework that can be applied to almost any social situation. For instance, it does a pretty good job of explaining the post-reorg environment in my office. And it provides a better way of understanding just what lies at the heart of that liberal dismissal of fundamentalism I spoke about a while back.

Is it perfect? Nothing is. Look at the output of a survey that drives to the four types. You’ll inevitably play the ‘Where do I fit?’ game and you’ll be hard pressed to believe you are one type or the other. And you’ll wonder if assignment is as subjective and random as anything else in social science. But if you think of the  four as archetypes, each representing a part of a continuum with each of us exhibiting some admixture of all four  it will make a lot more sense.

Recommended as one of those must-read marketing books that isn’t about marketing.

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One thought on “What’s the matter with social science?

  1. Pingback: Don’t Go There | An Honest Con

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