95: Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible

Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate Over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918-1941 brings the Progressive Era tension between advocacy and objectivity into the interwar years, and shows that there was no “consensual paradigm” shift toward objectivity in those years.  Instead, he uncovers a debate between objectivists and purposivists – er, between people who thought they could do social scientific research from an objective viewpoint and people who understood that knowledge is always socially produced – and investigates the debate via 5 intellectual biographies.  By situating these biographies in their social contexts with an eye toward the sources of scientific research funding, Smith thus reveals the process by which scientific objectivity itself became socially constructed.

The five major figures Smith investigates are Robert Lynd, Charles Beard, Harold Lasswell, Charles Merriam, and Wesley Mitchell.  Via leading journals, lecture series, books, private letters, presidential addresses to professional societies, and other documents, he uses these five case studies to explore the historical trajectories of both sides.  Objectivists argued that it was the job of social science to provide clear, unslanted, authoritative data to policymakers, while purposivists were interested in using social science to further their own ethical goals for society.  At the heart of his book is a rather plastic use of Deweyan Pragmatism to highlight the differences and similarities of the two approaches: objectivists claimed Dewey’s argument that good techniques ensure good results, and they located morality in the consistently objective use of proper technique in social scientific research; purposivists argued that Deweyan morality dictated that research and knowledge had to be purposive, performed to solve a particular social problem, not to create knowledge for its own sake.

While Smith’s main argument, that social science at this time was not stuck in a consensual paradigm, was been proven by history of science scholars in the 1970s, his intellectual biographies are strong, and his interpretation of Dewey is interesting.  Further, the debate that Smith outlines here over the role of subjectivity and morality in science is replicated today, perhaps tellingly, in politics: conservatives argue that we should rely on our values to help us use our freedom, while liberals say that we should use our freedom to determine our values.  In science, I suspect we have arrived at a disingenuous combination of the two.

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