July 25, 2013

Psychology is Social, Revisited

Aaron horvathBy Aaron Horvath

Sociology Graduate Student, Stanford University

In her recent post, “Psychology is Social,” Sally Raskoff makes an excellent case for the sociological concept of embeddedness—the timeless Karl Polanyi concept that behavior and institutions are embedded in systems of social relations—and further for the sociology of knowledge. Ultimately, the field of sociology is an academic discipline, embedded in a set of other disciplines, with its own set of orthodoxies-now-heterodoxies.


As Raskoff mentions, its somewhat formal roots can be traced back to Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism, the view that scientific knowledge is the only valid form of knowledge, and that sociology was a means of incorporating many sciences into a more unified view of the phenomenon. The field of sociology can be traced even further back to Aristotle and other philosophers, the Domesday Book (medieval data-junkies rejoice!) and even further to Ibn Khaldun (author of The Muqaddimah and an early examiner of social cohesion and conflict).


But so can several other sciences--to the point where, at times, it’s uncomfortable to pinpoint who is and who isn’t a sociologist. Heck, we still struggle with this (look at Robert Putnam’s recent receipt of the National Humanities medal and the subsequent shuffle by a few disciplines to claim him as their own–that includes the American Sociological Association–despite the bulk of his work being ascribed to political science). Max Weber, Karl Marx, Wilfredo Pareto and many other major figures blanket the center of social sciences Venn Diagram.


To this end, Raskoff makes the compelling point that often times sociology and psychology, among other fields, are often inextricable sciences. The social may affect the neural which may in turn affect the social and so on. But let me extend her argument even more–given this inextricability, we should make an effort to break down false barriers between fields.


If we can agree that the goal of many of the social science fields is to come to a greater understanding of the beast known as human nature, then we’d be wise to relinquish our tight holds on academic distinction. After all, to paraphrase a comment from Immaneul Wallerstein in the introduction to World Systems Analysis: An Introduction, the key difference between many of the world’s sociology, economics, history, political science, psychology, religion and other departments is their respective locations on campus and sets of faculty.


Sure, at some point, there are different emphases on different methods, but even these methods and their current popularities fluctuate. How many times has it taken more than a few beers worth of conversation to convince someone that, given a preference for ethnography, anthropology and sociology are different fields? Many. Sure, anthropologists may give more shout-outs to Clifford Geertz than I do, but that doesn’t prevent me from taking interest in symbolism or hermeneutics.


In response to this cross-over, our field seems to have taken up an interest in what I call “the hyphens.” Economic-sociology, historical-comparative sociology, social-psychology, bio-sociology. These subfields are the blending of lenses–much like when the optometrist asks us “one or two,” “three or four” and we can’t make up our minds. But where, in fact, do such preferences for social scientific lenses arise?


What makes matters worse is the subtle but often present internecine struggles between disciplines regarding answers and, more broadly, approaches to answers. This is even depicted in a hilarious XKCD comic that reaffirms these apparent false walls:


I laugh–of course (I am self deprecating)–but I also struggle. Was there some unspoken contest between the fields regarding who could be more applied or pure?


My own view is that applicability isn’t the necessary immediate goal of social science (though I view it as a necessary end goal). For applicability to be an immediate goal is akin to offering a friend advice before fully understanding his or her problem. It wouldn’t make sense. A major contribution of the somewhat more arcane contributions of the social sciences is to make sure we are asking the right questions at all–and to make sure we’re capturing an answer that responds to reality, not simply to how we’ve expediently filtered reality.


Furthermore, the joke on “purity” is pretty reductionist–it ignores the different units of analysis that may be more germane to particular fields. There are reasons that math and sociology are substantively different, but this doesn’t confer an innate hierarchy in the sciences. What’s more, where traditional substantive differences between fields are subtler or even non-existent, the joke of hierarchy becomes more apparently false.


This brings me back to my discussion of lenses. A lens is the piece through which we perceive reality. If my myopic eyesight, unaided, told me what the world was like, I’d be convinced that it was a fuzzy, blobby, odd-colored mass. With glasses, I’m convinced I can make sense of it. But with a microscope I have an entirely different perspective. Yet again with a telescope, another. So how should I be convinced which is right? Aren’t they all?


Borrowing from part of Neil Smelser’s Berlin Lectures on the Problematics of Sociology,  "even though the micro, meso, macro, and global levels can be identified, it must be remembered that in any kind of social organization we can observe an interpenetration of these analytic levels." Furthermore there is “reason to believe [that all] levels of reality are analytically as important” as all others.


But if academic fields are simply a matter of perspective, then we are fooling ourselves into believing that we understand what reality is. Thus, attempting to stay “true” to the name of a field is arbitrary and might even be corrupting to the scientific mission of truly understanding a phenomenon. The more we can break down these barriers and share, openly, the expertise in methods and theories gained across the disciplines–even transcending the loose bounds of “social science”–the better we can approximate reality. This isn’t simply a story of field overlap, it’s one of field embeddedness and the inter-embeddedness of academic disciplines historically, topically, and methodologically.


Of course, this line of argument isn't to say that academic disciplines are devoid of purpose. Sociology's widely accepted role is to make sense of the ways social, cultural and historical factors surpass the individual psyche and shape behavior and institutions. However, I suggest, as does Raskoff, that we don’t forget to incorporate other disciplines when it furthers our fields’ goals.



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great information.

Fantastic blog. Am still going through it

Great read.

I totally agree with you and not forgetting to incorporate other disciplines, was a great read

Great! You got the title. On point, well articulated and all points addressed. Thank you for sharing.

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