Monday, September 15, 2008

Questions I've been pondering...Ideology in the Social Sciences

Here is an article in CHE on talking politics in the classroom. I am lucky, as an economist, that I can essentially be non-partisan by taking swipes at politicians in general (I warned my students that watching either campaign can seriously damage their understanding of economics). The other social sciences seem to have a harder time walking this line, as the CHE article notes:
For the political scientist, as well as the historian and sociologist, politics involves discussing their subject.
From what I have seen though, it is more than that in the other social sciences. In four years in the department of economics at WVU, I could count on one hand the number of times politics came up among its members in a specific "what is your personal ideology" manner. However, if I went to a regional science seminar (very interdisciplinary) it came up a lot. When Unleashing Capitalism was released, despite a concentrated effort to demonstrate the non-partisan nature of the subject, criticism from the other social sciences were heavily rooted in ideological grounds with accusations of "pro-business" or "pro-republican." The criticisim received from economists (or more accuarately a economist, I am aware of criticism from only one) was rooted in empirical relevance e.g. West Virginia is not that poor.

I recently listened to a talk by a SPEA colleague discussing his research on the interconnectivity of the "social safety net." A sociologist, he laid out his empirical survey results and concluded that 1) there is no "safety net" per say but rather many individual actors that exist at multiple levels with multiple directives, 2) they were extremely complex with an enormous amount of sophisticated interdependence, and 3) the idea of "managing the social safety net" is absurd due to the complexity. Afterwards, I told him he was essentially describing the welfare system as a spontaneous order and gave him the synopsis of "I, Pencil." He said his paper has been attacked by other sociologists as a "veiled right-wing back door attempt to destroy the welfare system."

My question is why. Why do the other social sciences seem to be so much more prone to using an ideological attack? In both these examples, the attack was not on the presented evidence, but the motivation of the researcher. Is this an example of projection? Is ideological bias such a barrier to accurate results in the other social sciences? Is this self-selection, that since the understanding of politics is necessary, those with a ideological bias are disportionately drawn to them?

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