Retrofitting Social Science

In “Retrofitting Social Science for the Practical & Moral” (Issues, Fall 2019), Kenneth Prewitt’s case for reestablishing “a social science for the sake of society” is timely and compelling. Those of us involved in the American Political Science Association (APSA) have seen that appeals to the “usefulness of useless knowledge” now often fail to persuade state and national governmental funders, private foundations, and tuition-paying parents of the value of our research and teaching.

APSA has responded with initiatives to translate technical political science scholarship into brief, accessible presentations and to disseminate them widely, and to strengthen teaching. We have begun “Research Partnerships on Critical Issues” that link academic scholars with bipartisan experts outside academia, beginning with a project on congressional reform. We have created an Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) and established an award for distinguished civically engaged scholarship in order to encourage work that does not just study political problems but tries to do something about them. The ICER curriculum gives great attention to the ethical issues of avoiding either exploitation of, or co-optation by, the community partners in such engagement. As APSA president, I also urged scholars and journal editors to strive harder to ensure that our publications connect specific research findings with the “big pictures” of politics and the world that show their substantive importance; and I called for more work that synthesizes disparate research endeavors to explore how they collectively provide guidance on real-world problems.

“Retrofitting” social science means devoting more time within our universities to making our work more intrinsically as well as more visibly valuable.

I also second Prewitt’s suggestion that “retrofitting” social science means devoting more time within our universities to making our work more intrinsically as well as more visibly valuable. Institutions should not hire simply with a view to raising rankings, which can homogenize the issues we address and the methods we apply to them. Instead, they should hire scholars in diverse fields who share interests in specific substantive problems, as some political science departments have begun to do. We must also get past seeing civically engaged research as second-class or suspect. Finally, institutions must embrace the challenges of improving teaching, and they must honor the colleagues who are finding ways to do so, as much as they do research excellence.

Precisely because the social sciences need to do more work of value and to communicate that value more clearly, I would not term this direction a “Fourth Purpose,” as Prewitt does. That term is unclear, and it sounds low priority. Like Prewitt, I do not have a ready alternative. “Civic Purpose” or “Public Purpose” might work better, though both have drawbacks. In truth, as Prewitt recognizes, what we are really talking about is restoring the “Original Purpose” to the social sciences.

Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science
University of Pennsylvania
Immediate past president, American Political Science Association

Kenneth Prewitt argues that social scientists should redirect their research to respond to social problems and that universities must “firmly institutionalize” this work to “reestablish a social science for the sake of society.” This argument is compelling and justified—for reasons beyond those that Prewitt outlines. Reorienting research to be more responsive to today’s challenges would help impart the value of the social sciences, as Prewitt argues, and would also invigorate universities, whose worth is currently under attack from many sides. As I explained in “The Future of Higher Education is Social Impact,” published in the May 18, 2018, Stanford Social Innovation Review, harnessing the talents of social scientists to pursue the public good can change the perception of higher education from biased and wasteful to innovative and essential.

According to Prewitt, the largest obstacle to meeting this aim is convincing universities to accept the challenge. In my view, this obstacle can be surmounted by following five steps:

  1. Recognize that the current basis for evaluating the research performance of social science faculty—the extent to which their research contributes to further research—is arbitrary. There is nothing intrinsic to this criterion that would prevent it from being equally counterbalanced by another criterion: the contribution of a research product, or a line of research, to solving social problems.
  2. Establish new metrics that reflect this reorientation. Contributions of research to the public good could be measured by tallying the number of public forums in which evidence informs policy or practice decisions. In addition to such quantitative markers, qualitative testimonials could attest to the extent to which research has informed policy decisions. Similar to testimonials currently used to assess contributions to research, these policy testimonials would be compelling only insofar as they indicate how specific research conveyed knowledge that changed the thinking of those reflecting upon it.
  3. Link formal reward mechanisms to research contributions that offer social impact. Promotion guidelines could give credit to research contributions to public welfare as well as research contributions to subsequent research. Social impact could be included in merit-based compensation adjustments. And competitive awards, such as named chairs, could be available for those whose research contributes to solving social problems.
  4. Incentivize faculty through opportunities such as summer salary and teaching release for those who present compelling proposals for social impact research. Faculty in professional fields such as education and social work may be most naturally positioned toward working with public agencies and nonprofit organizations, but discipline-based social sciences faculty could also be encouraged to pursue these opportunities for “boundary-spanning.”
  5. Create structures that support social science research in the public good. Arrangements such as boundary-spanning partnerships, interdisciplinary hubs that connect with local communities, and institutes that provide centralized resources to facilitate social impact research can lower the barriers that make it difficult for faculty who wish to reorient their work.

Importantly, retrofitting social science means broadening social science, not overturning it. Doing so would not only orient social research toward addressing twenty-first century problems; it would strengthen the case for the modern university.

President, William T. Grant Foundation

Industry and policy stakeholders increasingly agree to admit that social science and humanities (SSH) contribute to innovation, economic growth, and social progress in democratic societies. This is not surprising: SSH researchers untiringly engineer conceptual resources that go on to permeate all sectors of human activity, and their expertise informs the shaping of governments’ ethical, legal, and political decisions as well as the mechanisms through which science knowledge is translated into social and economic progress.

Kenneth Prewitt leverages this insight to make a twofold point. On one hand, the better part of the reason why the usefulness and value of SSH is still not widely recognized is that we lack proper impact models—and I would add: assessment frameworks. On the other hand, SSH impact cannot happen without scholars engaging, practically and morally. This position is one that many SSH advocates subscribe and that I fully embrace.

We cannot naively ignore that our understanding of disciplinary boundaries unsurprisingly depends on the kinds of conceptual resources and investigative methods we consider to be adequate given our purposes as researchers.

Yet I am also discontented with the article. I think it does not muster the level of care these concerns need to receive in order to yield adequate solutions. Understanding the way that SSH create change, and how change is optimized through the creation of partnerships and/or collaboration with stakeholders groups outside of academia, requires a theory of change that is informed by a solid grasp of the history and sociology of knowledge. At the very least, it should be clear that current disciplinary and subdisciplinary labels and divisions cannot be projected back without complications. Our conceptions of the precise scope and methods of the disciplines we associate with SSH, and in particular, of their boundaries, continue to be in flux and they are anything but hermetic. But more important, we cannot naively ignore that our understanding of disciplinary boundaries unsurprisingly depends on the kinds of conceptual resources and investigative methods we consider to be adequate given our purposes as researchers. In SSH, the latter are spread out and dissonant, and they continue to evolve.

The task of offering workable models for impact and engagement in social science and humanities, in my opinion, cannot be fulfilled without a rigorous understanding of the nature and structure of social institutions. It requires careful analyses and adequate data: it needs to mobilize appropriate conceptual tools. I hope to see more work along those lines published in Issues in the future.

Board of Director, Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences
Associate Professor of Philosophy, McMaster University
Director, The Collaborative

Cite this Article

“Retrofitting Social Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 2 (Winter 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter 2020