By Hannah O. Brown
As a social scientist, I have learned time and time again that many consider social science a purely subjective, overly emotional and sloppy attempt at empirical discovery. These prejudices against social sciences are historically based, rooted in the insecurities of other disciplines.
Very generally, social science is any scientific study of humans—think psychology, economics, anthropology, sociology and political science. The findings of social scientists are central to how most people understand the world. This is evident in a range of examples, from Karl Marx’s descriptions power relations between social classes or Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments exploring the conflicts between personal conscience and obedience to authority.
So how did this social science stigma arise?
Scientific thinkers like Thomas Kuhn, an influential physicist and scientific philosopher, often use the field of physics as a benchmark to measure “good science.” Kuhn references this in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” where he points out that practitioners of natural sciences are able to provide more permanent answers than those in the social sciences. In such discussion, physics is presented as a beacon of scientific coherence, pushing scientific thinkers to conceive of the range of scientific disciplines as a hierarchy. With physics at the top of the pyramid, ecology would fall somewhere in the middle—and with this structure in mind, something has to fall at the bottom. Often, this spot is assigned to social science.
Though this pyramid-hierarchy may seem like a convenient way of ordering the scientific world, making it easier to compare similarities and differences between disciplines, I would argue that it does much more harm than good.
Newton’s Laws of Physics and the immutable nature of a scientific constant provides an impossible standard for other scientific disciplines to meet. For example, in ecology, one set of laws cannot describe all elements of the natural world.
The hierarchy distances disciplines from one another, potentially alienating researchers who could benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration. When researchers are open to such relationships, there is an opportunity for creativity in the research process and the use of a diversity of methods while still demanding a clear and coherent standard of justification. Academic innovation comes from combining ideas from different theoretical foundations, and creating a synthesis of concepts that may have not been previously available.
My own academic background has been less than straightforward, progressing from a bachelor’s in psychology to a master’s in mass communications and then to a doctorate (of which I am currently pursuing) in the human dimensions of wildlife ecology. Though each discipline is distinct, my training in each has been connected by the bridge of social science.
Even within my short tenure as a social scientist, I have noticed that researchers on both sides of the aisle have grown to respect and value the contributions of social science, but I believe there remains residual academic contempt and distrust.
In the world of environmental conservation, social scientists may hold the key to some of the most challenging issues of our era: Deciphering the best ways to communicate climate science to the various segments of the public; Modeling the resilience of communities forced to migrate from their homelands as extreme weather and rising seas make more lands uninhabitable; Identifying ways to promote conservation behaviors in people, especially those whose behavior have direct effects on the survival of endangered species. Moreover, global environments continue to change, giving rise to more questions for social scientists to tackle.
The beloved Neil Degrasse Tyson has even acknowledged the enormity of this challenge: “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why physics is easy and sociology is hard.”