As we launch our series “Reading Racial Conflict,” we republish this archival piece by the late Manning Marable. Based on a talk given at the Council in 1995, Marable provides a sweeping overview of the changing nature of black studies, understandings of race, and the social context within which these debates are taking place. Paraphrasing Du Bois’s famous comment about the “color line” being the definitive problem of the twentieth century, Marable writes (quite presciently): “the problem of the twenty-first century is the challenge of ‘multicultural democracy.’”
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This 1976 piece from our archives connects to both our "What is Inequality?" series and a new essay on social science in Africa by Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o. Written by economic historian Sara S. Berry, it reflects on the debates and recommendations made during a September 1975 seminar on inequality in Africa. Berry reports on attempts to communicate across mainstream and Marxist approaches as well as differences in methodology and between objective and subjective approaches to understanding inequality in colonial and postcolonial Africa.
This 1971 archival piece by David Landes and Charles Tilly engages with some of the same issues our “Interdisciplinarity Now” series tackles, especially the history-sociology connection explored in the essay by Steinmetz. The authors report on the results of a survey of historians, which was part of a broader study of social and behavioral scientists undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, and the SSRC. Landes and Tilly discuss the obstacles to and the scholarly possibilities for historical research conducted in a social science framework, and make recommendations on how that collaboration would benefit the broader field of history, as well as social science disciplines.
In 1997, as the SSRC moved to more purposefully develop research collaborations across world regions, Arjun Appadurai contributed an influential Items essay that called for critical reflection on the concept of “research” itself as it emerged out of the evolution of scientific and intellectual thought in the West. In a piece relevant to our series on “Interdisciplinarity Now,” and especially to the essays by Kennedy and Engerman, Appadurai challenges US social scientists to be self-conscious about the criteria they use to identify “new knowledge” produced by the ethics and procedures of American scholarship. Doing so would generate deeper (more mutual) and better research collaborations with colleagues outside the West.
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.
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 this essay on interdisciplinarity from our archives, Diana Rhoten, then an SSRC program director, reports on the results of a project on collaborative practices in six interdisciplinary research centers. Focusing on identifying the enabling conditions for such collaboration, this National Science Foundation–supported study found that the main constraints on interdisciplinary research were neither funding nor the motivations of scholars. Rather, universities struggled in systematically establishing structures and processes that would allow centers to foster collaboration across disciplines in deep and sustainable, rather than cosmetic, ways.
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.”
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.