Bourdieu and the possibility of interdisciplinary social science research

by Sebastian Benthall

Bourdieu (Science of Science and Reflexivity, 2004) is interested in an account of science that has both sociological realism and trans-historical legitimacy. The importance of this project is obvious to any acting scientist who both contends with their social reality and aims to discover trans-historical knowledge. Trans-historical knowledge is incentivized by specific social institutions that create and preserve symbolic capital for scientists precisely according to the principle that their discoveries survive the test of time. If the knowledge survives only because it is propped up by temporal institutions that do not have such transcendent aspirations, then it is by definition not science.

There are all sorts of other academic vocations that do not have these transcendent aspirations, especially in what are broadly considered the social sciences. These include: ethnographers who explicitly do not aim for their results to generalize, historians who explicitly aim to elucidate the historical contingency and context of their objects of study, researchers who study organizations with the intention to inform their audience of matters of immediate political interest, and writers who offer a contextualized critique of an aspect of society in light of a tradition of scholarly literature. These vocations are not scientific, in Bourdieu’s sense, because they are not participating in a social field whose self-declared purpose is the discovery of trans-historical truth.

Rather, these researchers participate in other social fields, called “disciplines”. Because unscientific disciplines do not aspire to trans-historical knowledge, they see nothing wrong with carrying out research that is consistent with the contingent norms of their social environment, despite knowing full well that these norms stifle complete understanding of their phenomena of interest. Indeed there may be nothing wrong with this except from the perspective of a scientist judging this activity through the criteria of science. These disciplines attempt to accomplish the permanence of their symbolic capital through reproduction of their discipline specifically, as opposed to the reproduction of scientific method and knowledge generally.

If you go around an interdisciplinary context in a university and start telling non-scientists “You are not a scientist!” one is likely to elicit an affronted reaction. This is due to “established divisions in the long running debates about scientific method and the legitimacy of social science and humanistic inquiry,” and the resulting disciplinary hierarchy. Because science proper is hierarchically “above” social science and humanistic inquiry, pointing out that somebody is not a scientist is often interpreted as rude in the uniquely touchy culture of the academy. Researchers who are not scientists will deploy any number of strategies to recover status in this mixed social field, including: declaring themselves to be scientists (according to a more relaxed standard); declaring the distinction between science and non-science to be epistemically illegitimate (thereby weakening the status of science per se); and appealing to broader democratic principles of social inclusion and equality to motivate their inclusion within the scientific field.

However valuable democratic inclusion may be, appeals to it are not like the other strategies which are directed at the demarcation problem (the question of “what is science?” and by extension “what is not science?”) directly. My own opinion is that scientific inclusion is both very important and best achieved through good and equitably provided scientific education, and that good scientific education includes a transmission of scientific demarcation. In other words, because of the importance of social inclusion in science, it is essential to be be clear about what kinds of activities and knowledge science excludes. To broadly include people, for democratic reasons, into a social field that is in fact not science does not accomplish the inclusiveness of science; it does something else. So in the interest of the democratic inclusivity of science I will continue to elaborate on the social challenges of scientific demarcation despite how rude or otherwise objectionable this line of inquiry is to many scholars who are not scientists.

Above I have contrasted scientific research, which participates in a generalized social field aimed specifically at transcending temporally and geographically locality, and disciplinary social research, which is aimed at the reproduction of a specific social field. This contrast is drawn in multiple dimensions, but these dimensions are not orthogonal. As this can be confusing, I will attempt to untie these threads.

There is the distinction between scientific research and social research, which will immediately be recognized as a false dichotomy. Perhaps because of the strategic blurring of scientific demarcation mentioned above, the term “social science” is used problematically to mean both scientific and unscientific research into social phenomena. The hierarchy of the “social sciences” (economics, political science, sociology, anthropology) reflects the amount to which these disciplines adopt scientific methods. Scientific methods depend on scientific instruments developed using the discoveries of the exact sciences (such as mathematics, statistics, and foundational computer science). Because of this, we have seen more and more non-social sciences being applied to social phenomena, further confusing the idea of “social science”.

To clarify this problem, it is therefore useful to discuss “social research” broadly, and then address separately the question of how scientific a discovery or discipline of social research is. As should be clear from the preceding discussion, part of what makes social research more scientific is its ability to transcend its specific disciplinary context and be integrated in a generalized scientific field that aims specifically at that transcendence.

“Interdisciplinary” social research, therefore, will be easiest when the disciplines involved are more scientific, because the scientific imperative is precisely to transcend disciplinary and other local constraints. The less scientific a discipline is, the more it will resist interdisciplinary integration because it will not be serving the function of disciplinary reproduction.

This analysis clarifies why “interdisciplinary” social research is so highly sought after but so rarely achieved. This is because it is sought after by disciplines for conflicting reasons. A more scientific discipline will be motivated to interdisciplinary work out of its native purpose to transcend its own historical constraints, assimilating into itself the specific insights of a historically specific discipline while excluding the contingent elements. The less scientific discipline will, in contrast, pursue interdisciplinary research in order to blur scientific demarcation but will vigorously maintain its historical specificity in spite of the scientific imperative.

Today we see the profound success of interdisciplinary research, and interdisciplinary social research in particular, in ‘data science’, a term whose ambiguity signals the contiguity of all disciplines that are sufficiently scientific. The globalized field of data science, enabled largely through the sharing of software source code that operates identically across many and various contexts, transcends especially the contexts of academy, industry, and government. To the data scientist, discipline is irrelevant once it is subsumed by science.

This presents a crisis to disciplinary social research: either it must become “interdisciplinary” with data science, losing its disciplinary specificity. Or it must maintain its disciplinary integrity and autonomy at the expense of its trans-historical permanence as historical conditions change with the rise of data science. With either option, the disciplinary social sciences face their own mortality.