Category Archives: social sciences

Social Science Research and Categories

Humans, by nature, seem to have an urge to explain what goes on around them. It is this urge that lead to questions in metaphysics, which eventually turned to natural philosophy and then fragemented to its present day avatars of the various natural and social sciences and the humanities.

Some parts of our experience have turned out to be not very hard to explain — physics was thought finished until Einstein came along, and anyways most of relativity and quantum mechanics are not part of our everyday experience. Chemistry also seems quite well established. Biology is where we start feeling uncomfortable, since evolution by its very nature ensures that we can never know all the facts ever. Even understanding the physics of cells in their entirety has proved to be a challenge to this day. Maybe eventually we’ll get there, but it does not seem it will be as easy or the theory will be as clean as classical mechanics or thermodynamics.

The place we get even more uncomfortable is when we start studying human beings. One of the problems is that if we consider the human being as a box, the things external to the box cannot be left out during analysis. An electron will work in the same way here or in Mars, but humans (indeed, most living beings) are relational entities, and our behavior is dependent on things related to us, human and non-human, material and non-material (like emotions). Due to the fact that we have a memory and try to predict the future, some relations are with entities not even present at this very moment. Thus, it is not simply about data, but the context surrounding the data which matters when studying people or life in general. This is what we mean when we say that we lead meaningful lives.

The normal road that any human explanatory endeavour takes is to observe something, make a hypothesis about what the underlying phenomenon could be, see if it explains observations and the iterate this process. So, if I take a one kg stone and throw it many times and see how fast travels, maybe I can come up with F = ma. Maybe from this somehow I can figure out Newton’s laws as being sufficient to describe it. Newton’s laws don’t exist outside your head — they are simply how you explain what is happening. To paraphrase my professor, the stone does not follow any laws, you laws explain well enough to you what is happening to the stone.

Mathematically, one can think of this as an inversion problem — you are given certain obervables y = f(x), and you have to figure out what x is. All inversion problems have two issues — you do not have sufficient y's observed to make any conclusions, which is easily rectified, or the functionf is not one-one and onto, i.e, there does not exist a unique inverse. Thus we come to a situation where f^{-1}(y) = x_1 = x_2. Very often in the social sciences, this will be the case — any behavior that you observe can have a large variety of possible explanations. The way you would solve this problem if it was mathematically posed was to put constraints on the behavior of f(.) — it cannot do this, it cannot go there, etc., and gradually eliminate the possibilities. The way this is done in the social sciences is to invoke a ‘framework’. For example, an economist believes that we are homo economicus, and suddenly greed is the only motivator for most human actions. Similarly, a Marxist historian believes that all history is the war between classes (which comes from Hegel) and classes are formed mainly due to economic processes (which was Marx’s contribution). Again, a lot of alternative explanations are rubbished, and a smooth (if somewhat long and tedious) explanation comes out.

The way any framework develops in social science is not straightforward — normally critics of one framework write books or theses criticising it. It develops within a particular historical, cultural and social context, and explains best what happens within this context. So, one can probably understand more about 19th century Vienna from Freud’s theories than about human nature — definitely not a place I would like to be in! Similarly, the outrage against Marxist interpretations of Indian history is not because Marxist historians are perverting the truth, it is just that we are not used to seeing ourselves from a economic/classist lens. Unfortunately, Marxists don’t seem to think anything else exists, and that makes the problem even worse.

Any science, by virtue of its attempt at uncovering universal truths, will try and extrapolate from local experience to global analysis. This extrapolation necessarily worries only about what is common to all, and not the particularities. When one civilisation tries to study another, especially one as maddeningly complex as the Indian one, it becomes hard to know what it is exactly that one has learned. To take a trivial example, Europeans were probably the only civilisation that used benches and stools and tables to sit and to eat. Thus, travellers to other civilisations looked upon the practice of sitting on the floor as ‘animal like’. Similarly, change was more the norm in Europe from a very long time, and this makes more conservative civilisations like our own to look upon them as ‘rootless’.

It is because of these problems that any attempt to understand a people must be from their own terms. The end product of such a study must first and foremost be comprehensible to the people that are being studied, else the most important maxim of any science — to explain what humans experience, as opposed to explaining away what we experience — is violated. M. N. Srinivas is someone who comes readily to mind when I bring up this point. Though he attempted to understand all rituals and traditions in terms of their function in holding the social structure aloft (which need not be the case), i.e, from a social anthropology perspective, his analytical categories are very much Indian, and that is what has made his work all the more valuable as a mirror to ourselves.

The Subject-Object distinction

A basic ontological position that is taken up in the quest for knowledge is that of  Subject and Object. The Subject is the Observer, the Object the Observed, and there has to be a definite distinction between both. Once this is setup, the observer uses some means of acquiring knowledge about the observed, be it meditation, divine revelation or the new-fangled thing called the scientific method. The knowledge acquired about the Object, through a means that is independent of the Subject is thus ‘objective knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is supposed to reflect reality as it truly is, without contamination by the biases of the observer.

It is easy to see why the scientific method of repeated observation and experimentation is the preferred mode knowledge acquisition – God apparently reveals to people of every religion that theirs is the true religion or that theirs is the superior religion, and obviously not everyone can be right, i.e, there is some ‘contamination’. Of course, the previous statement implicity assumes that there is actually a single reality, but without that assumption, one falls into the critical theory mire, which to me is the worse of the two alternatives. Thus, the scientific method, atleast in theory, can be relied upon to produce subject independent knowledge about some object.

The crucial thing, again, is the fact that we must be able to provide a clear separation between the observer and the observed for this to work. Without this separation, the scientific method is as good as divine revelation. There are quite a few objects that are amenable to this separation – the solar system, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, ice-cream, among other things. However, there are certain objects that do not allow such a distinction (Of course, you cannot call it an object anymore, but Im retaining the nomenclature and discarding the ontological connotation).

For example, the stock market – If someone gives you ‘objective knowledge’ that there is a good chance of the stock market crashing and you pass on that information and you and your friends selling all your holdings triggering a crash, there is absolutely no way of telling whether the crash would have happened if you did not know that it would happen. Another example would be the ‘study of the Self’ – If you figure out through psychoanalysis or meditation or something else that ‘humans are essentially xyz’, and you begin to see yourself acting (or trying to act) in that manner, it is difficult to gauge whether behavior follows the statement or vice versa. This is not to say that humans are not xyz, but whether they are only xyz. If someone subscribes to the Freudian prescription of  the mating instinct dominating our actions or the Christian one that Man is incomplete without God’s grace, and tries to interpret his everyday action through such a framework, then he is likely to see that everything ‘fits’. But it is evident that there is no way that this is objective knowledge.

The previous paragraphs can be considered as a very short summary J. Krishnamurti’s line of thinking – that there exist situations where the subject-object distinction does not hold and thus statments about objectivity or subjectivity make no sense. The critical theorists in addressing the same issue come to the conclusion that everything is subjective – made famous by the statment ‘ Death of the Author’, but the issue to me cannot be interpreted from the subject-object perspective – the negation of objectivity need not only be subjectivity but also lack of both.

Take the example of a drama – one may imagine that there is a clear distinction here between the observer and the observed. But if one takes another look, the drama is written and produced keeping the audience in mind, for otherwise there is no point in it being performed, and thus the audience is also part of the play – the observer is also the observed. The drama, as it unfolds, is a dialogue between the performers and the audience and can thus be interpreted only as a whole. A ‘flop’ is one which fails to bring about this unity, with the dramatist complaining about how backward his audiences are. The drama is simply not situated within the correct context, which alienates the audience from the drama.

Similar questions arise in other places as well – can historical records and religious texts be interpreted by an observer who is not also the observed ? In India, the interpretation of history is a huge controversy. But neither the Hindutva glorification of the spiritual nor the Marxist focus on the material can do justice, since neither ‘lives’ the history – it is an exercise in textual interpretation. The only true history can come from someone who actually lives it. Similarly, atheists/rationalists tearing apart religious texts serves little more than angering others.

Another interesting place to look at is music. It is well known that most classical music is also religious music – some of the finest music has been in the praise of God (regardless of definition). Is is possible to appreciate Handel or Tyagaraja without sharing the intense experience of divinity (again, regardless of how you define divinity) that lead to the actual creation of the music ? Bland technical music criticism leads to a ‘fossilization’ of the music just as textual criticism of religion only shows a religion that is ‘dead’ – both lead to unnatural and normally harmful ideas of  ‘purity’ which do not allow any evolution of the object under scrutiny. A true purist will try and maintain continuity rather than stasis – not hinder evolution, but participate in deciding its direction.

This question is more important now than ever, given that natural scientists and engineers are called to take on the burden of examining and interpreting phenomena that are complex beyond comparison to the objects of study which they initially started off with, which decided their methodology. Unless we evolve new ways to understand reality, all we will be doing is tuning zillions of parameters, looking for an Objective Model of the World.

Bridging Nature and Humanity

I personally find it quite strange to think of humans as apart from nature and vice versa, but after many interactions with people who think otherwise, it seems that I’m in a minority. If evolution is to be believed, we as a species (Dawkins would say individuals!) have evolved mechanisms to improve our survival rate, to the extent that we are now the most dominant species in terms of geographical reach and resource use.

However, our genes seem to have forgotten to encode limiting behavior, atleast with respect to resource utilization, which would enable us to live sustainably. Therefore, we have to resort to non-biological notions like stewardship and animal rights to keep ourselves in check. From where such notions arise, one really does not know. Nevertheless, questions in ethics, epistemology and ontology have interested us as much as questions in physics, math or chemistry.

Ancient scholarship, both Western and Eastern, never viewed either category as seperate from the other and, to quote a friend, did both physics and metaphysics. It is only recently that our world view has taken a schizophrenic turn, looking at billiard balls using differential equations (bottom-up) and guiding human behavior using teleology (top-down). It has been notoriously hard to reconcile these world views and thus each developed practically independent of the other.

No doubt, there have been attempts by one to encroach upon the other’s turf. Dawkins and like minded compatriots went one way, while the Christian Right in USA and Astrology try going the other. All in all, it seems unlikely that one or the other will have total dominance anytime in the near future.

Thus we are stuck with quarks on the one hand and The Goal Of Human Life on the other. For example, mainstream economics ignores nature by invoking the Axiom of Infinite Substitutability (One kind of good can always be substituted for another, thanks to human ingenuity), so if rainforests go, then we can always conjure up something to take its place. Marxist thinking takes the view that all human development is the result of economic processes, so trees and animals don’t even merit a mention – they are simply unimportant as far as human society’s development goes. On the other hand, we have climate models which put in a large amount of CO2 into the model atmosphere and see how things change, as though humans are just passive CO2 emitters who cannot recognize calamities and adapt their behavior (This seems ominously probable nowadays!). Each approach has value, no doubt, but it is obvious that neither economics nor climate modelling can actually solve the problems we face today.

One solution is for people with different outlooks to sit down and reach a consensus. My last experience with such an experiment was not very encouraging, and the recent spat between Rajendra Pachauri and Jairam Ramesh did nothing to to encourage anyone about interactions between politicians and scientists, I’m sure. The other solution, of which one is more optimistic, is for researchers to break  the new barriers and go back to a world view where one can engage with physics and metaphysics without being called a witch-doctor. Natural and social sciences are ripe for such a synthesis — we have finally reached a state where our metaphysics (explicit or otherwise) is affecting the earth’s chemistry and biology, maybe even the physics: while I don’t think we can change the Gravitational Constant anytime soon, but a few thermonuclear warheads here and there could change g=9.8 m/s2 to something substantially smaller!

Little known but impotant steps towards such a synthesis are being seen — ecological economics is bound to be mainstream before we kill ourselves, social ecology is bound to be important in the future too. Scientists seem to be getting more comfortable doing politics outside their institutions and politicians are learning some thermodynamics, thank heavens. The principle of  learning two subjects well, one closer to quarks and the other closer to the God side of the spectrum of human thought will serve researchers well in the future. Oh, and present day economics does not count on either side of the spectrum.

Epistemic limits of scientific enquiry

Had attended a talk the other day by Dr. Jayant Haritsa from the CSA department, on using textual representations of Carnatic music (Music written as Sa Ri Ga Ma etc.,) to determine what is the ‘Aarohana’ and ‘Avarohana’ (the equivalent of scale in Western music) of a given Raaga or identifying the raaga itself, given another piece of music, outside the ones used to train the identification system. Among other aims than the ones given above, was to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for the raagas, based on the statistics of usage of notes in various compositions, and maybe, provide a better Arohana/Avarohana for the raaga itself than the one received from tradition.

The talk was itself quite interesting and the system seems to do pretty well. In the Q&A session, a lot of concern was generated as to whether the ‘better’ Arohana/Avarohana proposed by the system would capture the ‘mood’ of the raaga, which seems to be an essential part of each raaga. Haritsa was of the opinion that as scientific researchers, we must not take things for granted and must try to question tradition using tools of science.

The essential issue, which one can generalize to things further than just music and its analysis, is the question of what is knowledge and/or Truth. More specifically in this context, one can ask the question as to what type of knowledge can we obtain using the scientific method, and whether this is the only kind which is ‘reliable’, the rest being ‘subjective’  is useless in a more general context, i.e, whether Truth in all its glory is best sought out using the scientific method.

Upfront, one must understand the fundamental premise of the scientific method, even leaving out its reductionist inclinations — Nature is not random: it follows some logic, some pattern which by large number of observations and/or experiments is discovered and this knowledge (from observation/experimentation) eventually can be called Truth. This is not hard to justify: we can see patterns everywhere in Nature and can build quite accurate models of the same. The reliability of scientific knowledge depends hugely on the concept of measurement – representing natural phenomena as cardinal numbers – numbers we can use to say something about the size of the measured phenomenon. No observation or experiment can be called a success/failure if it does not produce some kind of number. For example, Haritsa’s system produces a number per candidate scale for a raaga — higher the number, more likely it is the correct scale.

Immediately, one can see phenomena that the scientific method cannot be used to investigate : Emotions, ethics, likes, dislikes, etc., etc., Not only are these immeasurable (neuroscientists may disagree!) quantities, but they are also incommensurable: a statement like 2.5\times Happiness \geq 0.5\times Sadness makes absolutely no sense. Also, science can give no answers to statements like ‘The world is Maaya’, or ‘What we perceive is not what Is’. These statements belong to the same class of knowledge that the fundamental ‘axiom’ of science belongs to — you cannot prove or disprove them within the logical system that is built upon that axiom.

Now, music is a strange beast. It is highly patterned (scientists like to talk about its ‘mathematical’ structure), but at the same time, its main (probably only) value is in the emotion that it evokes: it is not coincidence that music is an essential part of religious worship, especially of the Bhakti variety. Therefore, no musical education is complete without a good understanding of both the patterns and the emotions (Bhaava) associated with music. Now, scientists are uncomfortable (or dismissive) about things they cannot measure, and musicians are uncomfortable (or dismissive!) of statistical analyses of their art. Therefore, it is not surprising to for each to value one of the two more. Haritsa’s and the audience’s apprehensions merely betrays their respective inclinations.

With the advent of huge computing power, a scientist’s optimism in understanding the universe has understandably increased. It is a common notion that failure of mathematical models is simply due to the ‘exclusion of some variable’ from the model. With more information/data, one can do arbitrarily well. This attitude conveniently ignores the fact that some quantities are not measurable and even if some quantitative representation is possible, they might be incommensurable. This can be seen best in sciences dealing with human tastes and values, like economics, sociology or anthropology. Subjects like econometrics, social psychology seem to be treading a fine line that distinguishes scientific knowledge from gobbledygook. For example, if one surveys 100 students asking them to rate the facilities at the hostel on a scale of 1 to 10, and we conclude that the average score is 8 and so most are satisfied (assume a score greater than 7 implies satisified), we are making two assumptions : we can add the satisfaction of 100 people and divide that number by 100, and that one student’s rating of 7 is the same as another student’s rating of 7. Though there have been arguments justifying such an approach, it is upto the individual to decide how seriously to take such surveys.

The dominant paradigm of our times is that of scientific optimism, and most appeals to emotion or morals are considered ‘woolly’ and ‘unscientific’. But one must realise that unless there is a healthy engagement with both pattern finding and moralising, the Truth can never emerge.

Whence the Social Sciences ? – 4: Sociology

Long time, yes, but I have not reneged on my promise to write something every week. Rather, writing has taken place in a different place. You can take a look at the appendix in this to find a more balanced argument regarding Utilitarianism in Economics, if you are inclined to actually to know something as esoteric. I was torn between writing this post or the factors for the rise of capitalism from my latest, exquisite reading, and finally settled down to write this, after keeping it in the pipeline for more than two weeks. Also, you will soon find Microeconomics notes appearing in ‘different place’, after reading all what Economics is not, thought it was time to read what it actually is. Warning, though, basic calculus required, the textbook I’m using is somewhat math-intensive. Macroeconomics, while probably more interesting for the stock market savant, will have to wait. Now, back.

Sociology has had an interesting life. Like the tussle between Capitalism and Socialism/Communism in the sibling discipline, sociology too has had its differences, notably between the liberal schools of the French and English and the German Romantics. (one thing though: the schools in economics agreed over the fact that unconstrained industrialization was the only way up, with the fight being as to who controls the means of production, i.e, the factories, whereas in sociology the divide was more fundamental, like what should sociology study)

The French and the English thinkers, notably Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim, were highly influenced by the Enlightenment, and sought to bring in scientific method into sociology. The Germans, notably Georg Simmel and Max Weber, strove to put the pre-eminence of Man in the study of sociology, i.e, society must be studied as a collection of individuals in relation to others. The west Europeans considered society to be an entity that existed independently from humans, and which followed it’s own logic. The dialectic between these lines of thought has definitely left sociology a much richer subject.

Coming to the liberals, they sought to use the scientific method to discover the laws that govern the functioning of society, which was considered to be an extra-human entity, imposing it’s will onto us poor humans. By this, they hopes, they could ‘enlighten’ the masses about the fact that ‘Resistance is Futile‘, to quote a famous quote. Comte made it very clear that spirit of enquiry and free will are illusions and once people learn the laws of society, they will necessarily get rid of such notions, since trying to go against the laws of society would be equivalent to banging one’s head against a brick wall. Needless to say, the others were not as militant in their views. Spencer used Darwinian notions of evolution (slightly before Darwin propounded them) to assert that society was the ‘survival of the fittest’. This theory was a great hit in the United States, where Spencer became the patron saint of the cult of ‘anything goes in love, war and business’, who readily identified with what seemed to perfectly describe their society in the 19th century.
Durkheim stated that society was sui generis, and society could not be said to consist of individuals. However, sociology benefited by the stress on empiricism that the scientific method brought in, especially by Durkheim (who is considered the founder of modern sociology).

The Germans, influenced as much by Romanticism as by the Enlightenment, tended to stress on the individual more than the society, and how people influenced and were influenced by the set of all people. Though they developed generalizations as well, they were not all encompassing, everything-explaining theories, but were more of the form of a characterisation of the certain types of people or structures of groups of people that were encountered. Weber’s methodology was very influential, and his influence continues to this day. The main contribution of these people was to stop the megalomania of people like Comte from seeping into what was supposed to be a objective scientific enquiry and set certain limits as to what sociology was meant to be.

Overall, if the Enlightenment removed Earth from the centre of the Universe, the sociology almost succeeded in putting Man in its centre.

Whence the Social Sciences ? – 3 : Economics.

Finally got a decent amount of time off from work and studies and all that to write some more.
Last time was some comments on method of the early social scientists, and now something more about economists in particular.

Economics, in the early stages as is now, was a means to understand the patterns in the varied economic transactions conducted by people, how some things came to be valuable, and some worthless. The times of the early economists was during when the feudal systems were slowly going out of fashion, and a new phenomenon called the market was being observed. Here, the market is not some place you go and buy your vegetables, which is but a manifestation of it, but rather in a more general sense where the three important goods, Land, Capital and Labour were to be freely sold and bought. Neither Land nor Labour were previously freely exchangeable under the feudal system.

The transition from a conservative feudal society to an upstart, sanguine capitalist society was not a smooth one, and the varied angles are described well here. The first few attempts to explain economic behaviour came from the Physiocrats and the Mercantilists. Mercantilism was taken apart later, and Physiocracy was never fully accepted. The watershed that occured was, as everyone knows, the publication of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. The book is massive, at times boring, at others highly insightful, at others hugely frustrating, but awe inspiring if you consider the amount of work that would have had to go into making a work like this. Though most of his theoritical contributions to economics are no longer accepted as they were presented by him, there is no questioning his influence on present day thinkers, a famous example being Amartya Sen. His normative doctrine about allowing people free to do things as they choose to, and removal of barriers are definitely still applicable in modern society. It is a shameful thing that many industrialists in the years following Smith used laissez-faire as an excuse to exploit people rather than working for the upbringing of society as a whole which Smith hoped for.

The notable economists who followed him were witnesses of the devastation of the poor that the factory system brought about, and were definitely of a more gloomy and less optimistic outlook.
Malthus, Marx are definitely good examples. There were also some not slightly mad personalities who dreamed of a perfect society which could be brought about, people like Saint-Simon and Fourier (not the scientist!).

Though all of these were prone to seeing grand visions of a perfect world, (except Malthus, of course, who thought people would breed faster than the earth could supply food for them, and therefore mankind would implode upon itself), there was one thing common about all of them : They were deeply concerned about the lot of the common man, and tried to find methods which would help ameliorate the plight of the masses.

Then came another watershed : Edgeworth. The man tried to mathematically study economic processes and his method became quite popular, since it dealt with numbers which don’t complain, talk back or revolt. The previous problem of studying man’s monetary associations with another was linked to solving linear algebraic systems or differential equations. The philosophy which made this possible is known as utilitarianism, and was popularised by Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer from England. It is said of Bentham, the amount good that he did in practice, was counterbalanced by his cloudy philosophising about the innate nature and urges of man. His normative doctrine goes something like this : Man has two masters, pain and pleasure. He always tries to reduce pain as much as possible, and increase pleasure as much as possible. If a man goes after anything but pleasure, he is obviously irrational, and therefore does not count. Even people dying in war, sado-masochists are after pleasure. We choose things purely because they give us pleasure. If we get x units of pleasure by acquiring one thing, and y units acquiring another, we get something like the sum of pleasures if we acquire both. Thus, what is morally right is that which gives us pleasure, and whatever causes pain is morally wrong. However, since people can have opposing desires, moral correctness for the society is that which gives maximum amount of pleasure for the maximum amount of people. He went on to give a felicific calculus that helped one calculate the sum of the pleasures of individuals to calculate the total pleasure for the society.

This philosophy, in a highly refined and sophisticated package is what is presented to us as economics. Once the trivial parts about how to add pleasures and pains and knowing the nature of man are settled, one can go about building a superstructure which will help us understand economic behavior. Now, since one accepts that pleasure is subjective, we go about converting it to an objective measure which can be measured. Veblen goes about showing how economic behavior is related to the current culture and institutions, and cannot be seen as a static process in his Limitations of Marginal Utility. Though it has had its detractors, Utilitarianism has been spectacularly successful and tenacious and survives to this day, not least because of the fact that modern economics was built on it.

Thus, we see how economics evolved from an attempt to understand economic behavior by empirical studies to modelling empirical data to form a mathematical expression which claims to explain away human uniqueness. May be there is a model for that too, who knows.

Whence the Social Sciences ? – 2 : Comments on Method and Outlook

As I had previously mentioned, the social sciences came to be heavily influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, especially the naturalist and positivist outlooks. It is in order that one takes a critical look at the methodologies and outlooks of these schools of thought and the attendant consequences.

With some thought, one can notice that the scientific methodology is steeped towards observation and verfication of facts. Now, for scientific method to be a socially acceptable system of generation of knowledge about the world, there must be one important component : reproducibility. Thus, observation and verification of facts must inevitably take the form of constructed experiments, whether they be elaborate or simple, easily reproducible or not. The results which follow and the method for obtaining the results themselves are then published and debated over. The best example for such a phenomenon is the present debate over climate change. If one set of people ( supporting Al Gore, mostly) say that we are going toward decimation, another set ( sponsored by Bush, no doubt) will say that both the method of finding facts of the opposing group and their interpretations of the same are both rubbish, and present other evidence to prove that infact, more petroleum must be burnt, preferably from those companies controlled by the American President. Another parallel is in the Open Source Software debate. Microsoft is decried for making expensive and psychologically damaging software, and Microsoft sponsors a study which shows that Open Source alternatives are much more expensive or more depressing. One thing is to be noted, however, all opposing groups claim to be committed to the same scientific method of observation and verification.

One, however, gets the feeling that both these might contain a grain of truth (unless we look from a partisan point of view), but a lack of larger amount of data is causing the confusion ( Malevolent mischief cannot be counted out, however). I remember reading in a slide of a boring presentation, to an omniscient being, there is no probability, no question of chance. Therefore, until definite information is acquired, nothing can be said. But here lies a weak link in scientific method : it is defined in a negative sense rather than in a positive sense. What I mean by this is that something is held as true only because there have been no observations to refute it. It takes only one antagonistic case to throw elaborate theories into the dustbin. This is due to the fact that most sciences deal with real life, and there is no “Theory of Everything”. The only positive proofs that one can give are only related to things which have no actual existence outside the human brain, like mathematics and computer science (CompSci can be taken as a subset of Maths). These are artificially constructed systems which sometimes (fortunately and also by design, sometimes) find applications in real life.

So, one can construct two body experiments in the lab and verify physical laws, stretch a little bit, call change of color of a solution to verify chemical laws, take a leap of faith, you can categorize all things with similar (not same!) features as part of the same species in biology. If it gets this bad in constructed experiments, one can only hope and pray to the unverifiable God that we can generalise and discover (not make, since one also hopes that there is something extra-human called society that makes the laws) laws governing society.

Indeed, the time that we are looking at consists precisely of heroic efforts trying to achieve the above. So, one says humans are brute, scum of the earth being held from destroying each other by people in power who threaten them with dire consequences, and this is the structure of society. Another says, wait a minute, humans are nice things, wanting only to maximize their own pleasure and minimizing their pains, and human society is made to help this happen. Yet another says all crap, humans are divided into classes locked in a death struggle with each other, and finally the lower classes will win. Bull, says another, humans are slowly evolving and so is society (which is taken to be an organism, like all others), and one can see what society was, is and will be by applying Darwinian principles.

And so on and so forth. It is not at all a bad thing to put forth ideas, but to put them forward in a way so as to give it a false legitimacy is what is bad. These were supposed to be ‘scientific’ opinions, put forth after their proponents delved into ‘deep study of humans and society’. Whereas nothing could be more correct than the opposite. In short, most of these propositions were a priori, and not empirically verifiable. This is the firm ‘scientific’ foundation on which our social sciences, notably economics and sociology came into being.

Added another book from which to draw from: Masters of Sociological Thought by Lewis A. Coser. Sapna bookstore, Indiranagar. Next time will be a more concrete example of how the above theoritical discussion took solid form in Economics or Sociology, depending on mood.

Whence the Social Sciences ?

During and after the final days of 4 years of decadence that has come to be known as Engineering, I developed a certain taste for things non-technical (which is obviously apparent), and decided to try and think of options other than IT as a career. The first attractive option was Economics, after all, these dudes seem(claim) to know why and how we tick, monetarily atleast. Asked around for advice, and Deepak Malghan, (almost sole) author of this blog, gave me very negative opinions about it. Considering that the advice came from a person who studied Economics from Princeton and Maryland, was taken aback and decided to find out for myself the reasons for such an opinion.

The idea was not to study Economic theories, but to study Economics (or Sociology, since I wanted to see what these guys were upto as well) in itself. The fundamental assumptions, the philosophy behind these subjects, which would help me form my own opinion about them. This is still an ongoing process, and thought a mid-term check of what has been gleaned will be in order. This post will be the first in a series of posts which will describe, as the header says, the origin of the social sciences, and I will concentrate on sociology and economics, since they are what I have studied so far, rather than psychology, Anthropology or any others. I will draw my main streams of thought from Isaiah Berlin (the book has been previously mentioned), Reassembling the Social by Bruno LaTour and some other sources like The Worldly Philosophers by Heilbroner, Limitations of Marginal Utility by Veblen, The Affluent Society by John K. Galbraith (who was Ambassador to India, btw), maybe a little from Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher as well, if I can get it back from a friend who is currently (not!!) reading it. If time permits, I will add some notes from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (which i intend to finish sometime before I die).

Though it may be noticed that most of the books are Economic literature, and Sociology has been underrepresented (only LaTour), LaTour’s book is more philosophical in nature, as compared to the others, and since that is the focus of this series of posts, and due to lack of literature, will have to content myself with it. This will not be a comprehensive, nor well rounded survey, and all mistakes are acts of omission rather than commission.

As Isaiah Berlin rightly points out, the ideas and theories that one studies is incomplete if not viewed along with the historical conditions that surrounded its birth. Thus, it makes sense to
learn about the birth of the social sciences, and the reasons for their coming into existence. The scene is the 17th century, and Isaac Newton is on his way to superstardom after the publication of the Prinicipia Mathematica, Galileo and Copernicus are much admired for their brave stand against the oppressive intellectual climate created by the Church for whatever reasons, and the numerous breakthroughs in physics and mathematics (by above mentioned people and others like Leibniz) have captured the imagination of the intellectuals of the era. Newton actually was able to predict orbits of planets which were empirically given until then by Kepler’s laws, and heliocentrism made possible a very accurate picture of the solar system. The triumph of reason over blind belief, of science over theology, of logic over metaphysics was seen as an imminent, inevitable happening. The oppressive feudal system which gave prominence for place of birth over any intrinsic ability was much decried against, and the ‘enlightened’ people of this era set about building systematic arguments about the idea of divine rights of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and all such nonsense. This was about the same time when the Holy Roman Empire was in its death throes and people were beginning to speak boldly, questioning the basis of despotism, feudalism, nobility and primacy of the Church as a source of both divine and material power.

It was an era of tremendous change, and brought to the fore men of great intellectual ability like Voltaire, Hobbes, Rousseau, Descartes, the list will simply go on and on. They were the pioneers, so to speak, in the wilderness of unreason, irrationality, despotism, trying to find paths which lead to liberty, equality, fraternity (the main themes under which the French Revolution of 1789 was fought) using the guiding torch of reason. Every set about writing their own views about the world, and how it should be, and the printers probably laughed all the way to the bank. These were men with the noble task of ushering in the “Age of Reason”, as the Enlightenment is also called. Everything had to be argued on the basis or reason, had to be rational, or else you probably were reactionary (i.e, siding with the Church or the kings, which was very bad). The Medieval Ages were ruled by all kinds of fairy tales, cults of irrationality called religions, and now was the time to break from all that and start another cult : the cult of Reason or Rationality.

Now, all the old institutions were to be disposed of with. The State, as previously identified with a majestic king who was given the right to rule over his subject by someone no less the God himself could no longer be accepted. God is an irrational creation of man, not verifiable in any sense, and therefore could not be a source of authority. Man was not created by the breath of God, and therefore there must be other ways in which to understand him ( Gender sensitivity was not necessary for political correctness then, from what i gather). What better way to start analysing such things if not by the methods adopted by the spectacularly successful natural sciences ? Newton, the blue eyed icon, who stood for all that is Rational, was to be emulated in studying all aspects of the world. Studies had been made and successfully explained why a stone moves if we kick it, and why the moon does not spin away from the earth, and obviously these things were explained using rational arguments, therefore it must be possible to explain man, agglomerations of men in the same manner. After all, everything in the universe followed a rational pattern, and one just required the insight to find it. Man was a bunch of atoms, and we knew how atoms work, so by induction we must be able to postulate general laws as to the behaviour of man. But since not everything is known to us as of now, we must atleast postulate laws which in some sense must be empirically verifiable.

Every genuine question must have a genuine answer : if not, the question is false, irrational. Since questions like “what is the nature of man?”, “what is the nature of the State?” “How can economic relations between men explained ?” are genuine questions, they must have genuine, unique answers. And these can be answered, atleast to the extent of the present knowledge, by employing methodologies which have had such success in the natural sciences, i.e, they must be verifiable or be supported by sound reasoning.

This seems to be the bouyant mood in which Western Europe was in the Age of the Enlightenment. This was the time when the systematic study of man and his relations with others started, which was later termed as the Social Sciences. The consequences of this outlook at the birth of the Social Sciences has had many effects, swinging both in the positive and the negative direction. What they were, next time.