This website is not all about failure. I do believe good scholarly work is done on society, just that much of it is not done by the mainstream, or not in the "social sciences" but rather by historians, or people outside of academia altogether (e.g., Jane Jacobs). There are aspects of modern social science that actively hinder advancement and understanding, and at great cost in time and wasted resources. Worse still, some modern social science has serious negative consequences, especially urbanism (in the past) and economics (very much in the present), and to some extent sociology and political science.
It would of course be ridiculous to say that nothing good ever gets done. This is not a screed against the idea of a university or the value of smart people working on hard problems, problems that may not offer any obvious immediate benefit to society. Here I would like to list some of my favorite examples of good research and profound insights from the social sciences.
Much of the theme of this website is that the social sciences fail because society is hyper complex, and therefore useful policy analysis rarely comes from the social sciences. What, then, can be valuable in the study of human society?
One major area of value is when the social sciences demonstrate the counter-intuitive. The social sciences are often criticized for being overly expensive and complicated ways of studying and proving the blindingly obvious - that the social sciences are no better than conventional wisdom, so what is the point?
However, when the social sciences use data that would never be gathered or understood without a social science approach, they contribute something very valuable to society.
Thomas Schelling. Micromotives and Macrobehavior. Norton 1978
Solomon M. Hsiang, Kyle C. Meng, Mark A. Cane. Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate. Nature, 2011; 476 (7361): 438. Link
Weather and War
A new study suggests El Niño may be to blame for nearly a quarter of recent global conflicts.
By Ray Fisman|Posted Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. Link
Climate Cycles Are Driving Wars: When El Nino Warmth Hits, Tropical Conflicts Double Link
Crosby, Alfred. 1972. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Connecticut: Greenwood Press 1972.
Crosby, Alfred. 1986. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Curtin, Philip D. 1989. Death by Migration: Europe’s Encounter with the Tropical World in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Curtin, Philip D. 2000. The World and the West: The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dahl, Robert and Edward Tufte. 1971. Size and Democracy. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Davis, Mike. 2002. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso.
Doll, Christopher N.H., Jan-Peter Muller and Christopher D. Elvidge. 2000. Nighttime imagery as a tool for global mapping of socio-economic parameters and greenhouse gas emissions. Ambio 29(3): 159–164.
Fox, Edward Whiting. 1971. History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France. New York: Norton.
Fox, Edward Whiting. 1989. ‘The Argument: Some Reinforcements and Projections’, pp. 331-342 in Eugene D. Genovese and Leonard Hochberg, eds. Geographic Perspectives in History. London: Blackwell.
Fox, Edward Whiting. 1991. The Emergence of the Modern European World.
Cambridge, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell.
Goldstone, Jack A. 1992. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Reinert, Eric S. 1994. 'Catching-up from way behind - A Third World perspective on
First World history' in Fagerberg, Jan, Bart Verspagen and Nick von Tunzelmann
(eds.) The Dynamics of Technology, Trade, and Growth, Aldershot: Edward
Elgar, pp. 168-197.
Reinert, Eric S. 2004. How Rich Nations got Rich: Essays in the History of Economic
Policy. Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Working Paper no. 2004/01.
Reinert, Erik S. 1995. Competitiveness and its Predecessors - a 500 year Cross-National Perspective. Structural Change and Economic Dynamics 6: 23-42.
Reinert, Erik S. 1996. ‘The Role of Technology in the Creation of Rich Nations and
Poor Nations: Underdevelopment in a Schumpeterian System’, in Rich Nations-Poor Nations, The Long Run Perspective. Aldershot: Edward Elgar, pp. 161-188.
Reinert, Erik S. 1998. ‘Raw Materials in the History of Economic Policy: Or Why List (the Protectionist) and Cobden (the Free Trader) Both Agreed on Free Trade in Corn’, pp. 275-300 in Gary Cook, ed. The Economics and Politics of Free Trade; Freedom and Trade: Volume II. London: Routledge, pp. 275-300.