Saturday, February 16, 2008

Social science and social problems


Several of the interviews that I’ve conducted in recent weeks have agreed on an important point: that the social sciences ought to be directed towards addressing important social problems, and that the research agenda for social science ought to be influenced or shaped by the constituencies in society who are most affected by these social problems. At bottom – the social sciences ought to be engaged in a serious way in improving the quality of life for the people of the globe. They can best do this, it would seem, by discovering some of the causes of persistent social problems and providing a sound basis for designing policies that have a chance of ameliorating them. And they can focus their research agendas by working closely with practitioners and the ordinary people who experience these social problems.

What is the reality, however? To what extent do the social sciences conform to this ideal? As David Featherman expresses in his interview, the social sciences in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s took a turn away from goals of social engagement and problem solving, and they really haven’t yet turned back. Instead, the major social science disciplines took on the model of disinterested, academic theory formation. The natural sciences provided the role model, and the driving goals were quantifiability, theoretical parsimony, and formalizability. “Applied” research was devalued.

Re-establishing the connection between social science and social problems should be a high priority for all of us -- social scientists and citizens alike. The social problems we face are crucially important, they are intractable, and they are often trending in the wrong direction. Consider this partial list of particularly pressing problems facing our society and the world.
  • United States
    • Endemic urban poverty
    • Racial segregation
    • Urban decline and despair
    • Rising inequalities of income, wealth, and quality of life
    • Lack of universal provision of health services
    • Rising social cost of health care
    • Failing delivery of education for children and adolescents
  • International --
  • deepening poverty in many countries
  • deepening inequalities of wealth, income, and quality of life
  • Violence against individuals and groups
    • Ethnic violence
    • Genocide
    • Crime
    • Thuggery
    • Oppressive states
  • Oppression of women and girls
  • Global environmental crisis
    • Climate change
    • Resource exhaustion
    • Environment degradation
  • Political regimes
    • Persistent authoritarian regimes
    • Imperfect democracies
    • Corruption
    • Inadequate systemic response to disaster

These are all problems with massive consequences for human wellbeing. Each of them is itself the manifestation of complex social and behavioral forces. And solutions will require the artful design of new institutions and new ways of coordinating social behavior. In short -- these are problems that are much more challenging, intellectually and practically, than decoding the human genome or controlling a nuclear reactor or putting a human on Mars. The best efforts of talented and committed researchers will be needed in order to understand and change these conditions.

Fortunately, there are some signs that mainstream social scientists are beginning to turn their gaze back in the direction of concrete social problems. There is significant, sustained work going on in sociology and political science on the topics of poverty, inequality, racial segregation, and social disaffection, and this work is taking on some of the urgency and relevance that was displayed in the research of the Chicago school of sociology seventy-five years ago. The Center for Advancing Research and Social Solutions at the University of Michigan is an example of a group of researchers coming together with a commitment to bringing social science research to bear on social problems. (See the Featherman interview for a description of CARSS.) A recent symposium published in The Yard, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences magazine, features a group of Harvard social scientists under the heading, “The New Social Science,” and the discussion focuses almost entirely on these social problems and some of the methods that can be used to address them. Featured in the article are Edward Glaeser, William Julius Wilson, Mary Waters, Claudia Gay, David Cutler, and Robert Putnam. (Unfortunately this publication doesn’t have a web presence.) It is very good to see research at this level of empirical detail and practical focus coming into the spotlight.

There seem to be two large meta-goals that the social sciences should have in confronting social problems. One is the problem of understanding these problems in detail – both the empirical details of how the problem is distributed and evolving, and the causal issue of discovering some of the factors that produce and reproduce the problem. What are the trends in urban and suburban social evolution? Why is urban poverty so intractable over multiple generations? Why have urban schools been unsuccessful in providing a high-quality education to all the children that they serve?

The second large meta-goal for the social sciences is to be able to provide a basis for policies and interventions that have a meaningful probability of solving the problems that we care about. Policies should be driven by the best possible understanding of the social and behavioral dynamics of the problems they are designed to address. And the social sciences should endeavor to provide sober assessments of the likely consequences of various proposed policies.

But nothing is simple in social life – and it is clear enough that there are complex interactive causal processes at work in the creation and sustenance of most social problems. The scope of prediction in the social sciences is limited, and this means that it is rarely possible to provide a categorical prescription such as this: “do this, and such-and-so will result.” Instead, the social sciences are perhaps most useful when they help to identify some of the behavioral complexities that might turn into “unforeseen consequences” – and thereby help to design policies that are more fault-tolerant.

None of this is simple. But there is no doubt that our society needs the knowledge and methods that the social sciences can provide, if we are to have a good chance of solving the problems we face. And this means that the social sciences need to take on the task of practical engagement with seriousness and commitment.