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Hall on the Dilemmas of Contemporary Social Science

This forthcoming article by Peter Hall doesn’t have an abstract, but deserves wide readership. Hall writes as a political scientist who is deeply interested in how his discipline has engaged with other disciplines (and vice versa) as it has developed. He argues that while quite substantial gains have been made over the last twenty-five years in related fields (history, economics, political science, sociology), we have lost something important too. The article begins by examining how post war social science began from the desire to make sure that the catastrophes of the Holocaust and collapse of democracy in Weimar Germany never happened again. Consonances between history (in its Annaliste and social historical moments) and the social sciences created the possibilty of dialogue between these various disciplines - the modernization paradigm, flawed as it was, provided common ground for debate. Economists like Gerschenkron and Landes played an important role in these arguments too. This dialogue combined respect for historical specificity with generalizing aspirations.

Over the last twenty-five years we have seen a bifurcation between scholars interested in culture and those interested in material forces - the former moving closer to cultural studies and the latter towards economics. “Like the kid left to play alone, American sociology has flirted with the others without being able to draw them into a game of its own.” This has yielded many benefits. Historians deconstructed the assumption that historical classes were unified actors, and cultural history and gender studies yielded important advances. The various schools of institutionalism within political science have also done much to elucidate politics, even while rational choice social scientists have pulled the discipline into the icy embrace of economics. Economics itself has changed - we no longer see the conditions under “which a Hirschman could debate a Hoffmann,” and economic history has become an endangered species, even while some economists have sought to apply their insights far outside the market economy. This has all yielded gains - we have a more richly coloured quilt of insights across the disciplines. But cultural studies and cultural history have perhaps exhausted themselves, while political scientists’ arguments about credible commitments are becoming more formulaic and uninteresting. Furthermore, a gap has opened between a history linked to cultural studies and a political science mesmerized by economics, which not only hampers debate, but means that both disciplines miss out on part of the picture. “On neither side are systematic explanations for political and economic outcomes being integrated with contextually informed analyses of social relations.”

Both disciplines may be swallowed up by an emerging intellectual hegemony that privileges a combination of economics and genetic science. More generally, there is a feeling of dispiritedness among liberals and leftists in the university - “the formative context for young scholars today is not the collapse of Weimar or the politics of the 1960s but the experience of life under neo-liberalism and globalization.” Radicalism has shifted towards cultural studies, but has been shron of any tools for systematic investigation of social problems and identification of solutions as a result.”

There’s plenty that I at least disagree with in this essay, but it deserves wide readership, and seems extremely well suited to adoption in graduate Intro to Political Science courses. Available here.

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