Social Sciences as Sorcery

Many years ago someone recommended that I find an old book titled “Social Sciences as Sorcery.” I was in a seminar, and the speaker was (and still is) a revered thought leader on the topic of counter-insurgency.

I was asking lots of challenging questions, poking holes in some of the assumptions and assertions that underpin COIN, and there just wasn’t enough time to address them all.

“Find Social Sciences as Sorcery,” he said.

And so I did. 

This was well over a decade ago. And the book itself was published in 1972.

I found a copy and read it.

Well, actually, I read part of it. The subject matter is dense. It’s not an easy read. You have to focus.

I recently came back to it, and I’m glad I did. 

The thesis, at its core, is that understanding the human dimension – the mind, psychology, complex social interactions, etc. – is incredibly difficult. So much so to be nearly impossible. 

How do you understand the mind of another with your own mind? 

No one said it was going to be easy, but because it is precisely so difficult, and because so many of our problems seemingly call for a “social” solution, this opens the door for social scientists to offer solutions. 

Unfortunately, most of this is just sorcery.

Hucksterism.

The author, Stanislav Andreski writes:

“The easiest way out is always not to unduly worry about the truth, and tell people what they want to hear, while the secret of success is to be able to guess what it is they want to hear at the given time and place.”

The “truth,” when it comes to complex social dynamics and psychology, is that we usually don’t know the answer. 

So then, why wager a guess?

Because there is always someone out there who is hoping you might be right. This person is desperate for a solution.

And there is always someone out there ready to cash in on that hope.

There were a bunch of tweets going around recently quoting this line from Stanley McChrystal:

“Implementing an effective counter-insurgency requires ‘a level of local knowledge that I don’t have about my own hometown.'”

I disagree. 

Do you really think if we just had that one expert sitting in the room who could tell us what to do and what to say and what image to put in the tweet, we could turn this whole thing around?

I don’t.

Related: How important is culture training, anyway?


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