JHBS Special Issue: “The Social Sciences in a Cross-Disciplinary Age”

The winter 2015 issue of Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences is a special issue dedicated to “The Social Sciences in a Cross-Disciplinary Age.” Guest edited by Philippe Fontaine (left), the articles in this issue explore facets of interdisciplinarity in the social sciences post-1945. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Introduction: The Social Sciences in a Cross-Disciplinary Age,” by Philippe Fontaine. The abstract reads,

As studies of the history of social science since 1945 have multiplied over the past decade and a half, it has not been unusual for commentators to present cross-disciplinary ventures as a byproduct of the disciplinary system and to contrast the stability of disciplines with the highs and lows of interdisciplinary relationships. In contrast, this special issue takes the view that cross-disciplinary ventures should be considered not so much as efforts to loosen up the disciplinary yoke, but as an alternative form of production and dissemination of social scientific knowledge. Paradoxically, the relationship between cross-disciplinary ventures and the disciplinary system appears as one of complementarity and not of dependence. The essays in the special issue provide examples of ways to reconsider what can be called the interdisciplinary chaos.

“Mnemonic Multiples: The Case of the Columbia Panel Studies,” by Jefferson D. Pooley. The abstract reads,

This article uses the Bureau of Applied Social Research’s mid-century book-length panel studies—The People’s Choice (1944), Voting (1954), and Personal Influence (1955)—to identify and illustrate a neglected phenomenon in the remembered history of social science: mnemonic multiples. The article describes the way that the Bureau books, originally published into a post–World War II interdisciplinary social science milieu, have since come to be remembered along distinct disciplinary tracks by sociologists, political scientists, and communication researchers. A contextual analysis of references to the Bureau studies in the flagship journals of the three disciplines, from 1960 through 2011, provides tentative support for the mnemonic multiples concept.

“Organizing Complexity: The Hopeful Dreams and Harsh Realities of Interdisciplinary Collaboration at the Rand Corporation in the Early Cold War,” by Daniel Bessner. The abstract reads,

Historians argue that in the early Cold War an interdisciplinary research culture defined the RAND Corporation. However, a significant epistemological gap divided the members of RAND’s Social Science Division (SSD) from the rest of the organization. While the social scientists used qualitative methods, most RAND researchers embraced quantified approaches and derided the social sciences as unscientific. This encouraged RAND’s social scientists to develop a political-military simulation that embraced everything—politics, culture, and psychology—that RAND’s other analysts largely ignored. Yet the fact that the SSD embraced gaming, a heuristic practiced throughout RAND, suggests that the political simulation was nonetheless inspired by social scientists’ engagement with their colleagues. This indicates that the concept of interdisciplinarity should move beyond its implication of collaboration to incorporate instances in which research agendas are defined against but also shaped by colleagues in other disciplines. Such a rethinking of the term may make it possible to trace how varieties of interdisciplinary interaction historically informed knowledge production.

“The Politics of Psycholinguistics,” by Jamie Cohen-Cole. The abstract reads,

This article narrates the history of the interdisciplinary field of psycholinguistics from its modern organization in the 1950s to its application and influence in the field of reading instruction. Beginning as a combination of structural linguistics, behaviorist psychology, and information theory, the field was revolutionized by the collaboration of the psychologist George Miller and the linguist Noam Chomsky. This transformation was, at root, the adoption of the view that humans should be best understood as creative users of language and the rejection of behaviorist or machine models. Under their influence the field came to treat humans as creative, nonmechanical learners and users of language who, like scientists, hypothesize in order to understand and even perceive the world. This vision of language as a nondeterministic process shaped the field of reading instruction by providing the central model to advocates of the whole-language pedagogical method.

“The Pedagogical Purposes of Interdisciplinary Social Science: A View from Area Studies in the United States,” by David C. Engerman. The abstract reads,

“Interdisciplinarity” is widely praised in modern academe for its apparent ability to generate important research results and contribute to scholarly innovation. This essay examines a crucial case of interdisciplinary work in the humanities and social sciences: the area studies complex that emerged in the United States after World War II. Examining both celebrations and critiques of area studies, this essay concludes that the enterprise made a major contribution to national life not through the production of scholarship (the usual focus of historians of higher education) but through the innovative model of undergraduate teaching and graduate training that expanded the geographic and linguistic horizons of American undergraduate and graduate life. A final section of the essay suggests the relevance of this pedagogical focus for contemporary debates about the future of area studies.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.