The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

April 2003

AAP Homepage

Eli Ginzberg

The Social Sciences Today

Political Science Quarterly

Volume 52, Issue 4

Dec. 1937, 583-587.

TOWARD the end of the eighteenth century there appeared in England three superb contributions to the social sciences: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Bentham’s Morals and Legislation.  These were products of university men but not of academicians.  Gibbon and Bentham never held a university post; Smith resigned his at the first opportune moment.  Each had studied at Oxford, each had come away convinced that “nothing could possibly be learnt at Oxford.”  Yet, their inadequate schooling proved a limited liability.  These men found it possible to solve the major enigma of history, to synthesize the economic behavior of men and nations, to outline the basic relations of citizens to a state.  Clearly, their solutions were not perfect but they were so superior in form and content that they won the acclaim of all literate men.

Shortly thereafter, while England was busy digesting power machinery and France was preoccupied with the antics of Napoleon, Prussia completed a silent revolution.  She reorganized her universities, a move imitated eventually by neighbors near and far.  This reformation was of substantial moment.  The physical sciences began to flourish; the advances of technology followed closely; the material foundations of modern civilization were reconstructed.  Less spectacular but only slightly less pervasive was the incidence of university reform upon the social sciences.  The doctrines of the historian, the economist, the political philosopher did much to mould contemporary thought which in turn influenced greatly the institutions of nationalism, capitalism and democracy.

As decade followed decade, the social sciences were ever more completely monopolized by the universities; competition from interlopers became exceedingly rare.  This trend had important implications.  The university staff was recruited primarily from the upper classes, the same classes which through the media of gifts, of clerical power and of statecraft exercised a determining influence upon general

* Authority and the Individual: Harvard Tercentenary Publications. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1937. x, 371 pp. $3.00.


policy.  The hierarchical structure of the universities enhanced conformity; advancement depended upon the good will of elders, a factor which led to the abortion of many a radical idea.

The constant increase in the number of students contributed greatly to the standardization of the curriculum; of necessity, great value was attached to systematic presentations.  The popularity of classical economics was in part a function of its logic, easy to expound and easy to comprehend; the rapid growth of the evolutionary approach to history can largely be ascribed to the pedagogical virtues of long lists of dates and names.  The fact that captains of industry found classical economics soothing, that nationalists were able to utilize effectively the recordings of the historian, did little to undermine the prestige of these approaches.

Teaching and research were inseparable; the university professor engaged in both.  The same forces which made teaching staid and formal confined research to narrow bounds.  But the ivory tower had a road which led to the thoroughfare, for the recluse needed food.  By the end of the nineteenth century a powerful force was ready to jolt the social sciences out of their equanimity.

The success of the physical sciences in conquering matter and the marked inability of the social sciences to control man provided a contrast irritating to the point of action.  Students of economics, history and politics began to imitate the methods of their proficient confreres.  The accumulation of new facts and the more exact measurement of old facts became the keynote of reform.  The libraries filled rapidly with the accounts of the activities of nations and men, ancient and modern, major and minor.  With the passage of years, the scholars redoubled their efforts; not even the World War interfered radically with their assiduity.  Finally, a product of the War - the romanticism of the vanquished which found expression in the most unromantic of revolutions - broke the tradition.  But only in part.  Outside of Germany, the universities continued in their accustomed ways, bemoaning the loss of their esteemed compeer, little interested in autopsy or augury.

What the eclipse of Berlin and Heidelberg was unable to achieve, the Tercentenary of Harvard finally accomplished.  The contributions of science and scholarship to modern life formed the center of the celebration, establishing thereby an opportunity for the taking of inventory.  The five symposia were participated in by the elite of the academic world; the selection was most favorably skewed.  Much attention was devoted to the social sciences; the symposium entitled


Authority and the Individual concerned itself with the “economic, social, political, and intellectual factors in the structure of society which act upon the individual through social institutions and through accepted ideas.”  These sixteen lectures present material highly favorable for the appraisal of fifty years of intensive work.

A cursory review suggests that imitation of method has not led to identity of results; “the sciences of social behavior lag far behind the natural sciences in certainty.”  Reality has not been brought under control.  The lectures on “The State and Economic Enterprise” recall vividly the impotence of economic thought during the devastating depression of recent years.  “Stability and Social Change” may be a convenient title for the enlightening essays on conservative factors in early colonial and recent British history, but sociological theories have been of small moment during the social convulsions of the last decades.  The symbolic and instrumental values of legal systems are discussed in “The Place and Function of Authority”; the Greek Spirit and the Constitutional Convention are studied.  But this century has witnessed the double cross make way for the hammer and sickle; it has watched the exit of the Hohenzollerns who reigned by the grace of God and the entrance of the bellicose mystic who rules in the name of the Aryan spirit.  The fickleness of words and the inconstancy of ideas are illustrated in “Classicism and Romanticism”.  But these learned discourses on the relativity of thought are like whispers in a hurricane of propaganda.

Economic depression, political revolution, the transvaluations of legal systems, mass psychoses - these, the increasingly typical phenomena of Western civilization - underline the failure of the social sciences to control behavior.  Nor can the sententiousness of the addresses hide the fact that at the moment of their delivery the nations of the world, East and West, were hastening final preparations for a war which will render beyond recognition, if it will not completely destroy, the major institutions of modern life.

The physicist advances from victories over the atom to victories over the electron; the biologist brings vitamins and then hormones to the aid of men; the economist and the historian have little to show for their labors.  But theirs is a study of men in groups.  Social life implies control, control implies power, power implies conflict.  The more dynamic a society, the more probable the conflict, for the great conservative institutions - the law, the church, the school - operate most efficiently in a static environment.  But the phenomenal vitality of modern technology leads “to ever new conquests.  The economic


system is caught up in the advance… the political system follows in the rear… with strange twistings and tergiversations.”  Impotent is thought when in direct conflict with gold and the sword.

This failure of “organized intelligence” to control social behavior is not overlooked, yet an optimism of startling intensity runs through the essays.  It is an optimism born of evasion.  Silence reigns on the subject of predestination, spiritual and material; slight cognizance is taken of the difficulties inherent in the conversion of large numbers; almost nothing is said of the alternative goals of salvation.  It is suggested, however, that the period of experimentation has been too short, that the continued application of the methods of the natural sciences will eventually bring results.

Chercher, chercher encore.  Regarder de plus près, pour remplacer, s’il est possible, les approximations par les certitudes… revenir aux faits, et a la critique des faits.”  This hope, like all hopes, cannot be proven false; yet skepticism seems in place.  It appears unlikely that additional tomes on the history of trade unionism will bring an end to industrial strife or that detailed studies of imperialism will satisfy the appetites of hungry nations.  Society is not subject to conscious control, not even by students of social behavior.

Are the social sciences a fraud, and social scientists impostors?  This world produces many goods: cosmetics please the eye; drink warms the stomach; books gratify the mind.  Knowledge about the structure and operation of social institutions is sought by many and the social sciences are concerned with fulfilling this demand.  However, the queries will never permit of more than partial solution, for the facts accumulate too quickly and each investigator, by virtue of his unique personality, sees the facts somewhat differently.  Theories without facts are as bad as facts without theories.  Mr. Hoover’s The Challenge to Liberty is indicative of the first, the 152 volumes on The Economic and Social History of the World War are typical of the second.

The social scientists can deal with only a limited number of facts: considerations of time, of space and of knowledge enforce a rigid selection.  Choice of the strategic factors is of primary significance.  If the independent variables are correctly appraised, the exclusion of the dependent variables will not prove serious.  The test of genius is not so much the discovery of new facts, as the discovery of new relations between old facts.  Sex and illness were known to the ancients, but Freud was the first to disclose the role of sexuality in the genesis of the neuroses.


Institutions are in the process of constant change.  With the exception of history, the social sciences, though interested in the analysis of the present, are primarily concerned with the divination of the future.  Hence, the search for the strategic is really a search for the emergent, which if successful may have most important consequences.  St. Paul realized that the masses were seeking a new orientation; the Gospels helped greatly to condition that development.  Adam Smith sensed the wide-scale dissatisfaction with governmental restraints; The Wealth of Nations helped speed the enthronement of laissez faire.  The books of the great can influence social behavior, even though the great cannot directly control it.  The reward for discerning the trend is the privilege of becoming the mouthpiece for the silent but aspirant multitude.

The constant alteration in the structure of society establishes a very high rate of obsolescence in the social sciences.  The best work must soon become more or less inadequate.  But the social sciences are monopolized by the universities, institutions whose entrenched interests and occupational routines lead to the enshrinement of the traditional.  The new is uncertain and probably unsafe; what is worse, it frequently does not permit of imitation and that which cannot be imitated is of slight pedagogical value.  It is hardly surprising to find therefore that the two outstanding contributions to modern economics were made by Marx, who never held an academic post, and by Veblen, who never achieved a full professorship.  Likewise, the academic world might search in vain to match Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution or T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  The specialists will point out errors in each, many and serious errors.  But in the social sciences the errors of commission are not nearly so serious as the errors of omission.  The truth can never be more than suggested; it can assuredly never be captured in its entirety.

For many years to come the social sciences will probably remain the almost exclusive property of the university.  New blood and red blood are essential for their health, but men who live within cloistered walls are frequently anemic.  The Harvard Tercentenary by encouraging self-analysis contributed greatly to the disturbance of the established.  Flickers and flutters are a sign of life and the more frequent the quiver and quake, the less the need for worry.  One mourns only for the dead.

Eli Ginzberg

Columbia University


The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

April 2003

AAP Homepage