Co-operation in Social Science Research

Harold G. Moulton

Co-operation in social science research has within the last few years become a veritable slogan. I take it that the new building; alike beautiful and utilitarian, which the ever pioneering University of Chicago is now dedicating is properly to be regarded as symbolic of a new spirit of co-operation among the various fields into which the social sciences in recent generations have been broken up and also of the rediscovery of the essential unity of all humanistic studies.

For many years the trend in the social sciences was toward increasing specialization. Not only did economists and political scientists and historians and sociologists tend to pursue their own special ends, but within each of these departmental divisions a host of new specialists developed—in money, in commercial banking, in investment banking, in corporation finance, in real estate finance, in labor legislation, in railroad transportation, in water transportation, in rural and in urban sociology, in political theory, in political parties, in federal government, in municipal government, and perhaps most unfortunate of all in the history of ever briefer segments of time. It has been this continuous narrowing of the range of interest and vision that is, of course, responsible for that embarrassing definition that a specialist is one who concentrates more and more upon less and less until he reaches the stage where he can merely concentrate.

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It is difficult to indicate any single cause for the change in emphasis that has come to the social sciences within the last decade or so. On the one hand, the fact that the results of highly specialized research on mere segments of problems contributed little either toward the solution of social problems or toward understanding of the larger aspects of social organization and social processes produced its inevitable reaction, for the human mind appears always to be in quest of the ultimate. On the other hand, the detailed statistical and other studies that have become so numerous had served to challenge the validity of many of the assumptions underlying the basic generalizations embodied in the comprehensive systems of thought which earlier scholars had elaborated. In any event, there has been a growing recognition of the desirability of developing a new body of generalizations of broader social import, and this, in turn, has disclosed the necessity of co-operation among scholars trained in different divisions of the social sciences and possessed of complementary technical qualifications.

There still remain, however, two fairly distinct and more or less contradictory views as to the processes by which important theoretical generalizations, whether in the natural or the social sciences, are derived; and this occasion is an opportune one for a brief presentation of these alternate conceptions. One view is that scientific generalizations come chiefly as a result of lonely reflection and artistic inspiration. In the words of Laski :

Some lonely thinker, brooding in solitude upon the meaning of facts, from the significance of which he cannot escape .... gets a sudden moment of illumination, and he proceeds to test the hypothesis by finding whether it will fit the facts at his disposal ....

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The great scientist, the great philosopher, the great historian, have always been in their essence great artists.

According to this point of view, no elaborate quantitative investigations or extensive field of research is required.

My own experience and observations have led me to believe, on the other hand, that significant generalizations, particularly in the field of the social sciences, usually come only as a result of extensive inductive inquiries. If one is to brood fruitfully, he must have something to brood upon, and the greater the body of factual information at his disposal, the more likely are his reflections to yield serviceable results. Mere quantitative data are, moreover, seldom sufficient, for the bare facts alone may throw little light upon social processes or the causal relationships. Intimate acquaintanceship with the actual administration of economic, social, or political institutions is often more illuminating than figures and curves may possibly be; and this is why the practical man of affairs not infrequently has a surer grasp of reality than the social scientist.

I would not wish to be understood as arguing that fresh insights are to be gained only in the market place or the statistical laboratory. New points of view, challenging hypotheses, flashes of inspiration come to individuals in various ways; they come from reading the analyses and interpretations of others, from the prosaic study of balance sheets, from contacts and discussion with practical men of affairs, as well as with one's col-leagues; and they come from reflection and ratiocination. Moreover, they come in various places and under various circumstances; on lonely walks or hilltops; when lecturing before a class; in church when the music

( 58) or the sonorous voice of the minister sets one's thoughts to moving in unaccustomed channels; and even in hours of sleep when the subconscious mind sometimes discloses with crystal clarity that which eludes the conscious brain of our waking hours. These processes are in no sense mutually exclusive; rather they complement one another in gradually remaking one's whole intellectual outlook and understanding of the world in which one lives.

This second view of the processes by which valid scientific generalizations are derived is, I believe, largely a consequence of the fact that during the last twenty years a great many social scientists, working with the extensive accumulations of social data that have be-come available, have been able to subject many hypotheses and so-called laws to tests which have proved them wanting. It is a safe generalization that the more one works with quantitative data and with other factual information the more skeptical one becomes as to the validity of many of the so-called principles, or laws announced by our predecessors. And while on this theme let me state also the conviction that the theorist who would arrive at new generalizations must do more than scan the work done by statisticians, fact-finders, and descriptive writers; he must himself be a worker in the vineyard; the surest interpretations are likely to be those growing out of the inductive investigations in which the theorist is himself engaged.

Turning now more specifically to the subject before us, what are the advantages, possibilities, and limitations of co-operative research in the social sciences? The question calls for a consideration of various types of possible co-operation.

In the first place, it is impossible to get co-operation

( 59) in the abstract or in general terms. You can't lock two economists alone in a room together and force co-operation between them, nor can you develop a new social science merely by housing social anthropologists, social psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and statisticians in a common building. Such propinquity may promote cordiality and facilitate the exchange of views and the giving of mutual criticisms; but these are minor gains. To contribute in a really constructive way to the solution of significant social problems and to new theoretical generalizations of importance, co-operation must be conceived and carried out in specific rather than in general terms; that is to say, the co-operators must work together on specific problems.

The opportunities for such co-operation are before us at every hand. Indeed, investigations that are of basic significance very frequently transcend the bounds of a particular division of the social sciences and require for their handling the peculiar qualifications of workers in several fields. They call for the co-operation, in one combination or another, of political scientists, economists, statisticians, sociologists, psychologists, or even lawyers and engineers. In many cases the regular staff of a given institution will not possess all of the requisite talent, and it is then necessary to recruit by borrowing from other institutions a special staff for the particular research in hand. Here lies one of the best opportunities for inter-institution co-operation; but to be effective the various institutions must develop a willingness to lend on occasion as well as to borrow, a real difficulty in these days of keen competition and restricted personnel.

Co-operation between institutions located in the same

( 60) country or in different countries also has significant possibilities, as Sir William Beveridge has so clearly pointed out in his stimulating address. Indeed, I am inclined to think that different groups may help one another more by concerted attacks upon problems in which comparative experience is important and by a division of labor on projects of major scope and significance than they can by agreeing to a division of fields or research preserves. My own feeling is that we have scarcely made a beginning in this direction, and I am glad, indeed, to have the opportunity of seconding most heartily the views which Sir William Beveridge has expressed in this connection.

We have thus far been considering co-operation between different divisions of the social sciences and between different institutional groups. I wish now to discuss another type of co-operation which is quite as important as the co-operation of men drawn from different divisions of the social sciences. A group of individuals interested in the same division of the social sciences may supplement one another in vitally important ways. They co-operate through bringing to bear upon a given project varied interests and talents. One may have a special flair for statistical method; a second may have aptitude in, and fondness for, the hunt in out of the way places for relevant data, whether in historical archives or in statistical collections or in the experiences of men who have been concerned in one way or another with the problem in question. A third may have unusual language equipment. A fourth may have exceptional capacity in the organization and interpretation of material. One may be of an unusually reflective type of mind, always wondering whether the tentative con-

( 61) -clusions reached do not need further qualification, elaboration, or modification, the type of mind that is perpetually revolving moot questions and seeking new light. Another may be particularly fruitful in suggesting leads for new lines of inquiry, and still another may be an excellent critic of detail, both as regards the data and the logic of the analysis.

Such co-operation does not imply that all of the co-operators are active participants in the investigation or that the product will appear under joint authorship. It merely means that the author at every stage of his investigation has the criticial and constructive aid of a group chosen because of special competency to contribute to, and appraise the results of, such investigation. In the institution with which I am connected, we appoint such a collaborating committee for every study that is undertaken, and it is the solemn duty of the committee to aid in the planning of the investigation, to confer with the author as the work progresses, and to criticize it vigorously when it reaches a completed stage. This does not mean that the interpretation of the author will be displaced by that of the committee; each member is to criticize with the utmost freedom, and it is incumbent upon the author to weigh carefully the criticisms made. If after free discussion and full discussion an agreement cannot be reached, the book is published in the form desired by the author and the disagreeing committee members are permitted to write a dissenting opinion for publication as an Appendix to the volume. This policy has proved with us a most fruitful one. We publish the interpretation in the form desired by the author, not only in the interests of academic freedom, but also because we believe that the

( 62) individual who has conceived a project, gathered, sifted, and digested the relevant data, is as a rule more likely to interpret its final meaning correctly and to achieve a distinctive contribution than is any committee group whose contact with the problem is in the nature of the case less intimate than that of the author. Indeed, we believe that the group mind is in many respects inferior to the individual mind, particularly in relation to constructive thinking.

But this by no means implies that the individual interpretation will not be rendered more precise and better balanced if it has to run the gamut of friendly yet trenchant criticism before it reaches its final form.

I am tempted in conclusion to observe that co-operative research on problems of basic social importance presents real difficulties even when conducted under the most propitious circumstances. The economist recognizes as a matter of course that economic wants constitute the mainspring of all human activity and is hence fundamental; the psychologist admits that the humanistic sciences are concerned with human behavior and that, after all, human behavior is nothing but psychology; the political scientist remembers that economics is but a minor subdivision of political economy—the original name, political science—and that this master science ages ago had experimented with every principle of behavior known to the present day psychologist; the sociologist originated because of the restricted conception of the social world which was held by other social scientists, particularly the economist, and the failure of philosophy to keep abreast of a changing world; the historian, i.e., the modern historian, proclaims that as the study of man in all his activities. and relations, his-

( 63) -tory is the all-embracing social discipline; the anthropologist has discovered that his field is really of central significance because it constitutes the connecting link between the social and the natural sciences and thus is the foundation on which all science is to be unified.

Fortunately, the statistician recognizes that he is but a modest collaborator, furnishing merely a useful tool for others of greater pretension. Who knows but that herein lies the real hope for the future?

Seriously, co-operation in social science research, if it is to be made effective, requires on the part of all who would collaborate therein increasing modesty, great tolerance, endless capacity to stand the wear and tear of what often seems fruitless discussion, and infinite patience with fellow-workers.


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