The Social Sciences and Scale

The following are some preliminary thoughts on scale, epistemology, the social/human sciences, and philosophy spurred by some recent reading on the web.

A recent article raised the question about the purpose of the social sciences. One of the criticisms raised by the authors is the sheer scale of the social science research literature. According to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database there are at least 3000 social science journals which are publishing tens of thousands of articles per year. There is no way for any individual researcher to keep up with the massive number of articles that are being written every year. Even within a specific discipline, such as economics, there is a new article published every 25 minutes. The authors conclude “Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.”

I’m not surprised by these numbers. The scale of intellectual production outstripped the capabilities of any single individual to understand or follow many decades ago, perhaps even centuries ago. The literature on information overload shows that people have been worrying about the problem for hundreds of years. This historical perspective makes me a bit less worried about our condition today.

I don’t think there has ever been a time when a person or even a tight community of intellectuals ever had a comprehensive handle on the world as a whole. For one thing there are limits on human perception. There is not enough time for a single person to travel over the surface of the Earth or to meet all of the people who are alive. Nor was there enough time in the past for any person to do this. Even with modern means of travel there just isn’t enough time in one lifetime to accomplish any of these goals. And this matters to our understanding of the world if we, as social scientists, really believe that the individual understanding of each person matters.

Even if one eschews the arguments for qualitative research and interpretive social sciences there are still incredible burdens for understanding the world. Data collection is incredibly difficult. For most of the history of the social sciences we have relied upon statistical sampling in order to get some sense of the aggregate human story. But those methods have always been incomplete. The big data era may begin to change some of this but we are very far away from being able to poll every human being in the world.

My point is that our understanding of the world, even through the lens of the social sciences, has always been incomplete. In fact, I would argue that it may always be incomplete or partial. Could we ever have a detailed ethnography of every person’s life? We can assume that people share a lot of their experiences and traits with others, in fact that is the only way to think that an aggregate can tell us anything about the human world.

So if our understanding of the world is still profoundly limited even with 3000 social science journals publishing articles every minute of the day, why should we expect the understanding of a single researcher to even matter?

The idea that there are too many social science journals runs contradictory to my humanistic principles about the value of individual experience. We could just as easily say that there are too many people in the world for us to understand how human beings think or feel.

In the end the worry about information overload, about the size of the social sciences, is a worry about the incomprehensible scale of the world. The world is always already beyond our imaginings and our comprehension. Hamlet was correct when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of your philosophy.”

The hope of all the science, social and natural, is that we can reduce the blooming and buzzing confusion of the world to something more manageable. A set of ideas that we can share with each other in a book or a journal article. But reductionism has a cost - the loss of detail and quirk, the removal of the outlier for the average, the fitting of the model to the data. I don’t think we should worry about the dangers of information overload because the problem is not one we can solve. We are limited human beings, limited by our ontologies, our epistemologies, and our biologies. We just can’t achieve the reduction we so fervently hope for, without losing or destroying what we hoped to understand.