Mar 19, 2011

Can fiction be used to explore the social sciences?

One of the advantages of using fiction to explore the social sciences is that one can incorporate the insights from some social sciences into others more easily. For example, a work of fiction can be used to understand economic behavior, but also to understand how this behavior is affected by the physiology, culture, and history. This is very valuable to generate new hypothesis. The main value of using fiction to advance and study social sciences is to understand the importance of interdisciplinary research. Behavioral Economics is one example. 

Students can get confused at the beginning (because they begin to realize that other aspects of human behavior affect the strictly rational assumption of economics, for example), but they come up with a lot of questions and develop a more critical attitude towards the mainstream approaches of economics, or sociology, or physiology, etc.  

My best experiences teaching economics (institutional economic in particular) with fiction have been when using:

The Bible (the book of Genesis, Kings, and Romans)
C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the witch, and the wardrobe
C. Achebe's Things fall apart

This post was motivated by the reading of this review of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. The author wrote this book (somewhat unsuccessfully according to the review) as a way to explain his theories of the mind. 

Main points of the review:
  • Nondeliberate emotion, perception and intuition are much more important in shaping our lives than reason and will.
  • “Emotion assigns value to things,” Brooks writes, “and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations.” The deeper level of the mind also holds a great store of information, coming from genetics, culture, family and education. “Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”
  • Similarly, in morality and politics. “The adult personality — including political views — is forever defined in opposition to one’s natural enemies in high school,” Brooks writes. His analysis of what he calls the “underdebates” in American politics — the web of associations and sympathies that divide Republicans and Democrats — is plausible, if familiar: snowmobiles versus bicycles, religious versus secular morality, and so forth.

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