An Interdisciplinary Approach to Social Science Research#1

KEY TERMS: interdisciplinarity -- Thomas Kuhn -- Copernicus -- postmodernism -- mechanical causality -- organic (feedback) causality -- cultural evolution -- individual development -- proto-science -- pseudoscience -- the method of scientific inquiry -- transcendentalism -- objectivity -- paradigm -- a common language community -- evolutionary naturalism

When I was teaching sociology and education at the University of Regina in the sixties and early seventies there was an exciting drive for interdisciplinary studies there. My personal experience was with a push for an interdisciplinary social science. During the same period similar movements were occurring elsewhere in North America as well. But">

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Social Science Research#1

KEY TERMS: interdisciplinarity -- Thomas Kuhn -- Copernicus -- postmodernism -- mechanical causality -- organic (feedback) causality -- cultural evolution -- individual development -- proto-science -- pseudoscience -- the method of scientific inquiry -- transcendentalism -- objectivity -- paradigm -- a common language community -- evolutionary naturalism

When I was teaching sociology and education at the University of Regina in the sixties and early seventies there was an exciting drive for interdisciplinary studies there. My personal experience was with a push for an interdisciplinary social science. During the same period similar movements were occurring elsewhere in North America as well. But, for the most part, none of these innovations was successful. For a long time afterward I thought about why this approach did not survive in academia. I came to my answers gradually, over many years, and I would like to share some of these with you today.

All the earlier efforts to be interdisciplinary had two common problems. In the first place, all were dependent on the willingness to co-operate of a number of concerned individuals housed in a variety of academic departments -- including administrators in charge of budgets. If those people left, or became discouraged, the project faltered; and if money became scarce for established departments, interdisciplinary studies were the first to feel the axe. Second, all these attempts were based on no firmer scientific foundation than a mere openness to a sort of trial-and-error eclecticism in the approach to the studies involved. This meant that there was no real logical or empirical basis for continuing research and knowledge building within the interdisciplinary frame of reference. It was not until 1968 when I read two books by Thomas Kuhn during my studies at Yale University that I began to discern the source of the problems that we were having in our efforts to be interdisciplinary in the social studies. In his first, but little-known, book called The Copernican Revolution, Kuhn quoted the description given by Copernicus of the field of astronomy prior to his own breakthrough. "It is as though an artist were to gather the hands, feet, head and other members for his images from diverse models," he said, "each part excellently drawn, but not related to a single body, and since they in no way match each other the result would be more monster than man."

I saw at once that the fragmented social and psychological disciplines that had sprung up in the universities early in this century were similarly incommensurable. They were incommensurable not only in translatable terminology, but in the very concepts that the terms expressed and reflected, and in the procedures for observing them. Like some of the body parts of the dysfunctional monster described by Copernicus, certain of the specialized schools within social science had the appearance of being scientific, and many allowed for good work to be done within them. But even the best of these could not be incorporated into any functioning encompassing system. So it meant that, for the most part, their findings were not really cumulative and generalizable to the other social studies. This, in turn, meant that scholars who were inclined to be interdisciplinary had no option when selecting their subject matter other than to pick and choose -- more or less at random -- bits of isolated information from contributing disciplines. Because of this, efforts to function in an interdisciplinary way in the social sciences led nowhere, and throughout the twentieth century each of the fragmented parts of the enterprise was to remain fatally incommensurable with all the others -- and with the rapidly progressing fields of biology, genetics, neuroscience and ecology, from which they became increasingly estranged.

I came to the conclusion that there are only four possible ways to go in attempting to be interdisciplinary. The first is that of well-intentioned eclecticism, the path I just referred to, and the one which we had followed to a seemingly inevitable dead end. The second is the "student-centered" approach -- where the perceived needs and interests of the students set the agenda. This becomes another dead end because it can only fuel a spiral of self-defeating narcissism. The third option is to ride the current wave of ideology -- which has always been the most popular means of transcending subject boundaries -- and which is now playing itself out in today"s universities in the form of "postmodernism". The fourth is the direction that became obvious to me from my reading of Kuhn; and I firmly believe that option to be the only one that can lead to progress. In the case of my field, it is the long and difficult road to an authentic social science -- which must of necessity be interdisciplinary, because of the very biological, psychological and sociocultural constitution of its subject matter.

Is it possible to proceed in that direction in the social studies? I think that Kuhn's two books, properly understood, indicate that it is -- and indeed that it is imperative to do so. Those books were a revelation to me when I encountered them almost thirty years ago. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made me understand what went wrong in my subject area at the end of the last century. It suddenly seemed clear to me that we had been well-placed, at that time, to begin building an authentically scientific and interdisciplinary social science: a social science capable of directing research that would have provided humans with the means to resolve our problems in an informed and reasoned manner. We could have had, long since, a fund of workable social tools for coping with the challenges presented by the explosion of technology that has resulted from the success of the physical sciences. We could have had soundly educated citizens who sought appropriate ethical goals: goals based on reliable knowledge about the human condition rather than on mythological absolutes; practical goals capable of being achieved by well-tested, step-by-step strategies. These strategies or social tools would have narrowed the now rapidly expanding gap between knowledge in the physical sciences and our capacity to organize and educate human beings to put to constructive use the technology science has spawned, and thus to impose wise direction on the course of cultural evolution. We could have achieved all that, but we did not. For that route we needed a sound interdisciplinary, integrated and scientific social study -- founded on the life sciences. But, instead of the slow and difficult journey to that end, we chose to take a shortcut.

Because we didn't really understand the prerequisites of any science -- prerequisites spelled out by Kuhn in his two books, and Karl Popper in all of his -- we made three fatal errors. First, we failed to recognize that the mechanistic, "push-pull" kind of causality at the level of relations studied by physics is very different from the feedback -- or contingent -- causality that swung into operation once life entered the picture. And that it is the latter which renders biological evolution understandable -- as well as cultural evolution and individual development. The second error followed from the first. It led us to define science only in terms of what physicists appeared to do, and to seek merely to imitate them by employing some of their procedures of measurement and statistical analysis -- even though we lacked the appropriate conceptual base for such methodology. Thirdly, rather than work at developing an appropriate theoretical grounding rooted in biology, we chose to assume the name but not the game of science.

This premature acceptance of the "scientific"designation by the social studies has been destructive to our society, for the very name of science carries with it a great deal of prestige: a prestige thus far unwarranted by the nature of our still-largely ideological pursuits in the social studies. That unearned prestige has given the pronouncements of professionals in this field an unjustified authority, and both collective morality and democracy have suffered as a result of untested and often untestable opinions being presented as reliable scientific findings. If pre-scientific and pseudo-scientific opinions can be readily sold to the public as science, they can all too easily be used to justify such policies as slavery, colonialism, Nazism, Communism and various newly popular forms of apartheid -- not to mention a host of well-intentioned but unworkable social programs. At the same time, people limited by a schooling deficient in reliable knowledge about human behavior are deprived of the opportunity to acquire means of applying valid scientific criteria to popular truth claims concerning our nature and our social relations. They are, in fact, being conditioned into gullibility. As Mario Bunge of the University of McGill has said, "Raise gullible sheep and you plow the ground for dictatorship."

Thomas Kuhn's work on the philosophy of science -- when combined with a knowledge of the history of ideas in the social studies -- indicates that we could have proceeded very differently. At the end of the nineteenth century the choice was clear. We could have continued building on the empirical, evolutionarily rooted, interactionist and systematic foundation spelled out by John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Emile Durkheim and others. It was a foundation that was necessarily interdisciplinary because it was grounded in our shared organic roots, the social imperatives driving and limiting all humans, and our species' joint cultural history. The alternative route was implied by the Romantic Idealists and recommended by transcendentalists such as Heinrich Rickert, Edmund Husserl and Max Weber. The first option required thinkers and researchers with in-depth knowledge across a wide spectrum of the life sciences, philosophy, history and the then-infant studies of anthropology, sociology and psychology. It required people trained in a scientific inquiry method which encouraged them, wherever reliable knowledge remains unavailable, to be satisfied with a disciplined process of trial and error -- so long as this is accompanied by careful observation and assessment of consequences in the light of some reasonable conjecture about probable connections. We needed Renaissance scholars who were committed to following wherever nature led, trial by trial and step after painstaking step: scholars who, while guided by a tentative, evolving set of explanations of how things might fit together in nature, were nonetheless willing to relinquish hypotheses in the face of refuting evidence. The second option -- the one implied by the dualistic transcendentalism of the prevailing intellectual culture -- was much less demanding. It required only a leap of faith into holistic rationalistic fictions based on the possibility of discovering the "essential" meaning of certain aspects of our psyche and behavior -- each by definition isolated from nature and from other separately designated "realms of being". It offered the promise of becoming a specialist in one small corner of the human condition without any awareness of how this might relate to anything else, and without any grasp of the knowledge from relevant organic sciences. It is not surprising, given our all-too-human predisposition for the "quick fix", that the second option won the day.

My goal during the decade-long task of researching and writing my new book, Leaving the Cave, was to identify these opposing traditions within social science, and to trace the influence -- throughout the history of Western thought -- of the one which I judge to be essential to any real progress in an interdisciplinary direction. Interdisciplinarity necessarily means more than merely encouraging individual students or professors to select whatever they choose to study from among an aggregate of unconnected opinions across a number of subject boundaries. Surely it must involve the building of authentically scientific studies. And the first thing we need to understand is the impossibility of deriving an authentically scientific social science from a philosophy that views the human mind as qualitatively unique and innately mysterious. This road leads only into the quicksands of mysticism. However, there is a potentially progressive alternative. A combination of the ideas of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn reveals a great deal about what it really means to be scientific. Above all, science would seem to be defined by an agreed-upon body of cumulative, reliable knowledge concerning factual, cause-and-effect relationships in that portion of nature on which the scholars concerned are focusing. A scientific body of knowledge is one that has been built up over the centuries by means of a universally accepted research process. It is a process demanding both accurate observation and the attempts at explanation that lead to fruitful theory. It requires the testing of hypotheses derived from such theories about how the relevant problem area is assumed to fit together and operate in the real world.

Assuming that we do wish to move in the direction of an interdisciplinary science, then, what is the role of theories and the hypotheses generated by them? And why is continuing research necessary? It is simply that, if scientific hypotheses fail to stand up to rigorous test -- that is, if they are consistently falsified -- then the theory which has generated them is called into question. We cannot have just any theory we want, or any theory that our ideologies or departmental politics dictate. In a study that is authentically scientific, that very nature of which we are attempting to know some small part, has a way of intervening. When the cause-and-effect relationships which a theory predicted do not pan out, nature is telling the researcher something. Things did not happen as they would have happened if the theory had been adequate. This message from nature leads, eventually, to a search for new and better explanations that are capable of producing predictable results -- and eventually, of being incorporated into more comprehensive and adequate theories. In an authentic science, researchers do not simply pile up isolated bits of information derived from simple observing and "counting" exercises -- although that may well be the way that all sciences have to begin. With progress, however, it is the facts to which the bits of data point that actually accumulate and thereby contribute to the evolution of the science in question. By scientific facts I mean not only observed events categorized within some publicly acknowledged meaning system, but documented regularities among these events -- expressed in the context of explanations as to the causal connections involved. Such facts emerge when sufficient data have been collected and examined, but they are not always immediately obvious. How many sailors had noted the way in which the lead ship disappeared over the horizon before it was recognized as a regularity that held in a universal sense -- and required explaining? Without this identification of regularities there can be no testable explanation of causal connections that can point the way to reliable knowledge. Masses of mere information, or data, do not amount to knowledge. Nor do the explanations (or theories built upon them) although such explanations are an essential aspect of and means to reliable scientific knowledge. What accumulates to form the body of knowledge of the science in question are facts or warranted assertions of experienced regularities: assertions that have been built up from the data of observation (ships moving away in the distance gradually sink out of sight). "Factual" assertions have invariably been rendered meaningful by theories (such as the geocentric, Hellenistic model of a two-sphere universe with the earth as a stationary sphere surrounded by a heavenly one). This theory not only explained why a ship's mast is the last to disappear, but led to many more discoveries about the movement of the stars and planets. Eventually, however, the very theory that had in the past encouraged further discoveries of facts was discarded and replaced with a new and more comprehensive systems of explanation -- the Copernican theory -- and the search went on.

Like the eggshell falling from the newborn chick -- or Marx's version of capitalism -- fruitful scientific theories sow the seeds of their own destruction by the very fact that they lead researchers to the testing of increasingly refined conjectures -- to the point, eventually, where scientists discover some new regularity among events in nature that the theory does not explain. In a situation where new (and temporarily unexplainable) findings are appearing and eventually proliferating, the science can be said to be going through a revolutionary phase, as Kuhn termed it . It is a period of treading water, in which a more adequate and comprehensive theory is sought to explain the anomalies, while the former theory still predominates and continues to "work" in most instances. By "work" I mean , of course, that it continues to allow the researchers to predict the consequences of their interventions. Their hypotheses still hold up. It helps to keep in mind that scientific propositions are "if-then" statements, unlike the descriptive ones of history and the tautological ones of logic and math. (This is why we talk about the reliability of science, rather than its truth or validity.) It is why we refer to confirmation rather than to proof. If we adjust circumstances in this specific way then -- according to our explanation or theory -- we expect a particular effect to follow. We can say that the explanation or theory has worked if the predicted effect did indeed occur.

It is because of this built-in process of inquiry and test for fitness that science is self-correcting. It is our protection from pure self-interested power-seeking on the part of individuals and from the fads and follies of ideology. It makes possible a gradual build-up of facts, some of which eventually reveal the need for a more comprehensive explanation. A scientific theory is considered to have functioned successfully if it opens the way for continuous refinement and elaboration -- and, ultimately, for its own replacement. An ideology would be viewed as a failure in such a case, for an ideology claims to represent the absolute truth, and the truth must be for all time.

But clearly, the circumstances recognized as typical of a science do not apply to the social studies. What I have just described has not yet occurred in any general way for the so-called social "sciences". In fact, our problem is that, during the entire twentieth century, the psychological and social studies have failed to evolve in this vital sense. Tragically for humanity, they have not become integrated into an identifiable discipline concerned with clearly delineated problem areas -- capable of producing tested knowledge of crucial cause-and-effect relationships in human behavior. Instead, they have fragmented in an arbitrary and historically accidental way into academic fiefdoms -- overlapping and competing with one another as they approach the study of identical problems in their conflicting and mutually incommensurable ways. Among them, and overriding these artificially derived subject boundaries, are a number of popular ideologies battling for dominance in what is essentially a political power struggle among the proponents of various points of view: all more-or-less unsubstantiated and equally untestable.

In the past, the most powerful of the ideologies controlling what was taught in social science departments were, at various times, Hegelianism, Marxism, Social Darwinism, Freudianism, Jungian psychoanalysis, phenomenology, existentialism and a number of variations on a perspective called "structuralism". More recently, the contenders doing battle have been new versions of these older ideologies going by the names of "ethnomethodology", "critical theory", "motivation theory", "constructivism", "the strong program": you name it! Ideas don't evolve in the social sciences, they only get recycled.

The most influential of the new faiths has emerged as a combination of extremist elements in feminism and those surviving remnants of Marxism, phenomenology, existentialism and psychoanalysis that have in the past energized the sociology of knowledge -- now known as the sociology of science. This faith goes under the umbrella of "postmodernism", and it is endemic throughout the humanities as well. Postmodernists insist that all knowledge claims are inescapably subjective. Their conclusions seem to allow for no method by which we can achieve intersubjectivity: no publicly agreed-upon way for knowing subjects to check out their privately held beliefs -- nor, in fact, to apply any objective criteria for judgment.

If today's postmodernists restricted their pessimistic conclusions to the social studies in their current state, the consequences would be damaging enough -- for their position would seem to allow for no progress whatsoever. But most postmodernists go much further. They imply that this state of affairs is as true of the highly tested theories of science (such as Darwinism) as it is of the imaginative, subjective yearnings of the solitary dreamer. We could, of course, all agree that a state of total objectivity is impossible -- there is nothing new about that discovery! Xenophanes and Protagoras were there long before! However, the postmodernists want to go considerably beyond that. It follows from their view that attempting to increase objectivity in research is neither a useful nor worthy aim. There is no such thing as more or less true or more or less reliable in the eyes of many postmodernists -- all is equally "motivational" or "relational" or "perspectivist" or "situational". One must "deconstruct" the total motivational "life world" of the researcher or writer rather than focus on the ideas or facts being presented.

One of the most ironic aspects of all this is that the postmodernists in social science claim to have reached these conclusions by following the ideas of Thomas Kuhn! In a fatal distortion of Kuhn's theory, they fail to recognize their own studies as examples of what he called merely "proto-scientific" enterprises -- and what Popper called "total ideologies". Instead, the postmodernist social scientists who claim to be building on Kuhn's insights begin by assuming that their own studies are fully fledged "sciences" in the revolutionary phase -- an explanation Kuhn considered applicable only to authentic established sciences. He had restricted the concept of "paradigm" to the common conceptual framework which has evolved for a specific problem area in such a science -- the universally accepted explanatory system guiding the designing and interpreting of the research therein. However, the postmodernists used the term to refer both to philosophical world views and to any and all of the equally untested competing "models" in their field. Not surprisingly, their distortion of Kuhn led these theorists to conclude that all so-called scientific paradigms are equally ideological and therefore equally subjective.

Postmodernists reject the traditional academic canon as well as traditional subject boundaries dividing studies of the human condition, and it is here -- and only here -- that I agree with them. However, I believe that there is a scientific, rather than merely an ideological, way to become interdisciplinary. It is found in the current of thought traced in my book, Leaving the Cave. I am saying that there is, in fact, an alternative tradition that deserves the title of canon for the social sciences. And, moreover, that there is in this canon the source of an authentically scientific paradigm for our field of study: something that we have never yet achieved. (We have an over-abundance of competing, incommensurable models, many aimed at conceptualizing identical problem areas, but that is a very different thing.) I believe that there is, in the works of the long line of naturalistic and evolutionary thinkers identified in this book -- and in modern evolutionary science as well -- the outlines of thoroughly scientific foundation for the social/psychological studies. This is the current of thought that I refer to as evolutionary naturalism.

What the great theorists dealt with in my book had in common was that (for the most part) they were nominalists rather than essentialists, empirical realists rather than rationalistic idealists, naturalistic rather than mystical, agnostic rather than teleological, and analytic and systematic rather than holistic thinkers. However, a few were brilliant but contradictory giants who straddled both world views and contributed, along with their pro-scientific ideas, to ideologies that pushed the social sciences into what I call "evolutionary dead ends". These were closed belief systems such as Marxism, Social Darwinism, Bergsonian "vitalism"and psychoanalysis, along with numerous versions of transcendental mysticism, romantic idealism with its fascist offshoots, and anti-science existentialism -- right down to today's reigning postmodernism. Without a thorough immersion in the writings of these people there is no way that modern students of social science can understand the obstacles now facing their chosen field of study.

Finally, I attempt to show how the ideas of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn on the evolution of science provide a crucial plank in the emerging paradigm that has been building through the ages. It is a paradigm which has now been firmly grounded in the life sciences by modern evolutionary theorists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson. My conclusion from this project is that the philosophy of evolutionary naturalism offers a paradigm capable of providing, for the first time ever, the basis for a sound scientific theory of human behavior and culture. But we have yet to initiate the very first step.

In my opinion, that first step is what research in any interdisciplinary social science should be mainly concerning itself at this time. It is the establishment of a common language community among all those working on any specific problem area. I suggest that researchers deal with this as a prerequisite for any data-gathering efforts. If a research hypothesis is to be scientifically adequate it must meet two requirements: replicable refutability and meaningfulness. Regarding the first criterion, if there is no way in which the researcher's conjecture can be tested so that the process can be repeated and possibly falsified by others, then there is no way that the results can be considered reliable. That is why a common language community defining the relevant problem area in specific, universally agreed-upon terminology is the first prerequisite, and spelling out the operationalization of these terms for the particular research project is the essential next step.

The second criterion is a reminder that, in order to be meaningful, the regularity in nature unearthed by the hypothesis in question must be explainable in terms of some larger system of relations -- in other words, some theory which logically implies the specific proposition being tested and which, therefore, will be either supported or falsified by the findings. It is this that allows our findings to be cumulative -- and thereby to contribute to a body of knowledge. All this can happen only if every piece of research is a part of some larger picture: ultimately the paradigm within which all the researchers on the specific problem are working. Here it is today's interdisciplinary thinkers who have the running start, for authentic scientific paradigms organizing and explaining specific problem areas as they occur in the real world of practical experience are extremely unlikely to follow the arbitrary lines now separating the human/social disciplines.

Does this mean that there is no place in the early stages of interdisciplinary research for careful observation and the rigorous documentation of results? Not at all. Jean Piaget showed how just such an approach can identify previously unnoticed regularities in human relations: regularities that invite the tentative explanations capable of leading, ultimately, to more adequate theory. The exhaustive observations, made by Piaget and his wife, of the behaviors of their own three children from infancy on led to the devising of universally applicable tests that proved capable of indicating just what type of experience is most conducive to learning at each particular stage of cognitive development. As Piaget demonstrated, as soon as we move from the categorization of observed events to the identification of regularities among these events, we are encountering the need for explanation of our findings. It was the Piagets' explanations of their data that led to workable strategies for encouraging learning. It is here that we encounter problems of adequacy if our explanatory concepts are drawn only from one of the isolated disciplines. Piaget was by inclination and education an interdisciplinary thinker, so he turned at once to explanations, for what he had observed in his children, that were based on information from all the relevant subject areas. But very few social scientists, today, have the background for this.

A good example of the problems involved in most current research is the Minnesota Twins Study of some years ago, which claimed to have discovered that about 50% of "religiosity" is inherited. When I questioned this finding I was asked if I was challenging the accuracy of the researchers' observations or their statistical analyses. I said no, I was challenging their interpretation of what had been observed in the first place. They had measured such things as church attendance and admitted belief in God, and had found them to be positively correlated for identical twins in widely dispersed adoptive families; whereas no such correlation held for mere siblings raised apart. I was willing to accept that something in the biological makeup of the separated twins may have instigated their willingness to attend church -- in situations where Christian churches were the most readily available and socially approved venue, as well as the most favored by the screening process preceding the original adoption. It was the researchers' categorization of these behaviors as indicators of a heritable, psychological trait called "religiosity" that bothered me. Some heritable trait may have underlain the urge which manifested itself as religious activity in a culture conducive to that. But one could explain that urge in a variety of ways. A need for the certainty provided by final answers, perhaps -- or a need to make sense out of experience -- which a total mythology might satisfy, where no alternative world view was available. These needs or drives might possibly result in quite different behaviors in different cultural settings. To call this "religiosity" without a rigorous definition of the concept which included all the social and cultural influences bearing on the complex of behaviors and attitudes denoted by the term was irresponsible and misleading, I thought. Why not call it a philosophizing propensity, for example -- or a scientific one?

It is highly unlikely that any complex human behavior can be explained satisfactorily within any one among the profusion of models featured by our current isolated social disciplines. Each relies on numerous unrecognized and untested assumptions concerning matters in the others' bailiwicks, and about which the researchers involved know nothing. This is why the overriding imperative for an interdisciplinary study is conceptual clarification, so that at least we can have some confidence that we are discussing and observing the same events. Conceptual clarification involves the study of the findings and concepts available thus far from all relevant disciplines concerning the particular problem being studied -- with the ultimate aim of achieving a common language community. I decided a long time ago that the key problem area for the social sciences was the nature of learning -- including the interrelated effects upon it of maturation, transaction with the physical environment and socialization. I am still working on this. I still feel that, until we achieve a common language to describe and explain the complex process by which humans acquire beliefs and values -- that is, the human socialization process -- we cannot really begin to develop an interdisciplinary social science. It's not easy, but I am convinced that it is the only way to go.

The interdisciplinary, systematic and evolutionarily based paradigm that I am proposing here has a twenty-six-century tradition behind it -- and I have attempted to trace that tradition in my book. With such a paradigm and such a tradition professors and researchers in the social studies would at long last be in a position to establish legitimate scholarly criteria for selecting their curriculum content and research projects. With such a paradigm and such a tradition, the social studies would be poised for take-off from proto-science to a rigorous interdisciplinary, unified science capable of producing reliable and cumulative knowledge about the human condition. They would have evolved finally into the tool for wise, adaptive problem solving so crucial for the future of our species, and our imperiled eco-system.

  1. Presented by Pat Duffy Hutcheon as the keynote address to a Conference on Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia in April, 1997.