Sunday, July 29, 2007

Social science and the public

Fabio Rojas, a Sociologist at discusses why does sociology have such a bad reputation?  I believe these sort of concerns apply, perhaps to different degrees, to the disarray of disciplines we now call social science:

"I am always shocked at our profession’s poor public image. Basically, the educated public barely knows that sociology is actually a real social science, and among those that do, sociology has a fluffy image. (...)  This is frustrating because we study important questions and we actually come up with some good answers. So here are some hypotheses about why we have such poor PR:

  1. Politics: As a group, we simply are too far from the average person in political outlook. People write us off as kooks.
  2. Great Books: At the undergraduate level, we teach too much from old, musty texts. It gives the impression that sociology is like English lit class - a tedious exercise in decoding the writings of dead guys. Not real science.
  3. No science: Although sociology is taught as an empirical social science at the graduate level, many undergraduates don’t get this at all. We should turn intro soc into a version of intro econ (core theories + exercises in analytical reasoning).
  4. We hate math: I’m not talking about statistics, I’m talking about the near absence of formal theory building in sociology. It’s relegated to various small pockets like formal soc psych, math soc, networks, rational choice, etc. The average sociologist doesn’t acquire formal theory as a tool. At a deep level, most insight in social science is not mathematical, but by completely tossing math, we throw out something that is quite useful and brings credibility.
  5. No Levitts: For some reason, we fail to produce people who act as the spokesperson of sociology. We have no Levitts, Krugmans, Friedmans, etc. Why are economists so friggin’ good at producing prominent public intellectuals, while sociology goes for *years* between NY Times op-eds? What do we do to suprress the production of PR savvy sociologists? Of course, we occasionally make the news with a clever article or book, but we fail to gain a permanent slot in public discussion. Why?
  6. The problem is social problems (not the journal!): By emphasizing social dysfunction, we become associated with dysfunction. A basic finding in the study of the professions is that the prestige of your clients is a big predictor of your prestige. Also, if that’s what the average college student takes away from sociology - that it’s the field of social problems - then that’s the image they’ll have about us for the rest of our lives.
  7. Post-modernism: This one isn’t our fault, but a lot of people make the link “hard French guys= sociology.” And yes, we all owe much to Bourdieu, but the overwhelming bulk of modern sociology is regular scientific hypothesis testing and thick description. The public thinks that we just sit around and play word games.
  8. Bad recruits: Let’s admit it - the kids who scores a perfect SAT score doesn’t immediately rush to sociology. We just don’t get the best recruits. This point was made in Halliday and Janowitz’ Sociology and Its Publics in the chapter on recruitment into sociology. We spend too much time trying to fill large lecture halls of intro soc and not enough time going for totally high caliber students. The result - the field suffers as a whole."
Also related, Fabio ponders What is “public sociology?”
"Here are some different versions of “public sociology” that I could imagine:
  1. Publicity: In this model, you don’t do anything different, but you just make a better effort at explaining yourself to people. “Newsworthiness” is your goal.
  2. Applied work: You switch from basic science research to policy driven work. Public sociology is sociology that tells you if program X makes a difference. If you take this view of public sociology seriously, then sociology quickly veers into social work and public policy studies.
  3. Problem advocacy: You use social science research techniques to draw attention to your personal causes.
  4. “Social problem” research: You do basic science, but on topics you deem politically relevant.
  5. Political selections of theory: I think this is closer to what Burawoy raises in “The Critical turn to Public Sociology.” You study the same things as other folks, but you substitute theories inspired by your political view. E.g, you dump stratification research and go to Marxian class analysis."
IMHO, at the core of these problems lie two basic trade-offs: 
1. Passion versus method.  Some (lots of?) people enter social sciences with a genuine concern to make a difference on the issues they care the most (call it the we gotta do something! spirit).  But there is a trade off between passionate advocacy and cold-minded research.  Not many of us are willing to take evidence that runs against our deeply held beliefs (at least not immediately)--which one of the many reasons why its is useful to stick to a defensible research method: when making a judgement call during research you have to trust your method rather than your instincts because the former are less value-ladden than the latter. 
2. Broad versus focused discourse.  Some people enter social sciences because they want to be the next hot public intellectual, that is, they want to be famous within more or less sophiticated circles (call it the barely sophisticated spotlight spirit).  But then again, there is a trade off between the sort of discourse that will get you media attention or put your book in bestseller lists (if you don't believe this, check out any non-fiction bestseller list in the world) and the dismal stuff that will make the grade in peer reviewed journals and/or get you the recognition of the few hundreds of people that share your research interests.
Of course, there is some middle ground and a handful of scholars are able to move back and forth between popular and narrow outlets.  A tad more of them start narrow and then go public as they get older and famous: by the time these scholars become famous, they already made their mark in academia, if at all.  But the vast majority pick their fields early on and just stick to it in order to exploit the gains from specialization.

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