It’s no bullshit – survey finds sociology and political science are the faculties to be axed

Great news for Alf, who long has harboured suspicions about the worth of social scientists.

According to a survey in the USA, which invited respondents to identify the social sciences we should kill off, sociology and political science ranked as the top two disciplines deserving the axe.

Not necessarily the most scientific of surveys, it could be argued.

But a survey nevertheless, and all the more credible for reinforcing Alf’s prejudices.

This is bad news, of course, for the social scientists who are desperately trying to overcome the impression they are irrelevant and deserve to have their faculties closed.

A columnist in The Guardian brought Alf’s attention to the social scientists’ sadly desperate attempts to become more relevant with an item here.

Kate Roach wrote –

Impenetrable writing layered with jargon and a near-xenophobic attitude towards lay people has given us all the impression that academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences are utterly irrelevant. So irrelevant, that when the government slashed the entire university teaching budget for these disciplines, few beyond the universities turned a hair.

Apart from people actually educated in the subject, Roach inquired, how many of us were able to say what social science is?

And if you happen to respond with a blank stare, it affirms that academics have too long hidden their wares behind gobbledygook.

But there has been a stirring of academic ranks in response to Whitehall’s funding decisions.

The recently launched Campaign for Social Science aims to encourage the social scientists to brush up their communications skills to help us understand why we might need them.

The campaign, run by the Academy of Social Sciences, holds that muddled messages and aloof attitudes must be a thing of the past. Some social scientists at least must communicate their worth in intelligible, everyday words if they are to demonstrate the value of their work to those of us outside academe.

David Willetts, the minister of state for universities and science who cut the teaching budgets in the first place, declared himself a campaign supporter.

Willetts gave an enlightening example: vaccines curb the spread of disease – right?

Wrong. They only do this when people feel safe to take them.

Despite the campaign, or perhaps because of it, Freakonomics readers were invited to engage in an experiment.

They were asked to imagine College & University Presidents were re-examining their social science disciplines in response both to budgetary pressures and calls for greater relevance of the American academy.

The university bosses had decided to eliminate one major discipline.

In your opinion, which of the following is no longer as relevant to the mission of research and education, and should be eliminated as a consequence?


Political science



The experiment was conducted by Sudhir Venkatesh, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

His survey did not place “anthropology” and “history” as options because of their close links to the humanities.

Before anyone thought the experiment was fanciful, they were invited to take a look at a recent article in Nature by Luk Van Langenhove, who writes that social science is becoming irrelevant.

Another assumption was that existing faculty would be absorbed into other departments, but no new hires would be granted for the shuttered department.

The verdict came in this week: sociology and political science deserve the hatchet.

Some respondents answered in comments on the post that raised the question. Others visited the on-line poll (which is still open).

As of this writing, more than 1,200 votes have been registered.

And the winner — er, “LOSER”(!) is:

Let’s Kill Off Sociology and Political Science!

As you can see from the chart reproduced above, nearly 50 percent believed college/university presidents should eliminate sociology; nearly 30 percent thought pol sci should be shuttered.

Personally, Alf is inclined to get rid of all four disciplines to free up money for important things like basket weaving at an indigenous-university.

Oh, and he draws attention to this Freakonomics’ editor’s note: “it is perhaps not surprising that Freakonomics readers wouldn’t vote to eliminate economics.”

But why were the losers picked for being given the axe?

The rationales varied. Many felt that sociology had become too insular and out of touch. Some argued that political science had become a sub-field of economics, and a good old-fashioned “M&A” could occur. Others said “market” discipline should be enforced: that is, save the departments that bring in the most cash to the university. And many of you argued that the tradition of the disciplines was being ignored — e.g., sociology used to promote reform, but is no longer organized around such pragmatic tasks—and so it makes sense to close them for good.

Our Parliament could well take a lead from the US Congress on this matter. In May, the House voted to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding political science research.

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