The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences

August 31, 2012

by Gene Callahan

Let’s take social science broadly, in the sense of German wissenschaft, so that The Republic and Politics and The Social Contract are social science. (I would contend that they are, in fact, often much more scientific than the latest regression study of how detergent use correlates with the suicide rate.)

So what, then, are the most important ideas ever put forward in social science? I’m not asking what are the best ideas, so the truth of them is only obliquely relevant: a very important idea may be largely false. (I think it still must contain some germ of truth, or it would have no plausibility.) Think of it this way: if you were teaching a course called “The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences,” what would you want to make sure you included?

Here’s my preliminary list. What have I left off? What have I mistakenly included?

* The state as the individual writ large (Plato)

* Man is a political/social animal (Aristotle)

* The city of God versus the city of man (Augustine)

* What is moral for the individual may not be for the ruler (Machiavelli)

* Invisible hand mechanisms (Hume, Smith, Ferguson)

* Class struggle (Marx, various liberal thinkers)

* The subconscious has a logic of its own (Freud)

* Malthusian population theory

* The labor theory of value (Ricardo, Marx)

* Marginalism (Menger, Jevons, Walras)

* Utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill, Mill)

* Contract theory of the state (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau)

* Sapir-Worf hypothesis

* Socialist calculation problem (Mises, Hayek)

* The theory of comparative advantage (Mill, Ricardo)

* Game theory (von Neumann, Morgenstern, Schelling)

* Languages come in families (Jones, Young, Bopp)

* Theories of aggregate demand shortfall (Malthus, Sismondi, Keynes)

* History as an independent mode of thought (Dilthey, Croce, Collingwood, Oakeshott)

* Public choice theory (Buchanan, Tullock)

* Rational choice theory (who?)

* Equilibrium theorizing (who?)

31 Responses to “The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences”

  1. jbold1 Says:

    “The medium is the message.” McLuhan


  2. […] He has a list and a discussion here. * The state as the individual writ large (Plato) […]


  3. What about adding limited government, property rights and the rule of law?

    And democracy, not as a theory of sovereignty but just a way of rolling over the leadership without killing them? A German was onto limited government, can’t recall his name but Mill dedicated one of his books to him.

    You could add communism as well and attribute that to Plato who also had a preliminary version of the class struggle.

    You could add collectivist social justice with credit to Plato as well. http://www.the-rathouse.com/OpenSocietyOnLIne/Chapter-6-Platonic-Justice.html


  4. […] post on ThinkMarkets, a list of great ideas in the social sciences. “Great” here means mix of good and bad ideas, for […]

  5. Greg Ransom Says:

    The most important idea – on a par with Darwin’s directly parallel idea – is the identification of an explanatory PROBLEM in the design-like order of the rough, undersigned & non-dictated coordination of individual plans in the great market society, and the solution to this problem in the bottom-up mechanism of learning in the context of changing relative prices, negative rules of just conduct, and individual judgments of local conditions.

    Until this ideas was together in one piece by F. A. Hayek economics, like biology before Darwin, was just a miscellany of components — afterwards everything makes sense, and only makes sense in its terms, eg in both cases a directly perceived top down design like order without a designer explained by a bottom up order producing causal mechanism.

    Darwin’s great re-imagining of the problem and relation of components was the grea idea of biology, and ditto Hayek’s re-imaging of the problem made possible by a re-imagining of the explanatory strategy which causally accounts for the phenomena reimaged in terms of a design without a designer problem.

  6. Allan Walstad Says:

    Sociobiology? (E. O. Wilson)

    All you need is love (Beatles)

    (Ok, that was whimsy.)

  7. Ryan Langrill Says:

    Veil of Uncertainty/Ignorance? (Rawls/Buchanan)

    Cities as Spontaneous Orders (Jane Jacobs)

  8. SM Says:

    To Rafe Champion, Is the German you are thinking of Wilhelm Von Humboldt (The Limits of State Action)?

  9. Hume Says:

    The “basic structure” as the subject of justice (Rawls, Hayek, roots in Marx).

    Man is “naturally” free and equal (Hobbesian idea).

    Man is free and equal (Lockean, in the sense that no man naturally possesses moral authority over another).

    The Harm Principle (Mill).

    Primary rules, secondary rules, the rule of recognition (Hart).

  10. LukSus Says:

    What about innovation and spontaneous order? (Schumpeter, Hayek)

  11. bill greene Says:

    Pericles said it all–2,500 years ago–the rest is pompous and abstract theory. The best “ideas” can only be illustrated by actual instances of practice. Throughout history, republican government and relatively free markets have created the best living conditions for a society’s populace.

    The case method–looking at results on the ground–shows what worked and what didn’t. The USSR was a grotesque failure. Athens, Rome, Venice, Holland, Scotland, America worked. Locke and Hayek merely wrote about the actual beneficial practices to be found in Pheonicia, Florence, and other laboratories of history that proved the importance of individual freedom and initiative. http://www.thecommongenius.com

  12. successfulbuild Says:

    I think Chomsky’s theories deserve mention for several good reasons: his work has spread all over, for example, you read about it in first year psychology books and it is also mentioned in books on discrete math (i.e.Epp’s text on discrete math); his work has had an impact on consciousness and reviving old rationalist debates on human nature; he has single-handedly kept the left-anarchist critique alive, which critiques right-libertarianism and modern capitalism; he’s frequently mentioned in wiki articles on a variety of topics.

    Berlinski called him “as big as Galileo” and even though this list is in political science/economics the mention of Augustine and William Jones, and game theory, means he could be on such a list. At one time it was more common for philosophers and intellectuals to comment on a variety of areas (such as Mill, Wilhelm von Humboldt, etc.) but that seems to have fallen out of flavor with specialization. But Chomsky’s work has spread all over from debates on AI to language and thus he has an easy claim to be a wide-ranging philosopher.

    Finally, he shows that if you stick to clear reasoning you can overcome a prominent paradigm, and I think he’s done that both in regards to moving away from behaviorism and away from the Libertarian definition of “freedom,” which is also faltering.

  13. Blackadder Says:

    The idea of the nobel savage.

    There should probably be a couple on there about race.

  14. Will Says:

    -Reality as material, composed of undifferentiated units in a void (Democritus)

    -Reality as underlain by harmonious numerical relationships (Pythagorus, Descartes)

    -Reality as irrational and hostile (Seneca, Kierkegaard, Camus)

    -The unity of opposites (Heraclitus, Ibn Khaldun, Hegel)

    -Natural rights/natural law theory (Coke, Locke)

    -The law of rent (Quesnay, Ricardo, George)

    -Reification (Lukacs)

    -Gender roles as political and artificial (Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir, Foucault)

    -The Pareto principle

    -The “great man” theory of history (Carlyle)

    -Historical materialism (Montesquieu, Smith, et al)

    -Hegemony (Adorno)

    An enjoyable game! I will think of more as soon as I’m away from a keypad…

  15. Allan Walstad Says:

    Mercantilism. Sorry if it was already mentioned.

  16. gcallah Says:

    “Reality as material, composed of undifferentiated units in a void (Democritus)

    -Reality as underlain by harmonious numerical relationships (Pythagorus, Descartes)”

    These are ideas in the *social* sciences?!

  17. gcallah Says:

    @bill greene: “Pericles said it all–2,500 years ago–the rest is pompous and abstract theory.”

    Bill, that sure is some pompous and abstract theory you yourself got there!

  18. bill greene Says:

    gcallah–examining actual results by the case method is a way to escape the failings of theoretical thought. The early open societies with free markets and widespread participation by the citizenry illustrated virtually all subsequent sound economic and political theories. The academics and scholars merely were playing catch-up with past practices, summarizing as best they could. The scary thing is that many of these theorists still champion economic theories that never worked and are contrary to Athenian and Venetian success formulas.

    You don’t have to rely on vague conflicting theories when you can just look at the American scene from 1620-1900 and see what was behind and formed the foundation of the greatest advance in man’s comfort and liberty in the history of the world. (Hint–it was not big government, social engineering, subsidies, or entitlement mentalitiy.)

  19. gcallah Says:

    Bill, your idea that there are certain “success formulas” that can be duplicated wherever and whenever IS ITSELF an example of the “abstract theory” that you mock.

  20. bill greene Says:

    gcallah–perhaps every concept or thought may be considered an “abstract theory,” but my point is more that such ideas or theories can be either concrete or vague. Your first few “great ideas” include* The state as the individual writ large (Plato)* Man is a political/social animal (Aristotle)* The city of God versus the city of man (Augustine)* What is moral for the individual may not be for the ruler (Machiavelli). These are fine thoughts but they do not give a person clear guidance on the relative merits of different social or economic organizations.

    If we are to consider political “science” and economics to be akin to the physical sciences there has to be measurable criteria and repeatable processes. I find all the great ideas listed in this post a mish mash of both sound concepts versus failed processes–that is good and bad ideas. The study of history, political science and economics must serve a useful purpose to justify themselves–otherweise they are useless speculation and become mere vague philosophical musings.

    My original point was that the useful example detailing actual real-world goverment can be fairly well seen in Pericles oration. A few subsequent societies built on those principles of an open society–the record of their precepts and success is fairly clear. Indeed, there is an “Annual Index” that ranks the degree to which each of about 150 nations adhere to such principles.(Published by the Frase Foundation and also by Heritage Books)

    The correlation between the well-being of a nation’s citizens seems to be well correlated to the degreee of economic and political freedom they enjoy. This correlation indicates that there are “ideas” that have proved so enduring and consistently effective that they have risen to the level of “principles.”

    For example we can say that the chemical process of distillation, that was a mere idea or hypothesis in some ancient time, has now become a chemical “law,” but the idea of converting base metals to gold became unlikely after years of experimentation.

  21. gcallah Says:

    “If we are to consider political “science” and economics to be akin to the physical sciences there has to be measurable criteria and repeatable processes.”

    And that is yet another abstract theory.

    You keep mocking abstract theory, Bill, while putting forward abstract theory after abstract theory of your own.

    “These are fine thoughts but they do not give a person clear guidance on the relative merits of different social or economic organizations. ”

    Nor does your advice to emulate the successes of the past. Someone could take your advice to “just look at the American scene from 1620-1900″ and conclude, “OK, if we want to be successful, we need black slavery, generally high tariffs, and a denial of all political and many civil rights to women.”

  22. Nick F Says:

    Surely this is just a list of economics with a bit of seasoning, not all the social sciences? At the very least:
    1. It is simply not the case that we are ‘rational’ beings – Kahneman & Tverskey;
    2. Science does not evolve through steady accumulation of knowledge, but through revolutions in scientific paradigms – Kuhn;
    3. More money does not (past a pretty basic level) make us happier – Easterlin (yes, I know, an economist);
    4. We still think using a set of concepts established in the Enlightenment, though they’re largely outmoded – Midgley;
    5. The brain’s hemispheres think in radically different ways, both of which we need (and which are somewhat out of balance in modern society) – McGilchrist.


  23. I’d add the Transformational Model of Social Activity/Agency (TMSA) to that list (Bhaskar, Archer): http://criticalrealism.wikispaces.com/Social+Ontology

  24. bill greene Says:

    GCALLAH– If you check out the “Annual Index” that ranks the degree to which each of about 150 nations adhere to specific governing principles.(Published by the Fraser Foundation and also by Heritage Books) you will see that there are very measurable criteria that predict economic and political success. These reports eschew abstractions and rely on measurable standards. The reports have the backing and support of many distinguished individuals in dozens of countries who assist in these calculations.

    Reliance on such well documented data, and drawing conclusions from the high degree of correlations obtained, is not an abstract theory–it is the essence of the scientific method.

  25. Allan Walstad Says:

    Nick F: “3. More money does not (past a pretty basic level) make us happier – Easterlin (yes, I know, an economist)”

    But what counts as a “basic level” seems to change, doesn’t it? Habituation is standard psych, but the real question is what institutional framework is most conducive to advancement. Unless this is understood, “happiness” research may indeed be influential, but in a negative sense, as just another vehicle for pushing collectivism.


  26. ontological uncertainty theorist (alternatively, the anti-equilibrium theorists: Shackle, Lachmann, Wiseman

  27. David I. Levine Says:

    I think these four are Big Ideas:

    Social Darwinism, race theories of intelligence and eugenics (though many would not want those grouped together)

    Statistics are useful in understanding the social sciences. (To a lesser extent: Correlations vs. causality in social science research.)

    Experiments are useful in understanding people. (To a lesser extent: worries about external validity in social science research, and the value of replication and of field experiments.)

    Industrial engineering (from Taylorism through Ford and Lenin)

    The following are candidates as well:

    Social science is a conversation taking place within socieity, so social forces influence the definitions of “science,” “data,” “convincing evidence,” “good theory,” who is a “scientist,” etc.

    Theories of positive and negative freedom leading up to
    Sen’s freedom as capabilities.

    Capitalism is unstable (Marx) (which is a bit different than aggregate demand shortfall you mentioned)

    General equilibrium

    “Human” approaches to management from Human Relations and “Theory Y” to quality circles, total quality management, employee involvement, and so forth.


  28. […] Gene Callahan breaks down social thought through the ages. […]

  29. Roger McKinney Says:

    I think we should judge ideas by their effects. I can’t think of a larger effect on civilization than what McCloskey calls the hockey stick effect in per capita gdp. That hockey stick caused the planet’s population to grow seven fold in the 20th century.

    McCloskey credits the inflection point of the stick to the adoption of bourgeois values. But those issued from the scholars at Salamanca, Spain who insisted on the value of commerce, free markets as the only means to a just price, the rule of law and the sanctity of private property. Those ideas and the resulting change in values caused per capita income to soar. Everything since then has been merely attempts at understanding that phenomenon.


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