Whole Lot o’ Shakin’ Goin’ On

By Scott Burris

Over the weekend, my social science friends were all emailing about Nicholas Christakis’ op ed about how we should “shake up the social sciences.”  On one level, the piece is easy to mock. Christakis makes a big deal out of the contrast between the academic organization of the natural and social sciences: the former have hybridized: “Departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology have disappeared, replaced by innovative departments of stem-cell biology, systems biology, neurobiology and molecular biophysics.” In contrast, sociology is still sociology, economics is still economics, etc.  So? As one friend notes, Chistakis’ own Yale Sociology Department sure seems to be keeping up with the interdisciplinary times:

Well, so, the sociology department in which Christakis now sits describes its scholarly endeavor as follows:  “Comparative and Historical Sociology; Culture/Knowledge; Economic Sociology and Organizations; Family/Gender/Sexuality; Global, Regional and Transnational Sociology; Health, Medicine, and Biosocial Interactions; Law and Criminology; Methods; Political Sociology and Social Movements; Race and Ethnicity; Religion; Social Networks; Social Stratification; Theory.”

Whatever that all amounts to, I think it’s slightly disingenuous to suggest that this enterprise is somehow fettered and hampered by calling it “sociology”, or by the fact that its practitioners (including Christakis) call themselves “sociologists,” or by having an academic department that’s indulgent and elastic enough to claim all these people and pay them for teaching and being public intellectuals that write op-eds in the New York Times.

Even more grin-worthy is his claim that we should declare knowledge victory and move on to new topics: “everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class.” Another friend sends that up like this:

This is wonderful news.  Somehow I missed it in all the papers, but it appears that we’ve agreed on the basic mechanics of macroeconomics and understand exactly how much government spending is needed to keep an economy out of recession.  Thank goodness that subject is ‘settled’.  Time to move on.   Next, we can put the basic economics of healthcare to rest.  For that to happen all we have to do is not change how we pay for healthcare, not give patients new rights, not allow any new diseases, and — most importantly — not develop new cures for existing diseases.

Fun, but actually I think we all can, should and do agree with Christakis’ basic points: to make a difference, social scientists have to be asking the questions that matter most now, and they have to use the best tools for answering them, regardless of which discipline they come from. I don’t see any sign that the leading lights of sociology are played out and uninterested in making a contribution to the public debate (see this notable issue of the BJS on “public sociology”).

Public health law research is a case in point. Evaluation of the health impact of law has traditionally fallen into the chasm between health sciences and law.  We have had some excellent and important work in the evaluation of health law, but nothing like what we need to guide and refine policy.   The gaps range from basic surveillance of key policies to understanding how laws and legal products shape the level and distribution of health at a deep level.   Likewise, PHLR is developing as an aggressively interdisciplinary field, as Alex Wagenaar and I lay out in a key chapter of our book.  We are taking advantage of the willingness of social scientists to turn their attention to a new set of questions.

But my experience with PHLR makes me wonder if Christakis is missing a different problem.  There’s a plausible case to be made that, in fact, social science has been too easy to shake up, too quick to move on to new questions.  Accurate measurement and causal attribution of social phenomena are hard. In PHLR at least, the most scientifically successful and politically important work has been in fields where researchers stuck with it for years and decades, building measures and accumulating years of outcomes spread over many jurisdictions.  Looking at the list of topics now prevailing in Christakis’ department, one can’t help wondering whether we are seeing a long-term investment in the systematic production of useful knowledge, or a set of idiosyncratic pilgrimages to far-flung, isolated temples of esoteric truths (which was part of the debate in the BJS). I’m pretty impressed with the social scientists I work with, but if Christakis is right that there’s a problem with the classic disciplines, maybe it is in the fashions they follow, not the labels they wear.

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