Because It Tells Us How to Create More Engaged Citizens

Engaged citizens are not born. They are made. Leaders of voluntary civic associations play a critical role in this process. They offer people opportunities to exercise their voice on issues they care about. Individuals, in turn, develop a heightened sense of personal agency and a broadened set of skills that are vital for participating in civic life.

Although individuals joining together to make their voices heard is a fundamental pillar of democracy, it is often easier said than done. Leaders of civic associations face many challenges. Volunteer fatigue and turnover are recurring problems, and it can be difficult to translate initial interest into a commitment to action.

Read More

Because Social Science Is a Form of Service that Improves Quality of Life for People Around the World

 If you are reading these words, chances are you are a social scientist or someone who cares about social science. Either way, I am grateful to you and everyone who devotes significant parts of their lives to social science’s development and practice.

Social science is a distinct and valuable form of service. Social science helps us understand ourselves, our relationships to others, and our relationships to the world. The insights that we provide change people’s lives every day. For example, a wide range of public and private sector organizations are using our insights to take on a broad array of very big problems. These problems include global poverty, national security, child development and neighborhood safety. Around the world, social science discoveries are helping entrepreneurs, first responders, and many others provide essential services with greater precision and efficiency.

Read More

Because It Guides Us Toward Practical and Attainable Solutions

The wisest quote about science that I’ve read in recent years was penned by Vanderbilt University’s Larry Bartels, in an article he wrote during the runup to 2016 general election. He reminded us simply that “[p]olitical science, like any science, is a process of discovery and collective scrutiny, not a fixed body of established facts.” The “collective scrutiny” of science is essential to establishing the veracity of its discoveries and the power of its consensus claims. But I’ve also come to believe that collective scrutiny in the social sciences quietly pushes us toward an important habit of mind: patience and moderation in our approach to fixing social problems. Social science has played a key role in helping U.S. service members complete their duties more effectively and more ethically. We highlight four such contributions.

Read More

Because It Can Improve the Lives of Those Who Serve Our Country

Throughout our nation’s history, members of the U.S. military have served our country with honor, courage, and dedication. Service men and women are prepared to mobilize around the globe at a moment’s notice to preserve freedom, protect the common good, and bring relief to disaster-stricken areas. Accomplishing these missions requires personal and professional sacrifices by military families.

Social science has played a key role in helping U.S. service members complete their duties more effectively and more ethically. We highlight four such contributions.

Read More

Because It Helps to Address Graduate Unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa

Social scientists are actively involved in working with government officials, academics, the private sector, NGOs and policy officials to understand as well as develop solutions to address the current challenges of graduate unemployment and under employment in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a problem that is close to home for me as an African scholar and a social scientist who undertakes research that has application to social policies and development. I have been keen on understanding and investigating the factors that allow these patterns of unemployment to persist given the enormity of its impact on individuals, households, communities and countries across the continent.

Understanding Sub-Saharan Africa’s Unemployed Graduate Youth Crisis

Sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest growing youth population in the world, with 60 per cent of its population under 24 years old. Harnessing their capability would require increased and focused investments in education, to ensure a healthy labor force that is capable of meeting the demands of our current local and globalized job markets. The International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that the youth (15–24 years) unemployment outlook for the major economies of the African region remains quite mixed, ranging from 1.8% in Benin to 54.4% in South Africa. ILO further reveals that working poverty rates among youth in sub-Saharan Africa was nearly 70 per cent in 2016, translating into 64.4 million working youth living in extreme or moderate poverty (less than $3.10 per day). According to the same source, the number of poor employed youth has unfortunately risen by as much as 80% over the past 25 years. Many sub-Saharan African countries are experiencing a youth bulge with some having up to 80% of the population under 35 years. Given the region’s emerging demographic projections, this problem will not go away anytime soon. It is my view that for university graduates to effectively contribute to their respective national economies, and address the current youth unemployment crisis, there should be employment initiatives and approaches to transition them to formal employment.

Read More

Because Social Science Equips Us with Tools We Will Need to Face Down the Biggest Issues of Our Time, Including the Growing Global Threat of Climate Change

Our Earth is in crisis. More frequent and severe droughts, rising sea-levels, extreme weather and ecological damage are already here, with more loss and hardship on the horizon.

As a trained engineer and Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, I depend on science to inform my policy decisions. Social sciences are especially important to my work because they help reveal how climate change is impacting people and communities. This is invaluable insight for policymakers working to make decisions meant to save lives and build more resilient communities.

Read More

Because It Requires Confronting the Assumptions We Have About Others

Social science comes in many varieties, is comprehensive in scope, and applied to an infinite number of real-world challenges, questions, and problems society faces. At its core, it concerns the human condition. While an economist, criminologist, psychologist, or sociologist may emphasize different things about being human, and often use different methods, their research is about people. But the people who we seek some understandings about, or from, have lives apart from our research. In other words, their lives overlap with what we study but are also more complex than that. Their day-to-day living involves connections with others, a history, setting, and sociopolitical / economic context, all of which can change over time. Social science is messy this way.

The social science I conduct concerns understanding the use and consequences of illegal drugs and substance use disorder (SUD). As a medical and cultural anthropologist, my research has given me an up-close perspective on these topics and how people’s lives are affected by them. The recent opioid epidemic has significantly increased the public awareness and concern about drug addiction. It has mobilized long and much-needed healthcare resources to address this challenge, moving drug policy marginally away from the war on drugs. Starting my career in the 1990s, recent actions are welcomed, but bittersweet. Drug addiction has always needed more public health attention and only realizing this now as more people are dying is frustrating.

Read More

Because It Can Improve Government Efficiency via Evidence-Based Policy

Before explaining how social science is or could be used in policy, it is first important to think why it should be used. Why do we do social science? For most of us, our research goes beyond intellectual curiosity. We want to make an impact on the world around us—to observe and systematically report on conditions that affect society as a means for change and improvement.

Although researchers’ work tends to have meaningful implications for policy, there is no direct, linear pathway from knowledge production to its use for public benefit. This can be frustrating at times for social scientists who wonder: why aren’t policymakers using more research to inform their decisions? Although research is not always driving decision-making, key examples from the bipartisan evidence-based policy movement offer hope, such as the Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting  program, which is backed by evidence and has received bipartisan support. However, policies like this contrast with others that appear to disregard science. So the real question is not why is research disregarded, but under what circumstances is research used—and can we improve the rate it is used? 

Read More

Because Social Science Research and Education Are Critical for National Security

Each of the social sciences contributes irreplaceable content knowledge and methodologies to our collective understanding of other political entities and the social norms underlying their intentions toward the United States. It is a rather harsh truth that as long as the United States remains a global power, the nation will have to work specifically to maintain national security—not only in order to retain power, but because both our allies and our adversaries rely on it. To a certain extent, our national security is maintained through deterrence—in the sheer fact that we possess certain capabilities and engage internationally. 

Since we cannot step away from the intelligence and analysis that underscores our international engagement, we must confront the reality that we will undertake national-security efforts with greater or lesser expertise and wisdom. The social sciences are what we use to make sense of international relations. Warfare and peacekeeping are fundamentally social, human activities, and the resources at stake in both are also essentially social: physical resources for survival, political identity, institutional prestige and influence, and shared ideation and values.

Read More

Because It Helps Build Resilience in the Face of Disasters

We are dedicated to using social science to improve disaster recovery for those on the margins of society—in particular on the unique needs of children and older adults in times of crisis. Our past work has shed light on how age influences issues of both vulnerability and agency. Uplifting lessons learned is especially important as we continue to face more extreme weather events and a changing climate. 

Recovery needs vary based on age

Children have unique disaster needs because of their age, cognitive abilities, and dependence on adult guardians and caretakers, with older children commonly more affected. Additionally, children tend to experience magnified effects, because they must cope with disaster-related stress during a developmental phase in which their personalities and identities are forming.

Read More

Because It’s Proliferating

Social scientists and the research we pursue with such passion are being buffeted on all fronts, a fact not unknown to frequent visitors to this space. Today social scientists confront scarcities: of funding, of career opportunities in academia, of public acceptance and respect, and of trust in the credibility and value of the work we do.

Yet, at the same time, social science seems to be everywhere—not only on our laptops and data repositories, but in government agencies, human rights organizations, media reports and, especially, in tech firms and other private companies. And social scientists, if not quite everywhere, are working at these institutions as well as in the academy—indeed, for certain types of work, the demand for social science skills is high.

Read More

Because Social Science Can Have an Impact on Public Policy

Why Social Science? Because social science can—and should—have a real impact on public policy at the federal, state, and local levels. More than a decade ago, while serving as President of the Southern Criminal Justice Association, I spoke with Mittie Southerland, who at the time was the Executive Director of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). We lamented that while our members produced the best and most topical peer-reviewed and policy-relevant research in crime and justice, getting legislators, reporters, and policy-makers to take account of it seemed an almost impossible task. How to make it happen?

Today, I chair the Crime & Justice Research Alliance (CJRA), a centralized resource of authoritative experts and scholarly studies created to provide policymakers, practitioners and the public direct access to relevant research on crime and criminal justice issues. Formed in 2015, CJRA is a collaborative partnership between the nation’s two leading criminal justice associations, ACJS and the American Society of Criminology (ASC), which represent more than 5,000 criminal justice scholars, practitioners, and researchers.

Read More

Because It Can Challenge Conventional Wisdom

Social science research provides evidence that helps us understand the drivers of social problems. A lot of times, this evidence is in contrast to the conventional wisdom and may on the face of it seem counterintuitive.  However, evidence from social science research can show why certain policies work and why other policies fail, helping us inform policy and prevent unintended consequences.

An example of this is “ban-the-box” policies, laws that forbid employers from asking whether a job applicant was ever involved with the justice system. The purpose of such policies was to improve hiring rates for individuals with criminal backgrounds and limit discrimination by employers, based on the  theory that the stigma for those involved with the criminal justice system would not be present if employers did not have information about applicants’ criminal histories. The large racial disparities in the criminal justice system lead to further racial disparities in the employment of ex-offenders. Thus, banning the box would have the added benefit of reducing racial disparities in employment. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia have passed ban-the-box policies, along with over 150 cities and counties.

Read More

Because It Helps Us Identify and Combat Misinformation

To make good decisions, we need good information. Every day, people form opinions on health treatments, political policies, and consumer products. Social sciences help us understand how people can separate accurate information from misinformation—information that is false or misleading. 

Communication researchers, psychologists, and political scientists have all provided valuable research highlighting the dangers of misinformation, the difficulties in correcting it, and the most effective strategies for resisting it. Social scientists are also tackling related topics like conspiracy theories and rumors.  

Read More

Because It Can Improve the Lives of City Residents

There’s a movement underway to integrate scientific research into the everyday workings of government at all levels. Increasingly, research professionals are being called upon to roll up their sleeves and lend their advice, expertise, and knowledge in service to government. Here in the District of Columbia, Mayor Muriel Bowser established The Lab @ DC, a team to work with a wide range of city agencies. The Lab uses scientific insights and methods to test and improve policies and provide timely, relevant, and high quality-analysis to inform DC’s most important decisions.

In building the team—which now includes over 20 employees, fellows, and regular collaborators—Mayor Bowser made the explicit decision to make social and behavioral science expertise central. We have scientists with PhDs in anthropology, sociology, economics, and psychological science who work in Washington, DC’s city hall addressing some of our biggest challenges. These social scientists work closely with other experts on the team, such as data scientists and operations experts, to ensure that solutions are theoretically sound, methodologically rigorous, and carried out efficiently and effectively. Importantly, team members are “embedded” in city government, which allows them to build relationships with other city employees as well as the citizens they serve.

Read More

Because It Produces Essential Data for Our Democracy

The social sciences are vitally important to the institutions of democracy. Those institutions include a constellation of federal statistical agencies responsible for collecting and disseminating data. With these data, critical decisions are made such as where to build schools and fire stations, how to shape congressional districts, and the way more than $600 billion in federal funds are allocated.

Consider just one such agency, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, responsible along with the FBI, and various other federal agencies, for generating national crime statistics. With these data, law enforcement officials at the state and local levels make informed assessments of the prevalence and frequency of crimes in their areas. Social scientists, such as criminologists, sociologists and others, go a huge step further. They use the same data to discern patterns of criminal behavior thereby facilitating more effective policing and crime intervention methods. They also are best positioned to create data-supported analyses about what types of crimes are occurring, where, and in relation to other considerations such as social, political, and economic factors. They also detect when justice may not have been consistently and fairly applied.  The result is a more comprehensive and holistic approach to crime prevention and mitigation.

Read More

Because It is an Engine for Social Progress

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is dedicated to preparing the next generation of social work practitioners, policy makers, and researchers with the competencies to address society’s needs. The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) is a catalyst for excellence in developing, implementing, and translating research that advances social work practice and social policy that improves human well-being. Together we advance society through the delivery of quality services informed by social science research. As March is Social Work Month, with this year’s theme being “Social Workers: Leaders. Advocates. Champions,” CSWE and SSWR appreciate the opportunity to share with the community what makes social work research an important part of social science as a discipline. 

While the public is generally aware of social work as a profession of practitioners, it is less aware of its science. And yet, social work researchers have been integral to the science that has led to improvements in people’s lives and the amelioration of social ills for generations. Social work science played an important role in progressive social movements such as the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, child labor laws, and women, political, civil and human rights. Social work science led to many of the “Great Society” programs to address poverty and racial injustice and the development of humane care for service men and women. Social work science has facilitated culturally and contextually relevant services for people across the lifespan (from cradle to grave) and influenced consumer protection policies and programs.

Read More

Because It Adds Value, Even When You Don’t See It

Why Social Science? was launched in 2017 as a project of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) aimed at getting social science findings and impacts out to the general public. Our goal has been to talk about our sciences in new and interesting ways, making them feel more accessible and relevant to our everyday lives. The 22 interesting and diverse pieces published in 2017, I think, did just that. I am excited for the stories that will be told through Why Social Science? in 2018.

To kick the year off, I would like to speak directly to social science researchers and shine a light on an important, though often overlooked contribution made by the social and behavioral sciences—serving as resources to government officials. Policy makers are an important segment of the public audience we hope to reach through Why Social Science?, but working with them directly is just as—if not more—important. 

Read More

Because Social Science Fosters Robust and Trustworthy Knowledge

As Chair of the COSSA Board, it is an honor to conclude the inaugural year of “Why Social Science?” with some reflections and aspirations. When COSSA launched this initiative in 2017, the aim was to invite persons to speak to the “Why” of social science from diverse perspectives. By design, the task was left open-ended to encourage commentators to share their stories, views, knowledge, or favorite findings through a lens that could resonate with a breadth of public audiences. 

As a social scientist who has now studied the “data,” I am struck with how compelling these 22 commentaries (typically no more than 1,000 words and written in non-technical language) are. Notably, only about half of the writers are themselves social and behavioral scientists. Also, important is that contributors were drawn from a range of occupations, roles, and work sectors—Congress, federal agencies, science advocacy groups, higher education institutions, scientific associations, and the leading academies.

Read More

Because Language Is Essential to Human Interaction

Every day, we use language to communicate, argue, learn, negotiate, document, legislate, and celebrate. In the industrialized world, we are bombarded daily by language from radios, televisions, websites, signs, and talking devices, while in less technological societies, knowledge is transmitted orally. A better understanding of languages (individually), of language (as a collective human ability), and of their speakers helps us to better understand how society functions and how to improve it, and this is the domain of study of linguistics.

The foundations of linguistics begin with descriptions of the sounds and structures of many languages, from languages of global exchange spoken by millions, to local dialects spoken in remote corners of the world. The grammars constructed by theoretical linguists help us to see the similarities and relationships between languages, and to trace their histories. The more languages we can study, the better picture we have of the depth and breadth of the human language faculty.

Read More