Social Sciences in the Mist
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“The man of logical training will only seek such a degree of certainty in each branch of study as the character of the objects studied permits.”
In our modern world, it appears like there are as many experts as there are opinions, with many of these being driven by impulsive reactions rather than actual simmered thought. In all fairness, one can forgive average folks, who are burdened by their busy everyday lives. I can recall a discussion I partook in with my coursemates after our thesis defence, in it everyone realised we could no longer keep up the same level of political acuity as we held during our long studies, unless we continue our academic voyage. It is however, worrying, to see a similar trend of impulsive and poorly constructed thought spilling over to tenured academia. Hence, this post explores the degree of certainty and validity in social sciences from my own personal experiences as well as from academic literature 'that is' wielding an indispensible torch through the dim caverns of modern day social sciences.
Reasoning Behind the Post:
In the midst of what seemed like countless pages of my M.A. dissertation, I settled to reflect upon the 7 years of studying politics, economics and wider social sciences. The rationale behind this decision was not to fashion a diary entry or to purely share my personal experience with a dozy thesis defence panel. It was due to my self-discovery that the path being taken by social science is misguided and potentially even dangerous if poor analysis is coupled with ample public exposure; hence, at least to a very small extent, I could highlight these inadequacies. Naturally, I was far from being the only one to discover this phenomenon as my thesis outlined. Also, just recently, I fortuitously stumbled on a New York Times op-ed by Yale’s Prof. Christakis and the consequent critique by Rex in the distinguished amalgamated blog ‘Savage Minds’. As a result of my dissertation and these two publications, I decided to form a post for this blog. It will somewhat differ from the usual third-person objective ‘Casing Point’ style, as it will focus on my own experiences and also directly cite academic sources. I will dismiss the chronological order in this post by beginning with Rex's critique of Prof. Christakis original op-ed, as although they evidently disagree on some issues, they agree on the central point of using latter's interdisciplinary analysis. As do I, because only through such tool can we can achieve a higher level of certainty and credibility, how ever subjective that might be. In addition to research, I will also add a section on the teaching of social sciences.
Cash-Strapped Social ― Savage Minds
Rex’s general line of thinking welcomes Prof. Christakis's criticism of social sciences, as do I, because criticism and self-reflection pushes individuals and institutions towards greener pastures. The angle from which Rex disagrees with the op-ed is its exclusion of references and hard facts, particularly in respect to funding of social sciences. In fact, Rex argues that lack of citations goes as far as exacerbating the already dysfunctional state of social sciences. I personally do not think this is a worthy response, as those in academia know many of the problems, failing to add a citation does not in my eyes weaken the argument if it is logical and obvious. Also, Rex's own example for the lack of funding is questionable, as it is clearly far from being a dominant source of financial support for institutions. Nevertheless, Rex says that social sciences funding by the USA’s National Science Foundation is miniscule at just 1.5% ($92 million) from the overall annual budget, in contrast to 96% that goes to natural sciences ($5.27 billion).
Still, I believe this low sum and the general lack of funding in social sciences has a clear explanation. I can recall that throughout my studies several of my lecturers admitted that the abstract nature of today's research leaves little room for real application. In several of my classes I have heard the phrase along the lines of: "how many policymakers do you know that actually use academic literature?" In essence, if one had to be harsh, we could say academia is shifting or shifted towards a small club of individuals that publish academic works collectively for their own small circle - its perhaps unsurprising that we see scholars using the same set of citations, be it of colleagues or acquaintances. As a result, it is not surprising that so little funding is given to what some deem as mere philosophical analysis without outright conclusions or recommendations. I will refrain from giving any names, but I will never forget one professor at a reward ceremony telling me: “what is the Cold War? - it’s a mere blip in history with no real relevance, I have no time for that” - as he preferred to focus on more metatheoretical analysis.
A Victorless Battle ― New York Times Op-Ed
In his op-ed, Prof Christakis, in essence stresses the above point, as social sciences lack consensus, ability to draw sound recommendations and fail to claim a victory over a subject matter so that they can move on. I cannot think of any subject where there is no disagreement on one plane or another. In most cases 'defining' simple terms proves too difficult. It is only exacerbated by the fact that new information intermittingly emerges (e.g. recent whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have diffused clues to previously almost impermeable riddles). Interestingly, some social scientists even take an ethically centred view that such information should not be used, as I can recall from many classes on ‘Theory and Methods in Social Sciences’. In one of my modules, our lecturer recalled her own personal moral struggle whether to cite information received from tortured prisoners, as it indirectly legitimised the practice. Today's sentencing of Manning, will surely re-raise this issue, as social scientists will need to ask themselves whether it is appropriate to use information obtained from a source now deemed criminal by the US legal system.
A way to succeed in winning battles, as Prof. Christakis sees, is via the adaptation of interdisciplinary mechanisms into academia. He takes a slightly different angle from mine, by pushing for a combination amid natural sciences and social sciences, which should in turn achieve credibility and relatively more certainty. However, after my personal experience at a number of universities (Oxford Brookes University, University of Oxford, University of Kent and NRU-HSE), before we make such a giant leap, we ought to take a step, or in other words, we must begin with the disjointment within social sciences.
Polarization Within Social Sciences ― Importance of Interdisciplinary Mechanisms:
A major obstacle I encountered throughout the period I was writing my dissertation was the polarization of academic work. A very insightful book by Brown and Ainley (2005: 142) defined my predicament well for the two key disciplines in social sciences: “just as contemporary political scientists characteristically undermine the importance of markets, so contemporary economists usually set to one side political phenomena”. As my thesis was based on energy, I also found the book by Kuzemko et al (2011: VIII, 3) very useful, it defined the issue I have faced well by saying that most have “consistently conceptualize energy either as commodity to be traded or a resource to be projected politically for foreign policy power… inadvertently reproducing intellectual divided between International Economics and International Relations”. As I carried out my research the perspective that struck me the most, was by Gilpin (1975: 22, 41) as “the relationship between economics and politics translates into that between wealth and power” and that “an economic system does not arise spontaneously owing to the operation of an invisible hand… rather, every economic system rests on a particular political order”. In a way, this is a very simple and logical perspective, but many would still not agree with such perception by adding more complex matrixes of other explanations. The date of Gilpin's work also highlights another issue, as his interdisciplinary view is about half a century old, yet social sciences are still far from achieving a state whereby we examine things from a more overall perspective. Moreover, I think all social scientists can easily recall the famous paragraphs by Susan Strange - as she called out for economics and political sciences to join their efforts, but in all fairness it has not happened.
It can be said that scholars do not intend to limit their range of enquiry, but focus specifically on politics or economics so that their output is thorough. Some may find this counter-argument adequate, but as I and other critics cited in my thesis believe, this polarization is an academic flaw as it does not lead to pragmatic review of reality and even draws incorrect conclusions. In energy’s case, or perhaps in most if not all others, everything is multifaceted and cannot be explained by a single social subject. Yet, many publications are single minded as I and fellow colleagues who also focused on energy trade found out. It is interesting to highlight that shale is a good recent example of this, as talks of energy independence in Poland and Ukraine exploded into actions - yet there is almost no economic perspective, for the highly political aspirations in this literature. Also, in one of my failed attempts at an interview, it was impossible to discuss energy trade as the interviewee simply outright denied any political ridges - clearly from a standpoint of it being their vested interest. I can appreciate some sensitive issues in energy affairs, but outright denial of political aspects and pure support for economic caveats is absurd. As we all know, Nabucco or Nord Stream are political projects to an extent, but they are also economic as else they just cannot be build at a huge loss. Moreover, I had to ferociously deny the realism of energy weaponry for the latter's case throughout my thesis, as some generally believed it was viable, realistic and doable to turn-off the tap and stop gas flowing. It was especially common in reports made for the European Union, as they outlined that this pipeline would be the final nail in EU's energy freedom. A view of gas being like a tap is not only unrealistic engineeringly wise, but it would destroy the exporter's credibility as energy is a double-edge sword.
In reaction to this polarisation, as Brown and Ainley (2005) see, a major subfield of International Political Economy (IPE) has emerged. However, IPE is still relatively young and it only includes two of the social sciences disciplines. Still, as Kuzemko et al (2011: 283) believe there are limitless uncharted waters for this “interdisciplinary approach", but it is not being taken up by academia to the extent it should. In the Russian case when I spoke to one of my professor’s who has been aiming for quite sometime to publish a book on IPE, I found out that surprisingly he said not a single book existed for students in Russian. I hope that his battle against typical university bureaucracy succeeds, as perhaps unlike others, Russia needs the change the most with much of its economic field still left behind in the 20th century. I cannot possibly outline everything in regards to the interdisciplinary approach in a short blog, but to echo the words of a neo-realist heavyweight, "no single approach can capture all the complexity of contemporary world politics, [hence] we should welcome and encourage the heterogeneity of contemporary scholarship” (Walt, 1998: 29). In a way, I am proud that one of the members of my thesis defence panel jokingly said: “Igor have you read the book Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy?”, to which I replied “yes”, he smiled and then said “well your thesis has aimed to ‘answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything’”. I aimed to look at issues from an overall perspective and although my thesis was somewhat like a spider-web of theories, it was nevertheless realistic, as I hope my grade of Distinction backs up. In the next paragraph, I will outline the dangers of not using more collective approaches in academia.
Vested Interests in Academia – Russia/Georgia 2008 War Case Study:
In 2009, at the backdrop of the week-long Institute of Cultural Diplomacy conference, I had a remarkable meeting with a renowned Italian journalist and politician - Giulietto Chiesa. He is undoubtedly a divisive figure, being one of the people behind “Zero” 911 documentary that asked sobering questions about this dreadful day, which not only altered the path of human history, but of social sciences as an eruption of terror based academic literature occurred. Introductions aside, during our lunch we discussed the state of modern journalism, where he outlined the complex process of publishing for top news establishment as they favor image over substance. It was also interesting to learn that the media is mainly dominated by just 3 global news outlets (Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse). They distribute “packaged” news that essentially contain the predominant theme, that is then simply spun to the degree desired by the outlets that purchase this information. Hence, even though we have thousands of different news outlets, they are heavily dependent on these major distributors and their accuracy of information.
The accuracy of this information was proved beyond inadequate in the midst of the tragic August War. Chiesa (with several decades of journalistic experience) has never encountered this much bias and non-factual journalism (perhaps only the Iraq War would topple this example). Following the escalation, every major outlet outright blamed Russia for aggressive invasion of Georgia. The supposedly impartial BBC, or at least according to its public charter, had shown a constant video of a supposedly Russian tank on the streets of Georgia. It was only several days after the war had begun, it become apparent that the tank was in fact Georgian and it was firing at Ossetian civilians on the streets of Tskhinvali, not at the Georgians. As BBC released this it quickly took off the video without any notice. As I followed the war it became hard to support the view of some academics that the media is the 4th pillar of democracy (after the executive, legislature and judiciary). If we recall, journalism has been constantly plagued by ethical questions. A most recent, albeit a minor example, are the comments by TIME’s Michael Grunwald, as he tweeted that he would like to see Julian Assange executed by a highly controversial drone strike. I think his latter justification of it being a mere “dumb tweet”, went as far as a tortuous in a hound’s race, particularly due to his high ranking position. However, unlike social scientists, I cannot recall journalists ever calling out for an elite group of them to rule in a Platonian sense. In social sciences, aside from the great Greek, there have been numerous such individuals. In fact, social science has always pride itself on being impartial and more superior in its scope of analysis. However, this has not always held true as with the case of the Russian-Georgian War, energy trade and one can logically guess perhaps beyond.
I could include numerous quotes, but one particular citation has stuck the most from my thesis.Richter (2009: 1) stressed that academia has shunned politics of tourism as it is “too frivolous, too multifaceted, or too unlikely to advance individual careers”. Basically, major topics as well as less important topics, but those that still count as a piece of the overall puzzle, are simply ignored for the fact that they are not considered to be ‘sexy’ or to difficult to ascend. In energy, I really value the work by Stern (2012), as he decided to ascend a difficult mountain of gas pricing. At the end, his thesis continuously highlighted that he experienced a lot of difficulty in obtaining data, but amazingly it was the first book on such important topic. However, what we do see commonly in social science is the opposite of Stern's cumbersome, or tireless work. In 2008 there was an upsurge of political output in respect to the August War as many felt the urge to jump on the political bandwagon before it left the station. If we search academic databases words like “bear”, “goliath”, “aggression” and “imperialism” can be found as easily as a metal girder in a stack of hay, far from a seldom needle. At best, these 'logos' meet the front-page of the Sun Newspaper, but not academic output. As realities started to set in a year later, with even an EU Independent Fact Finding Mission, which outlined that Georgia took an illegal military action, it was too late for Russia's reputation. The damage was done as these academic articles have been published and this inaccurate analysis may have been read by thousands – perhaps influencing the future generation of policymakers. As psychologists would point out initial information always sticks the most, so such damage cannot be easily reversed by a new articles or remedied by an apology (as some newspapers in fact printed in tiny letters at the back). To a degree, one can forgive journalists that aim to sell papers or even institutions that publish false information under heavy pressure, as was the case with IEA in 2009 as USA forced it to print altered statistics (Guardian, 2009). But surely, in a Platonian sense, social sciences as a whole must behave in a different fashion.
As my thesis outlined and Prof. Christakis from the op-ed above pointed interdisciplinary approach can remedy these problems. If we look at issues from more than one angle, it will make thought much more simmered and less impulsive. If social scientists searched for more incorporative explanations of this conflict, not just at the time 'sexy' perspective of 'Russia Rise', much printing ink would be saved. Just to provide another example, aside from a more naturally impulsive war, as Hirst and Thompson (1996: 3) stress a “great bulk of [globalization] literature was based on untenable assumptions”, subsequent to the outburst of its popularity due to the collapse of USSR. If social science discipline join their forces it would make such impulses less likely. It could even go as far as solving some of the victorless battles that Prof. Christakis may have thought off. A penultimate example is perhaps the school of Marxism, as the spectre of Karl Marx seems to seemingly remerge every time there is a major recession and poofs into thin air as it passes. In several interviews I have conducted for my thesis, academics have pointed out that there is an attachment between an ideology and scholars, particularly after much time has been devoted to it, but this cannot be deemed scientific.
Teaching of Social Sciences - Live Social Experiments:
In this final part of analysis, I am going to look at the teaching side of modern day social sciences, with some examples of my own experiences. It does not relate to the interdisciplinary research approach per se, but Prof. Christakis has added it into his op-ed and I think he makes valid observations. In essence, social sciences have not only communicated poorly with the outside world, but the discipline must also "communicate" in more accessible ways with its own students and alike. Prof. Christakis believes that today's academia rarely uses many of the modern tools available. For instance, the boom of the internet age has granted the ability to carry out social experiments directly, but this is rarely done meaningfully and it “seems radical only because our current social science departments weren’t organized to teach this way”.
Throughout my academic journey I only encountered one module in which such computing power was used in a form of an experiment. It happened in ‘Negotiation & Mediation' at the University of Kent, whereby students had to negotiate a land dispute amid two states. Each student was assigned an ‘official’ position in their fictional government and had to deduct an agreement against a clock, as events unfolded throughout. For me, it was exciting, particularly after the string of relatively bland and uniform classes, but it also had a real investigative element as students involved were from all the corners of the world. Not only did the University of Kent have a mixed group of students, but two other EU universities also took part. It was investigative because one could sense the multiplicity in socialisation of different students. I thought students from Europe were more in favour of liberal models of negotiation and with more protracted thinking; whereas, students from former USSR and beyond were more realist, sharp and decisive. In both types of behaviours there were merits as well as caveats. I can recall more realist positions ending up with fewer casualties when military tensions escalated, as pre-emptive actions had been taken, but several disputed issues were not resolved (thus leaving the possibility of future conflict), unlike in groups with more liberal standpoints. I personally believe this experiment was exceptionally useful, as by the time a student reaches M.A. level the sum of literature read gets incredibly excessive, but the feeling of emptiness and little direct application remains. This actually allows direct participation with real humans, with real reactions, emotions and for once application of what we learned – without it being 2am in a dark lit library and the company of a Red Bull™.
I could go as far as arguing that the independent approach to modern studies is questionable in itself, as it segregates students (particularly as many fear the possibility of plagiarism), but ultimately it ends up with few ideas being shared. Also, more damagingly for the future generations we have a large amount of students who leave universities still being quite awkward or shy due to the nature of independent study. I can easily recall the panic in many students’ eyes if they had to do a simple presentation – which is more mindboggling since they know their peers. This does not prepare many for real work, especially outside academia which is not as autonomous. I was fortunate enough to be the member of the world renowned debating chamber – Oxford Union – which prepared me for public engagement, but many do not get this chance. On a personal level, it benefits those students who are naturally communicative, but if society wishes to raise a more competitive labour force, this is a hindrance. Interestingly, I felt an evident difference between education in the UK and Russia, with the latter being more collective perhaps due to its historic past, rather than the more independent approach of the former. So, I have to disagree with Rex and agree with Prof Christakis on their debate over “technocratic engineering” (albeit perhaps too harsher of a term), as it is required to an extent.
In a way someone must push the cart to a new direction, we cannot expect disunited students to push “democratic” change as Rex sees it. To put illusions aside, even in democracies, changes come from strong vested interests of a united group. After being a school representative for several years, which can be deemed as a slightly more prolific position to an standard student, one realised that universities are inflexible and at the end any alterations require financial backing – students/reps have little say in how to spend someone else’s funds, even if they originally came from the students. It might take time for a new breed of lecturers to emerge, like in my negotiations class, but right now in the words of NYT op-ed, “institutional structures” do not match “today’s intellectual challenges” resulting in welfare losses. Susan Strange and alike gave the initial push for interdisciplinary analysis, perhaps one day will we see someone push further and maybe right across social sciences, both in its research and teaching.
Overall, by no means do I consider my views superior, or for that fact important in the overall scheme of things, but it is important to offer a critique as only this way can we can push social sciences to a more desirable place. I've had a wonderful experience throughout my journey in education and met some very remarkable people, but after these years some cracks are clearly visible & need to be addressed. I have always been surprised by students lack of filling in module assessment forms, but perhaps this post will generate some feedback in one form or another. In a week, I will be returning with a new post on energy, on promised topics. This short intermission has missed some interesting events; one colleague of mine has just returned from where South Stream is being build and it looks in full-swing, in contrast Nabucco appears to be now a distant dream of a EU policymaker, Egypt continued instability has caused a short spike in oil prices and as usual there is plenty of news in the ever popular world of shale!
M.A. University of Kent & Higher School of Economics, Oil/Diesel Broker and RIAC Blogger.
Blog: Casing Point