The Duck of Minerva

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What Are the Hardest Problems in the Social Sciences?

April 19, 2010

A bunch of “big thinkers” sat down at Harvard last week to debate this question. You can watch their videos here.

Some of the “problems” put forth were simply timely empirical issues with important normative content, like how to close the gender gap in pay equity, or reduce the “skills gap” between Blacks and Whites, or how to understand the relationship between ethnic diversity and civil war.

But some were more wide-ranging:

What is the biggest falsehood perpetuated in the social sciences today?

How and why does the “social” become “biological”?

If we know that individuals are susceptible to all kinds of biases and don’t always make rational decisions, how do we decide what’s “good”?

Being only a “medium-size thinker,” I didn’t speak at this event (or even know about it until afterward). What answer would I have given if I had? For me, the hardest problem in the social sciences is how to identify and measure the significance of non-events, without turning them into events.

The study concludes by asking a hard-to-answer question of its own: How hard are these problems for social scientists, really? (And how important are they?) These themselves are apparently tricky enough questions that Harvard has designed a survey to crowdsource an answer: click here read all the “problems” described by the various speakers and code them on a 1-5 scale of hardness and importance.

What do you think are the hardest problems in the social sciences? Leave a comment below, or post your answer on the group’s Facebook page.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.