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.
From Our Archives
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.
Twenty years before the Council began its Cuba work, Louis Goodman contributed a piece to Items that survey the state of the social sciences in Cuba in the 1970s. From our archive, we republish Goodman’s article here alongside the new contribution from Hershberg and Katz.
In recognition of the twentieth anniversary of Open the Social Sciences, Items republishes Immanuel Wallerstein’s essay from 1996 that summarized that report’s key findings. Wallerstein, who chaired the commission that produced Open the Social Sciences, reflects on the nineteenth century origins of the social science disciplines, their historically contingent nature, and the need to transcend the ways in which they divide the production of social knowledge.
In this brief 1986 essay from the Items archive, David L. Sills, SSRC (and Items) editor from 1973 to 1989, examines the Council’s historical role as a source of the term “interdisciplinary.” Digging into Council records and correspondence, he finds much evidence of debates on interdisciplinarity as a concept, but not (yet) the term itself.