The mother of the social sciences

Introduction: What is Human Science?

Human Science predates and is, in an analogy I use for a couple purposes here, the “mother” of the social sciences, including communication (in some contexts), political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and economics. It is, intentionally broadly (and probably the only way I could have gotten through a Ph.D. program), about the experience of being human in social contexts, which sometimes leads people to confuse the mother with one or more of her children.

But no, as a mother who gave birth to these children, the social sciences, Human Science is not any of her children. Moreover, even as the social sciences have flourished (prior to neoliberalism, anyway), they ignore their mother. Which is why it is highly likely you’ve never heard of her.

Transdisciplinarity

Human Science is transdisciplinary or, as I prefer it, post-disciplinary. Where interdisciplinary studies start from the perspective of a single discipline and seek to reach into other disciplines, transdisciplinarity starts from its own, distinct perspective—the mother, in contrast to her children. Post-disciplinarity takes this a step further, critiquing the disciplines for what you’ll sometimes see referred to within academia as “siloization.”

There are a number of problems with the specialization of disciplines in the social sciences—and here is where my mother-children analogy breaks down:

  1. A mother can usually distinguish between her children. With the social sciences, the distinctions between these disciplines are, as communication scholars say of language generally, abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous. What, for example, is the difference between sociology and anthropology? Is it that sociology tends to focus on European culture and anthropology focuses on “other” cultures, especially those colonially considered “primitive?” However you manage to distinguish these disciplines, that distinction is and will be fraught.
  2. So when, inevitably, scholars transgress the boundaries between these disciplines, they lack the necessary background for doing so. And they can make rookie mistakes, some of which are truly astounding. For example, as a general rule, in the question of nature versus nurture, social scientists lean heavily towards nurture. (This, by the way, is one reason gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals have had trouble gaining acceptance for their claim to have been “born that way.”) So it was astounding to read, as I did in my undergraduate career, a human development textbook that relied heavily on biological causes. I have also seen published articles that relied on a linear communication model that was, at least at the time of my undergraduate career, still taught but dismissed as simplistic and outdated. Discrepancies of this sort are rife within the literature and rarely addressed because (surprise, surprise!) peer reviewers are typically from the very same disciplines, with the very same biases, as authors.[1]
  3. In this way, siloization of disciplines fails to yield necessary corrections as the advance of “knowledge” progresses.

The Human Science “value proposition”

As a Human Scientist, there are five major and interrelated aspects to what I do:

  • Critical Theory, heavily focusing on power relationships: That distinction I drew between sociology and anthropology sounds awfully Eurocentric, because it is Eurocentric. Who are the scholars? Typically well-off Europeans or people of European origin, historically, and in some ways still, colonizers. It would be absurdly naïve to suggest there is no bias here.
  • Epistemology, the question of how one “knows” what they claim to know: There is a huge problem in that there is no theory of truth that withstands scrutiny. So-called objectivity, a “God’s eye” view, is simply hubris. We do not, in fact, know what we claim to know. But nonetheless, claiming such objectivity, too many “scientists” disparage other ways of knowing and other ways of inquiry: Positivism (so-called “scientific method”) relies on circular reasoning, discarding alternative ways of (“subjective”) knowing and (“non-scientific”) inquiry to affirm its own “knowledge” and methods of inquiry with no valid rationale, constraining its validity in addressing ways of knowing that are not “scientific.” Bias, again, but really, also, a colonial approach to knowledge that disrespects its “subjects.”
  • Representation: I seek to represent people as they would seek to be represented. I try to understand their ways of knowing. I observe the power relationships that affect them. And yes, I critique all of it, but generally (not always) with respect (no respect is due those who abuse others).
  • Qualitative inquiry, in contrast to quantitative inquiry: At the very least, I understand quantitative results as questions, misleading due to their inherent superficiality. Quantitative research needs to be followed up with a qualitative approach to better understand what the numbers tell us or, as it may turn out, fail to tell us.
  • Storytelling: My old department chair and dissertation committee member, JoAnn McAllister, likes to highlight story as what I think she sees as the heart of Human Science. But it isn’t just story as, perhaps, an English major might tell it: Our storytelling needs to incorporate all of the above aspects of our inquiry, namely, critical theory, epistemology, representation, and qualitative inquiry. This isn’t telling a story just to make people feel good, but about representing people as they would be represented, understanding how they ‘know’ what they claim to know, and examining the power relationships and the larger context that make up that story. I seek to thoroughly understand that story and to tell it richly.

All this leads to a humility about scholarship and “knowledge.” We hope to offer insights, highly educated and meticulously studied insights, but insights nonetheless, from a perspective apart from individual social sciences. We will never be uniquely “right.” What we will be is different, just as the mother gives birth to but should never be lost in her children.

  1. [1]For more, see David Benfell, “Transdisciplinarity and the hazards of peer review,” not Housebroken, August 3, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/03/transdisciplinarity-and-the-hazards-of-peer-review/