Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2006

Re-Imagining Social Science in the 21st Century: The Biological Challenge

Lecturer: Professor Steve Fuller,
Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK
Main discipline: Sociology, Science Studies

Dates: 31 July - 4 August 2006
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

It is becoming increasingly popular to diagnose the set of fields called 'social sciences' as an artifact of 19th and 20th century nation-building, especially in Europe and North America. At the dawn of the 21st century, the autonomy of these fields has been substantially eroded, on the one hand, by cultural studies (from the humanistic side) and, on the other, by the biological sciences and biotechnology (from the natural scientific side). Will -- and, more importantly, should -- the social sciences retain their autonomous status? This course will consider the stakes in answering this question by looking both backward and forward: In particular, why and how did the social sciences originally distinguish themselves from the biological sciences? To what extent are the challenges facing the social sciences similar or different to the ones they faced, say, 100 or 150 years ago? What are the genuinely new problems and opportunities facing the social sciences today and in the foreseeable future?

Essential reading

The one required book is Steve Fuller, The New Sociological Imagination (Sage, 2006):

NOTE: The book The New Sociological Imagination will be provided for, and sent to the students in advance, as part of the core reading material for the course. So no need to purchase this book yourself.



Lecture 1: Do the social sciences remain anchored in their 19th century origins?

About a decade ago, the world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein convened the Gulbenkian Commission on the future of the social sciences, which produced the book that is on the reading list. We shall consider the issues raised in the first half of the book, which paint a gloomy picture of the future of social sciences if it remains wedded to, e.g., the category of society as something approximating a natural kind.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 2: If the diagnosis is correct, what is the cure?

Wallerstein's Commission basically reached the conclusion that the globalization of capitalism and the ecologization of politics - along with the breakdown of the Newtonian conception of science - forces the social sciences to reconfigure themselves around interdisciplinary work that breaks down the remaining barriers to both the humanities and the natural sciences. A possible exemplar of this activity is the website, http://www.edge.org/, which aims to promote a 'third culture', a role to which the social sciences traditionally aspired.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 3: A Fuller assessment of the situation?

My own view of the problems facing the social sciences - as well as the relevant solutions - is somewhat different, though not entirely antithetical, to Wallerstein's. I hold that the social sciences remained a coherent and autonomous inquiry as the secular successor of the Christian salvation story. This is a point on which Comte, Hegel, Marx, and probably even Durkheim and Weber would have been agreed, but it has not been taken sufficiently seriously with the decline of socialism and the nation-state more generally. In short, the social sciences presupposed that all humans - not just elite ones -- enjoyed unique powers as a species, indeed, to exert dominion over the earth. Society was the means by which those powers were to be collectively realized. From this standpoint, the Darwinian revolution turns out to be a quite decisive foil to the social scientific ideal.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 4: A Late 19th century Biological Defence of Social Science's Autonomy

Toward the end of his life, Darwin's main public defender, Thomas Henry Huxley, argued against the assimilation of political and ethical matters to evolutionary theory. Indeed, Huxley argued - much to the horror of fellow evolutionists like Herbert Spencer - that humanity is defined in systematic opposition to the forces of natural selection. Huxley's speech, a masterful interweaving of humanistic and scientific scholarship, is worth considering again today.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 5: A Darwinian Left? Rhetoric of Realism or Reaction?

In 1999, Peter Singer, animal rights activist and utilitarian ethicist, proposed that Darwin replace Marx as providing the scientific foundation for leftist politics in the 21st century. I argue that this move represents a remarkable lowering of the left's political ambitions, though one in tune with our neo-liberal times. Moreover, Singer's general line of attack ignores the challenge that is posed by computers in redefining the distinctiveness of humanity.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 6: Our Posthuman Future?

This is the title of the latest book by Francis Fukuyama, who made his reputation in 1992 by declaring 'the end of history' with the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time he was proclaiming the virtues of liberal capitalism as enabling humanity to satisfy its species-based 'quest for recognition'. Fukuyama's Christianized Hegelianism remains in force, only now focused on the impact of new biotechnology on what it means to be human. Fukuyama clearly tries to keep his theological impulses at bay, and manages to raise some telling points. But the fact that he sits on President Bush's bioethics panel speaks for itself.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 7: Where are the social theorists?

The sort of people you might think would be flooding the market with observations about the challenges posed by Darwinism and biotechnology - social theorists - are conspicuous by their absence from the discussion. It is still commonplace (e.g. in Anthony Giddens' introductory sociology textbook) to dismiss evolution as irrelevant to social explanations. However, to his credit, Juergen Habermas has refused to follow this ostrich-like pattern. But does his theory of communicative action fare much better than Fukuyama's crypto-Christianity in coming to terms with the new developments?

Suggested reading:

Lecture 8: The Rediscovery of human nature

In 2002, Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist specializing in language development, published the latest in a series a popular science best sellers that aim to provide a thoughtful, even 'human' face to the biological rootedness of human behaviour. Gone were the hard realities of a Konrad Lorenz or even a Richard Dawkins. Instead, we find in Pinker an attempt to recover the concept of human nature in order to scale down our political expectations, a kind of 'consolations of science', to recall Boethius. Once again, this masterful presentation of a wide range of biologically inspired data and arguments - much of it drawn from evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics - works well in a post-socialist world.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 9: A New Unity of Science in a Bio-centric World?

E.O. Wilson, the Harvard ant specialist who founded sociobiology in the 1970s, has been the most consistently visionary - and arrogant -- of the thinkers concerned with placing Darwinism in the center of our understanding of reality. The book considered here was originally given as a series of 'Phi Beta Kappa Lectures' to liberal arts colleges across the USA. In other words, Wilson aims here to convert an intelligent lay audience. One of his clear messages is that social sciences are defunct today, much as theology was shown to be in the 19th century, in large part by Darwin. Given the historic connections between theology and sociology, this analogy may be more telling than even Wilson realizes.

Suggested reading:

Lecture 10: Whither -- or Wither -- Social Science in the 21st century?

A summing up of the previous lectures, and some reasonably hopeful words about how we might uphold the integrity of the social sciences in the foreseeable future.

The Lecturer
Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom.

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