Do we want to be unified?

Teppo Felin already blogged this at Org Theory but I thought I’d raise one question about Herb Gintis’s proposal for the unification of the behavioral sciences (paper and lecture).  My question is this: would unification of the behavioral sciences discourage methodological and theoretical innovation?

As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am often frustrated but my fellow social scientists lack of regard for the insights gained in sister disciplines. Unification would seem to fix that problem, but some might argue that more unified academic standards would discourage  innovation.  The idea is that each discipline is currently like a separate experiment, and unifying them would be putting all our eggs in one basket.

I’d be interested to hear what other people think about this argument, but I’m inclined to believe we can pursue unification and intellectual diversity at the same time.  (post edited for clarity)

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4 Responses to Do we want to be unified?

  1. guillermoparedes says:

    “would unification of the behavioral sciences discourage methodological and theoretical innovation?”

    I would approach the question differently. Mine would be: “is the current compartmentalization of social sciences necessary or desirable”?

    It is very rare for major scientific breakthroughs to happen within the framework of a single discipline. Just look at how much chemistry and mathematics molecular biologists like Watson and Crick had to study in order to discover the structure of DNA. On the other hand, sociologists and anthropologists are taught that they have nothing to learn from economics and psychology (not to mention the biological sciences, complexity sciences, physics, etc.).

    I won’t comment on Gintis’ proposal since I have not had the time to review it. However, I agree with the view that sociologists and anthropologists should see themselves as total scientists and integrate as many insights from other disciplines as they can.

  2. Michael Bishop says:

    Thanks for your comment Guillermo. I hope my edit doesn’t change what you would have wanted to say too much. I think we have a lot of common ground.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is a terrific blog! I’m glad I’ve found it. In particular I think economists can talk a lot about how institutions shape incentives, however, not many economists (save Davis and North and increasingly development economists are talking more about this)talk as much about where these institutions come from. It seems that last question is one that sociologists are more inclined to ask. Is this a fair assessment? If so, then I would say unification is great. But, I wonder . . . in The Ethology of Homo Economicus (Journal of Econ Persp 1995):

    J.S. Mill was concerned about the separation of theory and empirical observation but in the end Persky writes, “No single theory could reasonably cover the full complexity of human motivation. Such efforts Mill considered both unnecessary and hopelessly indeterminate.”

    Is an attempt to construct another model of human behavior that tries to eliminate the discrepancies hopelessly indeterminate?

  4. Michael Bishop says:

    Thanks Anonymous! I agree that sociologists can contribute to our understanding of where institutions come from, and I would agree that “no single theory could reasonably cover the full complexity of human motivation.” Well, to be clear, let me say that no single model could explain the range of human motivation and behavior. But I do think its worth pushing towards coming to agreement with scholars across the social sciences about which models work best in which contexts. We’ll never have perfect models, but we can keep improving. More thoughts on models on these posts: https://permut.wordpress.com/tag/model/

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