Why Do Social Sciences Fail to Derive Unified Theories?

Theoretical life in social science seems like a forever-long loop of discourses and dichotomies without realising real resolutions. Unified theories are barely visible on the horizon.
Why Do Social Sciences Fail to Derive Unified Theories?

The lack of effort to identify relationships among the different streams within social sciences, or to be more precise, what one field can contribute to or learn from its neighbours in deriving unified theories continues to puzzle. (e.g., what can economics contribute to or learn from engineering, history, humanities, law, mathematics, physics, political science, psychology, sociology, artificial intelligence or anthropology). As social science fields mature, some unification may well be an achievable scientific aim.

Institutional structures, or the existing culture of bureaucracy within universities to hold professional specializations, confluent with the incentives provided within those institutional structures (e.g., career advancements and reputation), prevent the social sciences from having enough scholars who actively act as “spill-outers” and/or “spill-iners” across fields.

These scholars help us better understand how different fields contribute to our knowledge (and even identify perverted confusions). Their attempts contribute towards building a common language and increasing more effective communication across disciplines. In recent decades, the lines separating a field from its scientific neighbours is rapidly disappearing, despite the bureaucracy around professional specialization.

In deriving unified theories within and across fields, we need to consider how different philosophical tools affect the incentives to synthesize knowledge. For example, is there a risk that Popper’s falsifiability may prevent attempts toward unification by pushing scientists to focus too much on discriminating between theories? What happens if you treat theories more as objects of approximation?

Unified theories tend to be fantasies, as we cannot explain the entirety of our complex world, which creates its own ever-new possibility of change. Multiple theories, rather than an attempt towards a “God equation” is the best we can do in social sciences.

Additionally, as scientists, we need a priority list even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms operating around us. The priorities and limitations notwithstanding, the component parts within those theories that we do prioritise must work together.

A repository of knowledge with disparate formulations that are barely connected is a theoretical nightmare. To combat this, it may mean that we need to understand essential theorizing tools such as constraints (e.g., constraints that shape human behaviour, the human mind, etc.) within each scientific discipline much better. The more constraints we consider, the more we can derive unified theories within and across fields.

To summarise, there are few encouraging signs that social science is ready and able for more unified theories, but that will require a more deliberate attempt to understand how to move towards this outcome.

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