By Scott Burris
Over the weekend, my social science friends were all emailing about Nicholas Christakis’ op ed about how we should “shake up the social sciences.” On one level, the piece is easy to mock. Christakis makes a big deal out of the contrast between the academic organization of the natural and social sciences: the former have hybridized: “Departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology have disappeared, replaced by innovative departments of stem-cell biology, systems biology, neurobiology and molecular biophysics.” In contrast, sociology is still sociology, economics is still economics, etc. So? As one friend notes, Chistakis’ own Yale Sociology Department sure seems to be keeping up with the interdisciplinary times:
Well, so, the sociology department in which Christakis now sits describes its scholarly endeavor as follows: “Comparative and Historical Sociology; Culture/Knowledge; Economic Sociology and Organizations; Family/Gender/Sexuality; Global, Regional and Transnational Sociology; Health, Medicine, and Biosocial Interactions; Law and Criminology; Methods; Political Sociology and Social Movements; Race and Ethnicity; Religion; Social Networks; Social Stratification; Theory.”
Whatever that all amounts to, I think it’s slightly disingenuous to suggest that this enterprise is somehow fettered and hampered by calling it “sociology”, or by the fact that its practitioners (including Christakis) call themselves “sociologists,” or by having an academic department that’s indulgent and elastic enough to claim all these people and pay them for teaching and being public intellectuals that write op-eds in the New York Times.
Even more grin-worthy is his claim that we should declare knowledge victory and move on to new topics: “everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class.” Another friend sends that up like this:
This is wonderful news. Somehow I missed it in all the papers, but it appears that we’ve agreed on the basic mechanics of macroeconomics and understand exactly how much government spending is needed to keep an economy out of recession. Thank goodness that subject is ‘settled’. Time to move on. Next, we can put the basic economics of healthcare to rest. For that to happen all we have to do is not change how we pay for healthcare, not give patients new rights, not allow any new diseases, and — most importantly — not develop new cures for existing diseases.