equality of what?

I just finished reading Amartya Sen’s lecture, Equality of What?.

I’d say I understood roughly 25% of it. Clearly I need to bone up on John Rawls and all the terminology in the arena of social equality theory. The thing that sucks about social sciences is this: Unlike the physical sciences, where a Newton or an atom are all the same things regardless of whether you’re reading about molecular biology or quantum physics (okay maybe quantum physics was a bad example). But with social sciences, every arena has its own vocabulary – and necessarily so. This is not an anti-social-science screed. Indeed, for a social science to truly be science it requires a standard vocabulary of defined terms, and every branch seems to have its own.

But it does make a foray into different arenas of social sciences perpetually challenging. When reading Carroll Quigley, you have to learn what he means by “institution”, which as it turns out is easy because he spends several chapters defining it. When you read Marx, you have to understand what he means by “alienation” and the other countless German words he made up, which is not so easy, because he didn’t define shit. Galbraith as well, I think, was fond of making up words to match an idea that didn’t otherwise have one. And so on, and so forth. These sorts of vocabularies, specific to fields and even authors, can make it difficult to compare, contrast, and combine different theories from different areas – especially when the vocabularies overlap and conflict. The tortured use of the word “institution” in various aspects of social theory is probably the best example of this, or at least one I’ve run into over and over. And then there’s the matter of making sure your vocabulary hasn’t become so refined, nuanced, subjective and context-specific as to be rendered meaningless – or conversely, that some jerk isn’t taking advantage of that and making you look like a fool.

Anyways, someone out there has probably elaborated on this much more clearly than I have here – actually, come to think of it, I think Alan Sokal has. But this just occurred to me as I was struggling through Amartya Sen’s lecture, so I thought I’d ramble about it a little. Maybe it’s not even specific to the social sciences and happens more in the physical sciences than I realize. I’m hesitant to even post this now, since I really have no stomach for the rather puerile social-science bashing that seems to be in vogue these days, ever since Sokal pulled his little prank on the poor postmodernists.

My original point, though, was that I am now doubly-interested in getting my hands on some of Sen’s books, as I’d imagine his “capabilites”-based take on egalitarianism versus Rawls and other utilitarian/total-utility-based egalitarianism might be a little easier to grasp if it were written for actual human beings rather than a room full of economists.