Conditions of Possibility

The Division of the Social Sciences is diverse.  In the same department we can find people working on game theory and ancient Greek (e.g., Political Science), Mayan language or the learning pathways of ground squirrels (Comparative Human Development), search engine algorithms and ethnography of nail salons (Sociology).  What we share is the drive to derive explanation from the staggering complexity of our world, whether the questions be about public health or public finance, early childhood education or the demographics of aging, ancient history, contemporary international security, climate change, or any other.

Over the past few centuries the disciplines we know as the social sciences emerged to address this complexity, from the level of the individual to that of society.  Along the way they have generated—or happily borrowed and transformed—any number of methodologies.  Statistics was born, as its name implies, from the attempts of social scientists to describe and understand the populations and administration of states.  Today computer and data sciences have emerged as powerful tools that both generate complexity and help us address it.  Once again, as this issue of Dialogo shows, the Division is taking the lead in adapting these tools to the questions that animate us, questions about human life in society.

Unless the computational and statistical tools of the “data revolution” are put into a mutually transforming dialogue with the theoretical frameworks of the social sciences, they will produce neither explanations nor theory, but only “answers” without questions.  And conversely, if they do not adapt computational techniques to questions where they are applicable (an important caveat!), social scientists lose an opportunity to scale theory to new levels of data complexity.  An important part of our time in the Dean’s Office these past few years has been spent creating the conditions of possibility for what we are calling computational social science.  Just this fall the Division welcomed the inaugural cohort of students to the new MA Program in Computational Social Science. The program—which also offers a certificate for PhD students and training to undergraduates—emphasizes the methodological advances and perspectives that arise at the intersection of computational and statistical methodologies and specific domain knowledge in the social sciences.

Speaking of new technologies, this issue of Dialogo marks a transition from a focus on print to a more intentional online presence for the Division’s newsletter. I hope you will return often to our corner of the cloud, and that each time you do the content of these virtual—but substantial!—pages will remind you, as it does me, of the exhilaration of discovery that is our shared privilege as members of this extraordinary community of social scientists. 


David Nirenberg
Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought; Dean, Division of the Social Sciences