The Social Sciences –despite the widely held notion that we’re all a bunch of Marxists that will turn your children into pinkos– are incredibly conservative when it comes to their own affairs. Our conferences are pretty traditional, we took a really long time getting around to noticing that the Internet was A Thing, and if you take a Social Theory 101 course you’re more likely to read Durkheim than bell hooks. You can blame it on tenure, fear of action, or simple lack of imagination, but the analysis remains the same: rarely do our articles’ prescriptive conclusions make it into our day-to-day practice. When I read that a couple of students from the University of Massachusetts had launched a torrent site to share data I knew it wouldn’t be social scientists. Not necessarily because we don’t have the expertise, (more on that later) but because we so rarely seem to have the will to act. Its always the engineers and the natural scientists that come up with faster, cheaper, and more egalitarian methods of sharing data and promoting their work. What gives?
First it’s worth recognizing an old STS saw from 1975 called “The Engineer as Social Radical.” J.C. Mathes and Donald H. Gray, who are engineers themselves, noticed that their peers usually thought of themselves as conservative: “the typical engineer” they reflected, “perceives himself [sic] as a social and political conservative — and indeed society thinks of him [sic] as such — that is, as manning [sic] the barricades against movements for social change such as the New Deal or the Great Society.” Individual engineers’ conservative politics seemed to run counter to the effect their work was having in society. They were identifying something akin to Taylorism or Jacque Ellul’s technique: engineers’ focus on efficiency and optimization has deeply social implications. They conclude, in part, “The engineer, especially, must integrate his [sic] radical technological self with his [sic] conservative emotional self. He [sic] cannot continue to promulgate technologies requiring regional electric power grids, while also continuing the campaign initiated by Senator Goldwater against centralized bureaucratic controls.” In the driest, most male pronoun-intensive language possible, Mathes and Gray are identifying a really important aspect of engineering practice: what they do, by its very nature, has effects out on the world.
The same could obviously be said for social scientists, albeit with a very wide range of results. From Marxist revolutions to Anthony Giddens working for the Tony Blair administration- social science does things out in the world. Sandra Harding, bell hooks, Simone de Beauvoir W.E.B Debois all changed the world through their writing but in all of these cases it took lots of people being convinced by arguments made in books and at podiums to actually make that change happen. Social science does things, it would be preposterous to argue otherwise, but why do we seem to work within the most staid institutions?
Put another way, why aren’t anthropologists with a passing understanding of the Internet making stuff like AcademicTorrents? AcademicTorrents is a decentralized file sharing system meant to host large sets of data that would be difficult to share via email or other common “in the cloud” services. The fact that its decentralized also means its much safer from being lost because there are so many copies. According to Motherboard and Torrentfreak the creators don’t want this to be a tool for illegally sharing copyrighted journal articles but they’d be happy to see it as a tool for open access distribution. I’m sure all of the above will happen. So, again, why don’t social scientists come up with this stuff? Even more importantly, why don’t they utilize alternative publishing methods that are already out there?
Consider for example the amount of Open Access journals, in different subjects, in the Directory of Open Access Journals:
First, notice that while the social sciences definitely has the most OA journals, all of the social sciences, from sports psychology, to social movements theory are under a single heading. I don’t know the history of the DOAJ so I can’t say why “technology” and “technology and engineering” or “Medicine” and “Medicine (General)” get separate categories while anthropology and alcohol and drug abuse counseling share a single category. What is really telling however, is what happens when we put all of these journals into similarly broad Liberals Arts categories:
I know that its dangerous to generalize across cellular biology and fluid dynamics but I think if it can be said that they have one thing in common, its that they are fields where practitioners are interested in learning more about the world so that we can do useful work with it. Whether that’s curing Leukemia or making my iPhone lighter the acts themselves shouldn’t be counted as equally important or moral but they are all operating under someone’s flawed interpretation of “useful work.”
As I already mentioned, social scientists do productive work but not nearly in the same way. The words I put to paper and screen are not doing work the same way nanosilver is keeping germs off of surfaces but also probably destroying nearby wetlands. Social scientists and humanities scholars, among other things, work to change common sense. They take positions, make convincing arguments, collect data, present findings, and speak publicly about what is wrong and what must be fostered so as to spur action and create a better society. Unlike the consciously conservative engineer that unwittingly acts as a social radical, social scientists are much more conscious about how their work relates effects society writ large. Or… Maybe not.
There are some obvious examples of social scientists using their research to better the means by which they do that research. The first example to come to mind is the “13+ Club Index.”[PDF] Several women who had experienced tenure discrimination but were also hard pressed to empirically demonstrate this discrimination using existing metrics developed a way to show consistent patterns of non-promotion of women within multiple departments. Another example is, anthropologist Chris Kelty’s involvement in greatly expanding the University of California system’s open access policy. While not perfect, it requires academics to opt out of making their findings open access rather than opting in.
But how do these stack up against the National Institute of Health requiring that every research project they fund be open to the public? Or the highly successful and often-cited family of PLoS journals? Cultural Anthropology just went open access but most of the prominent, top-tier journals are still privately owned. Is it possible that just as engineers think they’re conservative but are ultimately radical, social scientists think they’re radicals but are actually very conservative?
Due to the nature of the work, its a lot harder to make a one-to-one comparison between what Marthes and Gray say about engineers and what I suspect might be happening to social scientists. At present, given what little data I have found, I’m in danger of making a tautological argument: the lackluster track record of innovative department governance schemes or publishing methods is both the evidence and the reason for why I think social scientists are conservative. Great ideas can’t change minds if they’re caught behind thousand-dollar pay walls and radically-minded people might not want to work within a centuries-old hierarchical department structure.
But perhaps this isn’t such a bad conclusion after all. Maybe its more recursive than it is tautological. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Chris Kelty, the anthropologist behind the UC system’s open access policy, also writes on Free Software communities. Kelty’s book Two Bits proposes that these communities are best described as “‘recursive publics.” He defines recursive publics as “a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public…” Recursive publics derive their legitimacy through the efficacy and vibrancy of the community they create.
Imagine if a sociologist were to claim that not only are low pay ratios (the difference between the highest and lowest paid workers) better for productivity because of the results of rigorous research, but they have implemented them in their own university. The increased pay for staff members and the decreased pay for administration may even be helpful in getting the research done and published in the first place.
Social scientists (and their departments) appear to be less recursive in their work because their specialties are governed much more strictly. Or, more precisely, innovations like AcademicTorrents are treated as a “market” option whereas department pay and governances structures are largely left up to administrators. Social scientists have a much more difficult road ahead of them than engineers. While bringing a product to market can be difficult, getting legislation passed can be just as hard if not harder. Computer scientists can set up a torrent site to share data, but a social scientist cannot simply declare that people will be paid differently. The creation of a new technology is rarely legislated in the same way human relations are legislated. Technology can impose its own sort of informal legislation that creates or affords change outside of traditional law-making apparati. One could even classify the 13+ Club as a technology more than a social science theory, if we were willing to accept methods and indexes as a kind of technology.
As for why social scientists are always slow to pick up on important trends like Open Access journals or torrent data distribution systems, I can only imagine it has something to do with an embattled sensibility among social science departments that are afraid to take risks with their tenuously funded departments. Who can afford to fight a copyright battle with Elsevier when they’re losing their last staff member? Its a sullen and admittedly boring reason for such a fascinating problem but there you have it. We can, however, rejoice in the near-limitless possibilities that are just on the horizon. Imagine what could happen if fed-up adjuncts and freshly-minted PhDs started living their “undoable” dissertations.