Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Restoring the ambition of the social sciences

Peter Hall's sweeping assessment of the transformation of American social science over the last six decades contains some heroic overgeneralizations, but also identifies something profound about constricted political vision of post-Mod Theory American social science:

Shifts in the social sciences have also fueled political cynicism and eroded confidence in the possibility of alternative political projects. The ghost in the machine is the loss of faith in the modernist political vision that animated social science until the 1970s. That vision embraced Enlightenment ideals, regarded agitation on behalf of a working class as one of its best expressions, and saw the state as the political vehicle for realizing such aspirations. One by one, each of these pillars has crumbled under an acid intellectual rain....

The collapse of the modernist ideal has also left social science without a firm sense of political agency. Post-modernism cannot supply it. There is something oddly similar between the radicalism of Michel Foucault and the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott. Each sees the webs we weave as such complex constructions that it seems foolhardy to imagine disassembling them. Both find something risible in projects of reform. (p. 19-20)

I think Hall gets his causality backwards: it's not that methodological shifts in the social sciences have led to the collapse of utopian or even meliorist hopes and ideas, but rather that the ideological collapse of Enlightenment ideals have precipitated a narrowing of methodological ambition.

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