How Social Science Should Study Racial Injustice

In AAPSS, News
by Kenneth Prewitt
Columbia University & President, AAPSS

How many social science books, articles, workshops, conferences, courses, surveys, and dissertations on racial inequality in the last half-century? Certainly, in the thousands, and thousands more if we take note of similar studies in other countries. The 1966 Coleman Report was, in its time, the first big social science project—600,000 students, 60,000 teachers, 4,000 public schools. No surprise that its focus was racial inequality, and its task was recommending steps to address the nation’s failure to provide “equal education opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion or national origin.” The magnitude of persistent racial inequality was not in doubt, nor was the responsibility of social science to explain it and point to solutions. A half-century later and despite the flood of steadily more sophisticated research, “equal education opportunities” is unrealized.

Today there are thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors on the streets, and though the triggering event was police brutality and the senseless death of one Black man in one American city, the thousands, perhaps millions, protesting are not limited to that city or, in fact, to the U.S. There are protests across the American states—east to west and north to south—and in more than a dozen other countries. This does not surprise us any more than we were not surprised that the first big social science project in American history was looking for solutions to racial injustice. It took a civil war to grant citizenship to Black people; it took only a few years to make that meaningless. A hundred years later the civil rights era tried again to grant meaningful citizenship, with limited success. Institutional racism still affects where Blacks live, work, go to school, and we have a Supreme Court that won’t address gerrymandering and voter suppression, specifically designed to limit Black voting power. America continues to fail its Black citizens, as do other nations—from Brazil to Britain. Social science expected something better, expected that flood of research to have more influence.

What’s next? Take a hard look at the social science model. Put simply: social science produces causal explanations of empirical truths. It does not directly address right or wrong, a domain of knowledge left to ethicists and philosophers. The model was adopted from natural science, which does not address whether gravity or evolution “should be,” only that they are and how they work.

I believe this natural science model unduly restricts the social sciences. The agenda of implementation and impact that is sweeping across research universities world-wide intends to create knowledge into action. This requires an epistemology where the empirically true and the ethically right are not independent of each other but re-conceptualized as profoundly interdependent. Many of our universities are struggling with how to operationalize this task—moving faster in more recent fields, such as data ethics and climate ethics, than on topics, racial injustice among them, which have decades of inertia to overcome.

For social science then, the challenge is to re-frame its research portfolio, where appropriate, as an interdependent ethical-empirical project. This should not be confused with the familiar task of interdisciplinarity, which is focused on developments at the frontiers of science and has given us new specialties, behavioral economics being a recent and powerful example. Knowledge to action takes us to new territory—when, why, and how our research is used, misused, or not used.

Racial injustice is a striking, depressing example of “not used.” When we explain the when, why, and how of this nonuse, we will have a knowledge platform that can facilitate its use.