Book Review: Stanislav Andreski’s ‘Social Sciences as Sorcery’

I recently had reason to dust off my copy of Stanislav Andreski’s 1972 book, Social Sciences As Sorcery (Penguin, 1974), which I last read in 2003, then in the early weeks of a certain pre-doctoral course on the methods and theories of social sciences. Back then, I tracked down the book following the recommendation of my always-helpful PhD tutor, who may have hoped that it would instill a healthy level of scepticism regarding purportedly ‘scientific’ academic analysis and verbiage camouflaging as knowledge. The book is now quite difficult to get a hold of, and my own copy is falling apart, but re-reading it I felt strongly that it ought to be reissued (now posthumously), as much of what Andreski says still rings true today. Until this comes to pass, allow me to share some the book’s main passages and arguments here.

In general terms, Andreski makes the case that ‘much of what passes as scientific study of human behaviour boils down to an equivalent of sorcery’ (p. 10). Writing in chapter 1 about the mushrooming of social-science practitioners, conferences, and publications, he notes that ‘pretentious and nebulous verbosity, interminable repetition of platitudes and disguised propaganda are the order of the day, while at least 95 per cent of research is indeed re-search for things that have been found long ago and many times since’ (p. 11). I do not claim to be familiar with the scholarship being knocked in the book, but I find myself agreeing with Andreski in principle, based on my own reading, rather than in the particular details (also, the book’s sardonic wit and sense of humour was always likely to win me over).

Andreski emphasises this idea of ‘re-search’ and links it to the tendency toward pleonasm in modern social sciences. Commenting on Talcott Parsons’ ‘voluntaristic theory of action’ (which I will gladly admit I am not familiar with), he notes: ‘Translated from the tenebrous language in which it is couched, this theory amounts to saying that in order to understand why people act as they do, we must take into account their wishes and decisions, the means at their disposal and their beliefs about how the desired effects can be produced’ (p. 84). As Andreski comments, ‘The emergence of this piece of knowledge amounted, no doubt, to an important step in the mental development of mankind, but it must have occurred some time during the Paleolithic Age, as Homer and the Biblical prophets knew all about it. True, none of the writers treated in Parsons’ book has made any explicit statements to this effect, but this was not because they did not know about it but because they took it for granted that no sane reader needed to be told about such an obvious thing. Nor did they specify other equally important pre-requisites of social action, such that people can remember, communicate, reason and move – which does not mean that the world must wait for another Harvard professor to discover this’ (p. 84).

Generalising from this take-down, Andreski proposes that jargon retains attraction because it is easier to dress up something old than find something new, and less risky to be obscure than to-the-point: ‘in addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly (p. 84). Andreski cites many examples to make this point. One examples concerns the then ‘recent vogue for the letter “n”, chosen to deputize for the common word “need” because of its status-bestowing properties stemming from its frequent appearance in mathematical formulae’ (p. 64). ‘So by scribbling the letter “n” all of their pages’, Andreski continues, ‘some people have succeeded in surrounding their platitudes with the aura of the exact sciences in their own eyes, as well as those of their readers who might have seen some books on mathematics without being able to understand them’ (p. 64).

Another example is the introduction and gradual dominance of the term ‘reinforcement’, particularly in psychology, which Andreski criticises for its lack of specificity in comparison to more common terms: ‘incentive’, ‘reward’, ‘punishment’ and ‘deterrent’ (p. 72). That may sound fairly trivial, but Andreski takes the point further: ‘The problem of how to control the behaviour of men and animals through punishment and rewards has been treated in innumerable treatises on penology, legislation, education, management and animal training… To say something important and new on this subject is always possible but very difficult. But one piece of pseudo-scientific terminology can confuse and intimidate people into accepting as a significant discovery an over-simplified (and therefore less valid) version of old folk wisdom’ (pp. 72-73). A final example: ‘structure’ and ‘structuralism’: ‘it has hitherto been regarded as too obvious to call for elaborate comment that all the sciences have been, and are, studying the structures of the object of their interest; and the sole innovation of “structuralism” is a tireless persistence in repeating this word, which can be regarded either as a gimmick or a compulsive neurosis’ (p. 73).

While Andreski spends much of his book debunking the ‘smoke screen of jargon’ in qualitative social scientific research, he saves some energy for the dominance of quantitative research methods, and the related claims to greater specificity than that attainable through the use of mere words. Writing about the increase in ‘ultra-sophisticated quantitative methods’ in explaining or predicting human events, Andreski notes that ‘in nearly all instances, it is the case of a mountain giving birth to a mouse, as when, after wading through mounds of tables and formulae, we come to the general finding (expressed of course, in the most abstruse manner possible) that people enjoy being in the centre of attention, or that they are influenced by those with whom they associate… which I can well believe, as my grandmother told me that many times when I was a child’ (p. 122).

The focus on quantitative research methods bleeds into a section on the role of method in social sciences. Andreski argues that a basic insecurity about the inability to substantiate their claims has made social scientists put more effort into perfecting complex and often incomprehensible tools and models than into the research itself. This relates partly to the ‘structures of quantification and algebra’ used to explain and predict human behaviour, which as Fred Halliday put it in Rethinking International Relations, has often produced ‘banality, or obscurity, or both’. But Andreski focuses also on the tendency towards mechanical information gathering, based on the belief that ‘if we gather enough “facts” the explanatory and predictive theories will spontaneously emerge’ (p. 120). Here, Andreski is particularly critical of his own field: ‘the ability to unearth something really interesting and to present it in a lovely style demands a special gift and cannot be acquired by mechanical cramming, whereas anybody who is not a mental defective can learn to churn out the tedious door-to-door surveys which pass for sociology’ (p. 117).

This relates to a broader discussion of subjectivity versus objectivity in the social sciences. Andreski makes the point that much of the emphasis on method and tools stems from a desire to cash in the apparent neatness of the natural sciences, and endows the ensuing research findings with an air of objectivity. Yet as Andreski notes, ‘the ideal of objectivity is much more complex and elusive than the pedlars of methodological gimmicks would have us believe; and… it requires much more than an adherence to the technical rules of verification, or recourse to recondite unemotive terminology: namely, a moral commitment to justice – the will to be fair to people and institutions, to avoid the temptations of wishful and venomous thinking, and the courage to resist threats and enticements’ (p. 110).

One may not agree with all that Andreski says, and his tone belies a certain elitism that some may find grating, but this book ought in any case be at the top of reading lists for courses on ‘research methodology’ and ‘theories of social science’ whether quantitative or qualitative. I would advise any student embarking on a PhD to get a hold of a copy: as Andreski himself puts it, ‘the usage of mumbo-jumbo makes it very difficult for a beginner to find his way; because if he reads or hears famous professors from the most prestigious universities in the world without being able to understand them, then how can he know whether this is due to his lack of intelligence or preparation, or to their vacuity?’ (pp. 90-91). To me, the book has wider relevance yet, to debunk and demystify some tendencies that are still strong in academia and analysis today – the excessive theorisation, the emphasis on method over substance and the pleonastic means of expression. One final quotation from the book’s first chapter:

How can the truth prevail? The answer (which gives some ground for hope) is that people interested in ideas, and prepared to think them through and express them regardless of personal disadvantage, have always been few; and if knowledge could not advance without a majority on the right side, there would never have been any progress at all – because it has always been easier to get into the limelight, as well as to make money, by charlatanry, doctrinarism, sycophancy and soothing or stirring oratory than by logical and fearless thinking. No, the reason why human understanding has been able to advance in the past, and may do so in the future, is that true insights are cumulative and retain their value regardless of what happens to their discoverers; while fads and stunts may bring an immediate profit to the impresarios, but lead nowhere in the long run, cancel each other out, and are dropped as soon as their promoters are no longer there (or have lost the power) to direct the show. Anyway, let us not despair.

I think there is an important and difficult challenge in there, and in the book as a whole, to all those engaged with the ‘study of human behaviour’.


17 thoughts on “Book Review: Stanislav Andreski’s ‘Social Sciences as Sorcery’

  1. Madhu says:

    When I’ve got more time I’ve got to go through this fantastic post again.

    Did you see the Manzi article in City Journal? I mentioned it in passing in the comments section at Abu Muqawama.

    I know nothing of these subjects and have no idea why I am fascinated with the academic discussion, but I am fascinated. I suppose because so much public policy in health care is based on these sorts of studies. And then everyone argues about the “settled science.” Honestly, look at the New England Journal of Medicine online sometime! You’ll see what I mean.

    “What Social Science Does—and Doesn’t—Know”

    Nice discussion.

  2. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    If you liked his ‘Sorcery’, then you’d love his ‘Military organization and Society’ (1954). Brilliant look at the military’s role in state formation. Highly commended.

    • Thanks. I did look into ‘Military Organization’ shortly after reading ‘Sorcery’, but perhaps because of my age at the time, I found it overly dense and largely incomprehensible (quite ironic, given the gist of ‘Sorcery’). Maybe I ought to give it another chance.

      Madhu, thanks for the recommendation — I will look into it as soon as I can.

  3. George Bell says:

    I read Social Sciences as Sorcery in 1980. I was not an academic then but it appealed to my sense of scepticism. It as always stayed with me. Inow have a PhD and teach at University in Australia. I still see example of research that are ponderous restatements of the obvious or that my grandmother could have tol me when I was 4.

    I agree it is time to put out a new edition. I woud love to collaborate on it. Lets have a good go soon.

  4. Michael Kirk-Smith says:

    Your article summary very much parallels my experience. Andreski’s book had come out around the same time I went from a physics degree straight to a PhD in social psychology. Unlike physicists, and like sociologists, psychologists only have the same sense data as anyone else, but it seemed to me that they explained common sense things in very complicated ways.

    His book reinforced my impression and had, perhaps, too strong an effect on me – I completed my PhD without ever opening a psychology book as I saw no point in confusing myself. My psychologically trained PhD colleagues called it (accurately) “the one hour a day PhD” due to how little work I had to do to get it. So maybe Andreski had a point about social scientists over complicating things.

    I’m somewhat embarassed by this now, but I did read up on psychology some years later (I had to as I had got a proper job running psychology research).

    • Michael, thanks for your comment. The question left unanswered, of course, is your reaction when finally opening the books? Did it confirm your original bias or were you pleasantly surprised?

      George: missed your comment first time around. Yes, new edition is definitely on the to-do list, after a fair few other things unfortunately.

    • After reading psychological research papers, I gained a real respect for the work of experimental psychologists in how carefully they design their experiments and also for how clinical psychologists have developed effective treatments based on research findings.

  5. Jon Fitzmaurice says:

    It’s really good to see Stanislav Andreski’s work receiving attention.

    I studied under him from 1970-2 at Reading University, as a post gradute.

    At my interview, I proudly announced that I’d completed a highly regarded undergraduate thesis based on the methodology of Talcot Parsons. Andreski looked at me and said: “This Talcot Parsons, I would not pass him throught the first year exams”. I was taken aback, but came to realise that here was someone with a degree of intellectual honesty that I’d never encountered before or nor since. It’s a great shame that he’s no longer around.
    (I should add that he thought Talcot Parsons had gone up a blind alley and had rather lost his way!)

  6. Nicolaas says:

    I supoose I am addressing David Ucko. I seem to recognise the name. please forgive me I do not mean to offend you. I stumbled upon the comments as I was searching for stuff on the anti-psychiatry movement. In my own reading,
    I have always associated Andreski with Roszak, and Szacz, and David Cooper (i know it is not correct it is merely my own indisciplined reading a ‘habit’ i cannot shed). I had a reason to refer someone – a young collaegue – to Andreski the other day. It is close enough for me to allege serendipity when i stumbled on your comments. May i ask if you know whether Andreski also taught at Rhodes University in South Africa? I seem to recall that. (The wikipedia article on him is a disgrace. I wish i had the means to make it more extensive and informative.)

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