Published: 12:01AM BST 28 Apr 2004
Social sciences students are being duped by universities pretending that all opinions are equally valid, says Max Steuer
Students who are considering going to university to study a social science should think hard. So should their parents, the Government and anyone else who will be paying for the experience. The reason is that a growing proportion of social science departments are not doing social science at all.
Many are actively opposed to science in any form, especially when it comes to studying social matters. Instead, they engage in what they think of as literary or philosophical activity, but it is practised at a level so pitifully low that it would not be tolerated in any serious department of philosophy or literature.
Practitioners of this type of “pretend”social science try to make out that there is no such thing as knowledge, and that all opinions are equally valid. The claim is that all we have is “talk”, though they prefer the word “discourse”. You may have your discourse; someone else will have another. Science in all its forms is just another discourse, so they maintain. Being unwilling to undertake the demanding work that is science, they assert that one opinion is as good as another. If they were right, there would be very little reason to go to university.
It is usual to dress up this kind of extreme nonsense in fancy language. Obscure foreign words are used, along with unintelligible English ones. It is tempting to give an example, but brevity is not common in this activity. The teaching and the publications coming from “pretend”social science departments are peppered with references to figures such as Foucault, Habermas, Latour and Derrida. The more obscure and unintelligible the teaching and the writing, the better. The goal is to appear profound.
It is difficult for students to resist this kind of endeavour. Once one gets into the swim of it, in an odd way it is comforting. If nothing correct and meaningful can be said, then nothing wrong can be said either. The sustained effort needed to learn about something is no longer deemed necessary.
A shortcut to being educated is on offer. Just talk the talk, and leave it at that. This can turn students’ heads. And then, there are examinations. Good grades matter. These can be achieved by responding in the manner of your teachers. It is surprising how few students notice, or are prepared to point out, that the emperor, or the teacher, has no academic clothes.
There are five major social sciences: anthropology, economics, political science, social psychology and sociology. Anthropology and sociology are particularly prone to being taught by those who favour the “post”and “beyond” style of writing.
This holds that knowledge may have existed at some time, but today we have something else. Among the more narrowly focused social science endeavours, such as demography, socio-linguistics, media studies and information systems, the latter two have more than their share of would-be scholars who have gone off the rails intellectually.
A university education should involve learning how to think more effectively. It should involve the ability to sift sense from nonsense. It should encourage the ability to question, and to know when one understands something, and when not. A certain humility and the willingness to recognise one might be wrong does not go amiss. Education can be sheer pleasure. It also should include an appreciation of the need for sustained effort.
Those social science departments afflicted with the modern disease encourage exactly the opposite of what an education should provide. Students learn to be dismissive. The ability to discriminate is weakened, along with the ability to follow an argument. Fancy style is what matters.
Of course, science, including social science, cannot solve all our problems. What social science can do, when practised seriously, is give the best answers we have to a great range of important social questions. But those departments that have turned their backs on their designated task have not replaced social science with something interesting. They have replaced it with extremes of muddled thinking parading as wisdom.
The abandoning of social science by many departments that purport to teach the subject is not confined to the newer or less highly regarded institutions. Fashionable nonsense can readily be found in very well known and highly regarded institutions. So how can prospective students find out what they might be letting themselves in for?
There is no need to give up on social science. There are able people doing excellent work in some departments in all the social sciences. The educational experience can be as good as any. The problem is how to avoid signing up for a “pretend” department.
The key point is not to go by the university’s overall reputation. Some careful and informed inquiry is needed. Maybe this article could serve as a litmus test. Measured questioning of the claims I make is clearly appropriate. Outrage in response to what is asserted here should make one suspicious.
A more direct test, if one can actually apply it, is to find out what the teachers really think. Any department with a substantial number of members who believe that something happened some years ago that makes knowledge impossible today is clearly suspect. The prospective student is strongly advised to look elsewhere.
* Max Steuer teaches at the London School of Economics and is the author of The Scientific Study of Society published by Kluwer