Interdisciplinarity and Diversity: The Human Image in Social Sciences

Lena Rethel,
Catharina Rebecca Bening
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Social science research focuses on human aspects of the world, more specifically human actors (collective and individual) and their environment. Yet, despite this common objective, the underlying “images” of humans differ across (sub-)disciplines. Some of the various specifications applied are the homo oeconomicus, the homo psychologicus, or the homo politicus.

In the face of such diversity, recent years have seen a trend towards interdisciplinary approaches within the social sciences. New (sub-)disciplines such as “behavioural economics”, “international political economy” or “law and economics” have emerged that try to combine different academic perspectives. In that, no human image has been more successful than the homo oeconomicus. It unites the major part of whole discipline (economics) behind it and has seriously influenced academic work in other disciplines. We will take its progress as an example to question the viability of interdisciplinary approaches in their present form. Doing this, we discern two main areas of concern.

First, we take issue with the unreflective use of the concept of interdisciplinarity. There is a general ambiguity as to whether interdisciplinary approaches relate to topics (such as the international political economy) or methods (using the homo oeconomicus as a methodological tool). Whether interdisciplinarity means a convergence of methodologies, ontologies or epistemologies (or a combination of them) would then depend on the lines along which this interdisciplinarity is organised, in our case the dominant human image of the homo oeconomicus. However, we argue that human images are not only methodological tools but wider reflections of a discipline’s ontology and epistemology.

A second area of concern to us are attempts to create one amalgamated human image, such as a modified version of the homo oeconomicus which incorporates other facets such as bounded rationality or limited utility maximisation. These attempts seriously endanger intellectual diversity within the social sciences and have only limited explanatory power as they do not account for the incompatibility of different human images.

This paper reviews images of human actors across social science disciplines such as political and economic sciences, and psychology. We argue that the plethora of images has ontological, methodological and epistemological implications that give rise to a range of conceptual problems for interdisciplinary approaches. As a consequence, we set out a research agenda for social sciences that strengthens the role of multidisciplinarity as a practice to overcome the conceptual problems of interdisciplinarity and to maintain intellectual diversity.

Keywords: Social Sciences, Homo Oeconomicus, Interdisciplinarity, Economics, Politics
Stream: Other or Stream Unspecified
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: Interdisciplinarity and Diversity

Lena Rethel

PhD Student, Department of Politics and International Studies - PAIS, University of Warwick
Coventry, UK

Catharina Rebecca Bening

PhD Student, Institute for Economy and the Environment, University of St. Gallen

Ref: I06P0192