HERBERT SIMON, PAUL THAGARD, PAT LANGLEY AND OTHERS ON DISCOVERY SYSTEMS
BOOK VIII - Page 9
Lundberg’s Positivist Sociology
Parsonsian romanticism has not been without its critics. And not surprisingly the science that was founded by the founder of positivism, namely Auguste Comte, has also spawned positivist critics to oppose Parson’s romanticism. A principal protagonist in this critical rôle, who was a contemporary to Parsons, was George Lundberg (1895-1966). As it happens, Lundberg’s criticisms did not effectively persuade American sociologists, and post-World War II sociology took the Parsonsian path for several decades thanks in no small part to Parsons’ advantage of the prestigious forum of Harvard University. The following brief rendering of Lundberg’s criticism reveals the philosophy which for many years American academic sociologists viewed as their philosophical alternative to Parsons.
Lundberg explicitly traced his philosophical heritage to Comte. In his “Contemporary Positivism in Sociology” in American Sociological Review (1939) Lundberg gives three quotations from Comte’s Positivist Philosophy, which he says suggest the principal survivals from Comte’s work that he regarded as contemporary positivism in sociology. The first quotation is a statement of the principal aim of science, which is to analyze accurately the circumstances of phenomena, to connect them in invariable natural laws according to the relation of succession and resemblance, and to reduce such laws to the smallest possible number. The second quotation sets forth a secondary aim of science, namely to review existing sciences to show that they have a unity of method and a homogeneity of doctrine. The third quotation affirms the importance of observation and rejects the view that the sciences of human behavior should attempt to study facts of inner experience. Lundberg thus places himself at variance with Parsons, and he quotes antipositivist comments from a lengthy footnote in Parsons’ Structure of Social Action, in which Parsons states that all positivisms are untenable.
Lundberg’s principal philosophical work is a monograph of about one-hundred fifty pages titled Foundations of Sociology (1939), which includes his views set forth in a previous papers including one titled “Concept of Law in the Social Sciences” published in Philosophy of Science (1938). Later the 1964 edition of the Foundations monograph contains an “Epilogue” as a new chapter, in which Lundberg maintains that the Parsonsian approach to sociology is converging toward the positivist view. In 1929 he wrote Social Research: A Study in Methods of Gathering Data, which he extensively revised in 1942. In 1947 he wrote Can Science Save Us? (1947, 1961) and in 1953 he co-authored Sociology, a textbook with a methodological discussion of his views.
Lundberg was very impressed by the successes of natural science especially in comparison to sociology, and he stated that the history of science consists largely of the account of the gradual expansion of the realms of the natural and physical at the expense of the mental and the spiritual. His agenda for sociology therefore is to realize success of sociology by imitating the methods of the natural sciences. The philosophical understanding of natural science during the time of his active career was the positivist philosophy, which also prevailed in academic philosophy of science at the time. But like the Vienna Circle Positivist philosopher and sociologist Otto Neurath, Lundberg discovered that the classical Machian positivism implemented in the natural sciences with its phenomenalist ontology is not easily adapted to behavioral and social sciences, and Lundberg therefore developed his Pickwickian positivism.
Lundberg’s epistemological view has similarities to the classical British empiricists, Locke, Berkeley and Hume, and also to the early positivists such as Mach. These philosophers started with the thesis that what the human mind knows immediately is its own ideas, sensations, or sense impressions. This subjectivist view of knowledge occasions the question of how the human mind knows the external or extramental real world. One naïve answer to this problem is the copy theory of knowledge, according to which the ideas reveal reality, because they are copies of reality. Another is to deny the external world of material substances, and the result is a solipsistic idealism such as Berkeley’s esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.”
Lundberg also has a subjectivist theory of knowledge, but he has his own ersatz version. Lundberg maintains that the immediate data of all sciences are “symbols”, by which he means human responses to whatever arouses the responses. And he also calls these responses sensory experience. His subjectivist philosophy of knowledge is thus nonrealist, because it makes subjective experience instead of extramental reality the object of knowledge rather than making experience constitutive of knowledge. He then goes on to say that the nature of that which evoked these human responses must be “inferred” from these immediate data, which are our sensory experience; we infer both the existence and the characteristics of everything from these responses. His positivism thus acknowledges extramental realities beyond the known symbols, even if reality is not the object of knowledge. Furthermore he claims that this “inference” is not deductive, but consists of operational definitions.
In his discussion of measurement Lundberg says that since Einstein, physicists have blatantly declared that space is that which is measured by a ruler, that time is that which is measured by a clock, and force is that which is measured by pointers across a dial. A thing is that which evokes a certain type of human response represented by measurement symbols. There is an ironic aspect to Lundberg’s epistemological subjectivism, because he uses it to refute the romantic view that the subject matter of social science is subjective, arguing that distinctions between what is subjective and what is objective is not given in the data. He says that objectivity is not given in things, but in those ways of responding that can be corroborated by other persons. He seems unaware that corroboration to establish objectivity or intersubjectivity is itself quite problematic for any subjectivist philosophy of knowledge.
Curiously Lundberg’s version of positivism includes rejection of the naturalistic philosophy of the semantics of language. In discussing measurement he rejects any distinction between natural and artificial units for measurement, and he argues that like physicists, sociologists must recognize that all units are artificial linguistic constructs symbolizing human responses to aspects of the universe relevant to particular problems. This rejection of the naturalistic philosophy of the semantics of language absolves him from any need to characterize the observational basis of science. He thus evades a difficult problem for a social or behavioral science attempting to implement the phenomenalist thesis of the positivist physicist or chemist. Social behavior is not easily described in terms of phenomenal shapes, colors, sounds, or other purportedly elementary sense data. More importantly Lundberg’s artifactual thesis of semantics is strategic to his agenda for rejecting the view that sociology has a distinctive subject matter, i.e., distinctive in its subjective nature, since human knowledge does not immediately apprehend the nature of things. But rejection of the naturalistic semantics undercuts Lundberg’s agenda of eliminating vocabulary referencing subjective experience as opposed to observably objective behavior. His philosophy of the semantics of language does not admit his subjective/objective distinction.
Lundberg offers several statements of the aim of science. In one statement he says that the primary function of all science is to formulate the sequences that are observable in any phenomena, in order to be able to predict their recurrence. In another he says that the goal of all science is the formulation of valid and verifiable principles as laws comprehending with the greatest parsimony all the phenomena of that aspect of the cosmos which is under consideration. He defines a scientific law in turn as a verifiable generalization within measurable degrees of accuracy of how certain events occur under stated conditions, and he defines a theory as a deductive system of laws. A central thesis in Lundberg’s agenda for a natural science approach to sociology is that scientific law in social science means exactly what it means in natural sciences. He therefore rejects any distinctive type of scientific law based on verstehen, and he says that understanding in his sense is not a method of research, but rather is the end to which the methods aim. Lundberg’s philosophy of scientific criticism is verificationist, and in his textbook he defined law as a verified hypothesis.
Lundberg offers several statements on the nature of scientific explanation, the topic in which he is most fundamentally at variance with the romantic sociologists. He says that something is explained or understood, when the situation is reduced to elements and to correlations among the elements, which are so familiar that they are accepted as a matter of course, such that curiosity is then put to rest. And he defines an “element” as any component that is not in need of further explanation. Another of his statements is given in terms of his thesis of “frames of reference”. Problematic data are said to be explained when they are incorporated into previously established habitual systems of response, which constitute frames of reference. When this is accomplished, the new observations are said to have “meaning” and to be “understood.” Consistent with his rejection of naturalistic semantics he says that frames of reference are not inherent in the universe, but are pure constructions made for our convenience. He states that the scientist’s interest in a problem requiring a response defines the categories in terms of which he reports his experience. When the scientist seeks an explanation, he seeks to associate data reporting the problematic experience with his familiar knowledge as described by his established habitual systems of response, which is the relevant frame of reference.
The frame of reference Lundberg considers appropriate for a natural science of social phenomena is behaviorism. In his Foundations he references a passage from Robert K. Merton’s “Durkheim’s Division of Labor” in American Journal of Sociology (1934), a relatively early work in Merton’s literary corpus, in which Merton states that on the positivist thesis, which says that science deals only with empirical facts, a science of social phenomena becomes impossible, since it relegates to limbo all ends, i.e., subjective anticipations of future occurrences. But Lundberg replies that this view fails to recognize that anticipated ends in the sense of conscious prevision exist as words or other symbols to which the organism responds, just as it does to other stimuli to action. In the behavioristic framework words are entities that are just as objective as physical things. No relevant data, even those designated by such words as “mind” or “spiritual” are excluded from science, if these words are manifest in human behavior of any observable kind. Like most positivists, Lundberg is unaware that the meaning of “observable” is philosophically quite problematic.
Later in his Can Science Save Us? he further comments about the word “motives” in relation to frames of reference. He says that “motives” is a word used to designate those circumstances to which it seems reasonable to attribute a behavior, and that therefore it can have different meanings depending on the frame of reference in which it is used. Lundberg believes that of all reference frames the scientific frame of reference has proved to be the most successful for human adjustment to the environment.
The type of explanation that he explicitly advocates for sociology is what he calls the “field” type, which he also calls relational and situational. He opposes this type to those that refer to unexplained innate traits of social agents. He compares the idea of field to the idea of space as it is used in geography and ecology. The geographer describes behavior in terms of symbolic indices such as birth rates, death rates, and delinquency rates, for a geographical region, and then he correlates these indices. The transition from an ecological map representing delinquency rates as gradients to an organizational or functional representation for sociology involves a transition from a geographical to a social “space” and from a pictorial to a more abstract symbolic representation such as functional equations relating measurements. In “Social Bookkeeping”, the concluding chapter of Social Research, Lundberg notes that national demographic statistics have routinely been collected, and that social scientists have made successful objective generalizations on the basis of these data. He maintains that quantitative sociological laws can be just as objective as demographic generalizations.
In the concluding “Epilogue” chapter of the 1964 edition of his Foundations Lundberg describes similarities between Parsons’ sociology and that of Stuart Dodd. Dodd was chairman of the Sociology Department at the American University in Beruit, Lebanon. Lundberg takes Dodd’s work to be exemplary of the natural science approach in sociology, and Dodd describes his Dimensions of Society: A Quantitative Systematics for the Social Sciences (1942) as a “companion volume” to Lundberg’s Foundations, which Dodd reports he had sent to Lundberg for prepublication criticism. This book and its sequel, Systematic Social Science: A Dimensional Sociology (1947), describe a social theory called the “S-theory”, which implements Lundberg’s philosophy of science. Dodd’s 1942 text contains a distinctive notational system for elaborately describing social “situations” in terms of four “dimensions”: the demographic, the cultural, the ecological, and the temporal. The 1947 text contains representations for eleven social institutions. But the symbols in this notational system serve principally as a kind of shorthand, and seem not to be subject to mathematical computation or any transformation, as are mathematically expressed theories in natural science. American sociologists did not accept Dodd’s unworkable S-theory.
Parsons and Lundberg Compared
Parsons and Lundberg offer surprising ironies in their ersatz philosophies of science. Each for reasons of his own surpassed the naturalistic thesis of the semantics of language that is commonly found in both the positivist and the romanticist traditions in philosophy, and in this respect each had surpassed the academic philosophers of science who were contemporary to them in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Both of them affirm an artifactual thesis of semantics, the view that the semantics of language is a cultural artifact rather than a product of nature. In this respect these social scientists enjoy the benefit of a professional perspective uncommon at the time relative to the academic philosophers preoccupied with the philosophy of physics. Unfortunately, however, neither Parsons nor Lundberg exploited the implications of their philosophically superior view of semantics, because each brought his own agenda to his ersatz philosophizing efforts, which in each case is incompatible with the artifactual-semantics thesis and realism.
Lundberg arrived at his artifactual-semantics thesis at the expense of realism, because he carried forward a subjectivist epistemology from the positivist philosophy. And his fidelity to positivism cost him any basis for the objectivity that he thought justifies his natural-science agenda for social science. Historically the positivist basis for objectivity with the subjectivist epistemology is the naturalistic-semantics thesis of language. The copy theory of knowledge is an old example of a strategy for objectivity with the subjectivist phenomenalist epistemology. Bridgman’s operational definition is a more contemporary epistemology, which ironically Lundberg calls upon as the basis for his view that the gap between the subjective responses constituting sensory experience and the objective real world is mediated by an inferential process consisting of operational definitions. Operational definitions are not inferential, do not establish realism, and are based on the naturalistic view of semantics.
Parsons arrived at his artifactual-semantics thesis in a more sophisticated manner, when he said that all observation is in terms of a conceptual scheme, and when he said that there is a relativity or selectivity in the conceptual scheme resulting from the value relevance or interest of the scientist. This relativism is consistent with the artifactual-semantics thesis, and is not consistent with the naturalistic-semantics that says the information in concepts is absolutely fixed and predetermined by nature and/or by the processes of perception. Furthermore Parsons’ approach to the artifactual-semantics thesis is consistent with his realistic epistemology, which he calls “analytical realism.” Analytical realism enables scientific observation to describe aspects of the real world with semantics supplied by the value-relevant conceptual scheme. Thus Parsons’ philosophy of science is truly postpositivist, as he had claimed, and it suggests the contemporary pragmatist theses of relativized semantics and ontological relativity.
But there is a problem, which he attempted to finesse: the artifactual-semantics thesis cannot support his agenda for a voluntaristic theory of social action. This agenda requires a naturalistic-semantics thesis that would enable Parsons to say that such aspects of reality as ends, norms, or motives are not observable in human behavior, but are causes that the social scientist must impute from reflection on his own experience, that is by verstehen. In order to implement his agenda, Parsons says that the relativism introduced by value relevance obtains within the frames of reference for the natural sciences and for voluntaristic action, but cannot obtain between them. And on this basis he distinguishes empirical generalizations about human behavior appropriate for natural sciences from the “analytical laws” appropriate to the action frameworks formed by verstehen. This thesis is ad hoc and inconsistent with the artifactual-semantics thesis for language.
The claim made by Parsons that ends, norms, and motives are not observable is erroneous, and it is not erroneous due to behaviorism, as Lundberg maintains. Contrary to Lundberg behaviorism is also dependent on a naturalistic-semantics thesis of language. Parsons’ claim is erroneous because all observation is in terms of a conceptual scheme, and this means that there is an intellectual component in observation supplied by the linguistic context constituting the conceptual scheme. Contemporary pragmatists, such as Hanson, have expressed this by saying that observation is “theory-laden.” Popper also expressed this by saying that observation is “theory-impregnated.” And Einstein asserted the same thesis when he told Heisenberg that theory decides what the physicist can observe. The electron was observable by Heisenberg in the Wilson cloud chamber because his quantum theory supplied the conceptual scheme that contributed to the intelligibility for the observed electron’s track.
Similarly the verstehen interpretation supplied by the romantic sociologist is no less contributing to the semantics of the language describing observed human behavior than the quantum theory is to the semantics of the observation report of the tracks in the Wilson cloud chamber. Parsons noted that Weber required that the causal imputation by verstehen be checked by reference to a logically consistent system of concepts, which Parsons says is equivalent to the situation in the natural sciences where immediate sense perception must be incorporated into a system of theoretical knowledge. But on the pragmatist view it is the whole theoretical system of beliefs including the verstehen analytical laws that is subject to being “checked” by empirical testing.
Both Weber and Parsons seem to have failed to see that there can be no requirement for the verstehen concept of causality in the sciences of human behavior, just as there is no requirement for the Newtonian or Aristotelian concepts of causality in the natural sciences. Weber’s and Parsons’ attempt to impose such a requirement as a condition for causal explanation in social science, is now recognized to be a fallacy: the fallacy of demanding semantical and ontological criteria for scientific criticism. On the contemporary pragmatist philosophy of science only the empirical criterion may operate in scientific criticism. The artifactual-semantics thesis makes all ontologies as dispensable as the empirical theories that describe those ontologies, and it makes all theories subject only to empirical criticism without regard to how improbable or counterintuitive the empirically adequate theories may seem.
Sociologists are inevitably naïve philosophers of science. But Lundberg was more than naïve; he was muddled. Given the negligible track record of sociology as a science, his motivation for adopting positivism to model sociology on the natural sciences is understandable. But his Pickwickian positivist philosophy of science is not understandable in the sense of excusable. Positivism was a poor choice from the outset. Its epistemology confronts the scientist with abundant pitfalls, and the more deeply Lundberg became ensnared, the more convoluted and muddled became his efforts to escape them. He succeeded only in obscure and incoherent eclecticism. Nonetheless his proposal for functional equations relating measurements places him ahead of his time and in this respect superior to the romantics both then and now, who are preoccupied with social-psychological “mechanisms” consisting of motivational analyses.
The METAMODEL System Applied to Sociology
The acid test of a theory is prediction, and for a discovery system prediction is production beyond the current boundaries. Thus Hickey tested his METAMODEL discovery system by applying it to contemporary sociology, to predict and thereby to produce a new sociological theory that is empirically superior to any currently available. In 1976, three years after he developed his METAMODEL discovery system, Hickey used the system to develop a functionalist macrosociometric theory of the American national society estimated from historical time series describing fifty years of American history. He submitted his pragmatist project as a paper setting forth his macrosociometric model and his findings to four sociological journals, all of which rejected the paper. The paper, “A Quantitative-Functionalist Theory of Macrosocial Change in the American National Society” is reproduced in “Appendix I”. The paper was rewritten in the successive submissions, but the model itself is unchanged from the first submission. The referees’ stated reasons for rejection together with Hickey’s rejoinders are given in “Appendix II”.
One central thesis of Hickey’s paper is that a distinctively macrosociological perspective is needed to address the interinstitutional relations that structure macrosocial change. This is a repeat of the experience of economists in the 1930’s, when they found that a distinctively macroeconomic perspective is needed to address the sector relations that structure the business cycle. The romantic philosophy of science, which still prevails in sociology, explains the creation of institutions by social-psychological “mechanisms” of socialization and social control, but these cannot explain the interinstitutional pattern of macrosocial changes. The macrosociological perspective is therefore incomprehensible to most academic sociologists including the editors and referees that attempted to critique Hickey’s submission to the sociology journals. Those sociologists dogmatically demand a romantic analysis of motives, which is a social-psychological reductionist agenda.
Hickey finds Merton’s concept of functionalism emphasizing objective consequences over subjective motives to be more enabling for quantitative analyses in the macrosociological perspective than the romantics’ social-psychological reductionism to motivational analyses. More importantly he found the pragmatist philosophy of science to be enabling and the romantic philosophy of science to be retarding for academic sociology.
A Pragmatist Critique of Academic Sociology’s Weltanschauung
This and the following section are relevant to philosophy of science in both the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, because they illustrate how enforcement of romanticism has retarded the maturation of academic sociology into an empirical science. These sections are a philosophical pathology disclosing how both sociology’s romantic social-psychological reductionist agenda and its anachronistic positivist concept of scientific theory sometimes incorrectly called “formal” theory have impeded the development of quantitative analysis and obstructed computational theory construction.
Just as medical pathologists study diseased subjects to understand better the functioning of healthy organisms, so too philosophers of science can and do make pathological examinations of retarding dysfunctionalities in astrology or sociology, in order to understand better the productive functioning of successful sciences. Appendix II, “Rejections and Rejoinders”, reports the referees’ attempted criticisms that the editors of the journals referenced to reject Hickey’s paper, which is displayed in Appendix I. Appendix II is a pathological diagnosis of sociology’s retarding dysfunctions. Hickey has retained the postal receipts and the dated original correspondences to document his priority as well as the original texts of the criticisms of the referees.
The issues exposed herein pertain to contemporary academic sociology’s chronic legitimacy crisis: Is sociology real science or pseudoscience? The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards a Nobel Prize for economics and for the physical and life sciences, but the Academy understandably has never awarded their Prize for sociology. Clearly – and understandably – the Academy does not recognize sociology as a valid science. The referee criticisms sent to Hickey by the editors are interesting historically because they are original documents exhibiting the criteria that are operative in academic sociology’s institutionalized Weltanschauung. Hickey’s rejoinders had no effect on the decisions of the editors, but contrary to these editors Hickey regards his paper as still worthy of publication as of this writing forty years after it was first submitted. He also affirms that his rejected paper was not a Trojan Horse intended to be an exposé of the technical incompetence and philosophical obduracy of academic sociologists, even if their referee criticisms and editor decisions are embarrassing for their academic occupation. But for all journal editors serving retarded academic occupations like sociology, Hickey offers a parody of Virgil’s belated advice to the unfortunate Trojans: “Beware of philosophers of science bearing contributions”, to which Hickey adds, “especially if they publish the incompetent reasons for rejection.”
By way of preface to Appendix II Hickey makes the following comments: Consider firstly the sociologists’ technical incompetence. Before constructing his national macrosociological theory with his METAMODEL discovery system, Hickey undertook an extensive search of the academic sociological literature to determine what factors should govern his selection of the sociologically relevant time series for inputs to his system for constructing a macrosociometric model. He also wanted an example of the writing style used in sociology for reporting findings from such modeling analyses. In his literature search he could find no precedent for his dynamic macrosociometric longitudinal model. Empirical work in sociology consists almost exclusively of survey research by written questionnaires, interviews and casual observation. One consequence is that any sociologist selected by an editor to be a critic could not reference any previously published models much less one that was empirically superior to Hickey’s.
Another consequence of the unprecedented character of Hickey’s macrosociometric model is that it reveals that academic sociologists are not educationally prepared to cope with the mathematics in Hickey’s model. Hickey’s professional education is in economics as well as philosophy. Since the publication in 1939 of “Interactions between the Multiplier Analysis and the Principles of Acceleration” in Review of Economics and Statistics by 1970 Nobel-laureate economist Paul Samuelson, multi-equation longitudinal models like Hickey’s have become a staple technique in mathematical economics and econometrics. And as early as 1933 the 1969 Nobel-laureate economist Ragnar Frisch first introduced the concept of shock simulations, which Hickey used to exhibit his findings and draw his conclusions.
Sociologists’ technical competence is pedestrian, because the needed skills are not taught in the sociology curriculum. Any undergraduate economics student sufficiently motivated to search Historical Statistics of the U.S. and issues of the U.S. Statistical Abstract in a public library or a college library could replicate Hickey’s model and simulations. But the sociology referees were suspicious of the findings drawn from the simulation and shock analyses in Hickey’s paper, and ignorantly dismissed the paper as “unconvincing”. The sociologists deemed by the editors to qualify as referees for Hickey’s paper are too incompetent ever to be convinced. And Hickey found no evidence that the editors who selected them are any better.
Consider secondly the sociologists’ philosophical inadequacies. When referees do not know what to do in their attempts to cope, they do what they know, whatever it may be. And what the sociologists know is romantic social-psychological reductionism, which even today often involves verstehen criticism, i.e., what the particular critic finds empathetically “convincing”. The editors of sociology’s academic journals reject submitted papers that their chosen referees criticize as “surprising”, “amazing”, “bizarre” or “nontraditional”, and accept only conformist hackwork that their referees say are “convincing” and “traditional”, empiricism be damned. Authors like Hickey, who are not content merely to repeat platitudinous conventional wisdom, find their submissions rejected, and are labeled “ambitious”. The ersatz philosophy of science enforced in conformist academic sociology is consequently so intellectually inbred and isolated that sociology’s information pool is as degenerate as the gene pool of an incestuous hereditary dynasty. As a result academic sociology has become intellectually sterile, recognizably decadent, and practically impotent for social policy.
Inevitably as its decadence has become evident, romantic sociology is exhibiting classic Sturm und Drang. In his “Sociology’s Long Decade in the Wilderness” Joseph Berger reported in the New York Times (28 May 1989) that universities such as the University of Rochester, New York, and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, have disbanded their sociology departments, and that the National Science Foundation has drastically cut back funding for sociological research. A graphic display in this New York Times article shows that since the 1970’s the number of bachelors degrees awarded with majors in sociology has declined by nearly eighty percent, the number of sociology masters degrees by sixty percent, and the number of sociology doctorate degrees by forty percent. Admittedly demand for sociology Ph.D. degrees is influenced by many factors not specific to sociology, such as cyclical and secular changes in economic conditions and changes in the general population’s size and demographic profile. But the effects of such extraneous factors can be filtered by relating the number of sociology doctorates to the number of doctorates in other fields. Data for earned doctorates in the sciences are available from the United States Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Graphs of the percent of earned doctorates in sociology (1) relative to the number of earned doctorates in economics and (2) relative to the number of earned doctorates in physics manifestly corroborate the secular decline of academic sociology reported by Berger in the New York Times.
The recent graduate with a Ph.D. in sociology today finds that there is little demand for what he has to teach, and may expect that he must pursue another occupation to earn a living. Recently in “Education for Unemployment” Margaret Wente reported in the Globe and Mail (15 May 2012) that there are currently three sociology graduates for every sociology job opening, and she concludes that sociology students have been “sold a bill of goods”. Truly any student who assumes heavy financial debt for an academic degree in sociology is tragically naïve; he has mortgaged his future earnings for a white elephant. And she also lamented the fate of sociology professors who are fooled into believing that they might have a shot at the ever-shrinking tenure track, and who even if successful will merely be “masters of pulp fiction”.
The incestuous peer-reviewed literature is a filter that only perpetuates sociology’s inbred decadence. Were a recent graduate with a Ph.D. in sociology lucky enough to find any academic employment but submitted a paper setting forth a thesis that is contrary to the dominant social-psychological reductionism, he will find that no sociology journal will accept the submitted paper. Quality control in academic sociology is actually social control as described approvingly by the sociologist Warren O. Hagstrom in his The Scientific Community (1965). And were the rejected author so audacious as to submit rebuttals to the referees, he will likely find himself reading a contemptuously dismissive rejection letter as exemplified by a rejection letter Hickey received from William H. Form, the editor of the American Sociological Review. In the rejection letter Form sent Hickey, Form references the “folkways of the profession” saying that it is not “normative” for an article to be resubmitted once it is rejected, and claiming that otherwise an editor would spend his life rereviewing the same manuscript. Hickey believes that Form’s view of “normative” editorial practice is fatuously distorted. Janice M. Beyer reports in her article titled “Editorial Policies and Practices among Leading Journals in Four Scientific Fields” in the Sociological Quarterly (1978) that her survey of editors of several leading academic journals reveals that for sociological journals the percent of accepted papers that had been resubmitted to journals is forty-three percent. Hickey believes that contrary to Form’s statement, Form often published resubmitted papers.
Berger also quotes Stephen Buff, identified in the article as Assistant Executive Director of the American Sociological Association, as saying that sociology suffers from not being well defined in the public mind, and that sociology is confused either with social work or with socialism. But contrary to Buff’s excuses public opinion is not operative in these decisions made against academic sociology. Decisions to enroll or not to enroll in sociology graduate schools are made by undergraduate majors in sociology; decisions to support or close sociology departments are made by well informed university administrators; and the funding decisions of the National Science Foundation are made by staff members who are among the best informed in the nation. The cause of the unfavorable assessment of academic sociology originates within sociology itself; it does not lie with an ignorant general public.
Berger then quotes professor Egon Mayer, a Brooklyn College sociologist, who said that sociologists are still teaching what they taught in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but are not as convinced now that it is worth teaching, and are not quite sure what should replace it. And here is the crux of the problem: if academic sociology were to purge its ranks of its reactionary traditionalism, they simply have is nothing to replace it, because sociologists are literally too ignorant.
In a more recent New York Times OP-ED article (21 July 2013) titled “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences” Yale University sociologist and cognitive scientist Nicholas A. Christakis, co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, wrote that while the natural sciences are evolving, the social sciences have stagnated, as manifested by the fact that social sciences offer the same set of university departments and disciplines that they have for the last nearly one-hundred years, thereby constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling creation of new and useful knowledge. He wrote that such inertia reflects insecurity and conservatism, and helps to explain why social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences. Hickey maintains that sociologists must firstly adopt the pragmatist philosophy of science with its empirical criteria, discard their romantic dogmatism of social-psychological reductionism, and focus on the outcomes of social behaviors instead of explanations describing motivational “mechanisms”.
In a letter “To The Editor” published in the New York Times (29 July 2013) Constance A. Nathanson of Columbia University took “strong exception” to Christakis’ demand that social scientists “reinvent” themselves as “half-baked natural scientists”. Hickey comments that sociologists need not reinvent themselves for their occupation to become “half-baked”; sociology already is and has been “half-baked” for a very long time. In another letter “To the Editor” in the same New York Times issue Stony Brook University sociology professor Michael Kimmel is blatantly romantic. He says Christakis would shake up the social sciences by “myopically turning them into a subsidiary of the natural sciences”. He claims that the “strength” of social science lies in its rôle as “a bridge between science and other pillars of the liberal arts” concerned with “interpretation and meanings”. Hickey comments that doctrinaire fidelity to this purported “strength” is a disabling flaw that has greatly retarded sociology’s maturation into a competent and productive empirical science.
The retarding effect of sociology’s romantic dogmatism and social-psychological reductionist agenda is not limited to academia. Sociology had once been expected to serve as a guide for the formulation of effective social policy. But its neglect of unforeseen outcomes demonstrated its impotence in applied sociology. Berger’s New York Times article cites disillusionment resulting from the failures of the Great Society programs of the 1960’s, and reports that sociologists have since lost Federal funding, must scale down their projects, forsake new inquiries, and disguise their work as anything-but-sociology.
Likewise in his Limits of Social Policy (1988) Nathan Glazer, Harvard University professor of sociology and formerly an urban sociologist in the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency during the Administration of President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson writes that the optimistic vision of sociology guiding policy by use of its knowledge has faded considerably. Glazer observes that in trying to deal with the breakdown of traditional structures and particularly the family, social policies have weakened them further and have made conditions worse. He cites the welfare system, which undergoes continual expansion and repeated correction with input from social scientists, but which nonetheless damages the family, fosters family breakup, and encourages fathers to abandon children – even though many of the changes in the system were designed to overcome just these untoward outcomes. He notes that due to ignorance such unintended outcomes occasioned rejection of the government’s attempts at social engineering. As Merton has stated, motivational analyses cannot account for unintended outcomes.
Sociologists’ doctrinairism has indeed kept them ignorant. However, sociology’s failure in the crucible of real-world social policy is not due merely to ignorance that can be remedied by more research in compliance with romantic philosophical dogmatism and its social-psychological reductionist doctrinairism. Sociologists will never understand these symptoms of their failure, until they recognize the pathogen infecting their own professional culture that operates in their criteria for criticism and imposes a priori restrictions on theorizing. As it happens, the eighth chapter of Glazer’s book “’Superstitions’ and Social Policy” is an exposé of sociologists’ failure to recognize latent functions and unintended outcomes, and it amounts to a vindication of Merton’s theorem of social engineering.
Academic sociologists will perpetually fail to contribute to effective social policy as long as they accept only “formal” theories that reduce to motivational social-psychological “mechanisms”, much less to romantic theories that “make substantive sense” in compliance with the verstehen criterion. They will fail as long as they ignore romantically inexplicable latent functions and suppress publication of empirically superior theories that seem “surprising”, “amazing” or “bizarre” relative to the sociologist’s platitudinous verstehen; and most importantly as long as contemporary pragmatism remains a terra incognita to academic sociologists. And they will also fail to establish their profession as a contributing and modern empirical science instead of a philosophically retrograde academic occupation parasitical on a halo effect from their universities’ reputations. Twentieth-century academic sociology is a caricature of real science that has earned its chronic legitimacy problem. And to date the twenty-first century looks no better.
The optimism of the 1960’s Great Society social programs, to which Glazer referred, has long ago passed into history, even as sociologists continue to bundle romanticism and social-psychological reductionism into their criteria for scientific criticism at the expense of empiricism. Glazer’s use of the term “optimism” in his Limits of Social Policy is an understatement. Today only a government of incorrigibly naїve Candides would again entrust sociologists with a guiding rôle in the formulation of social policy. Before Panglossian professors of sociology can restore their credibility with policy administrators, they must overcome their philosophical dogmatism. They would greatly benefit were they to accept contemporary pragmatism, which rejects a priori commitment to any semantics or ontology – romantic or positivist – as a criterion for scientific criticism. Contemporary pragmatists recognize relativized semantics and ontological relativity, because they make acceptance of any semantics or ontology depends only on a theory’s empirical adequacy. And this requires that sociologists must heed Merton’s admonition and look to testable outcomes instead of motivations.