Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Interdisciplinarity and the search for collective self-actualization

The first chapter of Hartley Dean’s Social Policy emphasizes the high potential for interdisciplinary frameworks in the field.  Dean states, “[Social policy] brings in ideas and analytical methods from sociology, from political science and from economics; it employs insights from social anthropology, demography, socio-legal studies, social psychology, social history, human geography and development studies; it will frequently draw upon philosophy; in fact it will go pretty much wherever it needs to find the best way to study issues relevant to the achievement of human wellbeing.”

It makes little sense to develop a policy framework to enhance accountability in the education system, for example, without knowledge of how political economy manipulates such policy.  This simple truth hit home this week while I attended a lecture delivered by a Harvard professor and Nobel Laureate for economics.  This distinguished scholar spoke at length regarding the need for regulation in the credit markets to mitigate the severity of future financial crises.  His arguments would not be unfamiliar to you.

What was conspicuously absent was an honest appraisal of how political realities in the legislative and executive branches of U.S. government would prevent such regulation from taking shape and having lasting impact.  Republican efforts to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act are but one case in point.  Some unelected government ministries are currently headed by former CEOs and board members of financial goliaths like Goldman Sachs.  Sure, perhaps their past adds value to the knowledge base of their offices, but there is currently no reliable system of accountability to prevent egregious conflicts of interest from marring necessary progressive policies.

I asked the visiting professor about this disconnect.  His response: our politicians and our citizens must be properly educated.

Clearly, I think proper knowledge of the cold facts take a back seat to some other considerations on the Hill.  Thus, a more truly interdisciplinary approach to the issues of credit market regulation in the U.S. might produce a less impotent, more truly useful solution to our current situation.  Brilliant policies that increase human wellbeing are ultimately of little use if the existing power structure is poised in opposition.

Finally, interdisciplinarity is not only a necessary tool for effective policy advocacy; it is also required for the highly creative work of building an abstract framework to understand and assess the aim and impact of policy.  Personally, I find inspiration in conceptualizing social policy as the pragmatic arm of collective self-actualization — in essence, an extension of the existentialist imperative of “becoming” extended to a societal level.  Another post will strive to wrestle with the problematic nature of a “collective existentialism,” considering the strong individualist bias in most works ascribed to the genre.  For the time being, suffice it to say, only a complex account of the philosophical, psychological, historical and cultural dynamics (etc.) underpinning a group effort to fully realize human potential will really do this idea any justice.

Your thoughts, as always, are quite welcome.


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