Shaking up the social sciences and the acceleration of higher education

Ahead of the visit by Nicholas Christakis to the UK next month, the Times Higher Education has run an interesting article by Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald. I wrote a response to the original article by Christakis that sparked this debate (in fairness he didn’t choose the title) arguing that the problem with this argument is political rather than intellectual. I actually have a lot of sympathy for the intellectual case he’s making but I worry that his argument inadvertently lends support to a concerted attack on the social sciences (particularly in the case of political science in the US) and a broader attempt to restructure the university system in the UK. Goodall and Oswald succinctly convey what for me is the root of the problem:

The first thing to have in mind, as background, is the astonishing size of the social science literature. Few people appreciate this. The Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (which is by no means exhaustive of the entire global academic output) lists more than 3,000 social science journals. The journals classified as economics alone contained approximately 20,000 articles last year. This implies that one new journal article on economics is published every 25 minutes – even on Christmas Day. This iceberg-like immensity of the modern social sciences means that it is going to be difficult to say anything coherent and truly general across them. Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.

This situation seems obviously untenable to me. Add to it the low citation rates across the social sciences and we’re left with an utterly depressing picture of an ever growing quantity of ‘unread and unloved’ publications that should surely leave us asking what on earth is this work for? What are the social sciences supposed to do? What purposes do they serve? What purposes should they serve? I’m intuitively inclined towards a pluralistic view of social inquiry in spite of having firm theoretical commitments. This leaves me frustrated when encountering responses to these questions that affirm the validity of one approach and denigrate all others. But I’m equally firm in my conviction that these questions need to have an answer, even if the purpose might be some oblique matter of edification rather than anything even approximating instrumental standards of utility. In other words, I think it has to be for something and when considering the output of the social sciences as a whole, in contrast to any particular example of research I might choose to examine, it’s far from clear to me that this is the case. Furthermore, I think the proliferating piles of unread (and in some cases unreadable) literature mitigates against it serving some purpose. The problem is getting worse, not better.

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