Islamization of Knowledge

Social Sciences in Crisis: A Dialogue with Professor Neil Smelser on the Future of Social Sciences

Professor Mahmoud Dhaouadi is a sociologist at the University of Tunis, Tunisia. As part of his Fulbright Research on “the State of American Sociology Today,” he interviewed Professor Smelser on January 5, 2001, director, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California. Here are some excerpts.

DHAOUADI: Based on my own observations and impressions, one talks more about sociology as a discipline having a crisis, than about psychology or political science. How do you respond to that?

SMELSER: I heard this kind of talk among sociologists. Among the questions raised in their frequent conversations are: What is the field about? What are the boundaries about? Is it (sociology) fragmented? Is it practiced … etc?

In that disciplinary sense, every field in the social sciences has a problem to some degree. Economics, even has a problem about the conflict between neoclassical economics and the various branches of this discipline, which internally, has become even more complex. They don’t beat their breast quite as much about this as sociologists, but if you talk to anybody in the field they will say: “Well, we have no unity, we have no consensus; it’s splitting up into too many specializations.” We find the same kind of talk in sociology. Realistically, I think that sociology can probably be best compared with political science, in the sense that it is solidly established in the university system, so its organization is solid and its professional association is solid. Despite the conflict I mentioned earlier, it is recognized in the agencies that give money to the field, it’s recognized by publishers as being a field, and no one seems to be deserting it.

Political scientists themselves are deeply split in three ways. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, you had the empirical impulsive behavioral political science, and the split between theoretical and behavioral sciences; then you had a great extension of political science in comparative politics. Then most recently, political science has borrowed a great deal of techniques and assumptions from economics pertaining to rational theory, a field that is deeply divided between the older institutional analysis and the organizational lack of unity as well. Psychology has been splintered for a long time into many subdepartments; they don’t fight with each other but they’re equally complex: psychoanalysis, behavioral science, developmental psychology, experimental psychology, work on rats, work on cognition, work on emotion, etc., it’s all subdivided; most departments are in effect three or four departments but they keep an organizational unity which is not necessarily split.

DHAOUADI: Are cognitive psychologists currently leading in the discipline of psychology?

SMELSER: As Editor with Paul Baltes of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and Behavioral Sciences, although we have psychology represented in the Encyclopedia as one of the sub-fields of social behavioral sciences, we give one part to cognitive, another part to developmental and social psychology and another to applied sciences including group therapy and clinical psychology and applied psychology. And so that’s the kind of common division among the three. Cognitive psychology is certainly most vital and has grown most rapidly and has more links to neuroscience. But, nonetheless, there’s a lot of diversity.

The field that is the worst off in terms of internal division and crisis is anthropology. Anthropology is much more influenced by the postmodernist movement; it is divided according to whether or not it wants to be a social science. It is one of the most fundamental divisions. In sociology, most people now still agree it should be a social science; they disagree on how applied or how oriented to social reforms it should be, but the depth of the division is much greater in anthropology than in sociology.

DHAOUADI: Besides anthropology being divided into physical and socio-cultural anthropology, does this field include other subdivisions?

SMELSER: This division has been deepened with cultural anthropology being on one side, and physical and archaeological on the other. Linguistics is somewhere there – linguistic anthropology. However, cultural anthropology is, now by far, the largest part of anthropology; itself now split on whether it wants to be scientific and empirical in its orientation, or nearly philosophical relativistic and reflective, and in fact, anti-scientific. The depth of the division in anthropology among cultural or social anthropology is very, very severe. Some departments here at Stanford even have decided to make two anthropology departments. Some think they cannot live in the same department because they cannot agree on certain basic points. Due to this conflict, we have a department of cultural anthropology and a department of anthropological science. The administration has nothing to do with it. Although this conflict hasn’t extended into other psychology departments, this division is being felt.

DHAOUADI: So in a sense there really are divisions and subdivisions, within the social sciences. According to Emmanuel Wallerstein’s The End of the World as We Know It, the crisis of sociology is attributed to the epistemological foundation of this discipline. Wallerstein is in favor of a reunification of the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. Could this fix the crisis of Behavioral Social Sciences?

SMELSER: Now, you see I am of the belief that we are beyond the point of thinking about a fix. The diversity of inquiry and style is so deep that we will have to live with it. Although at one time, I myself was a fan of a unified social science, but I think that now it is a hopeless dream that will not happen.

I have been strongly committed to continuing the vitality of the scientific impulse, the scientific method ... our whole future lies in our commitment to the scientific mission ... but that we should not look for uniformity or even unity in that. In order to make discoveries we need that diversity. As a sociologist, I have done more work to promote continuity among the fields than practically anybody in the field, but I don’t have it as a dream. I would never write the same book that Wallerstein wrote calling for this kind of unification. There may be a paradox in what I say, but it’s my honest position

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