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Ending Impasse

Bureaucracy in Academic Research

E. O. Wilson (1998) has proposed that social/behavioral studies and the humanities are virtually at a standstill, at least when compared to the sciences. He argued that most physical science progress has been made when separate disciplines or sub-disciplines have combined: biophysics, physical chemistry, and so on. His plea for more integration was made 16 years ago, but there seems to have been little or no change in the disciplines that he addressed.

I don’t agree with everything that Wilson wrote, but I think his basic point is important. Assessing most current academic journals and books suggests that they are much more repetitive than creative. Perhaps a new direction is needed.

Wilson has several pages of criticism of each of the major disciplines, such economics, psychology, and history. Here is one of his comments on my own discipline of origin, sociology. It concerns a quote from a leading sociologist of his time (Coleman 1990):

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“The principal task of the social sciences is the explanation of social phenomena, not the behavior of single individuals.”

Wilson takes issue with this idea by noting that biology would have remained stuck in its 1850 position if it had remained at the level of the whole organism, refusing to include cells and molecules. It seems to me that most sociologists are still so vehemently opposed to psychology that it is almost a swear word. (I would guess that sociology actually is a swear word for many humanists, or perhaps a joke.)

Durkheim’s study of suicide gave birth to modern sociology, showing that there is a social component in causation, independent of individuals. This is an important first step, but it is not much help for understanding suicide, because the relationship is tiny (less than 10% of the variance). The more obvious meaning of Durkheim’s finding and its replications is that the social component is NOT the major cause, or even one of the more important causes. Perhaps in the beginning, pure sociology was a virtue, but treating it as the only way has become a vice.

Why are we making so little progress? The idea of bureaucracy might help us better understand the reasons. Max Weber (1947) pointed out that bureaucracies run on a system of rules in order to avoid arbitrariness. But Pascal (1660), an early scientist, suggested that system itself can become arbitrary. The discovery of new knowledge, he wrote, requires both system and what he called finesse (intuition) more or less equally.

The attempt to find the orbit of Venus by the astronomer Tycho Brahe illustrates the problem. Brahe’s approach was entirely systematic: his many sightings of the planet were all quite accurate. But he couldn’t chart the orbit, because he assumed, like everyone else at the time, that it was around the earth, rather than the sun. (All societies run on a vast structure of taken-for-granted assumptions, which have been called “tropes.” For example, before Magellan’s voyage, one such trope was that the earth was flat. It apparently never occurred to anyone to think otherwise.)

After Brahe’s death, his assistant, Johannes Kepler, broke the impasse unsystematically. In what might be called a “case study,” he constructed a physical model of the planetary system. In doing so, he accidently placed the sun in the center. When he saw the mistake, he then knew how to make good use of Brahe’s data.

At the other extreme, the theory of relativity began with intuition rather than system: Einstein devised what he first thought was a joke about the effect of train travel on time. When he realized that it might not be just a joke, he needed a colleague to help him restate it in mathematical form, so that it could be tested empirically.

The two examples taken together suggest that ending impasse in knowledge may require both system and intuition, no matter which comes first. The playful part is particularly important in overcoming taken-for-granted assumptions. It seems to me that the modern social and psychological worlds, even for researchers, are largely built on tropes.

In academic research, social/behavioral studies tend toward system, and the humanities, intuition, ignoring Pascal’s advice. The discipline of psychology, for example, has become Brahean, committed to systematic studies, even if they don’t work. One example: more than twenty thousand studies using self-esteem scales. These studies are systematic, but they don’t predict behavior and are therefore useless. The main problem seems to be the confounding of true and false pride [egotism] (Scheff and Fearon 2004). The trope here is that egotism is a kind of pride even though in actuality, it is completely unrelated.

At the other extreme, the humanities use finesse, rejecting system. For example, there is a large literature in experimental psychology showing that the venting of anger seldom works (Scheff 2007). These studies support the literary idea of catharsis, based on the concept of the distancing of emotion (Scheff 1997). That is, angry yelling tends to be underdistanced, merely reliving rather than resolving one’s backlog of anger.

Theatre and most other art, on the other hand, are built on emotion at aesthetic distance: one is both reliving unresolved anger and also being a spectator of the process. Wordsworth wrote about powerful emotions recollected in tranquility. Although he was referring to poetry, note how his phrase “powerful emotions recollected in tranquility” anticipates a crucial part of the modern theory of distancing. Neither the psychologists nor the literary theorists seem to be aware of their mutual support.

Perhaps funding agencies and journals can help overcome these unfortunate divisions. Specialization is still useful, but it must not become an end in itself. Rather it should be balanced by integration between specialties. Social/behavioral studies and the humanities need to connect, and also the disciplines and sub-disciplines within and between them. There should be more agencies and journals in all disciplines trying interdisciplinary or other new approaches.

Funding agencies and journals, particularly, have fallen into the Brahe trap. They are mechanized to first judge submissions in terms of discipline and/or sub-discipline, size, and adherence to scholarly/scientific rules. One approach would be to stop relying entirely on any particular system of rules: not just disciplinary rules (“No psychology please: we are sociologists”) but all rules. Even though a submission breaks one or more rules, is it new or interesting enough to warrant consideration anyway? Otherwise we run the risk of rejecting the Keplers, Einsteins, and other playful submitters.

Such a change might encourage researchers to explore new topics and approaches, rather than always choosing the well-worn, safe and conventional ones. Perhaps freeing up the funding agencies and journals would be a first step toward overcoming our impasse in understanding ourselves and our fellow human beings.

References

Coleman, James. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard UniversityPress.

Durkheim, Emile. 1901. Suicide. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press (1951).

Pascal, Blaise. 1660. Pensees. (Thoughts). Paris: Editions du Cerf (1982).

Scheff, Thomas. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. Berkeley: U. of California Press.

______________2007. Catharsis and Other Heresies. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural

Psychology 1 (3), 98-113.

Scheff, Thomas and David S. Fearon Jr. 2004. Cognition and Emotion?

The Dead End in Self-Esteem Research. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 34, 1,73–90.

Weber, Max. 1947. Theory of Social and Economic Organization. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Wilson, E. O. 1998. Consilience. New York: Knopf.

 

 

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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