Ahead of the 2004 presidential election, the SSRC convened the National Research Commission on Elections and Voting after being approached by social scientists and election observers concerned about the lack of a resource for nonpartisan scholarship on electoral process controversies in the United States. The Commission published its final report in March 2005 highlighting ten key topics in need of continuing social science research, many of which remain relevant in 2020.
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Bringing the State Back In: A Report on Current Comparative Research on the Relationship between States and Social Structuresby Items Editors
In the early 1980s historical and comparative studies began reassessing the importance of “the state.” This 1982 article by Theda Skocpol examines the trajectory of “the state” in social scientific analysis, documenting the shift from society-centered approaches to politics and government research to a focus on the state as both actor and organizational structure. This report would lay the groundwork for the SSRC’s Committee on States and Social Structures (1983–1990), which would further explore the role of the state in different settings and across a range of social, cultural, political, and economic processes.
Adapted from the introduction to Power, Culture, and Place, this article published in 1988 examines the importance of New York City as a site of social science research. John H. Mollenkopf, a member of the Council’s Committee on New York City (1985–1991), explains how, at the time, social science research despatialized its investigations with the aim of obtaining generalizable results; however, the interactions of power, culture, and economics do not happen in a vacuum. To better understand these and other social dynamics and relations, Mollenkopf argues for centering urban spaces, in particular New York City which has a rich social history and remains a key point in the flows of people, trade, and culture.
In November 1970, the SSRC’s Joint Committee on African Studies convened its second conference on the study of urbanization in African countries. This conference focused primarily on the relationship between marketplaces and other economic centers with urban settlements, both large and small. Here, committee member Walter W. Deshler reports on the papers presented, which looked at a range of approaches to understanding urbanization in multiple settings, including Sierra Leone, Kenya, and southern Africa. After assessing the extant research on this topic, Deshler explains the committee saw a need for more attention to urban questions in eastern and western Africa, as well as research that focused on the social processes and social structures that produce urbanization.
In the late 1950s the SSRC convened the Committee on Urbanization to assess the state of urban studies, gathering social scientists from a wide range of disciplines. In reviewing literature of that time, the committee focused on four broad topics that required further scholarly attention: the relationship between metropolis and region; urban morphology and functions; the process of urbanization; and the consequences of urbanism. Among the committee’s conclusions were encouraging more comparative historical work on urbanization and the expansion of urbanization studies in the Global South.
In late February 2020 anti-Muslim riots broke out in New Delhi, India, the most recent instance of violence against Muslims in the country. To provide some historical context for this incident, as well as the recent passing of a controversial amendment to India’s citizenship law, Ashutosh Varshney’s 2002 essay on the Gujarat riots provides insight into Hindu-Muslim violence. Written soon after the March–April 2002 violence, Varshney recounts the known facts at the time, arguing that the events should be considered a pogrom. However, Varshney goes on to complicate the narrative surrounding interreligious violence, highlighting research showing that, in communities where Hindus and Muslims live more interconnected lives, violence is less likely to occur.
The SSRC’s Committee on New York City (1985–1991) aimed to study the social, cultural, political, and economic interactions that happen in urban settings, as well as how these intersections then reverberate beyond it. In this 1986 report, Ira Katznelson explains the Committee’s goals and key themes. He discusses how focusing on New York City would provide an ideal place through which to study different urban dynamics through a range of disciplines. Through its three working groups —The Built Environment, The Dual City, and Metropolitan Dominance—the Committee sought to investigate how cultural, economic, and political forces shape New York City and society at large, from the nineteenth through twentieth centuries.
The SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics was committed to furthering attention to language, and linguistic difference, as an “unexploited kind of sociological data” in ethnographic and survey research. The committee convened a conference in 1968 to better understand the intersection of social and linguistic factors, summarized here by Allen D. Grimshaw. The group focused on four topics: the ethnography of asking questions; the meaning of words; the ways in which interviews themselves are “a part of the data” and “don’t know” responses are revealing answers to questions; and improving scholars’ training in framing questions and eliciting answers related to language and communication.
In the early 1950s, the nascent political science subfield of comparative politics wrestled with questions of method and whether to approach comparing nation-states via abstract concepts or a problem-oriented focus. To begin addressing these concerns, the SSRC convened an interuniversity research seminar in which political scientists began to create a framework for the field that ultimately led to the formation of the Committee on Comparative Politics. Roy Macridis, in this report, summarizes the seminar’s discussion, which included the relative merits of area studies approaches to more abstract theorizing. The conversation clearly tilted toward starting with conceptual schemes independent of context, and so exemplifies the impact of behavioralism that Michael Desch illustrates in his Items essay.
As SSRC launches MediaWell—our online platform to track and distill research on disinformation, online politics, election interference, and emerging collisions between media and democracy—Items is revisiting this 1980 report on the SSRC’s Committee on Mass Communication and Political Behavior. Focusing on the impact of news media on the 1976 presidential election, Thomas Patterson highlighted the shift in news coverage from candidates’ policy platforms to candidates’ gaffes and campaign issues and how this has affected voters’ grasp of electoral issues. Patterson concludes that stronger parties are needed to provide voters with policy information.