In times of economic and political distress, the social sciences must become more relevant and useful by devoting their attention to society’s major problems. Such calls to reform are already surfacing, accompanied by mini–social movements inside the disciplines: Sociologists have called for public sociology, anthropologists for public ethnography, political scientists for “perestroika,” and economists for a heterodox economics.
In the past, these movements have eventually disappeared or been marginalized by the academic social scientists who rule the disciplinary roosts. Since distressing times could continue for a while, however, publicly minded social scientists should come together and transcend their disciplinary differences to pursue the interests they have in common. Then they must begin to bring about the intellectual and infrastructural changes needed to establish public social science disciplines.
The differences between academic and public social science are significant. Academics undertake “basic” research, in which theories, concepts, and methods are often more important than research subjects, and the subjects are those long under investigation in the researcher’s field. When they do study subjects concerning the public, they look for general, universal, and even timeless patterns. Basic research aims to contribute primarily to the discipline’s “literature,” and because academics write mainly for their colleagues, they can employ a technical language.
Public social scientists seek to analyze subjects of current public concern or controversy and to contribute ideas and research findings for the solution of present and long-term societal problems. They try to write in a nontechnical English that can reach at least the college-educated laity.
But today as in the past, academics control their disciplines. They run the influential university departments and the professional organizations that speak for the discipline; they edit the flagship journals, write many of the major texts, and plan the training of graduate students.
Some academic researchers reject public social science as insufficiently scholarly or of low quality. Aiming to be objective, they avoid research that involves them in political and policy-based controversy. I oversimplify, but academic researchers aspire to be social scientists, while public researchers seek to be social scientists.
Enabling public social science to establish a permanent foothold and then an equal status in every discipline will not be easy. Change is needed in at least four areas: in university departments; in university administrations; in the disciplines themselves; and in the government agencies and foundations that fund most social science research.
Every discipline should eventually include academic and public branches. Although all graduate students should initially receive the same basic training in the fundamental ideas of their discipline, as well as instruction in theorizing and empirical research methods, those choosing to work in the public branch of their discipline should also be trained to do empirical and theoretical research on currently important subjects, issues, and societal problems.
To truly engage with these problems, such students will need research practice in the world beyond the textbook and outside the campus. I would have them do field research in offices and on factory floors; in political-party headquarters and lobbyists’ suites; among corporate executives and Wall Street bankers.
Students in the public branch of the discipline ought to take at least one course together with investigative and analytic journalists. These can help the social science students to be topical and relevant as well as to communicate in nontechnical English. In exchange, the social scientists can help the journalists further their research methods and analytic skills.
The division between academic and public social scientists should not become too sharp, for some will want to do both kinds of research. Moreover, both must adhere to the same intellectual standards and acquire the same intellectual skills. Public social scientists cannot get along without abstract thought and detached analysis. Conversely, academic social scientists need to know enough about the subjects and problems studied by their public colleagues to be able to theorize about the “real world.”
Universities must support faculty and student initiatives to establish public social science branches. Generous budgets will initially be necessary to protect these newcomer programs against likely attacks from more traditional academics. Most important, university administrators must use their clout to bring about the rule and procedural changes to enable public social science to flourish.
PhD exam and dissertation requirements must enable aspiring public social scientists to graduate alongside their more traditional peers. Promotion and tenure rules have to be amended so that professors teaching in the public social sciences can publish research papers as policy reports or in general magazines (and their digital equivalents). These publications must count in measuring productivity just like academic journal articles. Researchers will not be penalized if they fail to publish in refereed academic journals, or if their book-length work is published by trade presses that can reach the lay public rather than as university press monographs.
Professional schools should be major players in establishing public branches in the social science disciplines, as their social science teaching and research are public almost by definition. Administrators will, however, have to finance these players with hard money so that they have time to write something other than a steady stream of grant proposals. They will also need to find ways to raise the status of the professional schools, particularly vis-à-vis the liberal arts faculties, which still too often look down on schools other than those of law and medicine.
In the end, university administrations should be eager to support the growth of public social science research. Not only will it be funded more often and more generously than most academic research, but the publications and other activities by public social scientists are also more likely to produce the publicity that brings recognition and status to their universities.
The equalization of professional and public research must also occur in disciplinary associations, and public social scientists must be given their share of decision-making power in annual meetings, the election of officers, the awarding of prizes, the publications of disciplinary journals, lobbying agendas, as well as other activities. The purpose of each discipline must be broadened so that being relevant and useful to the larger society becomes as significant as adding to the discipline’s storehouse of knowledge.
Funders may ultimately be the major players in establishing public social sciences as disciplinary branches, as federal agencies and private foundations have considerable influence on what disciplines study. Many of the standard funders are already interested in currently important subjects, major issues, and current social problems. If they can learn to live with occasionally controversial projects and findings and can be protected from political pressures and other damaging fallout, many funders are likely to welcome an increase in public social science research.
However, public social science must be independent as well. Its researchers need the same freedom of research now enjoyed by academic social scientists, and it cannot simply become a research arm of government agencies or private foundations. Funders will have to commit themselves to letting public social scientists determine what they think society needs to know. The researchers may also need help in protecting themselves from pressures by economic and political power holders, but at the same time, they will have to resist the temptation to pander to commercial largesse and popular but inaccurate beliefs.
In the long run, public social science can succeed only if it can find and create constituencies. It must be relevant enough to attract both sufficient practitioners who can use its ideas and findings and a large enough lay audience who will turn to it to learn. If public social science can raise public understanding of how the world works, it might even help to make that world a better place to live.
Herbert J. Gans is professor emeritus of sociology at Columbia University.
Originally published January 14, 2011