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In my opinion

Undergraduate education in the social sciences could use a rethink

The social science traditions in Canada are strong, but it might be time to consider new interdisciplinary approaches.


Undergraduate education in the social sciences is anything but a simple proposition in the current climate for higher education. With shifting economic demands on universities, uncertain employment pathways for graduates, and the marginalization of the social sciences in comparison to STEM fields, it is inevitable that some commentators argue for change. In Canada, the debate over the future of the social sciences from the perspective of sociologists has been active.

Some have called for a more “transdisciplinary” role for sociology, while others with an opposing view question the efficacy of interdisciplinary institutional arrangements. Those less sanguine about parceling out sociology throughout the social sciences prefer to preserve the institutional integrity of sociology from within, while making necessary changes to avoid inevitable pathologies from arising.

Others have argued for dismantling traditional disciplines in the social sciences altogether, in a manner similar to the natural sciences. Nicholas Christakis’ 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times questioned the “inertia” within the social sciences and the constant rehashing of old problems. For example, social inequality, monopoly power and racial profiling are classic topics, whose findings have been replicated exhaustively, with “diminishing returns.”  He argues that perhaps it is time to move forward with what he refers to as more cutting-edge fields.

Such new fields include social neuroscience, behavioral economics and social epigenetics, which intersect the natural and social sciences. This evolution would naturally require the formation of new social science departments such as biosocial science, network science and computational social science, to name a few.

what these new departments might look like

But, while these debates have provided for a fruitful discussion of the state of affairs of disciplinary logic, the traditional disciplinary schema has remained largely unchanged. In addition, these debates seem to be disconnected from pleas from policy experts for more inquiry into why undergraduate education is not translating into job skills that employers covet.

Therefore, it is necessary to at least discuss what these new departments might look like, and their potential consequences and advantages for undergraduate education.

First, it seems obvious that such new fields would require a more rigorous training and exposure for social science undergraduates in quantitative methods, complex statistical modelling, the use of data mining tools and their associated software, and even an understanding of computer coding and algorithms. These skills might compliment foundational disciplinary theories, but allow for the study of things like the structure and function of social networks as they apply to topics like the spread of diseases.

Given the historical context of the growth of sociology in Canada, such endeavors would indeed challenge the status quo. The Canadian sociological tradition, which unlike its competitors in economics and political science, has a less fortified commitment to empirical and scientific models of analysis, and grew out of the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s. It has always been a discipline that has prided itself in collective social concern, left-of-centre politics, and an unabashed individualism. And, it is precisely this moral conscience that has arguably made sociology a vehicle for social transformation. To compromise that, and to move to more “value-free” empiricism would risk losing the privileged position that sociology holds in bringing elite social and political institutions to account.

But for argument’s sake, might such disciplinary changes help alleviate some recent concerns about the job prospects of recent social science degree holders?  Those that argue that student expectations have changed dramatically, with intellectual pursuits taking a back seat to careerism, might be curious to know that new possibilities exist. In addition, many of the skills required to conduct new forms of social science research, like an understanding of data analytics, are highly coveted skills in the business and technology sectors.

Catering to marketplace demands is a contentious issue within academia

Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that sociology departments, at least in part, cater to the career concerns of their prospective students. And, if universities want to keep up with trends in the marketplace, wouldn’t more “hard” skills like data mining and visualization be more attractive to certain perspective employers who are losing faith in the workplace skills of traditional social science graduates?

Catering to marketplace demands is a contentious issue within academia, as the risks of “academic capitalism” have been well documented. There are also ontological and epistemological risks; moving the social sciences towards a closer relationship with the biological sciences, for example, would shift the perspective of the social world towards a more systems-oriented approach that might sacrifice perspectives of human agency, which are critical to qualitative social science. Understanding things like historical context, engaging in the richness of lived experiences and documenting them through detailed narratives help illuminate social realities and provide perspective. The skills learned through such endeavors such as critical thinking, writing and synthesizing of detailed information continue to be the hallmark of a liberal arts education. However, these skills, while enriching, have become difficult to market as undergraduate degree granting becomes more prevalent and common.

This article does not endorse a wholesale breakup of our cherished traditions. Rather, it is a call for more discussion surrounding new approaches and developments in the social sciences and how they can translate into new forms of social science undergraduate education. Whether these opportunities will be housed in traditional departments, interdisciplinary programs or new configurations remains to be seen. But, regardless of where you stand on the future of these disciplines and teaching practices, there are certainly numerous discussions and areas of research that deserve more attention. Some possible areas of focus might include:

  • Examining which programs in Canada are teaching computational techniques and how they are doing it;
  • Understanding how students in interdisciplinary arts and science programs are using their skills for job placement;
  • Learning about how technological tools can be used in social science disciplines that tend to favor qualitative approaches.

The social science traditions in Canada are strong and continue to attract students, but looking at new trends in interdisciplinary approaches that may lead to better job outcomes for undergraduates is a worthwhile venture.

Rod Missaghian is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Waterloo.

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  1. Phoenix / October 27, 2016 at 14:03

    Radical thinking brother. Everyone take notice!

  2. Jayce / October 27, 2016 at 22:55

    Good stuff Rod!

  3. Rene / November 6, 2016 at 15:50

    why exactly take social neuroscience, behavioral economics and social epigenetics which have massive epistemological problems and tend to reproduce the old idea of social physics (yes, the old positivist idea of a unity science has been there and has been overcome by the combination of Verstehen [interpretive] and Erklären [explain] since Max weber at least).

    Now people tend to present those old positivist ideas as new, not knowing 100 year old debates. And no, having bigger numbers does not qualitatively change the epistemological problems.

    I am not against quantitative sociology at all, but its strenght is in a rigorous combination of THEORY with good empiricial work, which in many cases might also be interpretive/qualitative/ethnography.

    p.s. deconstrucitivst, post-whatever theories might be inspiring, but we need to work on good wide ranged theories such as Social Construcitvism, Systems Theories, Structuration Theory and SI.

    • Rod / November 7, 2016 at 10:58

      Hi Rene,

      Thanks for commenting and I think you make some important points.

      Especially about old sociological ideas like “social physics” being rebranded today without proper acknowledgement of the historical roots of their origin. However, social neuroscience and epigenetics, I would say, offer something more nuanced than the positivism of Durkheim and Comte.

      And however rich Vershtehen and Marxist sociology are, you cannot say that they “overcame” positivism, only that they offered a different version of how to study society.

      And I would also say that social constructivism and SI also have epistemological problems.

      You mentioned systems theory (also had roots in sociology), which is critical to these new approaches.

      I’m a qualitative researcher myself, so I fully understand the need to defend its merits as a methodology. And I think that in this corporatized climate of academic consumerism (where employers, governments and students are demanding technical efficiency even for liberal arts degrees) , we also need to look for creative ways to use qual research using new tools. There are many practical uses for qual research. It just seems that the methodological wars in sociology prevent us from having these conversations.

      I wanted to write this to stimulate conversation, and I’m glad you brought up these points.

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