The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Interdisciplinarity Shibboleth: Christakis Edition

July 22, 2013

Andrew Gelman provides a nice rejoinder to Nicholas Christakis’ New York Times op-ed, “Let’s Shake up the Social Sciences.” Fabio Rojas scores the exchange for Christakis, but his commentators provide convincing rebuttals to Rojas. Once again, I suspect reactions to the column are driven by homophily rather than network effects. But all this aside, Christakis makes an interesting claim about the evidence for stagnation:

In contrast, the social sciences have stagnated. They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. Such inertia reflects an unnecessary insecurity and conservatism, and helps explain why the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences.

Instead, we should provide more funding for people like Christakis create departments that reflect the “cutting edge” of interdisciplinarity:

It is time to create new social science departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science. These would include departments of biosocial science, network science, neuroeconomics, behavioral genetics and computational social science. Eventually, these departments would themselves be dismantled or transmuted as science continues to advance.

Some recent examples offer a glimpse of the potential. At Yale, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs applies diverse social sciences to the study of international issues and offers a new major. At Harvard, the sub-discipline of physical anthropology, which increasingly relies on modern genetics, was hived off the anthropology department to make the department of human evolutionary biology. Still, such efforts are generally more like herds splitting up than like new species emerging. We have not yet changed the basic DNA of the social sciences. Failure to do so might even result in having the natural sciences co-opt topics rightly and beneficially in the purview of the social sciences.

This sort of stuff is basically pastiche disruptive-innovation talk, of the kind so popular in the edutainment-meets-business circuit. But here the metric of “innovation” is of the most superficial variety: the names of disciplines, as if what we call, for example, “Political Science” in 2013 is the same basic animal as it was in 1923, 1940, 1955, or 1964, or as if the proliferation of areas of research and methodologies within social-scientific disciplines didn’t render deeply problematic the distinction between inter– and intra-disciplinary study. Meanwhile, Christakis provides a list of cross-fertilization, collaboration, and borrowing that merely reinforces the suspicion that there’s not much of an actual problem to address.


website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.