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The Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network
9/26/2003, Vol. 50 Issue 5

The Global Reach of American Social Science

By Lisa Anderson

Earlier this year, the conviction of Egypt's most prominent sociologist on charges of having "tarnished" the country's image, by conducting and disseminating social-science research that risked revealing flaws in the government's political and economic policies, was overturned after a long legal struggle. Ever the social scientist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim had spent his incarceration acutely observing the society of prisoners; upon release, he promptly resumed his suspended research and his commitment to enlarging the arena in which social science can be conducted.

It seemed like a happy ending to a sordid story and, indeed, for Ibrahim and his many supporters, it was. Yet his arrest was far from exceptional. Social scientists around the world are routinely harassed merely for practicing too well what they learned to do in graduate school. Typically, we consider that a matter of academic freedom -- which it surely is -- but too often we stop there, failing to consider the implications not only for the practitioners of social science but for the nature of the study itself. Yet the very success of the social sciences in approaching their universalist ambitions provides us the perspective to see how profoundly parochial the project we know as social science has been until now.

Ultimately, the story of the spread of social science around the world represents yet another chapter in the at once foreign and familiar story of the liberal order. The ideas and the institutions that animate social-science research today grew out of a historically and culturally specific commitment to a sort of traditional American liberalism, one that was simultaneously skeptical of, and reliant upon, the state; unselfconscious in its embrace of both the rhetoric of equality and the reality of privilege, and supremely confident in the susceptibility of social problems to human intervention. Taken together and rarely examined, those ideas allowed the flowering of a remarkable intellectual project over the last century.

It is, however, a project unlikely to be sustained in the next decades in the face of the challenges posed by new entrants around the world in the formulation, advocacy, and management of knowledge. Unless American social scientists acknowledge and embrace the liberal origins of their enterprise, they will find themselves estranged from colleagues and, perhaps more important, they will find their science impoverished.

To see how specifically American the social sciences we know today actually are, it is, as always, useful to begin at the beginning. During the 19th century, what we now recognize as the social sciences began to differentiate themselves from other forms of inquiry and from each other, slowly in Europe and then more energetically in the United States. Especially during the latter part of the century, the reformist impulse in the United States promoted social research in the service of moral and societal improvement. For Americans, science seemed to support the cause of liberalism, by breaking the yoke of tradition, questioning authority, and celebrating the individual, both as citizen and, ultimately, as what we have come to know as "unit of analysis." Liberalism, in turn, supported the pursuit of science: Freedom of belief, assembly, and expression were important prerequisites to unfettered inquiry.

The association of American universities with the country's growing liberal and capitalist interests not only fostered a particular approach to social inquiry, it also fueled the rapid expansion of higher education, which in turn provided receptive audiences and gainful employment for social scientists. By the beginning of the 20th century, the social-science disciplines were well on their way to institutionalization.

Perhaps not surprisingly, economics was the first to distinguish itself, as it superseded the "political economy" favored by the likes of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx throughout most of the 19th century. The abandonment of the political reflected a growing conviction that economic behavior was less a response to historically specific ideas and institutions than the reflection of a universal individual psychology whose workings were accessible to modern science. For American liberalism, the assumption of the existence of discoverable regularities in social behavior was an affirmation of its abstract and formal egalitarianism and individualism, and it was quickly embraced as entirely compatible with 19th- and early-20th-century capitalism.

American sociology reflected its origins in social-reform movements in its concern with the social consequences of modernity; its commitment to "science," however, was no less deep than that of economics. As the editor of the American Journal of Sociology, Albion W. Small, wrote in introducing the first issue in 1895, contributors would "express their best thoughts upon discoverable principles of societary relationship, in such a way that they might assist all intelligent men in taking the largest possible view of their rights and duties as citizens."

Political science remained more closely allied with the older disciplines of law, philosophy, and history, but it, too, began to emerge as a distinct enterprise at the end of the century, partly in reaction to the development of economics. The abandonment of political economy left politics as a residue and, in suggesting that the democratic state and the capitalist market operate by distinctive logics, created a domain for a separate science of politics. Political science retained a formalistic, institutional orientation, however, and severed its link to training practitioners more slowly than its sister disciplines, concentrating on the technical aspects of administration and the institutions of democracy.

Early-20th-century economics, sociology, and, to a lesser extent, political science also found common cause in relegating history to a separate discipline: They were about now -- a universal, scientific, transcendent present. For Americans, particularly, history had little explanatory power and was useful only insofar as its examples confirmed the universality of the laws the new sciences seemed to be rapidly uncovering. (Note how, even today, the international-relations subfield of political science uses history that way -- to provide "cases" that prove, or at least illustrate, general propositions, not as an explanatory approach in itself.)

So, too, economics, sociology, and political science were about here, about the societies of the scientists themselves. That there were other economic, social, and political forms was acknowledged only by their unapologetic relegation to anthropology. The concern with other times and places that characterized history and anthropology meant that those disciplines remained guests in the scientific study of society, too devoted to the particular, the specific, the local to be full members, but nonetheless important repositories of what would otherwise have been very inconvenient "data sets."

For much of the 20th century -- and thanks to the expansion of the American university system and the generous support of the distinctly American institution, the large private foundation -- American social scientists constructed a special position for themselves in society, distant from the compromising fray of both politics and the market, yet engaged in what seemed to be disinterested service on behalf of social progress through science. Early beneficiaries of the privileges of what would become known as the nonprofit sector, they were beholden to neither business nor government but, in the world wars and through the Great Depression, participated eagerly in the great projects of constructing the welfare state at home and projecting American power abroad.

Seconded from their universities and supported by foundations, social scientists populated Franklin Roosevelt's "brain trust"; sociologists and economists pioneered the quantitative methods in sampling surveys and national accounting that would provide the basis of the federal government's Keynesian policies for decades. American political scientists (and lawyers) participated in the design and assessment of repeated institutional experiments to prevent war and encourage international development on the American model of the liberal nation-state, not least of all the United Nations.

Indeed, the growing recognition of American interests and obligations around the world on the part of social scientists provoked the development of an intellectual device to include foreign lands within the province of contemporary social science without challenging its scientific pretensions: what came to be known as area studies. Area studies played an important role in sustaining the disciplines in the face of all the awkward data that had earlier been relegated to history and anthropology. Quite naturally, history and anthropology, as well as humanistic disciplines -- comparative literature, art history, ethnomusicology -- were disproportionately represented in area studies, while economics, sociology, and political science exhibited discomfort with the field.

By the 1960s, popular revolts against both domestic and foreign policy in the United States revealed the contradictions in the effort to reconcile aspirations to claim both scientific standing and policy influence. In response, social scientists surrendered the intimate association with public policy they had enjoyed since their inception and turned instead to building self-reinforcing communities of scientific professionals, organized around the disciplines that had emerged 75 years earlier. Theory and methodology triumphed over applied work as proficiency in econometrics, formal modeling, game theory, or network analysis became the kind of standard by which social scientists expected to be assessed. Aspirations to have an impact on policy came to be suspect, a token of a lack of serious commitment to the discipline. The liberal belief in service for a public or common good that had been at the heart of the social sciences faded so as to be almost unrecognizable.

Except -- and this is important -- if you see social science from a distance. And more and more people do.

For the last half century or so, American social science has been exported around the world at an accelerating pace. In Europe, even after World War II, there remained considerable resistance to Americanization, but, in Britain for example, the expansion of universities and national research councils in the 1960s created room, as it had a century earlier in the United States, for new "modern" conceptions of social science to find departmental homes and disciplinary expression. In Africa, post-independence governments built national universities in the 1960s and 1970s, banning the study of anthropology in a sort of refusal to be relegated to the terrain outside the here and now.

By the 1990s, virtually every country in the world boasted a national university system, and the number of countries that were closed to international social-science researchers had dwindled to a handful. Economic performance was widely seen as correlated with levels and quality of higher education, and national investment in universities was taken as a signal of intent to compete globally. Indeed, spending on the social sciences in higher education was higher among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries than in the United States itself.

At the same time, the cold-war notion that Americans, or any other nationals, studied "foreigners" -- whether allies or enemies -- was superseded by the conception of social science as collaboration across borders. Area studies was transformed, as the era when an American graduate student could earn a doctorate merely for having been the first to conduct field research in a particular place receded in favor of new research patterns. Large-scale data archives promised to facilitate crossnational, crossregional, and international comparative research.

That was all a reflection of the global reach of American social science. Part of the appeal of American social science was its association with American power -- and, ironically, its apparently apolitical, technocratic, scientific character. Although the aggregate number of Ph.D.'s produced in the United States remained fairly stable in the 1970s and 1980s, the proportion of U.S. citizens earning those degrees declined. Americans accounted for about two-thirds of the economics doctorates in 1977 but less than half of the total by 1989, and, by 2000, a number of distinguished economics departments had no Americans at all among their first-year students. That, in turn, meant that American social scientists who studied democratic institutions, urban politics, labor markets, industrial organization, adolescent behavior, family policy, and myriad other issues increasingly found themselves on research teams that took them -- literally and figuratively -- outside the United States, often at the invitation of former students.

Thus, the export of American social science has had implications for the shape and coherence of social science itself. The "not here" bias is beginning to dissolve, and the demands placed on social scientists to confront -- not to say understand -- the limits of their universal categories are increasing.

It is not, after all, self-evident that the parliaments of Latin America and the capital markets of Southeast Asia operate exactly the way their American counterparts do, nor is it clear what those differences might mean for the study of "democracy" in the abstract or "finance" in general. The dissolution of the "not here" puts pressure, of course, on the "not now," although it has not quite yet had a transformative effect, as is apparent in the way culture and history are deployed as residual explanations, dismissively said to account for virtually everything that is otherwise unpredicted or unexplained by the conventional theory and methods, from ethnic conflict to religious revival. Nonetheless, the challenges posed by the varied ways societies outside the United States organize and describe themselves are contributing to the increasing interest in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Understanding democracy or finance requires not just the tools of political science or economics but sociology, and often anthropology and history as well, as researchers explore how networks of legislators or investors develop, coalesce, and reorganize in particular settings.

Despite the signs of pressure on the American organizational framework for social science, American patterns of disciplinary and area-studies organization are still reproduced around the world: The Arab Sociological Association was founded in 1983 and the International Association for the Study of Persian-Speaking Societies in 1996, to give but two examples.

Whether those associations will be able to transcend the parochialism of the organization of knowledge that produced them is an open question. Disciplinary predicates and the legacies of area studies, reflecting the tendencies of American social scientists to write about other countries as diverging from the norm, continue to haunt many research collaborations. As one of my American economist colleagues recently remarked, it was not long ago that he realized that the countries of the world are not organized alphabetically. American-style national accounts are so elegant in their parsimony that they carry a measure of authority even in the face of ample evidence that factors they omit, including geography, demography, and -- let us admit it -- history, play an important role in shaping national economies. For their part, political scientists continue to favor democracy, often defining other regime types by what democratic institutions and practices they do not have. The British political scientist Fred Halliday once put it: "There is nothing less international than the national prejudices of the powerful."

At the dawn of the 21st century, therefore, we face a quandary, one of which, ironically, few American scholars are even aware. American social-scientific approaches and methods are widely, though not universally, accepted by national governments and by the cosmopolitan elite of international finance and trade and international advocacy and cooperation. Beyond that elite, however, the influence of social science is uneven. To an important degree, its strength depends, as it did at the outset, on the strength of the state and of liberal values.

That represents the real challenge presented by the globalization of American social science -- its association with liberalism.

As we have seen, American-style social science emphasizes the individual, relies on freedom of belief and association, and challenges authority. Those values are routinely assumed to be universal, especially in our post-cold-war triumphalist frame of mind. But they are not, of course, really so. As a result, the cleavage between scientific communities and their societies that is apparent even in the United States is far deeper in much of the rest of the world. Where literacy is not a foregone conclusion, "numeracy" is often even less common, and, in many places, miracles are as likely to define human purpose, identity, and interest as probabilities. There are societies where the market has hardly ever operated and the modern state is virtually unknown; in such places, the social sciences as we know them often make little sense.

National governments in such circumstances make policy based not on the research-produced knowledge that presumes social-scientific conceptions of human society, but on a knowledge that relies on religious revelation, personal intuition, family history, or household networks. Social science has virtually no role in the creation or assessment of public policy in that context, which goes a long way to explain why, to use one of my favorite examples, The Economist magazine could report in 1998 that, when asked what the country's inflation rate was, neither the governor of the Central Bank of Libya nor his director of research knew the answer.

In such settings, the work of providing appropriate training, congenial work settings, and other institutional support for social science is a profoundly political act. While the intimate association of public policy with social science, and with the liberal assumptions of social science, may rarely be questioned by the world's social scientists themselves, it is often apparent to skeptical (or cynical) governments.

That the universalizing ambitions of the social sciences were born in, and reliant on, a particularly American liberalism is conspicuous. As a 1999 UNESCO report suggests: "To be a social scientist in the Middle East is, in some contexts, equivalent to associating oneself with an entire set of highly politicized positions. These concern public-policy debates on issues such as gender relations, family planning, health and welfare policies, as well as concerns relating to the relationship between the Muslim world and the West; how to explain social change; and whether agency is situated within individuals or in the demands of the Islamic faith."

That problem has not been unique to the Middle East. In the mid-1990s, conducting internationally supported surveys on environmental pollution caused Russian scholars to face charges of treason. In 2002, several Chinese historians were imprisoned, accused of illegally publishing books and leaking state secrets, for research on topics like Chinese relations with North Korea.

Scholars seeking to deploy the methods of social science to address urgent policy issues -- to do, in other words, what the social sciences were originally designed to do -- routinely find themselves in jeopardy. That is not because governments do not wish to address pressing policy questions, from environmental degradation and AIDS to job creation and prison conditions, although sometimes they might not, nor even because the findings of social-science research risk embarrassing them, although they certainly could. The reluctance of many governments around the world to embrace social science is because the very project rests on liberal assumptions about which many rulers are, at best, ambivalent. Insofar as social science is predicated on challenging tradition, questioning authority, and exercising freedoms of belief and expression, it is by its very nature subversive everywhere liberalism is not firmly rooted.

The extent to which these issues are largely invisible to American social scientists reflects how much their social science is still rooted in the "here and now" -- that is, in the United States of the 20th century. The liberalism that shaped social science is not an abstract, transcendent tradition but one that has, as we have seen, a geographical, territorial, and -- probably -- temporal association.

Yet the American triumphalism that characterized the immediate post-cold-war period is still reflected in the universalizing ambitions of American social science. Despite what should have been one of the principal findings of area studies, the collapse of communism, and the end of the cold war, the accompanying political and economic transitions from Latin America to Eastern Europe have seemed simply to open new opportunities for American-style social science.

In a 1996 issue of the newsletter of the comparative-politics section of the American Political Science Association, for example, a noted rational-choice theorist, Barry Ames, wrote: "From my perspective as a Latin Americanist, the state of comparative politics looks pretty good. Latin American political science, at least, is undergoing a renaissance. The return of competitive politics has renewed interest in parties, public opinion, elections, and legislative behavior; the stuff, in other words, of modern political science." That remarkable equation of the institutions of liberal politics with the research domain of modern political science suggests that authoritarian regimes, kinship networks, kings, cliques, clients, religious communities, terrorist networks, and informal economies are unfit subjects for systematic political research.

Small wonder, then, that American political scientists have been ill-equipped to account for the rise of political Islam, or, for that matter, that American economists know virtually nothing about how the informal economies in which the vast majority of the world's people live actually work.

For many social scientists who study politics, economics, and society at the margins of the liberal world, the differences with the American "here" are not just academic: They are deprived not only of their scientific authority and policy platform but of their personal freedom -- as the story of Saad Eddin Ibrahim illustrates. Although his conviction was overturned, his saga served as a warning to all Egyptian social scientists of the tenuousness of their enterprise. Important as his story is for Egypt, and for all social scientists working outside the realm of "competitive politics," the failure of American researchers to recognize the different circumstances that their colleagues face around the world -- intellectual, political, moral, as well as logistical -- impoverishes not only the quality of international collaboration, but social science itself.

Much of this story is fairly bleak, a saga of self-deception, of sciences far less universal than their practitioners know. Yet there may be something to be said for the liberal impulse -- particularly its attachment to the power of the "marketplace of ideas" -- that animated the founders of the modern social sciences. Thanks precisely to the universalization of our sciences, we are beginning to be far more self-conscious about our project of social inquiry, about what "area knowledge" means, about how we understand not only "the rest of the world" but ourselves.

The globalization of the ideas, methods, practices, and institutions of social science may well be the best test of the universalist pretensions of these still profoundly American sciences. Protecting and fostering the work of our colleagues who labor in illiberal circumstances is not just good for them, it is essential for all social scientists, and for the project of the development of a powerful, inclusive, genuinely universal social science.

Lisa Anderson is a professor of political science and dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Her most recent book, Pursuing Truth, Exercising Power: Social Sciences and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century, will be published next month by Columbia University Press.