Social Scientists Should Be Liberals with A Lower-Case L

One thing that social science seems to try to do a lot of is show how the ways we categorize things, mentally arrange things, and commonly think of things are in fact, flawed, incongruent with reality, gross oversimplifications, or just generally wrong. Many times, perhaps even most of the time, this is undoubtedly true. Off the top of my head, take something like gender. It’s pretty unlikely that male and female actually exist in the world; even the biology gets ambiguous sometimes. But you can tell a pretty compelling story in which evolutionary biology and the development of the modern state combine to create male and female as compelling social categories.*

To me, if this is something that concerns you (the fact that the categories we use only reflect reality for a specific portion of society), the solution is to minimize the degree to which any of those categories receive anything like an official imprimatur. It seems unlikely that people will entirely abandon categorization as a practice; the world is enormous and confusing and broad categories are a nice way to come to terms with that. But I would think you would want to lessen the degree to which society agrees, as society, via state practices or entities, that certain categories exist as things in the world.** And yet, most of the academics and critics you might see writing along these lines tend to be big-government types.*** And large government programs do nothing if not create categories and then institutionalize them.

If you are a member of the posited class of academics/critics/etc under consideration, this is problematic. Take government social welfare programs, for example. There’s nothing wrong with arguing for their creation and/or expansion on the basis of them being effective ways of helping society’s most vulnerable members. But it’s silly to argue for the creation of a substantial welfare state while at the same time arguing against the institutionalization of a poor political underclass. Those very welfare programs are doing half of the work right there. From a policy perspective, these social scientists might do better as liberals with a lower-case L.

*Created not without reason, to be sure. For the overwhelming majority of people these categories are useful heuristics, and the fact that there are (usually) some operative biological differences between the two suggests there’s a floor on the degree to which you can obliterate any distinctions at all; until men grow uteri or the ability to lactate, for example, childbirth seems like it’s going to remain a female-centric activity
**I believe the academic term for this is “reify”, but using it makes me throw up in my mouth a little
***I wish there were a way to quantify this claim, which I strongly suspect is true, but currently reads a bit straw man-esque