Will Entrepreneurs Usher In the End of Social Science?

Karl Popper did more than most writers in the twentieth century to debunk the toxic idea of scientific planning and managment of society — and the corollary idea that there could be a social “science” deserving of the name.

Popper’s masterwork in this area, The Open Society and Its Enemies, first appeared in 1945, in the aftermath of World War II. It is a sustained, at times passionate philosophical attack on social planners and utopians from Plato to Marx and their pretensions to scientific rigor. Small wonder, then, that Popper would be out of favor in most academic circles. (The charge I’ve most often heard levelled against him by academics is that he is a “positivist,” as if spitting out the word itself was sufficient argument; and yet Popper himself wrote wisely and critically of positivism. So I was never sure exactly what he was being accused of, but it was clear his accusers had their backs up. Could it be because in Popper’s pages they found themselves and the philosophers they most admired ranked among the enemies of openness? Or was it simply that they had never bothered to read his work, but took it on faith that he was among the heretics?)

And yet, even as Popper has never really been fully appreciated (or understood?) by the windy authorities who fill chairs in humanities and social science departments around the country with the ever expanding girth of their knowledge, he has gained on another front: in the real world, Popper’s thinking may be having a more profound influence on thinking about social change than anybody could have ever anticipated.

Let me take a step back here and observe that most thinking people with some practical experience easily ignore academic judgments on books and philosophers. (I count that a good thing.) Instead, they find another measure in conversation with people they trust and in the observable practical consequences, both intendend and unintended, of a philosopher’s ideas. So it’s worth noticing that George Soros claims in official biographical statements that that Popper had “a profound influence on his thinking and later on his professional and philanthropic activities.” Popper, the poo-pooed positivist? None other: he was teaching at the London School of Economics when Soros arrived, in 1947. Soros’ Open Society Institute even takes its name from the title of Popper’s book. Maybe there’s something to all that open society stuff, after all.

Of course, being admired by one of the world’s richest men is not necessarily a recommendation. (Consider Ivana Trump.) And people who wear their philosophical credentials on their sleeves are usually suspect — as are organizations like the German bank I came across a while ago, somewhere online, that claims to draw inspiration from Popper’s work. But the successful entrepreneur who made his way to America from Eastern Europe and made his fortune in the world financial markets has earned some credibility, and even his detractors must acknowledge that he is one of the most successful or at least one of the most visible social entrepreneurs.

Did Soros learn to be a social entrepreneur from Karl Popper? Probably not. In a 2000 interview, he claims he used to be “opposed to social entrepreneurship,” but now, he says, he’s a believer. What brought on the conversion? Not anything he read, I assume, but more likely things he saw and consequences of things he did. Still, it might be the case that Popper’s work in the second half of the twentieth century nicely anticipates a trend in the first decade of the twenty-first century away from the profession of a social “science” and toward the practice of social entrepreneurship. Or at least it provides some of the necessary philosophical underpinnings for that trend.

But it’s not simply a question of whether Popper’s work will be vindicated or whether it will outlast the inanities that currently engage social scientific mind. Of course it will. There’s a bigger question worth considering. Could it be that the century of social science is now yielding to the decade of the social entrepreneur? And that the trend toward social entrepreneurship could usher in the end of social science?

Certainly all the intellectual momentum is with the social entrepreneurs; social scientists and their tag-alongs in humanities departments may have mass but they don’t have velocity, and you need both for momentum. You can get a sense of some of the intellectual ferment around social entrepreneurship on sites like Social Edge (or the blog that Paul Light keeps for Social Edge), or have a look at Ashoka. Better yet, follow the money in the non-profit and economic development sector and you’ll see that social entrepreneurs are stealing all the thunder from social scientists.

And there’s a simple reason for that. The entrepreneur already belongs to the social world as an agent of change; she is a participant, not an outside observer pretending to disinterested objectivity or aiming to make a final report. There is nothing final or definitive or authoritative about the work of the entrepreneur; it’s partly an act of faith in market forces and in unintended consequences, which implies a deeper faith in the power of self-interest and human ingenuity, people’s real world aspirations, and the informal networks in which individuals share and communicate and work together.

Of course, to ask whether the trend toward social entrepreneurship marks the beginning of the end of social science also raises more serious questions — about the future of education, for instance. The question who will guard this new breed of self-appointed social guardians is a more serious one still, and one that Popper himself would have asked.

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