On the Discipline of the Social Sciences

I often find myself in open dialogue with, well, myself. I speak aloud in my room about some particular topic or that, like a madman. I wonder if I’m alone in this: it amounts to a full conversation, where I don’t necessarily respond to inquiries I pose, but rather let go with a long narrative I’ve been considering for some time and need to ‘work out.’ I had one just now, perhaps 5 minutes ago (though that is meaningless since at this point in reading it could have been 5 hours ago), one that lasted some half-an-hour and I wanted to share. It was about the shape of the discipline of political science, and really the social sciences. I’ll get to the relationship to gender(s) later.

            The problem I see facing political science, especially American politics, is the degree to which we have managed to separate ourselves from what could be called ‘social.’ We are, in a sense, dedicated to the study of politics—which in one rough sketch amounts to the distribution of power within the domain of a scarcity of resources. This definition reeks highly of economics—and to a certain extent comes with the territory. Political science has to a great degree been hijacked by economic modes of analysis. If my words seem hostile to economics, they are meant to be. And perhaps the root of the problem for our discipline is the extent to which we have allowed homo economicus to invade and occupy the space of homo sapiens, if not to say homo faber.

            We have a knack in our discipline for creating models that hinge on costs and benefits, of relating all things from our theoretical toolbox back to the most rational of bases within the human psyche. But I believe this is wrongheaded. I believe that to do so is to overlook the vast array of stimuli in a person’s life—and there it is, a person, a human life—and supplant it with meta languages that have no relationship with humanity. We have, using economic models and outdated theories of the rational-thinking subject, managed to erase the very real problem of the human within social contexts. We have become anti-human, weirdly, and not in that good old Althusserian way.

            Instead, have moved the human psyche to a level of ‘we can explain it by f(x)=[enter obscurantist probability variables here]’. And to what end? So that by the time the reader who is not technically savvy enough to follow regression models, calculations of error, risk assessments, or the all too prevalent standard deviation—they, the reader, cannot even decipher whether they are dealing with human beings anymore than cows, chickens, or chimpanzees—and would it really make a difference if we indeed replaced the humans of a statistical study with these non-humans? Would it amount to a radical shift in the overall impact of the study?

            Something tells me no.  I would argue that replacing the placeholder ‘human subject/respondent n’ with ‘chimp’ would do nothing to the reading of the study itself. The variability of the human psyche has already been confined to the statistical and, sometimes, game theoretical conditions to which the analyst has bound it. Why should I be concerned with the outcome of survey data that overestimates the size of the LGBT population, wherein the constituents themselves are constituted by the artificial question(s) ‘are you gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.’ I mean, some, depending on the day of the week, would say no to all of the above categories. Others, identifying as queer, would balk at being confined to simply binary language. Others, mores so importantly to me, would be transsexual, trans*, gender nonconforming, genderfuck or genderqueer, and yet they are not picked up by this survey question. Their human lives have been in one sense erased. They are chimps, not subjects. They are un-human because they no longer speak for themselves, and no longer have a shared, lived experience with others.

            So now, through this polemic, can we see the interruption of the most important chain of elements that should connect the analyst with the very real human subjects who have given their responses?  I believe this chain has been interrupted by the uses of methods that take the social out of the social science. In doing so, the analyst has transgressed into a meditation on themes that have been in circulation since Gallup instantiated the poll as the first ‘scientific’ way of addressing the conundrum of public opinion.

            Visualize, for a moment, the concrete social worlds that are complexly constructed, deconstructed, and lived by the various humans that occupy any given space. Now imagine they are asked to give a response to a survey that so lucidly, blindly, blithely attempts to take their complex existence of interacting stimuli and make them into mere responses, artifices that DO have a direct relation to them in some sense of space and time—but are isolated linguistic tropes that have only a momentary importance, let alone resemblance, to their lived experiences. The analyst leaves the community feeling inspired, having spent his/her grant money to determine the size and scope of a community that is itself fluid, constantly changing, and always marginalized. They input the responses into a statistical program called STATA that does most of the heavy lifting for them. They then construct a narrative from these data that are spit out, hoping to generate enough of a ‘scientific’ rendering, a scholarly piece, in order to be published.

            Do you see the interruption? From the moment these lived experiences became responses on a page, constrained by the language of the poll itself, the humans became linguistic markers touched by time and space, but only existing in that time and space statically, embedded. But even still, the interruption has not yet occurred, because, indeed, the markings on a survey, constitute the real touches of human hands, albeit restrained by survey words. The interruption didn’t even occur when the analyst dumped those responses into a statistical program to produce things that s/he can understand as a mathematically inclined ‘social’ scientist. No, the interruption occurred when that social scientist took those data and placed it into a narrative on a computer screen—when those data became a part of her/his written project. The human is NOW identified as ‘human respondent 1’ or some other such identifier, combined with the many other responses that were collected. The human, the social forces behind the human, working on the human, contained within the human, are now lost in another narrative—the analyst’s narrative, blurred within another language that is not their own.

            Statistics have their uses, so long as we do not kneel to their resplendent simplicity. The social must and has to be within the narrative we as social scientists intend to re-construct. And we must be aware of the interruptions that can happen along the way, and make very clear to the reader that these interruptions do occur, and in a sense always occur when one deals with any analysis. But where does this leave any hope for the analytical and empirical method?

            The extent to which I would stake a claim that a study in social science is indeed ‘social’ would be based on the following identifiers. (1) The study must contain within its analysis all of the complex ways individuals-in-relations identify with each other and with themselves.  It must take into account all of the irrational and so-called rational ways of being in the world, and ensure that that being is not interrupted too abruptly, or erased all together. (2) The study must take care to note all, not some, but all of the possible ways that the individuals under observation actually do interact. This is painstaking, and laborious—but a social science worth calling it by that name would comprehend the individual cannot be taken outside his/her relationships. It is how our worlds are made up, understood, and in only the strictest use of this word, constructed. (3) The analyst must be willing to identify themselves within the study, admit of their own biases, and make clear that a social science can STILL be empirically valid by admitting of such biases. The social is an assemblage of complex, interconnected parts (associations), of which we are all somewhat a part, the analyst included. Taking note of this is not a bad thing. Instead, it verifies that humanity that is our object (and subject). We resist, by admitting of our interest/bias, the reification of assumptions, ways of being, and abstract methods that erase humans. (4) The analyst must resist using a meta-language to discuss what these humans are doing in association (this links with my first identifier); humans have their own language. The analyst should speak it. A good study ought to ask questions about how to use the right language, and when.

            A study of politics is the study of human interaction. Being astutely aware of the human subjects and the conditions of their identity/subjectivity is not post-structuralist, post-modern, hocus-pocus. It is what breathes life into our discipline, and ensures that human actors are not poured together and explained by mere institutional (or mathematical) constraints. If individuals are not events unto themselves, but are instead explained by institutional or statistical probabilities, they are not longer interesting. They become un-human, an ontological problematic that doesn’t seem to affect most political scientists these days. And this has dire consequences when we speak of trans* people, or queer people, or people of color–or any marginal groups that can, and have most profoundly, speak/spoken for themselves.

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