Response: Psychology is Social (Dr. Sally Raskoff; Everyday Sociology Blog)

Find the original piece here: http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2013/07/psychology-is-social.html

In her piece “Psychology is Social,” Dr. Raskoff makes an excellent case for the sociological concept of embeddedness–the timeless Polanyi concept–and further for the sociology of knowledge. Ultimately, the field of sociology is an academic discipline, embedded in a set of other disciplines, with its own set of orthodoxies-now-heterodoxies. Its somewhat formal roots can be traced back to Comte, as Raskoff mentions (I should note that Comte view Raskoff notes is one my major attractions of the field of sociology–I hate hard lines) and can be drawn much further back to Aristotle and co., the Domesday Book (medieval data-junkies rejoice!) and even further to Ibn Khaldun (author of The Muqaddimah). But so can several other sciences–to the point where, at times, it’s uncomfortable to pinpoint who is and who isn’t a sociologist. Heck, we still struggle with this (look at Bob Putnam’s recent receipt of the National Humanities medal and the subsequent shuffle by a few disciplines to claim him as their own–that includes the ASA–despite his title in Political Science). Pareto, Weber–in short, the Venn Diagram of social sciences shares a considerable overlap in founding figures.

Raskoff makes the compelling point that often times sociology and psychology, among other fields, are often inextricable sciences. The social may affect the neural which may in turn affect the social and so on. But let me extend her argument one more–given this inextricability, we should make an effort to break down false barriers between fields. If we can agree that the goal of many of the social science fields is to come to a greater understanding of the beast known as human nature, then we’d be wise to relinquish our tight holds on academic distinction. After all, to paraphrase a comment from Wallerstein in the introduction to World Systems Analysis, the key difference between many of the world’s sociology, economics, history, psychology, religion (and so on) departments is their respective locations on campus and sets of faculty. Sure, at some point, there are different emphases on different methods, but even these methods and their current popularities fluctuate. How many times has it taken more than a few beers worth of conversation to convince someone that, given a preference for ethnography, anthropology and sociology are different fields? Many. Sure, they may give more shout-outs to Geertz than I do, but that doesn’t prevent me from taking interest in hermeneutics.

In response to this cross-over, our field seems to have taken up an interest in what I call “the hyphens.” Economic-sociology, historical-comparative sociology, social-psychology, bio-sociology. These fields are blending of lenses–much like when the optometrist asks us “one or two,” “three or four” and we can’t make up our minds. But where, in fact, do such preferences for social scientific lenses arise? What makes matters worse is the subtle but often present internecine struggles between disciplines regarding answers and, more broadly, approaches to answers. This is even depicted in a hilarious XKCD comic that reaffirms these apparent false walls:

I laugh–of course, I’m self deprecating–but I also struggle. Was there some unspoken contest between the fields regarding who could be more applied or pure? My own view is that applicability isn’t the necessary immediate goal of social science (though it must be a considered end goal). For applicability to be an immediate goal is to officiously offer a friend advice before fully understanding his or her problem. It wouldn’t make sense. A major contribution of the somewhat more arcane contributions of the social sciences is to make sure we are asking the right questions at all–and to make sure we’re capturing an answer that responds to reality, not simply to how we’ve filtered reality. Furthermore, the joke on “purity” is pretty reductionist–it ignores the different units of analysis that may be more germane to particular fields. There are reasons that math and sociology are substantively different, but this doesn’t confer an innate hierarchy in the sciences. What’s more, where traditional substantive differences between fields are more subtle or even non-existent, the joke of hierarchy becomes more apparently false.

This brings me back to my discussion of lenses. A lens is the piece through which we perceive reality. If my myopic eyesight, unaided, told me what the world was like, I’d be convinced that it was a fuzzy, blobby, odd-colored mass. With glasses, I’m convinced I can make sense of it. But with a microscope I have an entirely different perspective. Yet again with a telescope, another. So how should I be convinced which is right? Aren’t they all? Borrowing from part of Neil Smelser’s Berlin Lectures on the Problematics of Sociology,  “even though the micro, meso, macro, and global levels can be identified, it must be remembered that in any kind of social organization we can observe an interpenetration of these analytic levels” (1997: 29). Furthermore there is “reason to believe [that all] levels of reality are analytically as important” as all others.

But if academic fields are simply a matter of perspective, then we are fooling ourselves into believing that we understand what is. Thus, I’m fully onboard with Raskoff’s argument and am foolish enough to take it to the next level to argue that, beyond a certain level, attempting to stay “true” to the name of a field is arbitrary and might even be corrupting to the scientific mission of truly understanding a phenomenon. The more we can break down these barriers and share, openly, the expertise in methods and theories gained across the disciplines–even transcending the loose bounds of “social science”–the better we can approximate reality. This isn’t simply a story of field overlap, it’s one of field embeddedness and the inter-embeddedness of academic disciplines historically, topically, and methodologically.

I leave these thoughts with a quote from Neil Smelser’s essay The Psychoanalytic Mode of Inquiry:

“Whenever a truly novel and revolutionary method of generating new knowledge about the human condition is generated–and the psychoanalytic method was one of those–there emerges, as a concomitant tendency, something of an imperialist urge: to turn this method to the understanding of everything in the world–its institutions, its peoples, its history, and its cultures. This happened to the Marxian approach (there is a Marxist explanation of everything), to the sociological approach generally (there is a sociology of everything), and to the psychoanalytic approach (there is a psychoanalytic interpretation of everything).” (Smelser 1998: 246)

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