Reflecting on the recent US electoral campaign and its aftermath as the most recent and powerful evidence for the existence of a “post-truth” age, Duncan Watts and David Rothschild argue that we have entered a legitimacy crisis—“whom and what to trust,” as they put it—in relation to knowledge claims and the institutions that validate them. The authors discuss why information technologies have exacerbated the problem, and offer some suggestions for compensating for and perhaps restoring lost legitimacy.
Can Social Science Matter?
Earlier this summer, Kenneth Prewitt asked, “Can Social Science Matter?” in order to provoke further discussion and debate. Prewitt’s essay chronicles the shifts in the balance between the autonomy and accountability of social science research, and then analyzes the heavy emphasis on accountability in the present moment of demands for transparency, replicability, oversight, and metrics that can demonstrate impact. He concludes with a series of suggestions for how social scientists might retain scholarly autonomy by augmenting the reality and perception of their public “relevance.” Here we collect a wide range of reflections that respond to, argue with, or build from Prewitt’s essay in regard to the sources of the pressures for greater accountability, the various meanings of that term, and what social scientists can do in the present context of these pressures.
In this forum, Prewitt is joined by colleagues across the social sciences and from a range of institutions within and outside the academy, who, throughout the summer, will continue to wrestle with these questions. Their responses will also be joined by voices from the Items archive, responding to similar issues in their own era and context.
Prewitt’s essay also provided the basis for an event, “Social Science Knowledge and Its Future,” hosted at Roosevelt House by both the Council and CASBS that brought Prewitt into conversation with danah boyd (principal researcher, Microsoft Research; founder, Data & Society) and Margaret Levi (Director for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University). Videos of the event will be available through the SSRC’s Digital Culture program.
In a new response to Kenneth Prewitt’s "Can Social Science Matter?," Cora Marrett traces the relationship between the autonomy and accountability of research through the history of the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Marrett, who has served several times in leadership roles at the NSF, puts current pressures for accountability in the historical context of increasing public support for research. While an emphasis on “pure” science was more pronounced in NSF’s early days, expectations for accountability that research would serve “the national interest” were also part of NSF’s origins. Marrett recommends that attention be paid to the multiple meanings and uses of accountability deployed by both scientists and government actors over time.
Richard Shweder digs deeper into Kenneth Prewitt’s call for justifying scholarly autonomy based on the USBAR principle—Unintended Social Benefits Appreciated Retroactively. Shweder compares the USBAR rationale to principles that underlie a vision of the university as a “temple for critical reasoning” which is neither directly nor indirectly in the service of broader moral, political, or practical ends.
Pendleton Herring, a long-serving president of the SSRC beginning in the late 1940s, reflects on the social and political role of scientists in American democracy in this 1961 piece from our archives. In spite of debates between scientists and other intellectuals, and “misconceptions” of science held by parts of the American public, Herring is quite sanguine about the future of science’s public role. The parallels and the contrasts with Prewitt’s account of the present moment in “Can Social Science Matter?” are telling, as is the call from both authors for social science to play a lead role in understanding the nature and limits of science’s public influence.
In the latest response to “Can Social Science Matter?,” Ron Haskins argues that social science should tackle heightened demands for accountability by not overpromising on impact while also trumpeting existing work that simultaneously deepens social understanding and contributes to addressing public problems. Haskins highlights two relatively recent and influential approaches that have demonstrated the capacity to bridge the purposes of “basic” and “applied” research—the mining of large scale administrative data and the use of randomized controlled trials to test the effectiveness of a range of social programs.
As part of a 1983 Items symposium on the history of research support for the social sciences in the United States, Harvey Brooks discusses how government funding for social science has shaped its postwar development. Brooks’ essay provides background for the issues discussed in our current forum on Kenneth Prewitt’s “Can Social Science Matter?” He especially emphasizes public support for social science in juxtaposition to the natural sciences in the 1950s, and changes brought on by the upheavals of the 1960s and beyond.
In his response to Kenneth Prewitt’s “Can Social Science Matter?” Michael Feuer discusses rationales for accountability systems for social science and problems of implementing them, especially through the use of (sometimes dubious) metrics in a highly-politicized climate for science funding. Improved accountability for science requires, according to Feuer, a scientific approach to the study of accountability.
In her response to “Can Social Science Matter?,” danah boyd encourages deeper reflection among social scientists in order to address heightened expectations for the accountability of research. She argues that accountability is not simply about the quality or impact of answers to research questions, but is instead inherently tied to the choice of questions that social scientists seek to address. Asking the right questions, boyd contends, “requires being deeply embedded within the social world that we seek to understand.”
Wolfgang Rohe’s response to Prewitt’s “Can Social Science Matter?” affirms that the current moment for social science research is one in which society demands less autonomy and more accountability for knowledge production. Rohe concurs with Prewitt’s account of how this shift happened, and adds that the sheer scale of the research enterprise, and genuine concerns with research quality, are further components of new pressures on scholarship. Rohe concludes that social scientists must both maintain (and improve upon) the process for peer judgments of quality while using their tools as social scientists to develop criteria for evaluating the broader social influence and use of their research.
Published in March of 1969, this essay by then SSRC president Henry Riecken grapples with many of the same issues raised by Prewitt and his interlocutors in “Can Social Science Matter?” The major upheavals of that historical moment are not discussed in any detail in Riecken’s essay, but they clearly influenced the timing and the content, as Riecken discusses how social science can contribute to addressing public problems, the differences between the social sciences and the natural sciences and engineering in this regard, and the limits to the ways in which social science can contribute given how it is organized and incentivized. Riecken concludes with an extremely prescient analysis of the ethical dimensions of certain kinds of social science work, specifically social experimentation and the collection and use of what we now call “big data.”