What Is Emancipatory Social Science?
Economics for human flourishing
Hi, I’m Oshan. This newsletter explores topics around emancipatory social science, consciousness studies, & together, the worlds they might weave. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello, fellow humans.
I’ve just published a new podcast conversation on ‘emancipatory social science’ with Christian Arnsperger.
I’m jazzed about this one. It provides a handy framework where my weird interests in ‘consciousness’ and ‘economics’ naturally come together, and in a way that makes at least a modicum of sense.
i.e., if you’re interested in reducing the suffering of all sentient life (yes, you, Buddhists), or amplifying the blips of joy and elation and ecstasy our present configurations of mind already bear witness to, or generally think that ‘progress’ is ultimately grounded in phenomenology, and you think that a strong leverage point for doing so at scale is to design an economy in support of these projects (or at least, un-design the present configuration that actively obstructs them), then you might enjoy the conversation.
What is emancipatory social science?
I’m drawing on the late sociologist Erik Olin Wright here. In 2007, he gave a lecture outlining a framework for emancipatory social science (on which he expanded in his 2010 book, Envisioning Real Utopias). Here are his terms:
Emancipatory: identifies a central moral purpose in the production of knowledge – the elimination of oppression and the creation of the conditions for human flourishing.
Social: implies that human emancipation depends upon the transformation of the social world, not just the inner self (once again, I’m looking at you, Buddhists).
Science: recognizes the importance of systematic scientific knowledge – not just philosophy and social criticism – about how the world works for this task.
Further, he suggests that emancipatory social science (henceforth, ESS) has three main tasks:
Diagnosis & critique
A theory of transformation
ESS has its roots in Marxist theory, and is especially derivative of the Frankfurt School’s work in critical theory during the 20th century. But ESS is, and must become, larger than Marxism.
Wright’s critique of capitalism, and so launchpad for ESS, is quintessentially Marxist: capitalism simultaneously creates the potentials for universalized human flourishing, while also actively obstructing their realization.
It’s an insidious trick, if you think about it. Like dangling a fresh branch of catnip in front of your wide-eyed cat, but holding it to just too high for her to reach. The potential is clearly perceptible. But its realization is structurally withheld. She might be better off never having seen the catnip.
Christian’s work provides a different look. In Full-Spectrum Economics, he uses the spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber’s integral framework to argue that economics, with its computational approach, excludes the interior dimension of human life. You can model behaviors, but you can’t model consciousness.
You can model how I make my decision to purchase healthcare, but you can’t model what it feels like to make that decision, or the true depths of despair that come from getting fucked by medical bills.
You can model my subjective evaluation of how my life is going, on a scale from 1-10, but you can’t model my nagging sense that the entire system is askew, that something is deeply wrong with the kind of lives we’re all generally incentivized & nudged to live. You cannot model a preference for an altogether different system, if that preference has no actionable behaviors that might convey it. Preferences are bound by the systems they operate within.
He calls this “critical reflection” – a human’s capacity to harbor a critique of the system on the whole, despite their inability to express this critique in practice (i.e., in behaviors that are legible to modeling).
Critical reflection is a critique of systems – institutions, structures, policies. But there’s another dimension at play, the interior dimension on Wilber’s map.
Christian refers to this as existential reflection – a human’s capacity to formulate preferences regarding the relationship between the exterior systems in which they’re embedded, and the interior dynamics of their experience.
He also points to this as “anthropological malleability”:
This capacity, our ways of imagining and valuing different ‘ways of being human’, is something that’s incredible difficult, or perhaps impossible, to capture in a computational model of how agents interact in an economy.
Christian’s argument is that from neoclassical economics to complexity economics, the inability of economic modeling to capture these two fundamental parts of the human experience has significant consequences.
Since methodologies reproduce their assumptions, such economic approaches will, to a degree, assume these kinds of critical and existentially reflection-less humans into being.
So, what to do instead?
ESS: Methodological Parity
We don’t need to reject modeling altogether. That would be silly, because modeling can be incredibly, if contextually, useful.
Instead, Arnsperger argues (as did David Sloan Wilson, my last guest) that we need to rebalance power between computational, sociological, anthropological, and philosophical approaches to doing economics.
Using models to support your claims is one, totally fine way of doing economics, or arguing for this unemployment policy over that one. But it should carry no epistemological superiority over, say, using sociological evidence of how other societies have provisioned for the disenfranchised, and qualitative data to support those claims.
ESS, In Practice: Critical Spirit
Great, but ‘emancipation’ is a grand word, and ‘confer social sciences more epistemological legitimacy’ vis-a-vis econometrics is an anticlimactic translation.
But our capacities for critical/existential reflection are not stymied because sociologists are getting thumped by econometrics. I think it’s much simpler than that.
If one lonely guy’s sense of critical reflection leaves him dissatisfied with the present organization of strategy, then you just have…one lonely, discontent guy. But if he were to meet 200,000 comrades who shared his sense of dissatisfaction, they might coalesce into a social force that can exert causal power over how the economy is organized.
As we detail in our conversation, I think the largest barrier to realizing our critical reflections in a way that matters is that most people simply lack the material security (let alone organizational know-how) to act on their sense that the system as a whole needs some rearranging. If engaging in a different way of life, one that reflects my internally-held values, even if they’re at odds with the system-on-the-whole, carries disproportionate costs, like risking basic financial security, or healthcare, or retirement accounts, then of course most people won’t actually behave in ways that reflect those values. We need to know we’ll have healthcare before we can mobilize a revolution (at scale)!
But, imagine a society where real choices between fundamentally different forms of life are actually, pragmatically viable for the average citizen. Then, critical reflections aggregate up into what Christian calls a society’s “critical spirit”.
Now, here’s one of my favorite ideas of his. Just as Hayek showed the way that prices operate in a ‘decentralized’ market economy, a society of actionable critical reflections gives rise to a similar coordination of normative signals:
“In the same way as market prices are a key emergent property of a complex adaptive system of narrowly instrumentally rational individuals, a key emergent property of a complex adaptive system of critically rational individuals is the social system’s … ‘‘critical spirit,’’ … critical spirit is not meant as a metaphor for some fuzzy or elusive spiritual entity. It is not a set of numerically measurable quantities such as prices. It nevertheless designates something quite definite, namely the overall ‘‘normative atmosphere’’ of the society, which allows individuals to form their initial aspiration for a better society and to flesh out this desire with critical theories which change through contacts with other, similarly active individuals.”
(Critical Political Economy)
If this resonates, you’ll enjoy the full conversation, where we explore a number of other elements/leverage points of ESS.
And if the idea of ESS resonates with you at all, I’m on the lookout for related resources/authors/bits that might add to it. Let me know if any related ideas come to mind, or folks doing work in an adjacent space.
Also, after a nice run buoyed by some beginner’s luck, the podcast received its first 1-star review.
Accordingly, I’d like to ceremonialize the event by asking that if you enjoy the podcast, consider leaving a rating and/or review on Apple Podcasts. It makes a huge difference in encouraging folks to give it a shot (and also in assuring potential guests that it might be worth their time).
Until next time,
Anil Seth recently collaborated on starting a “Perception Census”, which if it goes well, will hopefully make it easier to create a – however imperfect – taxonomy of these various ways of being human, at least as they show up in perception.
Of course, each approach has its own habitual blind spots that need caring for. All approaches do.