The Playground of Social Science

The rise of terms such as “White Privilege” demonstrates the peculiar literacy and articulacy fostered by the internet, and the resultant rise of Social Science theory. I wonder if this is allied to the increasing numbers of young people attending university and other 3rd level institutions[1]. Mine is a doubtful construction, which is entirely appropriate, and it goes like this:

Long before the internet, universities were sources and forums (fora?) of debate and discussion. They were societies’ great word generators. Now they must share that title with the internet itself. It was natural, practically inevitable, that academic debate should move online and, as more people attend university, the population becomes increasingly aware of the vocabulary and concerns that are current among academics. 

Those interested in the state of society and the injustices of life are often drawn to the Social Science departments. Socialscience, however, is not like other disciplines. The traditional sciences try to base their theories on data generated by rigorous experimentation, where they try to control all the variables so they can isolate one factor and scrutinise its behaviour. Social Science is hoping to identify and analyse trends and patterns in human societies, so it cannot create such controlled laboratory environments without committing some terrible human rights abuses!

Social scientists must content themselves with plucking one or two pieces of data from the whirling mess of human interactions and then creating a plausible narrative that fits them. Consequently, they have become very comfortable with highly speculative theories based on reductive mono-causal explanations of highly complex phenomena. 

They support and firm up their arguments by reference to other equally speculative theories which chime with their own ideas, but they cannot go on to test their ideas experimentally. So, what would traditionally amount to the literature review that precedes an investigation is presented to us as the investigation itself. Its hypothesis stands in for its lack of conclusion 

Academics and scientists are supposed to test their ideas by publishing peer-reviewed papers and through open debate. However, as no reliable dataset is available, this usually amounts to matching one set of unverifiable assumptions against another. Social Scientists can just pick their preferred theory and run with it, and to hell with the balance of probability. With reputations, tenure and careers at stake[2], academics have a good reason to stubbornly resist changing their minds. They treat their hypotheses as fact, dismissing all contradictions, all alternative explanations as anomalies. 


[1] According to The Independent online (27/09/19) 50.2% of people between the age of 17 and 30 had attended a 3rd level education provider, by the academic year 2017/18, thus finally reaching Tony Blair’s target of 50%, set in 1997. 

[2] Thus salaries and the ability to put food on the table.

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