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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Devolution of Social Science

The Devolution of Social Science

"This article has two themes: first, how in “soft” science fields, increased specialization has led to fragmentation, incoherence and, ultimately, nonsense. And second, an example of the process: race and ethnic studies (RES) and the concept of color-blind racism (CBR) — the idea that treating people according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is itself racist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous definition of non-discrimination is not accepted by, for example, the 2018 President of the American Sociological Association...

When the American Psychological Association (APA) was founded in 1892 it had just one division, but after World War II it merged with various other psychological organizations and created 19 divisions. By 2007, this number had expanded to 54...

Sorting through some old papers, I found this quote from an unnamed British sociologist speaking at a talk in 1986: “Theories in science are not constrained in any way by empirical facts.” I noted that most of those listening agreed with him.

The quote is absurd and in the years that followed I noted how widespread this assault on the scientific method has become. A whole field devoted to discrediting science has sprung up under the banner of “Science Studies” which, needless to say, is now a recognized academic discipline with its own association and cluster of peer-reviewed journals. One such is Social Text, which published a brilliantly nonsensical piece ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity‘ by physicist Alan Sokal. Sokal succeeded by using the right words, like “transgressive” and “hegemony,” and promoting the correct political views, like “science as gendered domination” and putting “objective” in quotes.

The anonymous sociologist’s claim that empirical facts are irrelevant does apply to much of social science. It raises an important question: if theories in the social sciences are not constrained by empirical facts, what are they constrained by? As I will try to show, the answer seems to be that theories in Race and Ethnic Studies (RES) sociology are mainly constrained by the political opinions prevailing in that branch of the field...

The concept of “truth” appears to be equally suspect. Indeed, in another place, Bonilla-Silva scorns the very idea, speaking of the “devil of ‘objectivity’” (note the scare quotes).

Without the possibility of objectivity, there is no science. Has sociology become, then, just political activism? To some extent, yes. According to Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva: “The aim is to attain epistemic liberation from White logic … We see this edited volume as part of the long march of resistance to White domination in society and in academe.” The Maoist allusion is probably not accidental.

By the end of the book Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva have backtracked slightly, making a shallow bow to objectivity: “Rather than leading to a science of objectivity, White logic has fostered an ethnocentric orientation … however, scholars of color are potentially much closer to being objective…” This will leave many readers puzzled: is the work “biased” when the sociologist is white — or, rather, “White,” to add the mandatory square quotes — but objective when she is a person of color? The authors attempt to clarify by quoting Charles W. Mills: “Hegemonic groups characteristically have experiences that foster illusory perceptions about society’s functioning, whereas subordinate groups characteristically have experiences that (at least potentially) give rise to more adequate conceptualizations.” So the worm’s-eye view is more “objective” than the bird’s-eye view — or, to use the jargon, apparently “subordinate” groups (e.g., people of color) see things more clearly than “hegemonic groups.” Since Jamaican-American Mills presumably considers himself a member of a subordinate group (even though he is a distinguished professor of philosophy in the CUNY Graduate Center) his claim of subordinate superiority invites the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “Well, he would [say that], wouldn’t he?”...

“White logic” is the idea that white people think differently than people of color and that it is embedded in “the structure that generates racism,” in the words of Anna-Esther Younes, reviewer of Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi’s White Logic. She concludes that “ultimately, what connects all authors is their view of academia as ‘a form of [White] cultural and political hegemony.’” (“Hegemony” is a popular term in the RES literature. It seems to mean “wrong ideas that are accepted by too many people.”)...

Just as the authors seem about to define a term or justify a claim, the football is pulled away, to be followed by repeated assertions about links to colonialism or white feelings of superiority. The closest we get to a definition of white logic is Zuberi’s answer to the hypothetical: “Are you suggesting social scientists practice racism when they use statistics?” His conclusion, although he never says so directly, is “yes.” His reason: Francis Galton, Darwin’s half-cousin and a founder of the statistical method, “[W]as obsessed with explaining racial hierarchy in social status and achievement.” Well, yes, Galton was interested in what made for success in life. In his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, he says that “the negro race” is an “inferior race,” but he also says that “the average ability of the Athenian race is, on the lowest possible estimate, very nearly two grades higher than our own — that is, about as much as our race is above that of the African negro.” He also says: “There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed who shall be as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern European is to the lowest of the Negro races.” If Galton was racist he was even-handed, and by no means biased in favor of modern Europeans. And in every case, he made a coherent argument based on the best evidence available to him. It is simply ridiculous to claim that “current statistical methodologies … continue to reflect the racist ideologies” of the eugenics movement...

Yancy’s dependence on jargon — “embedded reality, opacity, subject formation, epistemic bonding, interpellation,” and so on — is characteristic of many of the sub-disciplines of social science and humanities. The terms are almost never clearly defined, but serve at least two purposes: they convey expertise — technical competence — while at the same time obstructing outside scrutiny.

This kind of academical obscurantism is not new. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1561) complains about “names that signifie nothing; but are taken up and learned by rote from the Schooles, as hypostatical, transubstantiate, consubstantiate, Eternal-now, and the like canting of Schoole-men.”3 Theological writing is perhaps clearer now, but the rhetorical techniques of the “Schoole-men” have not been lost.

Subjective experience — private feeling, Erlebnis, known to philosophers as qualia — is obviously very important to whiteness studies and, indeed, to sociology generally (the theme of the 2018 national conference of the ASA is “Feeling Race”). The problem is: qualia cannot be measured by a third party. Subjective experience can be shared through drama or literature, or simply story-telling, which is a major part of RES literature. But qualia are not part of science...

McIntosh in 1988 circulated a list of 46 “privileges” accorded to white people. The piece, entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” turned out to be a big hit...

Basically, what McIntosh is saying is that blacks more often think about their race than whites do about theirs, which is probably true for many minorities. The “knapsack” document makes interesting reading, but as science or proof that privilege is something other than the obverse of racial discrimination, it fails. Nevertheless, the term has become popular and McIntosh has found a receptive audience of sympathetic, high-status white people...

“As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism,” writes Ibram X. Kendi, who directs the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University — a definition which makes it unlikely that the Anti-Racism Center will ever succeed in its mission. The reason, of course, is that individuals differ, and if individuals differ, so will groups...

The taboos against researching possible endogenous causes of racial disparities — family structure, the abilities and interests of African Americans, etc. — have turned out to be almost insurmountable. The research isn’t done, so systemic racism stands unchallenged as the cause of all these problems.

Systemic racism also performs another function. It allows the charge of racism to stand even if no individual white person behaves in a racist way...

The supposed existence of a vaporous systemic racism implies “Racism without Racists,” which is the provocative title of Bonilla-Silva’s book, a book which might as well have been called “Racism without End” since disparities will always prove racism exists, according to Bonilla-Silva, and disparities will never vanish — unless, that is, the state enforces a totalitarian “equality of results,” which is precisely the solution proposed by many CBR sociologists.

The problems of sociology have been apparent for many years: In 1986 philosopher Roger Scruton penned a Times op-ed called “The Plague of Sociology.” How did sociology lapse from Durkheim’s high standard? Political forces are always present. In the “harder” sciences they are restrained by rigorous methods of experiment and theory that are universally accepted. Sociology began this way, but differences soon led to many divisions, with each new branch accepting a different set of standards for what constituted valid data and acceptable methodology. This separation reduced the variety and force of criticism. Soon, everyone in RES sociology agreed that anecdote is okay, story-telling is as scientific as chemical analysis, “neo-liberal Amerikkka” is to be condemned, activism is scholarship and the politics of Foucault and Marx are settled truth."
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