Integrating the Social Sciences with the Environmental and Earth Sciences

Seven years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel at NIH in Bethesda charged with evaluating the joint NSF/NIH interdisciplinary program on the Ecology of Infectious Disease. While there was an explicit call for the participation of social and behavioral sciences in the call for proposals, very few social scientists were getting involved in this remarkable program. Having participated in a wide array of similarly interdisciplinary panels, I knew that this was a common dilemma: the architects of the panel (whether it is a panel evaluating grant proposals, an interdisciplinary symposium, or an edited volume), who are typically natural scientists of some sort, make a good-faith effort to bring social scientists into the fold, but generally have little luck. Through a series of slightly hilarious miscommunications and travel snafus, I was unable to attend the meeting in Bethesda. I holed up for a weekend in a cottage in Santa Fe (where I had been participating in an panel the previous week) and wrote a document on how researchers working on the ecology of infectious disease could engage the social sciences and social scientists. As I contemplate my new role in the School of Earth, Energy, and the Environment at Stanford, it seems like a propitious time to revisit this white paper.

The stakes for involving the social sciences in environmental research – broadly construed – are high. Massive – potentially existential – problems like climate change, emerging pandemic disease, and large-scale extinction have both human drivers and enormous consequences for human welfare. This said, there are precious few social scientists – people charged with understanding human behavior and societies – who are engaged in research on environmental problems. This problem is particularly acute at elite institutions such as leading research universities.

Since human behavior is central to many aspects of most environmental problems, the contributions of social scientists to work on environmental problems is important and, quite possibly, necessary for dealing with the major problems associated with this domain of research. Understanding environmental problems such as climate change is obviously of major significance for state actors (e.g., governments, regulatory bodies)  and, ultimately, people more generally. Why then is it so difficult to engage social scientists in these research questions? This seems all the more puzzling given the amount of money potentially available for this research, particularly when compared to the funding available within the social science disciplines. There is clearly a collective action problem here: the generation of a public good that could come from the cooperation of social scientists and natural scientists is being inhibited somehow. Presumably, there would be benefits for social scientists who chose to collaborate with natural scientists on important environmental problems. Why then are we stuck with the collective action problem?

Sometimes, there is an explicit attempt to get social scientists to do the bidding of natural scientists in promoting social or cultural change for their desired ends. The eminent Stanford ecologist, Paul Ehrlich  has called for research into the mechanisms that change social norms, suggesting that there is an urgency to changing norms because of mounting environmental problems. The irony here, of course, is that in trying to engage social scientists in research on the environment, Ehrlich and other interested natural scientists needs to induce a change in social norms.

In an essay reviewing models for changing social norms,  Ehrlich and the great Princeton ecologist Simon Levin note that they did not even attempt to address how asymmetries of power or social networks affect the spread of social norms. Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem facing natural scientists trying to engage social scientists and models that fail to acknowledge these factors are doomed to failure. Within both the academy and society more broadly, there are distinct power asymmetries across scientific fields and, in general, social science fields are on the losing end of such power asymmetries. The great majority of social scientists can not compete with natural scientists with respect to research funding or the prestige (or volume) of of their publications.

When power/prestige gradients are steep, disciplines are likely to become insularized. An adaptive response to a collective’s inability to compete across disciplines is to, consciously or not, collude in agreeing that the only relevant opinions about the quality/volume of individual scholars’ research are other members of the scholars’ discipline. There are institutional practices that can facilitate this (e.g., the manner in which promotions are managed). I suggest that insularized disciplines will also fetishize theory above all other intellectual outcomes. Theory becomes fetishized at the expense of answering interesting and important questions or developing new methodologies for answering important questions. There are few checks on the degree to which theory can become abstruse and convoluted when its development becomes decoupled from answering questions. There comes a point where only very narrow specialists can ever hope to understand the intricacies of a particular theoretical tradition and be successful. Emphasizing theoretical development above all else within a discipline is thus a path toward disciplinary insularity and is the enemy of both interdisciplinarity and problem-focused research.

Social science disciplines do not gain prestige or other within-field benefits from engaging in the substance of human-environmental interactions. This arises in part because of the dynamics of differentiation from higher-prestige science disciplines engaged in these questions. There is also a positive feedback. Way back when I first came to Stanford, I was at a party where most of the other party-goers were political scientists. At the time, I was struck by the fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone in the department who studied environmental politics. I took the opportunity that this party afforded to ask a fellow assistant professor in that department why this was the case. His answer was simply “because no one could ever get tenure at Stanford studying environmental politics.” This conversation piqued my interest and I have now had a similar conversation with quite a few economists and political scientists. While not everyone is as blunt as my interlocutor in 2003, most have agreed broadly that working on environmental questions is not the route to professional advancement and these topics are therefore avoided by promising junior scholars trying to forge research careers.

I should probably note that economics provides an interesting exception to the power/prestige hierarchy. It’s really a topic that deserves its own post, so I won’t get into it too much here, but I think that economics is an exception that proves the rule. While the discipline is certainly more prestigious than, say, anthropology (!), I think that it’s hard to imagine a more insular discipline that fetishizes theory – and its mathematical accoutrements – more and in which professional incentives are absolutely not aligned with the interests of interdisciplinary, problem-based science.

Another phenomenon that has become a barrier to genuine interdisciplinary engagement for social scientists is the tendency for scientists from high-prestige disciplines to dabble in social science. The hilariously half-assed surveys that some scientists field when they want to get at the “human dimensions” of their problem come immediately to mind.

At a more structural level, I think about network science. When one attends the Sunbelt Social Networks Conference, one can frequently hear grumbling about how a bunch of physicists have swooped in and created what is sometimes known as a “new science” of networksIt is rare to find citations to the substantial social science literature on the topics many physicists write on other than the token citations to Milgram or possibly Simmel. New terms for well-described phenomena are invented and go largely to cultural fixation. Prior work (often 20 years old) is ignored. Papers on social networks get published in Physical Review D rather than established technical journals like Social Networks, Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory, or the Journal of Mathematical Sociology. Within-discipline citations are circular. Concepts having little interest to social scientists (for good reason) go to fixation and demand being addressed despite dubious relevance (e.g., “scale-free” networks).

I am actually of two minds about this phenomenon. On the one hand, it would be nice if this “new science” did a better job acknowledging that smart people have been working on these topics for quite a long time. On the other hand, I think that we need to have more more than the small handful of methodological innovators who work on social network analysis from within social sciences departments. The volume of quality work coming out of the physical sciences is almost certainly greater than that coming out of social science departments. A big part of this is the social organization of science (see below), but surely part of this is about getting smart people to work on important problems. We need to have more social scientists who are willing to engage in the general science literature where the visibility is greater (e.g., compare the citation patterns and general visibility of Science vs. CMOT!). Social scientists need to be willing to take the risk of publishing their strongest results in high-prestige general science journals like Science, Nature, PNAS. Yes, we will usually get rejected, but that’s no different from the experience of natural scientists, and we are certain to never get into these high-impact journals if we never even try.

I do not, in any way, want to decry the engagement of high-prestige natural scientists with the social sciences. Indeed, this is something we desperately need! But it needs to be real engagement rather than either dilettantism or intellectual imperialism. Three examples of physicists who switched disciplines and had enormous positive effects come immediately to mind: Harrison White (Sociology, Columbia), Bob May (Epidemiology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Oxford), and my sometime mentor, Shripad Tuljapurkar (Demography/Population Biology, Stanford). These are all scholars who took the substance and the history of their new disciplines seriously and have made enormous contributions. My amazing Ph.D. student Mike Price is a physicist-turned-anthropologist who is poised to make some truly fundamental contributions to anthropology, evolutionary biology, and economics.

A key issue that has not been sufficiently addressed in the differential funding, productivity, and status within universities is the social organization of science. The natural sciences are generally structured for productivity: organized labs, large groups working toward a common research goal, substantial division of labor. This social organization of science certainly interacts with institutional structures. For example, the allocation of teaching load and the manner in which activities (i.e., lab meetings, co-taught classes) are credited often differs systematically between the natural and social sciences. For the most part, social scientists still follow a more individualist model of scholarly production. Papers may be written with students, but research groups, if they exist, are not necessarily structured for production toward a common research goal. My own situation is instructive on this topic. As an anthropologist, I have always had more of a natural-science culture to my research group. This said, my “lab” has always been more a loose confederation of people more or less interested in similar things, than a group focused on a clearly-articulated research goal.  There was a point not that long ago when I had Ph.D. students simultaneously working on the following topics:  bushmeat in Cameroon, sex workers in China, malaria ecology in the Colombian Amazon, water security in Caribbean Colombia, sago horticulture in West Papua, disease transmission networks in Uganda, rodent population cycling and hantavirus transmission, TB in South Africa, food sharing in Nunavik. Now that I’m based in a natural science department, there is hope for some more coherence.

Really Inviting Social Scientists to the Table: A Power-Inversion Strategy

We have a situation where lower-prestige disciplines effectively opt out of competing with high-prestige ones, where runaway theory fetishism institutionally insulates scholars interested in similar phenomena from each other, and where substantive applications to problems of human-environment interaction are institutionally blocked. How do we get social scientists engaged?

The simple answer is that professional incentives of social-science researchers (particularly junior ones) and the institutional and societal priorities of solving vital problems involving the environment and human well-being need to be aligned. The first step is to get social scientists to the table to foster an environment of collaboration. Being mindful of the power dynamics across fields, collaboration opportunities need to be framed in terms of categories of thought and research questions of intrinsic interest to social scientists.  This may sound trivial, but it is key that this framing be consistent with the autochthonous development of ideas within the social sciences, rather than (even well-intentioned) natural scientists’ conceptions of what social science is. Even though an RFP or other invitation may seem like something in which social scientists should be interested to natural scientists and program officers, it may not obviously address institutionally important or interesting questions, theories, or methodologies from the social scientists’ perspective.

Remember, the system of professional reward works reasonably well from any individual social science researcher’s perspective. We expect agents to be risk-averse and such risk-aversion in this context leads to the collective action problem that we are forgoing a public good of increased understanding – and maybe even the ability to positively intervene in – significant environmental challenges of humanitarian, social, and economic import. By framing questions in terms of existing research themes in the social sciences, we may be able to overcome the risk-aversion because properly framed research opportunities should not be professionally risky.

Some areas within social science of relevance to the environmental sciences include:

  • political economy, global-to-local political relationships, the development of power asymmetries – particularly in regard to access to resources, health, etc.
  • equity, justice, property rights, and social movements
  • trust, governance, conflict
  • consumption, social, cultural and symbolic capital
  • institutions
  • migration, indigeneity, and ethnicity
  • markets, commodities, motivations, values and cosmologies, and time horizons

In brief, if we want social scientists to become engaged with research generally seen as beneficial from a societal perspective, we have to let them “do their thing” first and let the natural science do the complementing. Rather than asking how social science can contribute to natural science research agendas, we must sometimes ask how natural science can contribute to social science research agendas. Some examples from infectious disease ecology: How can thinking about the emergence in the western hemisphere of Zika virus help us understand the development of trust or its implications for governance? How do neoliberal economic policies promote the emergence of Nipah virus of Japanese encephalitis? Why does the Indonesian government refuse to provide H5N1 samples to the US CDC or WHO? This certainly doesn’t mean that it always has to work this way, but it must work this way sometimes if progress is to be made.

I do think that natural scientists and social scientists need to be able to sit down and put together intellectually strong, multi-disciplinary research projects together. However, the way to get social scientists engaged in the first place is to frame the research possibilities in terms that are relevant to them. From here, real interdisciplinarity can be achieved.

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