Home > Culture, Decision Making, Organization, Rationality, Socio-Cultural Systems, Systems Thinking > Iconoclastic Observations on Social Science

Iconoclastic Observations on Social Science

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

A few weeks ago I posted a critique of Human Terrain Teams, or more specifically, the name “Human Terrain.” (see Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology? 3 OCT 10).  I also posted this entry on the Small Wars Journal discussion board, which led to an interesting discussion on Social Science and the failings therein.

The failings of Social Science are related to our methods of inquiry.  We are studying sociocultural systems just like we study physical, chemical, and biological systems.  But socioculutral systems are different and need to be studied differently.

Classical science is essentially the development of theories or models which explain behavior in a system, and thus are able to make predictions about future behavior in that system.  This is accomplished by isolating a few variables and testing cause and effect relationships through experimentation.  For example, if I wanted to find out the optimal speed to drive my car in order to get the best gas mileage, I could set up an experiment in which I measured fuel consumption at different speeds.  The independent variable is the speed of the car, and the dependent variable is the observed gas mileage.  Based on the results of this experiment, I can predict what my gas mileage will be in the future.  Barring a significant change in the system (such as a mechanical problem) my prediction will be somewhat accurate.

Why doesn’t classical science work in sociocultural systems?

1. Prediction is difficult or impossible in sociocultural systems in which the agents have a choice, emotions, subjective rationalities, cultural forces, etc…By way of contrast, in the “hard” sciences atoms (above the quantum level), molecules, etc… obey predictable laws. Therefore, constructing models which predict the behavior of variables in these systems (where the variables themselves must follow predictable laws) is a much more appropriate approach than it is with social systems.

2.  We are asking the wrong questions. Often, the answer you get depends on the question you ask. This is the real difference between education and training.  Training focuses on the transmission of answers, i.e. knowledge, whereas education teaches people how to ask the right questions.  Social scientists are asking the wrong questions, which is to say studying sociocultural systems as if they were physical or chemical systems using reductionist, analytical, linear thinking.

For example, if you are doing any type of research you must state your independent and dependent variables. However, social systems are not composed of independent and dependent variables, and applying such a construct is doomed to fail. The construct asks the wrong question, i.e. “What are the cause and effect relationships?”, when in fact there are few cause and effect relationships in social systems because people have choices.

Social systems are composed of interdependent variables. Therefore, we cannot study one or two in isolation, but we must study the system as a whole to understand the interdependency of the variables and the emergent properties of the system.

3. Context is important in sociocultural systems. Classical science attempts to remove context from the equation in order to isolate the cause and effect relationships between variables. However, context is everything in a social system. To study a social system without context is to invite failure. Results of context-free experimentation will not be useful in the “real world” because context exerts a heavy influence on behavior.

I’m reminded of the “Pepsi Challenge” in which (in classical scientific reductionist analytical style) subjects were given a blind taste test of Coke and Pepsi. The majority of subjects preferred the taste of Pepsi.  Of course, Coke continued to dominate the market. Execs at Pepsi puzzled over how they could be losing market share if their product tasted better. The answer, of course, is that in real life people don’t drink soda without labels; in real life people drink from a bottle with Coke or Pepsi displayed prominently.

Subsequent studies discovered that when the subjects were given taste tests with product labels, i.e. they knew whether they were drinking Coke or Pepsi, they preferred Coke, not Pepsi. Furthermore (and this is the really fun part), researchers monitored the brain activity of these tests, and found that Coke actually produced increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain when subjects could see the label, whereas Pepsi produced more when the labels were concealed.

People didn’t just irrationally believe Coke tasted better. Seeing the label actually changed the activity level of the brain. To them, Coke really did taste better.

In short, sociocultural systems can’t be studied like physical or chemical systems, yet this is what we are doing. As long as we continue to do so, we are unlikely to have much success.

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