Why Social Science Risks Irrelevance
This article first ran in Items , a forum of the Social Science Research Council, as part of a multipart discussion, and appears here under the author approval.
Why do we do social-science research? Is it to advance our careers or to elevate human knowledge? If we are really committed to the latter, are we on the right track?
As a working-class kid, I was stunned when I realized that some people had the privilege of getting to think all day long. I’ve never let go of that sense of awe, but to riff off of Spider-Man, with great privilege comes great responsibility.
I believe in the professorial mandate, the deep commitment we must have to giving back knowledge because we get the privilege of being able to spend our days thinking. But that isn’t just a matter of toiling in our worlds and then throwing knowledge out of the ivory tower. It’s not just about making material open and hoping people will come. It’s about actively engaging the very people that we seek to understand, contributing to the communities we spend time analyzing. To treat them respectfully and to understand our moral and ethical responsibility to them.
One of the hardest parts of doing social-science research is coming up with a question that matters. As Kenneth Prewitt rightfully points out in an essay in Items, a publication of the Social Science Research Council, “Matters to whom?” I would also add, “Matters how?” As scholars, we fret a lot about the quality and rigor of our work. Those who fund us also think about “impact.” This is precisely why, when we think about “accountability,” we quickly turn to metrics. Unfortunately, we then spend less time thinking about the very impact of our questions, the implications of what we choose to study, the processes that influence our choices, and the social implications of seeking knowledge.
A friend of mine once told me that scholars study things that conform to their values. This is precisely why we need scholars from diverse experiential, cultural, and political backgrounds. Although forces outside academe influence the decisions about what to study, so too do disciplinary and institutional incentives and pressures.
My first research paints a clear portrait of where I was both in my identity and my organizational position. That project was concerned with how depth-cue prioritization was dependent on levels of sex hormones in the body. I knew that computer scientists and engineers were obsessing over the possibility of 3-D virtual reality, and I had stumbled on a footnote in an old Air Force report that noted that women got sick in simulators at much higher rates than men. And I started noticing female computer scientists failing at basic 3-D tasks while playing video games for which no explanation of inexperience could be justified. I ended up following my hunch to work in a gender clinic to understand how vision changed as people underwent hormone-replacement therapy. Along the way, I learned that the baseline research that underpinned depth-cue research had been done exclusively on college-attending males, forcing me to redo a lot of seminal experiments to even get at my question.
My path of inquiry, like that of most scientists, was shaped by the context in which I was operating. As a queer woman trying to sort out sexuality and identity, questions about gender felt natural. I was also a computer scientist at the time, but I knew that computer-science methods could not help me answer my question. So I embarked on a path that forced me to learn psychology, cognitive science, and gender studies. And, as a result, I began a lifelong battle to define my disciplinary identity. Am I a sociologist? An anthropologist? An internet-studies scholar? In the process, I quickly realized that I queered my disciplinary identity as a way of resolving my gender identity and sexuality.
Academic disciplines are brutally myopic, judgmental of anyone who chooses to explore a path of inquiry outside of the acceptable boundaries of the field. This is the byproduct of existential identity crises mixed with funding and legitimacy battles. Social science wasn’t always about discrete fields at war with one another. Over time, we narrowed the scope of questions, the possibility of asking questions that matter outside of the academy, outside of the boundaries of our field. This is by no means new — it has been part of a long and arduous path of legitimacy, accountability, and meaning-making. Consider this infamous quote from Erving Goffman: ” I have no universal cure for the ills of sociology. A multitude of myopias limit the glimpse we get of our subject matter. To define one source of blindness and bias as central is engagingly optimistic. Whatever our substantive focus and whatever our methodological persuasion, all we can do I believe is to keep faith with the spirit of natural science, and lurch along, seriously kidding ourselves that our rut has a forward direction.”
I have always held Goffman’s critical take on various social-science fields dear because I fear that our seriousness as scholars and determination to justify our existence often leaves us unable to laugh at the absurdity of the infrastructure that we’ve built to support it. And to realize the degree to which we are to blame for why social science often doesn’t matter.
The fact that research is conducted primarily in academe is an ironic byproduct of the professorial mandate. Researchers became professors because it seemed like a natural post from which to teach. Of course, in the process, the professorial mandate turned into the responsibility of teaching 18-year-olds. Because of how we’ve set up universities, teaching is often seen as a second-class activity and unrewarded in evaluation at the same time that universities are facing serious pressure to be more attentive to students. And so we’ve got mixed incentives.
These only get further confused by how faculty lines are allocated, prompting professors to compete with other departments and then to compete within their department, recognizing that courses need to be filled and intense competition exists among academics for positions and funding. This, in turn, prompts strategic graduate students to pursue acceptable lines of inquiry and position themselves in order to be judged by their peers in a way that will give them the acceptable kudos. And, hence, we arrive at the “least publishable unit” problem, where people aren’t doing social science because it matters for the world, but because it enables a form of career stability.
The problem with the academy as a site of research isn’t just its infrastructural nightmare. It’s the fact that it means that academics are living in a relatively cloistered world. There’s a reason that most psychology research involves experiments with college-aged people. And most anthropologists lament that fieldwork is only truly possible when one is a graduate student because of the responsibilities of being faculty. What life experiences do graduate students have to help them choose a line of inquiry? It’s not surprising that so many social-science students pursue questions related to identity and sexuality. That’s where they’re at. That’s where I was at.
But if we want to matter, we need to think critically about the questions we ask — and the questions we don’t ask — and what influences that distinction. We relish the idea of peer evaluation in both funding and publication, but are unable to reckon with our collective myopias and get defensive whenever someone asks what the hell we’re doing. And we need to find better ways of collectively identifying hard and important questions to ask, arenas of under-interrogated issues, and knowledge that the public needs.
The questions we ask are increasingly dependent on the fads and obsessions of our disciplines, of academic life, and of the funders who are made up of our academic peers. I don’t care if social science matters to us scholars. I became a scholar because I believe that knowledge can make the world better. Social science can matter, but whether or not it will is dependent on us.
When we believe that we have a monopoly on asking important questions, we do ourselves a disservice. It’s dangerous that we think that basic research starts with the questions we find important rather than trying to understand the knowledge that society is missing. Peer review suggests that we are the only ones who have purchase over whether a study is valuable enough to fund or publish. True impact will never be achieved by trying to keep within an ivory tower. Impact requires being deeply embedded within the social world that we seek to understand and recognizing that the key to success is to inform and empower through knowledge.
Calls for accountability happen when there is widespread doubt in the value of a practice. It is ineffective to resist accountability by rejecting measurement or eschewing the pressure. Instead, social scientists must engage in serious acts of self-reflection and ask ourselves what we’ve done to lose the public’s faith in the pursuit of knowledge. Cries of elitism, narcissism, and nepotism aren’t without cause, even if they are infuriating and feel misplaced. In a society with significant inequality and growing downward mobility, every system of power is coming under attack. There is growing frustration that practices that were supposed to be “of the people” are getting professionalized and elitist. I’m not arguing that the answer is to rally around amateur social science, but to be reflective on what we are actually doing, not just what we say we are doing. As scholars, we often talk a better game than we walk.
If we want social science to matter, we need to be much more thoughtful about the questions we ask, the infrastructures we build, and the incentives that we accept and promote. In essence, we need to be accountable for the privilege we have to pursue knowledge. And with that privilege, we need to stop lamenting how the public doesn’t understand or respect our work and start using our social-scientific knowledge to truly understand and appreciate why. Of course, we might not like what we see.
*Danah Boyd is founder and president of Data & Society, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and a visiting professor at New York University.