Social Scientists Log In

Sociology Leads the Quantitative Trend

Once upon a time, everybody knew which professors used numbers in their research and which professors used words. The natural scientists conducted quantitative research: they gathered data, they made tables and graphs, they made graphs and tables, and when they were through, they had a new empirical formula.

The social scientists, meanwhile, did lots of reading and talking: they poked around in unusual cities and villages and when they were through, they had spotted a trend or come up with a new social theory.

Today, that distinction is about as quaint as a fairy tale. Earlier this week, Harvard successfully concluded negotiations with Morris P. Fiorina, a California Institute of Technology political scientist who applies empirical data to topics in the American electoral process. And last week, the Sociology Department made offers to three scholars who depend on computers for their research in social issues.

Fiorina and the three sociologists--if they accept Harvard's offer--will hardly be the first scholars in their departments to log onto the computer. Fiorina would join a sizable complement of quantitative scholars in the Government Department, including Douglas A. Hibbs, Robert D. Putnam, and Sidney Verba, associate dean of the Faculty for undergraduate education. James A. Davis, the chairman of the Sociology Department who calls himself a "hardcore" quantitative scholar, is one of a handful of number pushers in Sociology.

Harvard social scientists agree that the recent flurry of tenure offers reflects a pattern of increased attention in quantitative researchers over the past couple of decades.

"Ten years ago," says History Department Chairman Wallace MacCaffrey, "we didn't have anyone in the department doing that sort of historical research." Today, he cites Stephan A. Thernstrom, Winthrop Professor of History, and David Herlihy, Lea Professor of Medieval History, as Harvard scholars applying scientific methods to problems in history.

MacCaffrey joins other professors in ascribing this relatively new interest to rapid developments in computer technology and massive increases in the amount of statistical data available to a researcher--through censuses and other federal surveys.

"There's been a revolutionary change in the character of the social sciences at Harvard in the last 20 years," says Davis. "I've had to completely relearn my trade from the ground up."

But MacCaffrey notes that the desire to quantify the social sciences predates the introduction of computers and data banks to do the research. "It's an impulse that's been operating for a couple of generations," he says. When economics began to emerge as a successful application of natural-scientific methods to a social science, developing universal laws and principles, other disciplines sought to follow suit, he explains.

"When a Nobel Prize winner makes a statement about matter, we can all nod our heads and say. 'Yes--that's true,'" says MacCaffrey. "I think a lot of historians would like to have that kind of effect. The rise of computers was a gift to people with this kind of interest."

MacCaffrey stresses that while the History Department does not discourage quantitative scholars, it does not conduct faculty searches with the specific goal of finding them, as other departments do.

The Government Department may undertake tenure searches with the intention of hiring a quantitative scholar, as it did with Fiorina, but Chairman John D. Montgomery insists that the department is building up its quantitative ranks warily. "There's been some disappointment among departments who have gone all out in that direction with an almost religious zeal," he says. "Many of them have taken the view that we've been laggards. We've moved cautiously, but very effectively."

But in Sociology, says Davis, "all personnel decisions turn implicitly on that question." In the three tenure searches that resulted in last week's offers, the department was specifically looking for data analysts, Davis says.

In fact, Davis says, most of the Sociology Department's highly publicized internal difficulties have stemmed from disputes over the priority the department should give to quantitative scholars. But this split, he suggests, may be the consequence of an unusual polarization within the discipline. About half the articles quantitative sociologists publish would be difficult for a scholar trained in theory to follow, Davis says. The reverse is not true, he notes: "It isn't easy, but you don't need special training to read Marx, Weber and Durkheim. You just plug away."