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Stark Warning from Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is a long way from being my favourite intellectual, but a short article published on the website of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) is of interest (link from History News Network). Fukuyama diagnoses a significant shortcoming in contemporary social science:

The scandal that the media has thus far failed to cover is the utter failure of the American academy to train adequate numbers of people with deep knowledge about the world outside the United States. This failure is linked to the decline of regional studies in American universities over the past generation and the misguided directions being taken by the social sciences in recent years, particularly political science and economics.

The story here is one of colonization of the study of politics by economics. Known as the “queen of the social sciences,” economics is the only discipline that looks like a natural science. Economists are carefully trained to gather data and build causal models that can be rigorously tested empirically. The data that economists work from are quantitative from the start and can be analyzed with a powerful battery of statistical tools.

Economists’ powerful methodology has been a source of envy and emulation on the part of other social scientists. The past two decades have seen the growth of what is known as “rational choice” political science, in which political scientists seek to model political behavior using the same mathematical tools (game theory, for the most part) used by economists. Economists tend to believe that regularities in human behavior are universal and invariant across different cultures and societies (for example, the law of supply and demand is the same in Japan and Botswana). Similarly, rational choice political science seeks to create broad, universally applicable laws of political behavior by generalizing across large numbers of countries rather than focusing intensively on the history and context of individual countries or regions.

As a result, regional studies fell seriously out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s. Foundations ceased to fund area studies programs, money for language training and fieldwork evaporated and requirements were changed from knowing languages and history to learning quantitative methods.

This is, of course, another example of Fukuyama’s post-9/11 divergence from neo-conservative orthodoxy; neo-con dogma asserts that American ignorance of the rest of the world is all the fault of Edward Said for having questioned the motives and value of Orientalist scholarship. But it is also significant for religious studies, where a “rational choice” model has gained ground thanks to Laurence Iannaccone, Rodney Stark, and William Bainbridge.

According to Stark and Bainbridge, religions are the suppliers of “compensators”, or future rewards, and potential adherents are potential consumers. Religious organisations, the “supply-side” of religion, do well when they are meeting the needs of consumers. In the case of societies where one religious tradition has a monopoly on religious practice or some kind of special state subsidy, the tradition is likely to become lazy and fail to meet the needs of its “customers”, leading to secularisation. Also, liberal religions that have abandoned certain aspects of supernaturalism have in effect abandoned the market in compensators, which in religion are most successful when they are difficult to verify but also difficult to disprove. Liberal religion will be replaced with more conservative groups better able to meet the universal needs for which there will always be a market. Thus secularisation is a limited process that will be reversed. Stark and Bainbridge presented his theory as a series of “axioms”, and asserted that the study of religion should be deduced from these.

This theory was ripped to shreds by the British sociologist of religion Steve Bruce in 1999, who claimed to have “put a stake through its heart” (quote from memory). Bruce saw the theory as utterly unable to consider religious motivations, and a short version of his critique can be read here. However, Bruce lives in Scotland and is unfashionably qualitative for a sociologist, and his defence of the theory of secularisation is an unpopular position (although I consider it to be the correct one). Fukuyama’s purely commonsense critique of “rational choice” pretensions may have a bigger impact.

Stark, who teaches at Baylor, is also known for his recent attack on evolutionary theory in a bizarre article for American Enterprise. His scientifically semi-literate ramblings there were demolished by The Panda’s Thumb).

One Response

  1. Stark raving…

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