Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Behavioral science

(1958-59 class of Fellows at Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences; link)

Sometimes the rubric "behavioral science" is used to capture some of the research areas of fields like sociology, anthropology, political science, and social psychology. In some ways this usage is no more than an administrative convenience, a way of grouping disciplines into schools. But the phrase has implications beyond this that are worth highlighting.

First, what does the label mean? We might paraphrase the idea as "the scientific study of human behavior in social settings". This definition emphasizes the social dimension of action, but it focuses on the behavior rather than the context.

Choosing this rubric rather than its companion, "social science," suggests a shift of emphasis from the social setting (structures) to the actual behavior of the individual actors. Are there patterns we can identify in the ways people behave in various specified settings? And since the 1950s the expression has been used to focus on the processes of cognition and decision-making that underlie the individual's activities in the world. So cognitive science and fields making use of rational choice theory have often been included within the umbrella as well. Herbert Simon's work plays a central role in this aspect of the field ("Theories of Decision-Making in Economics and Behavioral Science"; link).

This is the "behavioral" part of the label. What about "science"? This part of the label brings along a set of implications about the nature of the studies encompassed: measurement, prediction, precision, statistical generalizations and patterns. These are positive valences or connotations for a variety of purposes, including the goal of gaining significant funding for research. But they also appear to give lower priority to the ideas of theory and hypothetical entities and the messy complexity of large sociological theorizing; the implication is that behavioral sciences are solidly empirical and observational, whereas the social sciences are "soft science".

Is this a helpful move? Yes and no. In its favor, the label pushed forward a particular agenda of research into the underlying components of social action. But it also served to suggest that the methods of other areas of the "social" sciences were not quite up to snuff.

One of the most prominent locations for "behavioral science" research in the United States is the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (link). The Center was established as one of the first major investments of the Ford Foundation in 1954. Leading scholars helped to found the Center: Robert Merton, Paul Lazarsfeld, Donald Marquis, Ernest Hilgard, Herbert Simon, Bernard Berelson, and Ralph Tyler. Here is a revealing gloss on the nomenclature contained on the website: "It wasn't too great a leap then to assume that we needed a social science, or behavioral science (the term coined and preferred by Ford as a means of disassociating the enterprise from socialism and even communism that were so under attack at the time) to solve our major problems." This comment illustrates the "scientific politics" that surround the development of disciplines and fields of research in the social sciences.

So there is some reason to think that the nomenclature of "behavioral science" serves a scientific-political purpose: to direct American social science research in a particular set of directions, and to discourage research that extends in more theoretical, comparative, and "macro" directions.

An interesting set of essays that try to make sense of the idea of "cold war social science" is provided in Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens, Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature (2012). The volume maintains a degree of distance from the idea of "cold war social science", but some of the contributors highlight the forces that were at work in the funding and institutions of the social sciences that created a degree of alignment between social science research and national security. Particularly interesting is Hamilton Cravens' contribution, "Column Right, March! Nationalism, Scientific Positivism, and the Conservative Turn of the American Social Sciences in the Cold War Era". Here is the publisher's description of the volume as well as the table of contents; link.


jamzo said...

and in health care there has been a campaign for over 25 years to substitute the term "behavioral health" for mental health"

as every young child demonstrates, naming: being able to give a name to something is an important cognitive process

Chris said...

Interestingly, in the field of public health, the idea of "behavioral science" is one that has enormous traction. There are entire departments at prestigious schools of public health devoted to the study of "behavioral science," for example at Emory University, which feeds many of its graduates into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arguably the most powerful and prominent public health agencies in the U.S. I think this is potentially very problematic and have often felt, during my experience as a graduate student in public health whose emphasis does fall partly into health behavior, that we ought to scrap the "health behavior" name from academic training in public health and opt for better names to capture what we're trying to do, such as "social health" or "social determinants of health." It's interesting how naming carries weight. Once you name a department something, that determines so much about the tenor of the department and how the research is carried out. There are problematic assumptions at work in every discipline, it's true.

But I think that especially in the field of public health, we need to work to change the names of departments that carry the "behavioral science" moniker, because that isn't really what so-called "behavioral scientists" are actually trying to do. Instead, we should focus our efforts in the public health field more on a focus on contextualizing people within systems, which is what sociology does. I see public health, in some ways, as the applied sibling to sociology where the sociological issues that are central to our world are played out in the realm of applied practice and policy. Given that we emphasize populations and communities in public health, it seems to me that we need to have more clarity about the language we are using to talk about what we do, as opposed to using problematic names like "behavioral science" to describe what we're doing.