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RE: [xmca] Lewin and unification of the social sciences

Dear Greg,

Your e-mail raises several interesting issues that engage me for a long time, although not on everyday basis.

It is pretty common that after social revolutions and major wars new developments in science commence. The time shortly before WW2, during the war, and after the war is marked by changing paradigms, new ways of perceiving research problems, emergence of new disciplines, and emergence of new research foci. Something similar, but on a smaller scale has happened in the US during and after the Vietnam War. My explanation is that social revolutions change people's perceptions about the world and that includes scientists as well. The same thing is true about the arts. Look at the new developments in painting and architecture shortly before and after WW1. 

Your second point was about neuroscience. This issue engages me a lot. In my life experience, I have witness the emergence and change in research priorities or/and paradigmatic approaches to old topics/themes. In the 1950s and 1960s researchers believed that Systems Theory will provide a holistic platform for addressing all facets/aspects of the real world phenomena. In the 1990s we witnessed a resurgence of humanistic paradigms and Deconstruction as a well-established way of thinking in the humanities, but also in some of the social sciences.

The fad of neuroscience is not bad. However, it is not good that the humankind puts all of their eggs in that basket and diminishes funding for other issues. Another problem with neuroscience is that it drains the research potential of whole disciplines. And maybe more important, it leads social scientists in the wrong direction. Social and cultural sciences should not be about the structure of the brain. That should be the priority for psychophysiology. Not even psychology. Studying the brain of the mouse would not help us understand the logic of human reasoning. How the neurons network and fire is a biological universal, at least for the human species. Any other opinion might incite racism. How people think is influenced stronger by culture rather than biology. The biological universals come across the board. Yet, humans think in many different ways. The "how" in this question presupposes "method," the method of doing things, how we do things. Method is about the human condition. Method differentiates humans from other species (at least according to Historic Materialism). And method is culture. Or culture is all about method. When we talk about method, we need to mention activity as the universal concept. Because method is a major component of activity. Or, activity involves method, methodology. 

That is why all this incessant ranting or beating the bush about neuroscience makes me uneasy. What about the remaining issues, themes, and topics? Who will provide funding for them? Who will provide publication venues? Why should we put all our resources in several fashionable thematic circles? This is a big question. 

Focusing on the brain structure in order to understand human thinking is like focusing on the computer hardware in order to understand how different software should be used and what will be the outcomes when we use a computer program. We don't need to be hardware engineers to use a program. However, when we design programs we need to know how the machine works. This is a different situation. When we use software, we don't even need to be mathematicians. Software is like a language for communicating with computers. It is a language and it should be studied like a language, not like a mathematical discipline. 

However, society is often very emotional and passionate about certain topics. There is Zeitgeist as you have said. There are major shifts in attitudes and perceptions generated by new social, scientific, or technical revolutions or major break troughs. 

Best wishes,


Lubomir Popov, Ph.D.
School of Family and Consumer Sciences
American Culture Studies Affiliated Faculty
Bowling Green State University
309 Johnston Hall,
Bowling Green, Ohio 43403-0059

-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On Behalf Of Greg Thompson
Sent: Monday, July 29, 2013 6:43 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity; bazerman@education.ucsb.edu
Subject: [xmca] Lewin and unification of the social sciences

A propos the previous conversation about the fracturing of the social sciences into self-contained, self-sustaining units, I came across this
1947 piece by Kurt Lewin.
I'm starting to think that there was something about the post-WWII historical moment that encouraged this kind of work. Maybe something about a shared and powerful ethic of working together to solve serious problems facing humanity? (whereas today's social science tends to pick little problems every here and there - XMCA researchers excepted, of course). Or maybe there was a greater appreciation that social problems are real?

Lewin devotes a portion of his article to metaphysical questions of existence - what objects does the mainstream public see as particularly "real" today? (What is Latour's term for more or less "real"?). My guess is "genes and neurons" would be what people think of as the most real and most important objects in our lives. That's why brain researchers can publish book after book about what "brain science" tells us about how to raise better children or to stop war or whatever - and these books get gobbled up by publishers and the public. Most of the times the links between the science and the suggestions are specious at best - usually much worse than that.

For most people today, I suspect that social and psychological phenomena are nothing more than ghostly (geist-ly?!) apparitions. Makes it hard for anyone to see the relevance of a "social theorist" to the problems facing humanity today. Can't we just solve these problems with a pill? or by rewiring the brain? or recoding the genes?

To put my position another way, it's not so much that I am AGAINST neuroscience as it is that I am FOR social science. Or better, for both neuroscience AND social science. That seems to me to be what Luria was up to. And Lewin too...

(and btw, someone recently articulated this position very nicely on XMCA, but I've forgotten who - apologies for not citing them...).

Rooting (in both senses) for the underdog.

Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
883 Spencer W. Kimball Tower
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602