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Social science and the public sphere

Social science and the public sphere

One of the more unfortunate trends on contemporary social science has been a growing “cult of irrelevance,” a set of implicit standards that encourages smart young scholars to write more and more about less and less for fewer and fewer readers. The principle of academic freedom and the granting of lifetime tenure are supposed to free academics to tackle controversial subjects or ambitious research projects, but all-too-many social scientists choose to devote their efforts to meaningless displays of methodological firepower and to attack questions that are only of interest to a small group of like-minded scholars. Even when they do stumble on to a topic that is of general interest, they will present their results in a manner designed to make it incomprehensible to even a well-educated educated lay-person.

Some of my own thoughts on this subject can be found here and here. But I would also commend to you a recent essay by Craig Calhoun, who is currently president of the Social Science Research Council. Money graf:

What scientists work on and how they formulate their questions shape the likelihood that they will make significant public — or scientific — contributions. Of course there are and must be research projects driven by intellectual curiosity and by attempts to solve theoretical problems — and these may produce useful, even necessary knowledge for a range of public projects. But it is also true that many academic projects are driven by neither deep intellectual curiosity nor pressing public agendas, but simply by the internal arguments of academic subfields or theoretically aimless attempts at cumulative knowledge that mostly accumulate lines on CVs. To justify these by an ideology of pure science is disingenuous. To let these displace the attention of researchers from major public issues is to act with contempt towards the public that pays the bills. Making the sorts of social science we already produce more accessible is not sufficient; we have to produce better social science. This means more work addressing public issues-and being tested and pushed forward by how well it handles them-and high standards for the originality and importance of projects not tied directly to public issues.”

Calhoun’s essay has lots of smart things to say about the relationship between “applied” and “pure” research (a dubious distinction that he neatly dissects), the growing (and not always constructive) role of “think tanks,” the virtues of writing clearly (as opposed to the priestly obscurantism that infects so many academic journals), and the value of university-based scholars doing work that actively contributes to our broader public discourse.

I would only add that the current current “cult of irrelevance” is not inevitable; it is merely the unfortunate result of a host of individual decisions about what sorts of virtues to emphasize when hiring or promoting scholars. The members of any discipline get to decide which criteria to privilege and which to downplay, and if we hire and promote people who have little to offer our fellow citizens, then we shouldn’t be surprised if nobody takes our business seriously and if those same citizens eventually decide that there is no longer any need to support it. Or we can follow Calhoun’s advice, and think of social science as a central part of society’s broad effort to improve itself, and not as a privileged guild devoted solely to the abstract pursuit of “scientific” knowledge.

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