Social realism, race and the human sciences

Proponents of the social realism perspective in the history and sociology of the human sciences have recently begun to legitimate an interpretation of scientists and their work which used to be viewed as credible solely in circles of scholars of color and women who were excluded or marginalized in scientific communities due to their socially defined race or gender (Harding, 1993; Lewis, 1993; Rossiter, 1982; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1974; Stanfield, 1985a, 1985b). There has also been a long tradition of radical men and women of European descent who have offered class analyses of the histories, sociologies, and politics of sciences (Brown, 1979; Gilman, 1935; Mills, 1959; Niebuhr, 1932; Noble, 1977; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1974; Veblen, 1954). The recent surge of interest in social realistic interpretations of sciences has much to do with the general consumer critique of professional authority as well as the popularity of postmodern and cultural studies paradigms that call traditional humanistic canons and scientific principles into question.

Social realists argue that for far too long there has been reluctance to view scientists as human beings with biases derived from their historical and cultural contexts, politics, and personal idiosyncracies. They claim that the traditions, institutions, communities, and networks scientists, as cultural baggage carriers, create, stabilize, and transform are sociological and anthropological phenomena (Arnold, 1988; Bernal, 1987; Gould, 1981; Harding, 1993; Jones, 1981; Niebuhr, 1932; Stanfield, 1985a, 1994a, 1996). Additionally, they contend that because the human sciences do not intrinsically produce capital and participants in these fields are developed and rewarded according to their value to those who define and control the means of societal production, one cannot divorce the history of the human sciences from the sociology, politics, and economics of capital formation (Cox, 1948; Niebuhr, 1932; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1974; Stanfield, 1985b). It is in this sense that the human sciences, by their very nature, are social, cultural, and political—and therefore intrinsically biased.

The social realist perspective is particularly important to apply to questions regarding the histories, sociologies, and uses of the human sciences. More than any other science, the human sciences, as social and cultural constructions, reflect the images of the societies in which they originate, stabilize, and transform (Durkheim, 1995). Specifically, the conceptions of humanity’ and notions of normality and abnormality in the human sciences are reflections of the dominant culture and society in which scientists are reared and do their intellectual work. This is why even the imagery of scientists in American popular culture is still that of middle-aged White males and increasingly that of similar types of females. This cultural imagery, which equates professional authority with Whiteness, also explains why, despite the presence of distinguished human scientists of African descent in the post-1970s, mass media (i.e., talk show) discussions of the most controversial topics involv- ing Black people have been dominated by Euro-American “experts.” This was most apparent in the racialized ethnic and social backgrounds of the commentators who dominated the mass media stage in the heat of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion following the acquittal of the police officers accused of brutally beating Black motorist Rodney King (Stanfield, 1993b). It was also obvious in the first wave of responses to The Bell Curve (Fraser, 1995).

Thus, in this contemporary sense, racism and racist thought are becoming high-priced cultural commodities in a mass consumer culture where profit margins rather than genuine interest in resolving racial injustices serve as the primary motivating factor for cultural production such as the content and images of racialized films, television, media, popular literature, art, music, and popularized conceptions of sciences and technologies. The best examples of the commodification of high-profile race problems and subsequent lucrative profit making is the media aggrandizement of the allegations made by Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearings (Stanfield, 1994c), the trial of O. J. Simpson, and tire consumer cultural products that emanated from these events.

Due to the media-driven commodification of “the Black race,” it is not surprising to social realists that at times the American human sciences field, like the U.S. media and political system, generates blatant racialist explanations about human abilities. If anything surprises them, it is the relative infrequency of such racialized knowledge production in a historically race-centered society. After all, the modem human sciences, by definition and legitimation in the social realist perspective, are reflections of the dominant WASP culture and its White ethnic transfusions over the past one hundred years. The cultural arrogance routinely generated by the sphere of knowledge production dominated by this group has been camouflaged behind the relative hegemonic political power the human sciences have enjoyed in academic and policy circles, in funding agencies, and in the media. The ethnic interlocking between tne human sciences, the rest of U.S. society, and the world as a whole has been legitimated by identifying what these scientists call norma- tive science as a yardstick for casting generalities about the human qualities of non-Whites.

The historical origins, institutionalization, and transformations of the human sciences as sources of racially and ethnically bounded knowledge reaffirms their legitimacy. It does this not only by creating and replicating culturally accommodating explanations about human nature but also, and most importantly, by declaring insignificant those ways of knowing that are not considered legitimate for understanding human affairs by the dominant group. Operationalization of this hegemonic role of the human sciences, especially in the most privileged academic and policy circles, as a powerful tool for denying the validity of different ways of knowing occurs in two ways relative to the topic of
this article.

First, it occurs w’hen powerful members of the human science disciplines utilize their privileged status in academic units and prestigious journals and associations, along with  their connections in government, politics, media, and business, to dismiss the claims of racially and ethnically different colleagues, even when the latter embrace the paradigmatic tools of the dominant group (Manning, 1983; McMurry, 1981; Stanfield, 1985a, 1985b, 1994b). An example of this is the relatively easy way in which dominant group sociologists chose (and still choose) to ignore the contributions of African American scholar W. E. B. DuBois, who has yet to be viewed as a seminal master of sociological thought. In the biological sciences, another example can be found in the case of Ernest E. Just, an otherwise brilliant marine biologist, whose work was devalued because he w(as bom on the wrong side of the racialized track (Manning, 1983; Winston, 1971). A similar case is the scholarly and popular interpretation of George Washington Carver as the kind hearted “peanut man” who talked to and prayed for flowers, although he has yet to be given his due as a serious scientist of enviable stature (McMurry, 1981; Winston, 1971). In general, this problem of dismissal of scholars of color is seen in their invisibility in key disciplinary textbooks.

Needless to say, human scientists of color who dare to advance racially or ethnically different world views predictably find their scholarship is not taken seriously within the confines of traditional disciplines and academic institutions (Ladner, 1975; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1974; Stanfield, 1985a, 1985b, 1994a, 1994b; Woodson, 1933/1990). Their work is labeled as ideological, militant, unscientific, and speculative, and therefore unworthy of citation or other professional recognition. In the 1930s and 1940s, this is what happened to the cultural nationalistic work of Carter G. Woodson (1933/1990) and of the studies of Black Marxists who offered radical alternatives to the assimilation approaches of the dominant Chicago School (Cox, 1948; Stanfield, 1985b). The work of these radical Blacks was ignored in mainstream social science journals, as were the works of the Black Power advocates of the 1960s and the Afrocentrists, ethnic postmodernists, and feminists, who continue to fail to be taken seriously in the critical arenas of the human science disciplines (Stanfield, 1994a, 1994b).

The proliferation of radical racial and ethnic alternatives in contemporary human science research is mistaken for its acceptance in disciplinary mainstreams. Actually, the content areas of the most distinguished human science academic programs have been altered very little in the face of increasing concerns for more radical thinking that have been raised by those on the margins of these disciplines. Most of the more radical work is carried out by social scientists and other human scientists employed in ethnic studies and women’s studies programs and in human science units located in second- and third-tier academic institutions. With the support of an increasingly vocal right wing in the academy, the core of these disciplines has remained lily white.

What is deceiving about the growing power of right-wing politics in the academy is that most of its focus has been on the obvious efforts on the part of powerful Euro- Americans in the arts, humanities, and sciences to resist efforts to legitimate non-Westem knowledge as a central component of liberal arts education (Baltzell, 1991; Bloom, 1987). A more deadly movement to the right in the academy is represented by efforts to promote the perspectives of people of color in the absence of input from empowered scholars of color. This is being done under the guise of liberalism and tolerance. At most, a few scholars of color are hired here and there to teach ethnic- or race-related postmodernist courses and create the impression that a particular university or college is diversifying its curriculum and faculty. In most cases, even though these scholars are given lucrative positions and are encouraged to speak out on racism in public forums, the demographics of the powerful in their home institutions have not been radically altered. Few universities have allowed scholars of color, particularly women of color, into the front door of real power, and few have changed dramatically their curricula or their rules for recruitment, tenure, and promotion to assure the true diversification of their communities (James ; Farmer, 1993).

All of this is particularly the case when we think about the human sciences. The areas in which American academic institutions have begun to change the racialized power dynamics of disciplines and departments have largely been those of the arts and humani- ties. It is in these disciplines, for instance, that one gets a sense of the canon having been pluralized. The human sciences have been quite resistant to reconsidering the narrow cultural boundaries of their definitions of knowledge (Stanfield, 1994a). More so than in the arts and the humanities, mainstream human science units seem to be content to relegate the pluralizing of their disciplines to ethnic and women’s studies programs and to schools of education and social work.

The major reason why it is so difficult to humanize the human sciences when it comes to racial issues is that racial research is big business in the academy (Stanfield, 1983,1985b, 1993b). For years, racialized social problems research financed by government agencies and foundations has been the bread-and-butter of not a few human science programs. It has been much easier to convince funding agency administrators to finance research projects dealing with Black academic underachievement than Black intellectual giftedness, or with those projects addressing violence in Black communities rather than Black people’s acts of goodness and kindness. It is much easier to get funders and the public interested in bad Black kids rather than in Black kids who never get in trouble, or in Black families that are falling apart rather than those who are hanging together. This is because, as social realists claim, the human sciences cannot be divorced from the society from which they are derived. Since its colonial origins, the United States has been a race-centered society in which Black people have been viewed as perpetual social problems. It is no coincidence that 18th- and early 19th-century moral philosophers, the precursors of modem human scientists, worried a great deal over the possible negative consequences of the presence of large numbers of Africans on American soil. Their worries would fuel reactionary movements such as the antebellum back-to-Africa efforts organized by the American Colonization Society (Johnson, 1987). It is the late 19th- and 20th-century equivalents of worries over “the Negro problem” that has made racialized thinking a core element of America’s human sciences as well as its literature, arts, politics, education, and business.

The dominant group’s social problems approach to the study of Blacks in the human sciences legitimates and reconfirms societal beliefs about the inferiority of Black people. No matter where one looks—from sociological studies of dysfunctional Black families and gender categories, educational psychological studies of poor Black performance on standardized tests, and identity pathologies of children of mixed descent, to neurological explanations of inner-city Black violence—the notion of Black people as social problems confirms notions of White superiority and subsequent White “normality.” In the social realist perspective, the only way to change the racialized character of normative science among scholars who study human beings is to change the nature of society. To attempt to engage in critiques of the human sciences while making no effort to change the culturally biased social building blocks of such intellectual enterprises would only bring about perpetual frustration for those who desire to work toward a humane society. Yet, changing society would mean deracialization in at least three areas: (a) socialization (language, life cycle development, identity), (b) attitudes and beliefs, and (c) power arrangements (Stanfield, 1991, 1994c). Particularly, the radical alteration of power relationships is an imperative to change the way in which sciences are structured and used as well as the way in which society is organized along racial lines.

The social realist perspective on the human sciences and sciences in general suggests that moral opposition to racist science and attempts to critique racist science with the intellectual tools of the dominant group is necessary but not sufficient. According to Cox (1948):

We cannot defeat race prejudice by proving it is wrong. The reason for this is that race prejudice is only a symptom of a materialistic social fact. If, for instance, wc should discover by “scientific” method that Negroes and Chinese are “superior” to long-skulled blonds—and this is not farfetched, since libraries have been written to prove the opposite—then, to the powers that be, so much the worse for Negroes and Chinese. Our proof accomplishes nothing. The articulate white man’s ideas about his racial superiority are deeply rooted in the social system and it can be corrected only by changing the system itself, (p. 462)

The social realist perspective also maintains that the human sciences—indeed, all sci- ences—are historically situated social constructions of reality rooted in cultural and societal contexts with political uses (Stanfield, 1985a, 1985b). This view of the nature of sciences and their functions encourages the investigation, not only of the human sciences per se, but also of the social and political character of their institutional and, more broadly, their societal and international contexts. It is with this encouragement that one understands the importance of investigating how academic and policy settings as well as funding sources, the media, and business communities all contribute to the definition and work of human scientists and their social organizations.

Social realists maintain that it is necessary to understand the normality of race as an integral factor of American society. This in turn necessitates seeing human scientists as cultural baggage carriers, and seeing their traditions, institutions, communities, and networks as microcosms of a race-centered nation-state. This view is an improvement over the traditional liberal and neoconservative assumptions that race is a “mistake” in America, or that it simply does not exist. Both views prevent one from understanding the ways in which the human sciences reciprocate by being both the reflections and the reproducers of a society in which the mythology of race has been a cornerstone of primary socialization, institution building, community formation, and the structuring of systems of social inequality in key areas of American life.

As much as the social realism perspective gives a needed appreciation for the human sciences as social, cultural, and political phenomena, it suffers from a problem akin to the dilemma of whether or not one should “throw the baby out with the bath water.” That is, in the process of exposing the human interpretations and uses of sciences, social realists tend to overlook the value of science in its pure analytical form as a powerful way to approach world affairs (Wilier, 1971). When used properly and progressively, science, as a way of thinking and acting, is useful for empowering otherwise oppressed and marginal people. This is the case in two ways. First, science uncovers sobering truths because it involves the formation of concepts and the searching for their isomorphic fit with empirical realities. When one’s preconceived concepts do not fit empirical realities, one must go back and revise one’s mental constructs, and continue to do so until a one- to-one fit emerges and holds steady. To do otherwise, to hold on to one’s concepts and force empirical realities into preconceived conceptual frameworks, is more theocratic than scientific. This is what happens in so much “race work” done in the human sciences. Race itself is a myth, not a social fact. At most, it convolutes and otherwise distorts social facts. When a scholar is being a scientist rather than a theologian, it eventually becomes apparent, through honest efforts to test and revise concepts in real-world situations, that race is a bogus, distracting concept that hides from view more complex, empirically based dependent and independent variables.

An honest search for isomorphism between what scholars think and what is really out there cannot help then but dissolve the saliency of race as a relevant social fact. This is why the more one explores issues such as socioeconomic class, gendered class, ethnicity within “race,” and home, community, and school environments, the more one finds  complicated causes for quality-of-life problems rather than simplistic racial explanations. For example, when one honestly asks what standardized test scores really measure and observe what really matters in the success or failure of college students, it becomes apparent that educational attainment issues are much more cumbersome and paradoxical than the overly neat correlations drawn from statistically manipulating homogenized racialized categories.

But even as an honest search for truth is done there is the need to take this issue one step further in order for science to be empowering. There is a movement afoot which argues that we must tear down the veil between academia and local communities. In light of that movement, we academics have to begin to reconsider what we are and what we have to offer to the community people we do research on, write about, and get grants to study. Those human scientists interested in the plight of the Black poor, for instance, can no longer afford to sit back in their easy chairs and be content with filing a newly published article about Black community issues in the cabinet. As universities are begin- ning to search for ways to link or relink to local, national, and international communities and reward faculty for doing so, human scientists interested in improving the quality of life of Black people have an unprecedented opportunity to find ways to distribute their research findings to community people. This can be done effectively only if we can find ways of teaming up with leaders in schools, churches, neighborhoods, and cultural institutions to make academic research findings understandable and useful to those we usually consider as objects of study.

The second way science is empowering is related to the first concern about the honest search for scientific truth and its distribution to those who really need it. Scientific reason- ing is powerful because it is an analytical device that can be used to change reality. This is done by understanding, and helping those of less-privileged status to understand, the power of conceptualizing productive institutions and communities and then designing the political processes to bring such imaginations to reality. The entire practice of planning and visualizing has been for too long assumed to be something only White middle-class people can do. How can the Black poor be shown how to collectively visualize a better future and then materialize it? This certainly calls for the development of new kinds of institutions, networks, and movements that will be able to galvanize residents to organize among themselves and become engaged in rebuilding civic participation, businesses, and neighborhoods.

It is for this reason we must consider ways to use science to empower the powerless rather than merely glamorize it in the logical positivistic sense or toss it out with the polluted water as in the social realist sense. Such an effort would be in line with the general “science for the people” movement which has yet to encounter and transform Black communities.