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

1. Objectivity and Values in Science
The natural and social sciences differ markedly in one other important respect. Knowledge of reality, the pursuit of truth, has always been regarded as the primary motive and fundamental goal of the quest for knowledge in the natural sciences. The intimate linkage between science and technological progress we now regard as essential and self-evident is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until early in the 20th century, developments in science and technology occurred largely independent of one another. Most technological advances were made by inventors in pursuit of practical applications, rather than scientists in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Even today, while huge scientific research budgets are justified by their technological and social benefits, the essential standard for judging the value of scientific inquiry is proximity to truth, not practical application. The fundamental objective of natural science is to arrive at knowledge which is independent of the observer and value-free.

But when it comes to the social sciences, practical application has always been consider­ed to be of primary importance. What is the value of a perfect theoretical model of economy or decision-making if it does not provide guidance for public policy and private enterprise? Although widely regarded as the father of Economics, Adam Smith described himself as a moral philosopher seeking to enhance the welfare and well-being of people, not a scientist in pursuit of universal laws of economy. Natural science is in quest of the immutable, universal laws governing natural phenomena. But the ‘laws’ governing human society are neither immutable nor universal. They are framed and formulated by human beings, based on human perceptions and aspirations, and evolving over time with the evolution of human consciousness and society.

The social sciences necessarily and inevitably represent our human construction of the reality of our own existence, individual and collective. As conscious beings, human beings are purposeful. We create social institutions intended to fulfill certain needs, achieve certain objectives and realize certain values. Our quest for knowledge of society is rightly intended to aid our efforts at self-realization. The assumption of impartiality or objectivity disguises the fact that the quest of social science is purposeful and is valued in terms of its capacity to fulfill human aspirations. The notion of value-free social science artificially divorces us from the living laboratory in which we live and blinds us to the implicit values that frame our perception of reality. As Carl Rogers said, “at the basis of anything that a scientist undertakes is, first of all, an ethical and moral value judgment that he makes.”3 Social science is and should be judged based on the values human beings seek to realize.

Our identities as human beings are based on narratives shaped by the dominant culture from which they originate. Alberto Zucconi stresses the central importance of narrative to our understanding of ourselves and society and to fashioning a more meaningful science of society. “We need to become aware of how we construe our experiences, our narratives of what we call reality: the relationship with ourselves, others, the world. We need to foster at every level of society awareness of our narratives, of our power and responsibilities for the present and future of humankind and the whole planet. We need to promote a new socially compelling, forward-looking vision of evolution that brings together the worlds of science and spirit, evolutionary theory and developmental psychology. We need an updated recipe for resilience, on how to think, feel and act outside the present obsolete mechanistic box, to become aware of the fact that we live in a complex web of relationships; to be blind to the world of relationships will bring dire consequences.”

2. Complexity in the Social Sciences
These observations are not intended as a criticism of social sciences or to impute their inferiority to the natural sciences. On reflection, it is easy to account for their differences. The natural sciences were established much earlier and have had at least three centuries’ time to explore the realities of interrelationship and interdependence between fields. Moreover, the complexity of the interactions between particles, atoms and molecules are dwarfed in magnitude by the multi-dimensional complexity governing the behavior of conscious living beings. Human actions and interrelations combine the physical complexity of matter with the intricate mutual interdependencies of all forms of life with one another and their physical environment; the social complexity of myriad interactions and interrelationships between human beings, their institutions and cultures; and the psychological complexity of conscious and subconscious thoughts, feelings, attitudes, needs, desires, sensations, and impulses which confront us with the insoluble mystery of our own personalities and of all those we relate to.

A fair evaluation must acknowledge the role social sciences have played in the remarkable achievements of humanity over the past two hundred years. Since 1800 world population has multiplied 7-fold, but at the same time real world per capita income has risen 12-fold, a result of an 84-fold growth in real world GDP. This remarkable achievement cannot be fully accounted for by technological advances alone. Development of the social sciences have contributed immensely to our understanding of political, economic, social systems and the psychology of human behavior and to our collective ability to establish, manage and develop social institutions and policies conducive to the survival, security, welfare, growth, development and evolution of humanity.

3. Need for Trans-disciplinary Social Science
The premise of the World Academy’s quest for a New Human-centered Development Paradigm is that the multi-dimensional political, economic, ecological, social and cultural challenges confronting humanity today defy comprehension and resolution based on the prevailing principles and specialized knowledge developed by separate social science disciplines. The persistence and continued aggravation of these challenges are evidence of the need for the evolution of a new paradigm in the social sciences that is more comprehensive, inclusive, integrated, and trans-disciplinary. There is an urgent need to transcend the limitations of separative, compartmentalized knowledge, to build on the knowledge acquired by each discipline by striving to connect and integrate them at a more fundamental level, while preserving the valuable insights each has contributed to social progress. We need to expand the boundaries of each discipline and make them more porous and flexible, while searching for trans-disciplinary principles and processes that unite and unify rather than separate and divide knowledge in each field from that in others.

Transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between disciplines, across disciplines, and beyond each individual discipline.4 The quest for a trans-disciplinary science of society is based on the conviction that human society and individuality cannot be adequately understood in terms of positivism, reductionism, formalism and naturalism. It is founded on the premise that there are fundamental constructs, forces, processes and characteristics that underlie all social phenomena, knowledge of which can generate greater understanding and more effective action in the real world.

This prodigious task might appear too daunting to contemplate were it not for the fact that significant progress has already been made in recent decades in discovering foundational principles applicable to all fields of human activity. The earliest breakthrough came with the emergence of management as a science in its own right. While focused primarily on applications in business, the role and power of organizational structure, systems, specialization, hierarchy, authority, delegation, communication, coordination, integration, goal-setting, values, strategy, decision-making, planning, social research and human resource development evolved by Management Science are principles applicable to the development of organizations of all sizes and types in all fields of human activity. Management is the study of how organizations combine individual acts to form complex chains of activities and systems and to create complex structures based on specialization of function and hierarchical levels of authority. Organizations coordinate the energies and diverse activities of many people and integrate them within a larger whole. All human activity is governed by the fundamental principles and processes of human social organizations.

More recent advances in Network Science, Cybernetics, Complexity and Chaos Theory and the identification of the principles of self-organization, autopoiesis, and emergence mark important further advances in the evolution of trans-disciplinary theory and process – in spite of their common tendency to regard living and conscious systems as if they were simply more complex forms of mechanical material systems, reducing life and mind to purely material processes. The application of these principles to living systems and to the science of Ecology demonstrates the integrative power of this wider approach, which is still in an early stage of development.

† Alberto Zucconi, “Biological, social, psychological and spiritual dimensions of society and individual life” lecture delivered during a World University
Consortium course entitled “Accomplishment, Growth, Social Evolution and the Character of Life in Management, History, Psychology and Literature”,
August 25th, 2014 Inter-University Centre, Dubrovnik.
3 Carl Rogers and W.R. Coulson, eds. Man and the Science of Man (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1968).
4 B. Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity trans. K. Claire Voss (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 147-152.


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