essays

Mar 1, 1981

Social Science Paradigms

“No longer do Neo-Marxians believe that the mode of production determines all other social relations. “Alienation” is now…the central Marxian concept.”

“The Social Sciences since the Second World War,” Part Two. Mortimer Adler, Ed., The Great Ideas Today, 1980(Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1980), pp. 184–232.

With the social sciences turning to smaller and more manageable research problems, we need to reconsider whether unified social science is still possible. Four contemporary paradigms attempt to offer holistic explanations: (1) Sociobiology; (2) Macro-economics; (3) Neo-Marxism; and (4) Structuralism.

  • (1) In contrast to anthropology, which looks for variety in human behavior, sociobiology searches for unifying constants. In this quest for generalization, sociobiology asserts two claims: that we need biology to explain the species-specific behavior both of individuals and of groups. How, for example, can we explain cooperative behavior as an effort to keep kin-related individuals alive? Can we apply the constants found in other species in the same way to man? Or, does biology become less relevant to man once new principles of consciousness emerge? At the root of these questions lies a basic question: In what way does genetic inheritance limit the ranges of human behavior?
  • (2) Economics has multiplied its rival paradigms to provide more adequate explanations than those of the Keynesians or the Monetarists. Keynesians were baffled by simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment, while Monetarists failed in showing a fixed relationship between the money supply and interest rates. The recent “Rational Expectations” school teaches that government economic policy can affect production only when it surprises people’s foresight. The Neo-Keynesians deny that distribution of income is determined by relative prices or that investment is determined by savings. They claim the reverse. Large firms, through market control, can raise prices and finance investment from internal funds. Inflation results from people trying to increase their relative share of income. In the future, reconsiderations about “economic man” and the role of time may invalidate the older paradigms.
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  • (3) Neo-Marxism has thrived, recently, in the light of Third World antiimperialism, the counter-culture of the 1960s and the publication of previously unpublished texts. These recent Marxians have revised three tenets of the older Marxian social theory. Socialism as the inevitable fulfillment of the Enlightenment has been abandoned with the disbelief in inevitable progress. Also abandoned is the idea that a shrinking labor base will lead capitalism into crises. No longer do Neo-Marxians believe that the mode of production determines all other social relations. “Alienation” is now regarded as the central Marxian concept.
  • (4) Structuralism, a recent perspective applied to several disciplines, displays the following characteristics. Its epistemological goal is to find quantitative relationships, not qualitative ones, beneath the surface phenomena. It regards as inadequate both historical explanations and methodological individualistic explanations. It considers all cultural phenomena in terms of “signs.” It understands the underlying structure of mind as rational. And last, its goal is to find invariant forms in different contexts, e.g. seeing “kinship” in terms of invariant relations of residence and rules of descent.

Whether any of these paradigms can be used to reductively explain all human behavior remains doubtful.