Ken Prewitt Wants to Retrofit The Social Sciences

“In a world facing many complex, formidable problems,” Kenneth Prewitt asks, “how can the social sciences become a decisive force for human betterment?”

Prewitt’s piece, “Retrofitting the Social Sciences for the Practical & Moral,” which appeared recently in Issues in Science and Technology‘s Fall 2019 issue, is as much an examination of the nature of social science as it is a guide for mainstreaming and improving the capacity for social scientists to aid society. Click here to read the full article (which I recommend). 

Kenneth Prewitt

Prewitt is the Carnegie Professor of Social Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he is also director of the Scholarly Knowledge Project. He was Director of the United States Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001. He is heavily invested in the social sciences, and his recent article reflects that investment.

In beginning his article, Prewitt offers a genealogical account of the social sciences: born out of the “utilitarian milieu of the Enlightenment,” their “programs were in the broadest sense practical and moral,” and, as historian Dorothy Ross puts it, the social sciences were intended to be “agents of improvement.” The social sciences “came of age” with a full slate of social issues — child labor, industrialization, gender inequality – aching to be addressed. 

And indeed, the social sciences have been agents of improvement: in the 20th century, with the Progressive era, the social sciences reached the White House. Finding a home in the university, the social sciences flourished: their methods and research agendas expanded to match the pace of society, to attempt to improve society as society itself progressed. There was research on health, consumer behavior, education, economics, and so on. But in the 20th century, a “structural problem for which there is no easy fix” arose. 

Today, Prewitt continues, we face an “equally daunting agenda of social problems” as we did when the social sciences came of age; the social sciences are showing “practical and moral” weaknesses. Social science, he argues, is an “enterprise no longer adequately equipped for current social conditions.” Using new tools and concepts, the social sciences need a retrofit in order to become a powerful and even extravagant source of improvement such that we might begin to tackle this daunting agenda of social problems. 

Prewitt’s piece appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Issues in Science and Technology.

That structural problem is the “shifting substrate” on which the social sciences themselves stand. “Social science itself is subject to change in the principles that shape its methods and practices. This change is more likely to be imposed from the outside than generated from the inside.” In other words, social science can be influenced by progressive principles, or conservative principles, and can be used to justify the ends of either. 

Funding compounds this problem. Earlier in the 20th century, social scientists provided their findings to governments, school systems, etc. and may have provided suggestions on how to interpret the data. These days, however, there is less agency: “If social scien[tists] expect public funds, [they] cannot just assert their contribution; they… [learn to be responsive] to what the receiving end expects their contribution to be.” So external funding brings with it baggage — neither necessarily good nor bad — in the form of externally generated research priorities.  

So, if the social sciences want to be well funded, and improve society, there needs to be “fresh thinking” about the social scientific project. In order to achieve this, Prewitt argues, two formulations, long considered settled, that need to be challenged. 

The first is that the “usefulness of useless knowledge” cannot guide social scientific appeals to funding. The phrase was coined by Abraham Flexner to describe the products of scientific inquiry. Scientific inquiry is largely driven by human curiosity, and some of the outcomes of scientific inquiry may be more immediately useful than others. But still, even those pieces of knowledge with no immediate use may one day be at the center of a breakthrough. Useless knowledge is, in some way or sense, useful, in that it is simply “waiting to be used.” 

However, useful social scientific knowledge is often not recognized as social scientific knowledge. While the natural sciences produce tangible products, like medicine, technologies, vehicles, the social sciences have largely conceptual products: terms like ‘discrimination,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘social networks.’ As Prewitt puts it, “Our [social scientist] technical terminology is available not just to fellow experts, but also to parents, investors, legislators, teachers, lawyers, and comedians, where it appears as common sense, as ‘Well, we always knew that.’ At one level, then, a marvelous social science success story—a vocabulary for society that actually provides scientific explanation of human behavior and the social world we inhabit. Alas, social science gets little credit.” 

When social science research is undertaken, whether the knowledge it produces is useful or useless, the culmination of that knowledge, i.e., the product, is largely conceptual–– and when social science knowledge is mainstreamed, the social sciences get little credit. With little credit, social sciences get little respect, funding, or access. They are less trusted as an authoritative voice. 

How, then, can the social sciences appeal for funding, if not pointing to the products that curiosity produces? They could try to speak to utility. This is the second formulation Pruitt dismisses. 

Social scientists need to back away from the exaggerated promise of “evidence-based policy” in favor of a more modest term such as “evidence-influenced policy.” Though social scientists may claim their work improves policy, there is little systematic study of this claim. Pruitt provides a few examples of investigations on the question which bear little fruit: NAS, Impact studies, etc.  

As he puts it, though: “If policy use of research has been ‘little studied in systematic ways,’ then on what basis have we been complaining, for decades, about being underappreciated?” 

Social scientists will continue to wish that society recognize their contributions to concepts like discrimination (which have become ‘common sense’) or policy, but more work needs to be done if claims to ‘common sense’ or evidence-based policy result in funding.  

Why, Pruitt asks, then stake the authority of social science on these two things?   

These formulations about the “usefulness of useless knowledge” and “evidence-based policy” do not help social sciences. Instead, they stand in the way of a retrofit!  

So, what comes after these barriers are set aside? Impact. 

Pruitt identifies four main purposes to the social sciences: education, research, public service, and a new fourth purpose, which seems to be “impact.” Impact is the means through which the social sciences can be retrofit once all other barriers have been removed. 

The investment of universities into “impact” has institutionalized what Dorothy Ross characterized as a social science being in the “broadest sense practical and moral.” Beyond the universities, there are increasing demands to study human beings in the context of the larger world (and the larger world in the context of human beings). We are obsessed with “the human dimension” of (insert world-issue). 

Pruitt sees this as a massive opportunity for social scientists. There are challenges, however, that university-trained social scientists, think tanks, academies, foundations, etc. will face in trying to address this new demand of study on the human being’s role in the world. For one, universities will have to ensure that their social scientists are properly equipped with the sort of skills necessary to the project. Making greater demands of hires or requiring new appointment or retention criteria will generate criticism–– and yet universities that treat their fourth purpose as a second-class initiative may find themselves in a poor situation. 

Pruitt lists some of the challenges this head-first dive into impact requires. Among the challenges, social scientists must avoid the charge of partisanship as it seeks to produce research that might change society and ensure that social sciences have ethics experts. 

What are the features of a retrofitted social science? 

Pruitt explores the steps by which three features will be achieved:  

“First, loosen the attachment to frameworks that impede fresh thinking. Then replace those frameworks with a clearer, more forceful (thus risky) purpose: notably, reestablish a social science for the sake of society, reasserting its authoritative voice, initially established in the 1880s and sustained for a century, but losing its edge in recent decades. Finally, and going back to our roots, firmly institutionalize this retrofitted social science in research universities, directing it along the two tracks emphasized above. The first feature is straightforward; the second is a much greater challenge, but doable; the third is difficult, really difficult, requiring hundreds of person-hours just to design the Fourth Purpose, let alone implement it. Maybe we academics will have to give our home universities a little more time, and our disciplinary associations and conferences a bit less.” 

The project, a massive intellectual and institutional puzzle, may be fun, and may require help from thinkers across various disciplines such as the humanities, natural sciences, and ethicists. 

Pruitt concludes optimistically: “We have to find a concise, shared way to talk about all this. The term ‘academic freedom’ became important to higher education more than a century ago. It has been hugely important since. If the term ‘Fourth Purpose’ is picked up (no attribution required), it will facilitate interuniversity exchange and cooperation, much as the term academic freedom has. I urge it, if only to prevent us from endless debates about what impact means. But perhaps a better term is available. If so, put it in play.”

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Gus Wachbrit

Augustus Wachbrit (or, if you’re intimidated by his three-syllable name, Gus) is the Social Science Communications Intern at SAGE Publishing. He assists in the creation, curation, revision, and distribution of various forms of written content primarily for Social Science Space and Method Space. He is studying Philosophy and English at California Lutheran University, where he is a research fellow and department assistant. If you’re likely to find him anywhere, he’ll be studying from a textbook, writing (either academically or creatively), exercising, or defying all odds and doing all these things at once.

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