Retrofitting Social Science for the Practical & Moral

Kenneth Prewitt at Issues: “…We cannot reach this fresh thinking without first challenging two formulations that today’s social science considers settled. First, social science should not assume that the “usefulness of useless knowledge” works as our narrative. Yes, it works for natural sciences. But the logic doesn’t translate. Second, we should back off from exaggerated promises about “evidence-based policy,” perhaps terming it “evidence-influenced politics,” a framing that is more accurate descriptively (what happens) and prescriptively (what should happen). The prominence given to these two formulations gets in the way of an alternative positioning of social science as an agent of improvement. I discuss this alternative below, under the label of the Fourth Purpose….

…the “Fourth Purpose.” This joins the three purposes traditionally associated with American universities and colleges: Education, Research, and Public Service. The latter is best described as being “a good citizen,” engaged in volunteer work; it is an attractive feature of higher education, but not in any substantial manner present in the other two core purposes.

The Fourth Purpose is an altogether different vision. It institutionalizes what Ross characterized as a social science being in the “broadest sense practical and moral.” It succeeds only by being fully present in education and research, for instance, including experiential learning in the curriculum and expanding processes that convert research findings into social benefits. This involves more than scattered centers across the university working on particular social problems. As Bollinger puts it, the university itself becomes a hybrid actor, at once academic and practical. “A university,” he says, “is more than simply an infrastructure supporting schools, departments, and faculty in their academic pursuits. As research universities enter into the realm or realms of the outside world, the ‘university’ (i.e., the sum of its parts/constituents) is going to have capacities far beyond those of any segment, as well as effects (hopefully generally positive) radiating back into the institution.”

To oversimplify a bit, the Fourth Purpose has three steps. The first occurs in the lab, library, or field—resulting in fundamental findings. The second ventures into settings where nonacademic players and judgment come into play, actions are taken, and ethical choices confronted, that is, practices of the kind mentioned earlier: translation research, knowledge brokers, boundary organizations, coproduction. Academic and nonacademic players should both come away from these settings with enriched understanding and capabilities. For academics, the skills required for this step differ from, but complement, the more familiar skills of teacher and researcher. The new skills will have to be built into the fabric of the university if the Fourth Purpose is to succeed.

The third step cycles back to the campus. It involves scholarly understandings not previously available. It requires learning something new about the original research findings as a result of how they are interpreted, used, rejected, modified, or ignored in settings that, in fact, are controlling whether the research findings will be implemented as hoped. This itself is new knowledge. If paid attention to, and the cycle is repeated, endlessly, a new form of scholarship is added to our tool kit….(More)”.