The social sciences, like the physical or biological sciences, are intellectual subjects, directed primarily toward understanding, rather than action. It would of course be a curious kind of “understanding” that had no implications for action, and this is perhaps especially true for the social sciences. Nevertheless, there is a difference between enlarging one’s understanding of human behavior and society on the one hand and trying to solve a social problem on the other. The social sciences are distinct from social problem solving, but each can contribute to the other.

During the last few years there has been a significant change in popular attitudes and expectations in the United States regarding social change and social problems. A renewed determination to ameliorate certain long-standing, as well as recently developed, ills of the society has arisen along with a sense of power and confidence in its ability to do so.

In looking for ways in which to implement this desire for self-control, for directed rather than accidental improvement, a good many leaders of society have begun to turn, increasingly expectant, to the social sciences. Some have asked what the social sciences can contribute to the venture. Others have assumed that these sciences have a great deal to contribute to a better society and that they need only to be force-fed (the recommended diet varies from prescriber to prescriber) in order to grow faster and to make their contribution larger.

The social sciences do have a contribution to make to social practice, but not so large a contribution as they will make if helped to develop properly. At this point in history, the magnitude of major social problems exceeds the capacity of social scientists to solve them.

Such expectations have been entertained before. In the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first decade or so of the twentieth, social scientists of the day offered advice to the progressive political and social movements of the times. As David Truman has pointed out, these political scientists and sociologists operated not only from a weak position in the political structure, but also with an almost total lack of theoretical sophistication, quite nonrigorous methods, and few facts about the systems on which they were advising.1 David B. Truman, “The Social Sciences and Public Policy: Maturity Brings Problems of Relevance and Training,” Science, 160: 508-512, May 8, 1968. They were intellectually premature and too ready to claim relevance. Their efforts fell far short of expectations, both their own and expectations of those who, from outside the disciplines, had called upon them.

Social scientists had another try during the early years of the New Deal when economists especially, but sociologists and political scientists too, were invited into government and other institutions to develop programs, plans, and social devices for dealing with the Great Depression. The novel thinking of agricultural economists and the resultant development of institutions for what was then known as “farm relief” were considerably more successful than the efforts of the social reformers of the early 1900s had been.

“Will social scientists succeed better this time in living up to the expectations that face them?”

One reason for the relatively greater success of the applied economics of the New Deal was that there had been developing in the United States a considerable sophistication in economics as a discipline, together with a good empirical base of data that had been accumulated over the prior decades. In comparison with today’s data base, that of the 1930s was poor and small; but it was a vast improvement over the virtual data vacuum of 1900. Another reason for the relative success was probably the degree of desperation that gripped the country and led to a willingness to try the somewhat radical measures that were proposed by economists; partly because people were willing to try the measures, they were successful. Still another opportunity for the social sciences came during World War II when psychologists and anthropologists especially made significant contributions to the prosecution of the war and the government of occupied territories.

Social scientists are currently being offered a fourth opportunity to display what they have to offer toward the solution of what is now a fairly well-standardized, if incomplete, list of problems: poverty, racial segregation and discrimination, urban decay and the strangulation of transportation, human and mechanical pollution of the environment, and a perceived increase in the incidence of crimes of violence. Will social scientists succeed better this time in living up to the expectations that face them? What can and should be done to make possible greater success?

There are several purely scientific difficulties in applying social science successfully to the solution of social problems. Limitations of space prevent their adequate discussion here.2 These issues are taken up in the longer article in Social Science Information cited below. Their importance is such that they must at least be mentioned, however, and they require persistent scientific effort in order to improve the capacity of the social science disciplines to cope with social problems. There are three major scientific issues: so-called “Hawthorne effects” or changes in behavior which result from the fact that individuals are subjects in an experimental study; the inadequacies of existing data about social problems and individual behavior and the defects of indirect data; and finally the manipulability of social factors that are variables in social scientific analyses of problems. These are difficult scientific problems, but not impossible of solution. Furthermore, much headway can be made in applying social science without fully solving them.

“Much headway can be made in applying social science without fully solving such problems.”

Over the decades in the social sciences, the tendency has been to develop internal concerns, to define their own problems and not to accept, as their subject matter, the social problems of the contemporary and surrounding society. This tendency is attributable to forces intrinsic to the disciplines themselves, especially to conceptual redefinition of problems and to methodological or technical developments. A social scientist who undertakes to work on a practical problem, not as a wise man or a clever consultant, but as a scientist, quickly finds that the popular, or commonsense, statement of the problem is either incomplete or misleading; that “the” problem is really many problems, only some of which fall within the disciplinary or scientific scope; and that there are severe inadequacies in the methodological or technical equipment that he has for dealing with “the” practical problem. Sometimes the scientist examines the “real world” because some part of it has solved a problem and the scientist wants to know how the solution works. After he understands how it works he can sometimes improve upon the solution, but the basic movement of his thought is always away from the practical and toward abstract knowledge.

The social scientist gets driven back to more fundamental questions that bear less and less resemblance to the practical problem until they appear to be irrelevant; furthermore, some of the more fundamental questions raised in this way take on a life of their own and become genuinely dissociated from practical problems. They form, instead, the central conceptual or methodological core of the science as such. Thus, over a period of time, a social science can grow more abstract and become increasingly concerned with questions that confront it as an intellectual enterprise per se and that require solutions whether or not they bear upon the social problems of the day.

If these intrinsic intellectual forces were the only ones at work, a discipline would gradually lose all relevance. However, exogenous factors also have some influence. For example, some people become social scientists who have a genuine interest in solving social problems and retain it despite the professionalizing experiences of graduate study. Market forces are also effective, especially grants from both private foundations and government agencies to support applied social research.

The opportunity for a career in an applied field of social science is a market factor of importance. The very existence of professional economic consulting firms as private, nonacademic enterprises holds out the possibility of a career outside the academic world, and may tempt a young man who finds practical affairs more challenging than the intellectual world. The development of clinical psychology was greatly aided by the demands of the Veterans Administration directly after World War II for diagnostic and therapeutic help at its hospitals and clinics.

Another factor of importance is prestige. The social sciences are primarily academic enterprises, more so than either the biological or physical sciences, and the academic portion of the discipline is not only overwhelmingly larger than other sectors but also overpoweringly more prestigious. The physical and the biological sciences, on the other hand, have substantial nonacademic sectors that are intellectually and scientifically influential, as well as of great and evident practical importance.

“The prestige which most social scientists attach to academic social science may or may not be justified but it is a fact.”

The prestige which most social scientists attach to academic social science may or may not be justified but it is a fact. The low status of applied work is probably undeserved, but it too is a fact, and one that may discourage some first-rate scholars who are status conscious from entering early upon a career in applied social science. The origins of this low status lie partly in the earlier relative failures of social scientists to deal adequately and successfully with social problems. Even where applied social research has developed and has attracted competent people, it still has been applied research rather than what is called “development” (in the Research and Development sense) or “engineering.”

Most applied social research has been concentrated on the analysis of situations explaining or accounting for a given state of affairs; or the measurement of outcomes—and the degree of success of some action in reaching a stated objective. There has been less attention to preparing new means for taking action or recommending how a user should proceed in order to achieve success.

The production of recommendations for action goes beyond research and indeed beyond science, into what is properly termed “development” rather than “research,” or “engineering” rather than “science.” The distinction is more than verbal—it is a whole complex: a state of mind, institutional auspices, cross-disciplinary relations, communication with nonscientists, and employment of nonscientific resources and nonscientific skills.

“Development” or “engineering” calls primarily for an inventive and constructive attitude, more than an analytic and differentiating one. The scientist is usually trying to unscramble a given complex situation to see how its components work. An engineer is usually trying to put together a device or a process to achieve a given purpose. The scientific process is analytic; the engineering process is synthetic. The scientist’s creativity is conceptual, in producing imaginative new principles or connections between concepts. An engineer’s creativity is in tangible inventions of things or processes that have a causative or productive relationship to a desired end.

Except in very limited and spotty areas, social development or social engineering does not exist. Examples of social engineering can be found in economics in the development of fiscal and monetary policies, and in psychology in new forms of psychotherapy (especially behavior therapy), programmed instruction, human relations training, the training of managers, and the social organization of production units in firms.

Organizational influences

The development of an applied social science or a social engineering may proceed faster through professional schools (especially business and medicine) than through disciplinary departments in universities. The academically based research and teaching unit in the social sciences is affected by forces that hinder this sort of development. Some are organizational, some scientific; some derive from the institutional arrangements for the conduct of research in the social sciences. Most research is done in academic settings by part-time or short-term workers, i.e., by professors and graduate students.

The former have teaching and administrative responsibilities that take up part of their time, the latter have a primary short-term interest in completing a dissertation and getting on in the world. The former work part time on a research problem, the latter leave it for other places or other problems after a relatively short time. Thus, many social science research problems are “thesis-sized” because they are selected for that reason.

This tendency is abetted by the current system of project grants which tends to emphasize short-term investigation of discrete problems rather than long-term, exploratory and persistent pursuit of a problem, a phenomenon, or a method. The absence of a tradition of long-term research careers on a full-time basis, the inflexibility of space that makes it hard to expand and contract the size of a long-term project as such changes become necessary, the varying requirements for skilled labor in interviewing and data processing (currently eased by computer applications), all contribute to sporadic interest, easy discouragement, and lack of persistence.

“Advances in social science seem more likely to occur in settings that are relatively free of the pressures to devise immediate solutions.”

On the other hand, the real basic advances in social science seem more likely to occur in settings—such as disciplinary departments—that are relatively free of the pressures to devise immediate solutions, to work with client systems, and to attend to the range of extra-scientific considerations that are involved in solving social problems. A convincing argument can be made that the most pressing needs of social science are methodological and that the greatest opportunities for strengthening the social sciences lie in improving methods of research and developing more powerful theories. Indeed, a considerable amount of the advance in social science that has taken place in the last few decades has come about through basic research of this sort, conducted in disciplinary departments.

Thus conventional disciplinary departments and institutes that are genuinely embedded in universities can be counted on to provide the social scientific underpinning for solving social problems, but should not be counted on for the actual problem-oriented work itself.

The latter task should be the responsibility of institutions that have less formidable intellectual responsibilities, and are free of the primary educational obligation. Furthermore, applied social research institutions ought to have some closer firsthand contact with social problems and the agencies that can take effective action on the problems.

Requirements for social science contributions to social problems

Where then should the responsibility for social science contributions to the solution of social problems be located? The phrasing of the question suggests part of the answer for, in the first place, a social problem rarely bears a one-to-one correspondence to social science, and almost never bears such a correspondence to any single social science discipline. All social problems are interdisciplinary in the sense that they require, for adequate solution, the efforts of more than one kind of scientist and usually of more than just scientists or engineers. Hence, the first requirement of an applied social research agency is that its professional personnel be drawn from a variety of disciplines (both within and outside the social sciences).

A second requirement, much harder to achieve, is that the assembled members of these disciplines be able to work together productively and effectively. This requirement demands first-rate scholars, not only curious about the problem at hand but also inquisitive about each other’s fields and capable of learning from each other. Willingness to listen and curiosity are more important than anything else, since transfer of training among social scientists is entirely possible, and it may even help in the solution of, say, a psychological problem if an anthropologist without any particular training in psychology gets to thinking about it.

A third requirement is that the team has full opportunity to perform its functions of engineering and development. This requires certain kinds of facilities: buildings and computers—especially adequate “software” to go with the computing machinery and all the programming and other technical help that can be provided. One of the most useful techniques in social engineering is the simulation of the social processes that are believed to underlie the social problem. In many cases these simulations will have to substitute for experimentation because of the size or other intractable features of the problem.

A fourth requirement is long-term funding commensurate with the size of the social problem. It is a commonplace of American politics that social problems must be solved quickly. We are abjured to waste no more time in eliminating segregation, discrimination, poverty, crime, and unemployment. But while sense of crisis may impel movement, a lot of it is waste motion. We are too impetuous and not persistent enough in trying to solve social problems. Problems need sustained study, trials of many different kinds of solution rather than one-shot panaceas arranged overnight by agencies that are funded on an annual basis and publicly criticized for lack of instant success.

Problems in utilization of social science

One of the most interesting points about social science contributions to the solution of social problems is that the process of introducing the changes necessary to solve the problem is in itself a problem in social science.

Before introducing changes into a quasi-stationary situation, the decision maker must consider a number of factors that affect the chances of success. First, he must consider the acceptability of his proposals to all the people involved in the situation; and the harm, damage, or deprivation that some of them may experience. Next, he must assess the effectiveness of the methods he expects to use to attract the attention and arouse willingness to explore, and the capacity he has to teach people new ways of behaving. Finally, he must try to adjust the incentive and inhibitory factors in the situation so as to stabilize the new equilibrium and maintain the change he aims to bring about. Almost all of these problems exist in one form or another in utilization of the products of biological and physical sciences, too. But these sciences have not only an engineering or developmental branch that puts their ideas into usable form, but also a marketing mechanism—a set of activities and relationships that handles these problems or is so constituted that it can afford to ignore some of them.

On the whole, the marketing mechanisms for social inventions and devices do not parallel those for physical and biological technology. There are at least three reasons for this. In the first place, until recently, there have been few social inventions or devices that could not be marketed or disseminated either through existing political mechanisms in the public sector, or through publication, or through the establishment of a professional group such as clinical psychologists. It may be that marketing mechanisms will spring up in response to the appearance of new items to be marketed.

For example, there are profit-making companies which now seem to be interested in developing and selling, as well as installing, new curricular materials and instructional procedures in the schools; and industrial firms have contracted to operate schemes for the alleviation of poverty—usually through retraining of the unskilled or underskilled. This trend has yet to be evaluated, but it could alter profoundly the nature of the process of social change. Secondly, there is difficulty in protecting property rights in intangible social technology. If the product is an idea, an attitude, a routine, it is hard to copyright and generally impossible to patent. The absence of protection of exclusive rights makes the prospect of investing in a marketing organization less attractive to an entrepreneur. Thirdly, much of the technological product of the social sciences has to do with the public rather than with the private sector of the economy, and is valuable for its distributive effect on the total society rather than for its enhancement of the quality of life of one individual at a time. Add to this the fact that a good many social inventions cannot be assigned a unit value, and one can see that the marketing mechanism must be the state in some form, rather than private enterprise.

Public policy issues in the application of social science

Some questions of public policy are raised by research and development activities in the social sciences. For example, what should be the public policy toward deliberate social experimentation, especially toward concealed experiments, in which the subjects are not aware that they are involved in an experiment? There are scientific reasons for concealment but the public policy problem is whether the probable gains from conducting such an experiment outweigh the ethical undesirability of acting in a less than open fashion. There is something repugnant about concealment of purpose, even when the motives for it are disinterested and no one is harmed. There is something upsetting about discovering that what one thought was a real and natural flow of events was instead a carefully contrived sequence of moves deliberately planned to accomplish a preconceived purpose.

“Perhaps the more significant public policy question is: Who shall make the judgment?”

The benefits to the general public welfare have to be balanced against these possible disadvantages. If experimental purpose must be concealed in order to obtain valid knowledge that will lead to improved social policies at a relatively low cost, not only in money but in mistakes and discomforts visited upon citizens, then the undesirable features of a concealed experiment may be outweighed by its advantages. The judgment cannot be made a priori for all cases; it must depend in each instance on the estimated costs and the anticipated benefits. Perhaps the more significant public policy question is: Who shall make the judgment?

On a more general level, one may raise questions in terms of a conflict between two values: the advancement of knowledge, and the personal integrity and convenience of the individual citizen. Nowhere does this conflict become more explicit than in questions concerning invasion of individual privacy, especially in regard to the collection of detailed data about individuals and their maintenance in files that are presumably to be used for research purposes.

The issues here turn around safeguards as to how the data will be used, and in how much detail the data will be kept. Briefly summarized, what has been proposed is that certain kinds of data which are now regularly collected by various agencies (central and local authorities and perhaps private agencies, too), but kept in separate files and published only in aggregated forms be made available for research purposes on a disaggregated basis.

More specifically it is proposed that data about individuals such as employment, income, savings, or expenditures be collected and stored in such a way that it would be possible to match the information from these separate series, by individuals. The anonymity of the individual and the confidentiality of the information would presumably be maintained as they are now. The data system would be used for research purposes, not for administrative ones.

“The question really turns around one’s estimate of the likelihood of ‘big brotherism’—of a controlling government and a controlled society.”

Whether the very existence of a national data system would tempt those with legitimate access to make illegitimate use of the data is a much more serious question, going well beyond the data system per se. The question really turns around one’s estimate of the likelihood of “big brotherism”—of a controlling government and a controlled society, and of the role the social sciences might play in bringing about such a situation or maintaining it. As our society grows in density of population, in interdependence, in complexity and technological sophistication, the need for rational planning and for the thoughtful and foresighted management of our affairs grows apace. And so does the need for vigilance in the defense of individual liberty, since there is always, as there always has been, the tempting possibility for those in power to “simplify” their problems by wielding their power in ways that constrict freedom and constrain the less powerful.

There is no reason, however, to see the social sciences as more culpable or more threatening than other kinds of science and technological development. The power of the state is increased by the development of sophisticated weapons for its police, more efficient communication among them, and by devices that enable eavesdropping at a distance and through a wall. There are dangers in pharmacological control of behavior. Individual freedom can be abridged by the architecture of our dwellings and the design of our transportation, as well as by the laws which govern minimum wages, welfare payments, and income tax exemptions.

In fact, the social sciences can help to make us aware of threats to our freedom while giving us greater power to control our own behavior in constructive ways, helping us to be more tolerant of diversity, to learn to live together in greater harmony, less violently and more satisfyingly. If we are to reap these benefits, however, we must work at understanding ourselves and our society, at perfecting a social science that is capable of meeting the challenges of our future.

This article is excerpted from a longer piece by Henry W. Riecken, published in the February 1969 issue of Social Science Information. It is based on the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Lectures delivered at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in February 1968. The subject was discussed by the Council’s board of directors at its meeting in March 1968, and had the continuing attention of its Committee on Problems and Policy.3The Committee on Problems and Policy is the Council’s central planning body and was formed in 1925. The committee is a group of elected scholars who review the working committees that carry out the Council’s programs.


Henry W. Riecken (1917–2012) was an eminent social scientist who served as president of the Social Science Research Council between 1966 and 1971. He was also the first director of the National Science Foundation’s social science division. He also served on the faculties of Harvard University, University of Minnesota, and University of Pennsylvania.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 23, Issue 1 in the spring of 1969. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

References   [ + ]

1. David B. Truman, “The Social Sciences and Public Policy: Maturity Brings Problems of Relevance and Training,” Science, 160: 508-512, May 8, 1968.
2. These issues are taken up in the longer article in Social Science Information cited below.
3. The Committee on Problems and Policy is the Council’s central planning body and was formed in 1925. The committee is a group of elected scholars who review the working committees that carry out the Council’s programs.
Posted on July 5, 2016