School of Social Science

History, Evolution, and Social Networks

By John Padgett 

Do actors make relations or do relations make actors?

The encounter of historical and evolutionary perspectives within the intermediate trading zone of social science often has been unsatisfactory. Biological metaphors of social evolution were common among the original founders of the social sciences—in sociology and anthropology especially—but collectivist functionalism1 now is thoroughly discredited. Horrific misuses of biological and evolutionary “scientific theories” by nineteenth- and twentieth-century racist social movements need no recounting. More recently, sociobiology—the analysis of discrete social behaviors and cultural “memes” as if these were genes in evolutionary competition—has gained an enthusiastic following as a sect, but sociobiology is viewed as simplistic and naive by most contemporary social scientists. 

Less well known among social scientists, the reverse reception of historicist arguments in evolutionary biology also has been rocky. Stephen Jay Gould is widely known and praised outside of his own subfield, but his arguments are held at arm’s length if not in disdain by his evolutionist peers. Celebrating “historical contingencies” to them seems tantamount to giving up on scientific explanation altogether. Postmodernists in the social sciences and the humanities are willing to take that step, but contemporary evolutionary biologists (including the late Gould himself) have nightmares of creationists and intelligent designers exploiting indeterminacy in evolutionary theory for their own purposes.

Albert Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and the Future of the American City

By Milton Cameron 

Albert Einstein in living room, Fallingwater, 1939
Albert Einstein in living room, Fallingwater, 1939

Einstein's reputation gained him a following among architects who were out to transform American architecture and design.

When Albert Einstein first met Frank Lloyd Wright, he mistook the architect for a musician. Leaping from his chair, Einstein announced that he was returning home to fetch his violin and would be back shortly to perform a duet. Only upon his return did he learn that Wright was not a pianist. It was early 1931, and the two men were guests of Alice Millard, a rare book and antique dealer. The setting, ironically, was the dining room of La Miniatura, the house that Wright had designed for Millard at 645 Prospect Crescent, Pasadena. But if the architect was taken aback by Einstein’s gaffe, he did not show it. Wright had just met the most famous person in the world, and was determined to exploit the opportunity for all it was worth.

Wright liked to groom important public figures to complement his social circle and support his campaigns. The latest of these, which would obsess him for the remainder of his life, was to replace congested, disease-ridden cities and their skyscrapers with a dispersed, horizontal form of development that would spread across the countryside and capitalize upon the increasing availability of automobiles. Wright knew he would need all the help he could get to achieve such a radical transformation of the fabric of American society. Einstein’s name and reputation was just what he required.

The Legacy of Mandela’s Life: A Political and Moral Hero

By Didier Fassin 

Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa
Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa

Mandela reinstated the rights of those who were oppressed and restored their dignity without perpetuating resentment or inciting retaliation.

On the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, few observers thought that the day would pass without bloodshed. A smooth transition toward democracy seemed very unlikely. Having been in a state of emergency from 1985 to 1990, the country had suffered from years of civil war­–like conditions. In the early 1990s, the police force of the apartheid regime, white suprem­acists, and secessionist Zulus had massacred members of the African National Congress. The charismatic General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chris Hani, had been the recent victim of an assassination ordered by a member of the Conservative Party. And during ANC meetings the crowd would sing the combative chant “Kill the Boer.” Thus, it was an unlikely transition, even more so because South African President Frederik de Klerk was accused of supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which was implicated in the violent outbreaks.

Economics: Science, Craft, or Snake Oil?

By Dani Rodrik 

Barbara Smaller/The New Yorker Collection

When economists skip over real-world complications, it’s as if physicists spoke of a world without gravity.

When the 2013 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (colloquially known as the “Economics Nobel”) was awarded to Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller, along with Lars Peter Hansen, many were puzzled by the selection. Fama and Shiller are both distinguished and highly regarded scholars, so it was not their qualifications that raised eyebrows. What seemed odd was that the committee had picked them together.

After all, the two economists seem to hold diametrically opposed views on how financial markets work. Fama, the University of Chicago economist, is the father of the “efficient market hypothesis,” the theory that asset prices reflect all publicly available information, with the implication that it is impossible to beat the market consistently. Shiller, the Yale economist, meanwhile, has spent much of his career demonstrating financial markets work poorly: they overshoot, are subject to “bubbles” (sustained rises in asset prices that cannot be explained by fundamentals), and are often driven by “behavioral” rather than rational forces. Could both these scholars be right? Was the Nobel committee simply hedging its bets?

While one cannot read the jury’s mind, its selection highlighted a central feature of economics—and a key difference between it and the natural sciences. Economics deals with human behavior, which depends on social and institutional context. That context in turn is the creation of human behavior, purposeful or not. This implies that propositions in economic science are typically context-specific, rather than universal. The best, and most useful, economic theories are those that draw clear causal links from a specific set of contextual assumptions to predicted outcomes.

From a War on Terrorism to Global Security Law

by Kim Lane Scheppele 

What happened when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1373 to fight terrorism but failed to define it?

On December 11, 2003, when asked in a press conference whether his Iraq policy was consistent with international law, President George W. Bush joked, “International law? I better call my lawyer; he didn’t bring that up to me.”

But, in fact, since the 9/11 attacks, the United States government had aggressively constructed a new body of international law: global security law. While the Bush administration is probably best known for its CIA black sites, extraordinary rendition, and defense of torture, those policies were in fact rather short-lived, lasting a handful of years at most. By contrast, global security law not only still exists but is becoming ever more entrenched. More than a decade after the attacks, global security law remains one of the most persistent legacies of 9/11.

On September 28, 2001, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1373. Operating under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which makes resolutions binding on all member states (noncompliance is at least theoretically subject to sanctions), the
Security Council required states to change their domestic law in parallel ways to fight terrorism. Previously, the Security Council had typically directed states’ actions or urged states to sign treaties, but it had not directed changes in countries’ domestic laws. With Resolution 1373, the Security Council required states to alter some of the most sensitive areas of national law, like criminal law and domestic intelligence law.

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