In her response to Kenneth Prewitt’s piece "Can Social Science Matter?,” Lisa Anderson traces the historical relationship of social science to the modern state. As the state’s role in promoting the well-being of citizens becomes increasingly challenged, to what, or to whom, social science is now accountable similarly grows ambiguous, even as calls for its accountability grow.
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.
Thomas Schwandt takes up Kenneth Prewitt’s framework of narratives, metrics, and use for addressing accountability issues for the social sciences. Schwandt argues that accountability needs to be imagined within a “dialogical space” that joins social scientists with policymakers, funders, and the public in an exchange about the values and purposes of research, rather than a one-way flow of communication from knowledge producer to user.
A new essay by Richard Arum and Eleanor Blair, and responses from Lisa Anderson and Thomas Schwandt to Kenneth Prewitt’s inaugural Items essay, engage in different ways with the social responsibility of higher education. Here, we republish a 1993 essay from our archives by then-president David Featherman about role of higher education as it was being debated in the early post–Cold War era. There are more than a few echoes of today’s debates in Featherman’s account, which engages with questions of internationalization, scholarly collaboration, and student learning in a globalized context.
Kenneth Prewitt, former SSRC president, traces the history of the debates on the accountability of American social science to those who fund and use it. As demands for accountability are currently on the rise, and as expectations for its demonstration grow, Prewitt outlines key dimensions of a strategy for maintaining the autonomy of social science research and using the insights of social science to better understand its own impact.