social science, for good and ill

I’m on my way to Philadelphia today, to help the folks at the National Constitution Center think about their next steps. Yesterday morning, I went to Capitol Hill to watch my colleague and friend Judith Torney-Purta win a “Decade of Behavior” award. The “Decade of Behavior” (2000-2010) is actually a collaborative project by the various social science disciplines to “highlight how behavioral and social science research provides insight and solutions to pressing social concerns.” Judith was the pyschologist chosen to be honored for her lifetime of work on children’s civic development.

The political scientist was James Gibson. He seemed to be a good person, and he won my trust by saying that he had “fallen in love” with South Africa during his ten years of research there. (I always like scholarship that combines with love.) He also showed a lot of respect for the South African leadership.

Nevertheless, I was a bit disturbed by his introduction. I mention it not to criticize him–since I don’t know his overall project–but as an example of a form of social science that I find dangerous rather than helpful. Gibson said that he was pessimistic about the future of democracy in South Africa because quantitative social science has found that the following are predictors of democratic stability: wealth, economic equality, ethnic homogeneity, and direct influence from Britain. South Africa is poor on a per-capita basis; it has terrible inequality (a GINI of 59.3) and a deeply heterogenous population. Only the British colonial influence looks favorable, and it was short-lived.

It may be useful to know that poverty, inequality, and ethnic divisions are challenges that young democracies must face. But it’s not helpful to suggest that a country in South Africa’s situation is doomed. After all, the research on democratization is based on limited data from a relatively short historical period–there were no nation-sized democracies in the world before 1776. In any case, the past never guarantees the future. Who could have foreseen South Africa’s brilliantly successful Truth & Reconcilation Commission?

It occurs to me that the two most dynamic and innovative democracies in the whole world today, Brazil and South Africa, are both strikingly poor, deeply unequal, and tremendously diverse. Maybe we’re starting a new chapter that will make the old statistical models irrelevant. That would be a lesson in the limits of the “social and behavioral sciences.”