Tuesday, March 10, 2015

L’Homme Moyen: How the Industrial Revolution Influenced the Social Sciences

 This blog first appeared on October 23, 2011.

“The average human has one breast and one testicle.”
                                                            -Des McHale

When the French positivist Auguste Comte received word about a Belgian statistician’s use of the term “social physics“(in the book Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale, 1835) he quickly distanced himself from his origination of the word. In fact he began using a replacement term, one that would come to bring him recognition as the first “sociologist”.
What was new about the sociology of Comte and the social physics of Adolphe Quetelet was the implementation of the science of statistics to the human being. Statistics had come to greatly influence astronomy and physics (in Europe Quetelet was the leading voice) and was becoming a standard of industrialized production of goods (developer of the t-distribution, William Sealy Gosset , employed by the Guinness Brewing Co. in Dublin, developed mathematical models for standardized production of stout).

Quetelet and Comte both envisioned a scientific study of human beings that could be possible through the quantitative methodology of statistics. The field of scientific (quantifiable) sociology had been born, and it would not be long until German psychophysicists Gustav Fechner and Wilhelm Wundt were applying statistics to the study of sensation and consciousness. The quantitative movement, having merged with Darwinian natural selection, became the rage in Britain and the United States. Psychometrician Francis Galton, social theorist Herbert Spencer, and statistician Karl Pearson (all supporters of human eugenics) promoted the quantitative method in the new social sciences of sociology and psychology celebrating it as the elevation of these disciplines to empirical sciences.
Today the research fields of sociology and psychology are dominated by quantitative, statistical methods. The American education system has been greatly influenced by educational psychology, a field which defines itself by the quantitative approach. The American schwarmerei with quantifiable, statistical research has not diminished since the industrial revolution and Herbert Spencer’s Darwinian capitalism. Quantifiable statistical research made workers more productive, factories more efficient, and capitalists more profit; why wouldn’t it be a way of making education more effective?
Knowledge and thinking is not a commodity. It can be bought and sold (like those of us who prostitute our minds for university positions) and probably is most conspicuous in the term human resources reducing a person to a commodity. Have the concepts of salary and hourly pay not become the mechanism by which the business-owner alleviates their guilt? In this way, the mercantile system is in place, rules established by those who have the resources of power, and obedient “citizens” (the herd) raised and schooled to be good little workers.
Assessment in American education has nothing to do with thinking. Through curriculum designed around what can be quantifiably measured, aassessment focuses the educational process on producing obedient, automaton, employees. Skills such as creative thinking, novel problem solving, stressing of argument over fact (multi-perspectivism), and synthesis (combining ideas in new ways) are threatening to a system that relies on slave labor (1/4 of Americans with jobs make $25,000 per year or less, at least 10% of Americans are  unemployed).

Please direct comments, questions, and corrections  to Matthew Giobbi.