From the President’s Desk: Social Science Has Two Weaknesses

In AAPSS, News
By Kenneth Prewitt, AAPSS President

Calls for the implementation of research echo across higher education, sometimes labeled research impact or “knowledge-to-action” (the term used in this essay). This task adds a dimension to the three more familiar responsibilities of research universities: teaching, research, and public service. Research universities first came on the scene in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, when America’s small, prestigious teaching colleges became research universities. Much was involved—dozens of large public universities were built; land grant colleges focused on medicine, agriculture, engineering; PhD programs modeled on Berlin’s von Humboldt University were added to the undergraduate curriculum; there were early stirrings of international collaboration, and a role by academies of science (the AAPSS among them).  Modern social science was in this nineteenth century package, first economics but soon adding the other core disciplines of sociology, political science, psychology, and anthropology.

Though this story is well-known, I provide the brief summary to introduce the two weaknesses of the title. We start with antiquity when “scholars of society” drew on religion, ethics, logic, philosophy, and history to describe, interpret, and then instruct societies. Modern social science might have built on this rich foundation.  It chose instead to model on the natural sciences. It would be secular, empirical, statistical, theoretical, and in pursuit of causality. The sources used by antiquities’ scholars could be left to the humanities.  By the start of the twentieth century the new research universities were organized into the now familiar three semi-independent clusters of liberal arts knowledge: natural science, social science, humanities. Professional schools found their respective niches, at times and in places competing with the liberal arts.

The arrival of social science was not smooth; it started with doubts about the “science” in their title. Natural science did not view them as peers. The humanities were also skeptical, finding the upstart social science disciplines shallow in comparison to the historically deeper and more complex knowledge they pursued. Social science defended itself by pointing out its unique challenges: humans are both the subject of investigation and the investigators; social phenomena can move faster than the methods available to study them. The major claim, however, was that social science would produce better public policy.  After all, weren’t economists proving that capitalism was superior to Marxism?

That claim may have helped launch to social science but it never got full traction. Motivated by an effort to gain the respect of natural science, the young social sciences gradually gave less attention to improving public policy and more to a rigorous science based on increasingly complex measurement. This shift was successful.  It took several  decades, but the focus on pure science was rewarded by membership in NAS and funding from NSF. This was accompanied by a huge growth of social science in the core departments and then spreading across such professional schools as policy, social work,  health.

This success came at a cost.  The social sciences promised to improve public policy, but leverage over policymaking, it turned out, was not easy to attain or exercise. Social scientists were content to announce that “our scientific methods produce basic knowledge; please apply to policy-making.”  When ignored, which was (and is) frequent, they complained, but then moved on to the next project.  Pausing to ask why they were ignored would not lead to tenure or NAS membership.  Moreover, explaining why they were ignored was never an easy project. Policymaking takes place in what is labeled situated, practical reasoning, which involves argumentation, negotiations, bargains, trade-offs, stake-holders.  Policy-makers are not in pursuit of the best social science; they pursue evidence that will be persuasive in the constant re-arrangement of their effort. Anything else is ignored. Being ignored by the policy process is, I believe, a social science weakness.  Understanding and correcting this weakness is what the knowledge-to-action agenda builds on.  This will require rigorous research by social scientists of why social science is so often ignored, notwithstanding its sophisticated measurement, its causal explanations. After all, if the action at stake is policy-making we do not, nor should we, expect the natural scientists and humanity scholars to explain why being ignored is so common. It’s a social phenomenon.

The second weakness is the ineffectual effort by social science to bring ethical principles and moral reasoning to bear on the knowledge to action initiatives.  The humanities of course but also, surprisingly to many, the natural sciences are actually better prepared than the social sciences. Bioethics was an early example. It is now joined by the natural sciences dealing with the ethics of carbon capture, gene-editing, the Internet, robotic weaponry, etc. This cannot be said of the social sciences. When they chose to be scientific over humanistic, ethical considerations were edged aside. This is obvious from a glance at the course offerings of public policy schools or, closer to home, the infrequent appearance of ethical citations in The ANNALS, let alone among its authors (mea culpa).

Today our universities have reached a point where the three original clusters of knowledge are collaborating, even blurring their boundaries, to grapple with challenges that cannot be confronted without help from the other two knowledge clusters.  These include, for example, the existential threat of climate change, the unexpected vulnerabilities of democracies, the future of global migration, the uncertainties of artificial intelligence—none of which social science can independently resolve, none of which can be resolved without social science.  This includes, of course, the social sciences now found across the professional schools—business, law, arts, engineering, policy, social work, climate, medical, journalism, divinity.  In these settings, there is already a determination to have research results noticed, taken into account, being used under the condition of situated, practical reasoning complications. It is this determination that is adding a new dimension to research universities.