Anthropology Science

Hidden values in the social sciences

As anyone who has taken at least my introduction to anthropology (and most probably any introduction to anthropology), the idea that there are hidden agendas or ideologies in social scientific analysis is not novel. In my class, we read Stephen J. Gould’s fascinating account of the early physical anthropologists to explore how subjective biases enter into seemingly objective research. It’s easy to see this problem in turn-of-the-century brain size measurer’s. It’s a lot harder to see, though, in contemporary studies that use a tremendous amount of mathematics and statistical manipulation, especially when our exposure (and attention span) is limited to the quick sound bite of new media.

I’m sure it’s still difficult for our representatives in congress to evaluate the pronouncements of academics who seek to promote a particular course of action, despite their more lengthy exposure during committee meetings and hearings – events that are accompanied by reams of text that a sane, busy person probably cannot properly fully digest.

Comic from PhD Commics on  the differences between the humanities and social sciences

In the New York Times, Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt overviews the different ways in which “value judgments masquerade as science.” Here’s a quick take on some of the points that he makes:

The predicament of economics and all other social sciences consists in their failure to acknowledge honestly their value orientation in their pathetic and inauthentic pretension to emulate the natural sciences they presume to be value free.

Actually, this is a quote by Kim and Yoon in another publication that Reinhardt cites, but I like it. Since I am not an economist, I was unfamiliar with what he cites as a major assumption used by economists in establishing the social value of a particular economic decision – the Kaldor Hicks criterion. Reinhardt writes:

By the Kaldor-Hicks criterion, a public policy is judged to enhance economic efficiency and overall social welfare — and therefore is to be recommended by economists to decision-makers — if those who gain from the policy could potentially bribe those who lose from it into accepting it and still be better off (Kaldor), or those who lose from it were unable to bribe the gainers into forgoing the policy (Hicks). That the bribe was not paid merely underscores the point.

This appetizer of economic theory is quite intriguing, and as a social scientist who needs to talk to economists, I need to explore this some more. In this sense, economists are ahead of anthropologists (Kaldor/Hicks is from the 1930s). While we anthropologists have dealt extensively with issues of subjectivity and objectivity in our field-based research, we haven’t does as much trying to lay out particular, detailed structures that embed our values in our analysis. Instead, we try to cling to the black box of “cultural relativity.” I know that as a field we have been struggling with this issue, and have explored in more macro and philosophical terms the epistemological problems of the anthropological approach, but perhaps, like the economists, we need to risk laying out particular models that shape our thinking.

When Value Judgments Masquerade as Science, NYT