book review I

introducing: book reviews

I am an aspiring social scientist. I self identify as such and my landing page also says so. I am reading a series of introductory texts over the the next few months to get a grasp of the discipline as a whole and to be better prepared to become a serious academic.

Having worked at a library in my formative years, my method is foolproof: I am systematically working myself through the H call numbers and reading all the books that look interesting and have been published in the last 5 years or so.

The reviews are not so much reviews as they are open notes, running commentary, and rants on things I found interesting in the text.

social science and historical perspectives: society, science, and ways of knowing, by Jack David Eller


Eller sets the tone quickly by identifying what the book is not. This isn’t a methods introduction for a particular science nor is it an exhaustive survey of a particular field. Instead, Eller intends to give the reader a tour of different types of knowledge under the social science umbrella while simultaneously acknowledging the relative youth and ongoing evolution, transformation, and fecundity of these different knowledges.

Features of the Book

Here Eller explained how each chapter on a specific discipline was structured very similarly and began with a list of key organizations and journals followed by a very brief history of the discipline and broad taxonomy of its subfields or dilemmas. The chapter ended with the same broad theme, terrorism, as seen from the lens of the particular discipline and subdisciplines.

List of Key Terms

My favorite term was a succinct definition of post-modernism; here it is verbatim:

the contemporary moment and experience in which “truth” breaks down, “grand narratives” are no longer believed, “progress” is no longer assured if even possible, and in which perspective and subjectivity, emotion and irrationality, images (rather than words), and fragmented and reassembled experiences dominate

In a later discussion with a colleague we agreed the most succinct definition is the following ASCII art:


What is Social Science?

To study the thing we have to define the damn thing. Ugh. What is knowledge? Who makes it? How does it work in a society full of power imbalances and not as coherent as we generally expect it to be? What is teaching? Why is certain knowledge valued more than other knowledge? Who decides what the canon is and how is this not inherently political? Why don’t we have left and right socks when we have left and right shoes? Why are some cartoons always wearing gloves? If Goofy is a dog how come Pluto is also a dog?

Richard Feynman sez it best. If the link is dead google Richard Feynman on pseudoscience.

Historical Thinking

In this chapter I found out I’m kinda Marxist. I was disappointed.

Gang of Four puts it best:

No weak men in the books at home
The strong men who have made the world
History lives on the books at home
The books at home

It's not made by great men (x4)

The past lives on in your front room
The poor still weak the rich still rule
History lives in the books at home
The books at home

It's not made by great men (x4)

The past lives in the books at home
No weak men in the books at home
History lives in the books at home
The books at home

It's not made by great men (x4)

Science of Politics

Surprise surprise, this was very familiar for me. Other than international relations (and not for lack of trying), I’ve engaged directly or indirectly with many of the subdisciplines described in this chapter, especially the quantitative side of things.

In terms of political science’s history, this is where Marx and I part ways.

Economic Outlook

Economics is the most idealistic of the disciplines. I know historically it’s seen as the most cynical but I a lot of idealism in their long-held belief in rational actors. I appreciate Behavioral Economics, introduced later in the chapter, which makes a case for people’s unpredictability.

Irrational actors are where it’s at.

As a data viz nerd I have to give mad props to my man William Playfair for making the first pie chart. With a name like that he should have a game theorist.

Psychological Careers

Being the self-centered creatures we are, a long-term obsession of ours has been understanding how our brain works. It doesn’t seem we have it fully figured out but we’ve come a long way from phrenology.

Julian Jaynes’ notion of the bicameral mind seems fascinating–what if the conception of mind is a recent and prior to that our internal thoughts actually spoke to us and we listened as if they were separate from us? Jaynes argues that schizophrenia is actually a vestige of our earlier bicameral state and further suggests that ancient texts featuring people speaking to gods are examples of this very phenomenon.

The DSM-V totally sounds like a Prince song.

Sociological Imagination

Ibn Khaldun is my man. He predicted the avocado toast conundrum in the 14th century through his concept of asabiyyah.

In short, we start out strong and cohesive but then become obsessed with maintaining our lifestyle and then another strong and cohesive group takes over and then the cycle begins anew.

Of the three predominant theories I like symbolic interactionism best because I’m petty. The other two are macro and, much like economics, assume too much about the intentions of large groups. Functionalism scares me since it states that society’s substructures interact to maintain an equilibrium while conflict theory is obsessed with complaining about the bottom layer of their layer cake getting soggy beneath functionalist layers of privilege.

Symbolic interactionism is more in line with my paranoia about not being able to communicate with anyone ever even when we’re talking in the same language about the same thing. It also asserts that all social action is performed and the nature of the performance varies depending on the situation.

Symbolic interactionism is why multiracial weddings are social minefields for all parties involved.

Anthropological Perspective

It’s time to colonize with research!

Yeah. Classic anthropology was way racist, Sarah Baartman, Ota Benga, Carl Linnaeus’ varieties of human species; it was like if everyone’s least favorite uncles got to teach humanity about people who weren’t them. Here’s Carl’s human varieties, I quote verbatim:

The Americanus: red, choleraic, righteous; black, straight, thick hair; stubborn, zealous, free; painting himself with red lines, and regulated by customs.

The Europeanus: white, sanguine, browny; with abundant, long hair; blue eyes; gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws.

The Asiaticus: yellow, melancholic, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, greedy; covered with loose clothing; and ruled by opinions.

The Afer or Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; black, frizzled hair; silky skin, flat nose, tumid lips; females without shame; mammary glands give milk abundantly; crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; anoints himself with grease; and governed by caprice.

Predictably, this was all very problematic. Franz Boas did his best to disprove the scientific racism endemic to his time.

Physical anthropology in a nutshell.

Geographical Worldview

Wait. They don’t love you like I love you, Maps, wait…

Also, here be dragons. Also early forms of intellectual protection schemes that ended up in shipwrecks because god forbid your secret path to the Indies be discovered.

I see a lot of parallels between information networks and the evolution of geography. At first whomever drew the map or codified the knowledge treated their home base like the center of the universe.

Then the limits of place/knowledge were drawn and redrawn again and again and the warm gooey center was suddenly single pixel a 4K display.

Now the ideas of place and location are in constant flux just like our notions of knowing and understanding are not as static as we had hoped.

My dream of the future city is one where place is moving at a day’s pace, where amenities come to you instead of the other way around. I’m not talking about Amazon Now I’m talking about your condo is suspended above a beach in the evening and by the morning it’s back next to your workplace, if you can afford the perpetual mover’s fees.

I see the commodification of permanence staring us right in the face. Why should beachfronts belong to the same people, can’t we charge a convenience fee for all of us to have the chance at a beachfront view, even for just half an hour a day/week/year?

All the blighted things and peoples can just go away living at the seams of these perpetually moving megastructures, staring and four different walls enveloping them every waking moment, their lives in a perpetual airport terminal, their flight home delayed indefinitely.

In terms of information networks, this shift has already happened. We used to trust our information and spent our time finding what we wanted from sources that we trusted. Today’s information comes directly to us and it’s what has been determined we should want by a source beholden to market interests.

Why wouldn’t the spaces we live in come to resemble the thinking of the agents that shape those spaces?

This is what happens when I take the green line to work 4+ years running.

Social Science and Other Ways of Knowing

Damnit Western European thinking! Why did you have to go and claim everything as your own and describe it relative to your image, values, and thought processes! There’s a wide world out there with ideas as valid and likely as anything you’ve described but now we have to contend with the structures and cultures of knowing you’ve created, as if!

Is truth an inherently Western idea? This really screwed with me, I guess I’ve been colonized more than I let on. At this point I want to hug Richard Feynman and jump off a cliff together in the apotheosis of the I get you bro sentiment he elicited in the pseudoscience video above. Isn’t the search for the truth the entire reason I’m pursuing tertiary education?

In the new book I’m reading the author laments the conventions of social science writing, especially the subjugation of verbs by the almighty nouns that describe all the lofty subjects of our discipline. Maybe he caught me in a vulnerable moment, but I agree with him.

I think that the best social science is not a taxonomy of the way things are but a document of the process of our never-ending becoming. It takes a lot of hubris to state that this is the way things were, are, and will be. I’d much rather live in a world with agents coming and going into their becoming, occasionally stopping to reflect on what they’ve become then continuing into something else.

It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the big picture of social science and even easier to spend our time building or describing worlds that are/n’t or should/n’t be.

Agency matters. Agency is what populates and shapes those worlds. Let’s focus on the agents and their shaping instead of building ineffable monoliths too nutrient poor to digest.

That’s the social science I want to work in.

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