Don’t Become What You Study

By Graham Peterson

199920-shia-muslims-flagellate-themselves-walk-on-fire-prior-to-ashuraAs I understand it, psychology students get rather seriously advised against using their textbooks and courses to self-diagnose, nor to use their own head to derive general theories of mind.  I think that’s incredibly sound advice, and I think we could use more of it in the rest of the human sciences.

We can always use a stern reminder in social science to resist the temptation to derive theory from intuitive introspection.  Even Milton Friedman admitted in his Essays on Positive Economics that social science is qualitatively different from the hard sciences — the social scientist himself is a potential research subject, and carries with him a folio of “empirical experiences.”  It’s the cheapest data around, and because demand curves slope downward, we consume the most of it.  That’s the problem with trying to construct theories of what’s out there based on what’s in here.

But there is a double danger in applying to ourselves our theories of what’s out there, in order to reshape and reform what’s in here.  That’s how you end up stuck in a self-referential loop, and merely extending the process to a circle of your colleagues is even worse, because your degree of smiling idiocy starts rising exponentially as a function of the number of colleagues who have the same baseless reasons for belief.

I reflected (you see!  I’m doing it right now!) on this a bit last year.  After studying economics long enough, I began to use economic reasoning to justify my own actions ex post (after the fact).  Finding myself with inevitably human regrets and guilt about choices I’d made, I would reason, “well, the benefits outweighed the costs at the margin, so that’s why I did it and I shouldn’t feel bad about it.”  Now, that’s not economic reasoning at all.  Rational calculations take place ex ante (before the fact) — they’re not a device to make yourself feel better at 10 am about having a shot at Last Call the night before.

To be sure, it’s worthwhile to give yourself a break and recognize that a lot of your own decisions were relatively prudential.  It’s worthwhile to say, “hey, I was really stressed and the ice cream felt good so fuck you, conscience.”  But that’s not economic reasoning.

What’s struck me in my new surroundings is the degree to which I see sociologists fitting themselves to sociological theory.  I find it incredibly exhausting.  Everyone gets fitted to respective social roles based on class, skin color, breadth of vocabulary, gender, and so forth, and the party starts.  Sociology students openly and unselfconsciously reduce one another to simplistic stereotypes and go hunting for double standards, discrepancies, and oppressions in one another’s behavior.  That’s when sociology becomes circular identity politics — when everyone partakes in this religious cleansing ritual —  ostensibly meant to “raise consciousness.”

It must seem incredibly obvious to people who have studied sociology for a very long time, that everyone is indeed a latent racist, sexist, nationalist, and so forth, after systematically categorizing their friends, family, and coworkers as such daily. The sociology student has assumed from the start that people are making such deliberations subconsciously (err, institutionally), and prides herself on the enlightenment she’s accomplished by making such thinking explicit and checking her privilege.  But nay, it could just be that by sheer force of her own priors and a determination to fulfill them, she has merely seen in herself and the world around her a chapter of her sociology reader.

Just like I was when studying economics.  This is the danger of studying human sciences — we become the theories we construct — and we impose them on the world around us, often times to our own detriment and that of others.

Psychologists have a particularly cynical view of human nature, that the majority of it originates in pathology and fear.  They get expressly warned against turning that cynicism on themselves.  But note that all social sciences have a disturbingly cynical theory of humanity.  Homo economicus is a selfish bastard; Homo socialis is a pathological discriminator; Homo anthropolus speaks in 60 word sentences; and Homo politicus is a power hungry exploiter.  We are all well advised to stop-dead our temptation to reform ourselves and our own emotions, in an attempt to undo whatever cynical pathology we spend the rest of our day diagnosing the world with.

Social science does not exist as a device for the neurotic gratification of the religiously lost, and it becomes more and more of a religion, and less and less of a science, in direct proportion to the degree we encourage one another and allow ourselves to paste our theories to our own foreheads, swear by them, and unselfconsciously become them.

*Shouts go out to my man Rich Wallace, currently studying sociology, who prompted me with, “I just want to rock Jordan’s while I’m debating intersections of race class and gender, is that to much to ask?”


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