hindered by “scientism?” U of T scholar examines the history of the American social sciences

Early in the Cold War era, “the social sciences were criticized for not being really scientific — for being ideological and political in ways that might appear disguised as science,” he says. Mark SoloveyHe is a professor at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto.

“[At the time]In the United States, there was hostility toward socialism and communism. This caused a lot of problems for sociologists and their supporters, who advocated a science of society that was separate from ideology and politics.”

Sociologists have also been pressured about the social significance of their work regarding problems such as racism, income inequality, crime, and threats to democracy, Solovey adds.

Solovey’s latest book, Social Sciences for What?: Battles Over Public Funding for “Other Sciences” at the National Science Foundation, He explores the historical distrust of the social sciences, which he says persists to this day. He argues that when it comes to funding academic research, American sociologists have been more dependent on the US National Science Foundation than their natural science counterparts—the latter also finding strong support from other science patrons. However, in NSF, the social sciences have had to treat themselves with less respect over many decades due to critical attitudes towards the field.

Solovey has long studied the development of social sciences in the United States. In the case of the NSF, he says, support has always been hampered by “scientism,” the perception that the natural sciences are governed by immutable laws and grounded in rigorous research methods, that existed at a higher level that the social sciences needed to emulate.

Like naturalists, sociologists are concerned with evidence-based research and use both quantitative and qualitative tools to reach conclusions. But they are uniquely interested in human society and social relations, intertwined with normative judgments and morals.

“When the National Science Foundation was created, its founders had to decide: Is there such a thing as social science, and if so, how would we know if we saw it?” Solovy says. Certain areas of research have been institutionalized, such as sociology, economics, anthropology, and political science. Psychology has more social domains, and more biological ones. There have always been border disputes.”

Social science funding represented only a small percentage of the NSF’s budget. “In the late 1950s, the social sciences represented maybe 2% of the total,” Solovey says. “Then came the 1960s, which was a different era in American society.”

At that point, the social sciences entered a kind of golden age due to their association with bold political initiatives launched during John’s presidencies. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Scholars have helped advance federal programs to address a wide range of problems, including, Solovey writes, “juvenile delinquency, urban blight, racial conflict, poverty and unemployment.” By the late 1960s, the National Science Foundation had allocated about seven percent of its budget to the social sciences—”the highest it had ever been,” Solovey says.

But in the 1970s, the pendulum reverted back toward conservative distrust. Liberals also expressed distrust of some social science research, particularly those that they viewed as serving conservative economic or political ideals, practices, and policies.

Solovey’s book takes readers to the end of the Reagan presidency, and in a short final chapter, to this day, leaves questions about the future of social science support in the United States.

His book proposes a new funding agency for the social sciences in the United States: a National Social Science Foundation, which will seek to support social research on a broad front by welcoming and promoting work based on humanistic and scientific approaches—perhaps modeled on that of the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Council.

“This proposal was really brought up in the late 1960s when there was a great deal of interest,” Solovey says. “For me, it’s the most interesting episode in the whole story: There was a proposal in Congress, there were national hearings, and the Senate voted to support it. But it didn’t have a backing in the House. By the late 1960s, the climate had changed and the whole idea was gone. Since then Then, that idea basically disappeared.”

In their investigations into employment trends, poverty, political behavior, human sexuality and many other areas, Solovey notes that sociologists continue to rely on public and private sources of support. The contributions they can make to society are increasingly important in times of global disease, war and climate change.

“I would very much like American sociologists and people interested in the problem of funding to support a proposal to create a National Social Science Foundation.”

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