Unification in the Social Sciences: Search for a Science of Society

The social sciences have contributed significantly to humanity’s remarkable progress over the past two centuries, but the multidimensional crises confronting the world today reflect the need to rapidly move beyond the limitations imposed by the compartmentalization of social science disciplines and the absence of common unifying principles equivalent to those in the natural sciences. Unification of apparently disparate phenomena is a central characteristic of advancing knowledge. Pressing global challenges compel the search for greater knowledge of the unity underlying the diverse fields of social activity, the objective and subjective dimensions of human experience, the role of the collective and individual in social evolution, the action of conscious and unconscious social processes, and the influence of the future on the present. From August 25 to September 6, 2014, the World Academy of Art & Science and World University Consortium conducted two post-graduate courses at the Inter-University Centre, Dubrovnik entitled “Individuality and Accomplishment” and “Toward a Trans-disciplinary Science of Society.” These courses explored the interactions and relationships between different aspects of human accomplishment and social development in search of common underlying principles and processes that can provide a foundation for the evolution of a more comprehensive, inclusive and integrated science of society. This article is an attempt to summarize and synthesize some of the rich insights that arose during the presentations and discussion. While the authors accept responsibility for its contents, we would like to acknowledge other members of the faculty who made important contributions to this endeavor: Zbigniew Bochniarz, Janani Harish, Ian Johnson, Roberto Poli, Mila Popovich, Ivo Šlaus and Karl Wagner.

The greatest scientific discoveries have been those which have revealed the relation­ship between phenomena that long appeared unrelated to one another, revealing the unity behind the diverse multiplicity of forces and forms. Unification is the ultimate quest of knowledge. The quest for unification has been the source of its greatest discoveries.* Newton reconciled the contradictions between motion and rest by demonstrating that the same laws govern the movement of celestial bodies and objects on Earth. Maxwell discovered that electricity and magnetism are two forms of electromagnetism. Einstein revealed that matter and energy are two interconvertible forms of a single energy-substance. Today Quantum and Relativity theorists search for the ultimate reconciliation between the laws governing the subatomic microcosm and the intergalactic macrocosm.1

The sense of unity in diversity pervades all the natural sciences. The same laws are applied consistently in different fields. The chemist, meteorologist, zoologist and geneticist apply the same laws of Physics and Chemistry to inanimate and living phenomena, to the earth’s atmosphere and interstellar space, to microscopic bacteria and large mammals. While living beings no doubt exhibit characteristics unknown in inanimate material forms, they consistently adhere to the basic laws of material Nature. In this sense trans-disciplinarity is a fundamental precept in the natural sciences. Moreover, in spite of the compartmentalization of knowledge common to all fields today, the natural sciences are inherently inter-disciplinary. The meteorologist and oceanographer could never dream of excluding the impact of physical, chemical, geological, biological, ecological and astronomical factors from their theories and models.

Yet when we turn to the social sciences, consistency and unification between and across disciplines are a rare exception. The theories governing each discipline exist in airtight compartments, each in its own separate world of principles and phenomena. It is almost as if the political, social, economic and psychological human being were different species, each with its own unique characteristics, rather than multiple roles and fields of expression common to all human beings. With few exceptions, each of the social sciences seeks to understand and describe a particular dimension of social reality with minimum reference to the action or interaction with other dimensions. Micro economic theories assume a set of specific conditions rarely found in the real world and regard all variations as intrusive externalities rather than natural and inevitable facts of the interrelationship between the economic, political, social and psychological dimensions of reality. This tendency reaches its acme in the neoliberal concept of free or unregulated markets, based on the premise that law and regulation are external factors interfering with the normal equilibrium-seeking movement between supply and demand. In reality, few markets – other than the black variety and the underworld – could exist at all in the absence of the legal and regulatory framework that defines and protect property rights and contractual relationships. Moreover, Economics ignores the large non-monetarized part of human activity, all that we people do without exchange of money, the vital core of our existence without which no society or culture could survive and function, which represented around 80% of value added at the time of Adam Smith. Division and fragmentation of reality are the governing rules and modus operandi in the social sciences. “Disciplinary and conceptual boundaries don’t just focus attention; they also inhibit the discovery and study of processes that transcend those boundaries and bias public policy development in certain directions.”2

* Ivo Šlaus, “Need for a New Paradigm in the Social Sciences,” lecture delivered during a World University Consortium course entitled “Towards a
trans-disciplinary science of society”, Inter-university Centre, Dubrovnik, Sep 1, 2014. All lectures for the two courses are available online at
1 Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics(Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
2 Jim Lunday, “Replacing the Concept of Externalities to Analyze Constraints on Global Economic Growth and Move Toward a New Economics Paradigm,” Cadmus2, no.3(2014): 66-83.

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