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Human is as Human Does

Human beings have at points in time been known to practice human sacrifice. They have been known to cannibalize one another. They have been known to live under despots, monarchies, and authoritarian regimes for most of human existence.

If these behaviors have all been performed by human beings, then surely they cannot be “unnatural”. It is anachronistic to argue that in the past humans thought it morally wrong to live under despots (at least in the same way the contemporary global norms think it wrong).

Is the role of the social scientist then to study human behavior? Or is it to describe ways in which normatively inspired reforms can be implemented.

Maybe if you are part of the community the norms are coming from and will be experiencing the reforms, then it would not be unusual. humans have been known to seek to reform and better their societies, sometimes at the cost of millions of lives. Though modern times have been more destructive these actions too are part of the repertoire of human behavior.

Whether reform is possible at all is another debate, but the role of sociology in society is also important to consider in this context. Obviously modern sciences are not isolated, their ethos of neutrality and objectivity gives them authority. Neutrality may be impossible to achieve but does that mean objectivity should not be pursued. True, it can be quite duplicitous when biased policy is passed as objective, but then can we not take any action that we see as improving our communities. Is this objectivity then one which is completely cut off from policy?

At this point, this seems to be my attitude in research. I act as if I am neutral and objective, and I go to great methodical and methodological lengths to ensure it. Although I know I may never achieve objectivity I still value it and pursue it. That is because even the most theoretical work can translate into policy at some level.

So when I study something like mass killings, or read about the terrible behaviors of authoritarian regimes,  I do not make the link that they ought to be removed. Human beings have been known to be callous and cruel.

This is an unfortunate but necessary measure because although global norms indicate that authoritarian rule is unacceptable, it is hard to define, it is even harder to define democratic rule. So there is always the risk of imposing external norms on a local phenomena. But the world itself is changing and actors who are not objective can intervene. I cannot make normative judgments on that either, but we can observe whether this is in an economic framework and how this may affect local society.

But Remember we act with as if objectivity, as if positivism (or at least I do) because we are often unaware how subjective we can be. Social scientists are notorious for failing to foresee outcomes of policies. Maybe then all we can do is describe and analyze without predicting or judging.

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