Kevin Wolfman: Why Social Science Research is Anti-Social, Pt. I

The next time you find yourself in a bookstore (or on Amazon.com), browse the titles in the Politics and Government section. You will doubtless find several memoirs and partisan rallying cries written by current and former politicians, a handful of thoughtful tracts penned by long-deceased theorists, and more angry screeds than composed by “commentators” than you can count. But rare is the book on politics that is written by a person with arguably more fundamental knowledge and insight on the subject that any other: an actual political scientist.

Kevin Wolfman

Surprisingly enough, this dearth of educated material is largely by design. Political scientists—along with researchers in many other social science fields—almost never write popular (non-peer reviewed) books and articles that have positions and conclusions rooted in concrete research and data. As a result, the self-congratulating politicians and the legions of abrasive “commentators” have a near-monopoly on the nation’s published discourse. Given that the American public, as a whole, is infamously uninformed about political and social issues, the silence of social science is deafening.

So, this begs the question: Why, exactly, is social science research so “anti-social” — absent from the bookstores, Internet sites, and magazine pages frequented by so many people who could desperately use its insight?

Part of the answer may lie in the nature of graduate school. The PhD, of course, is a research-oriented degree. Naturally, then, graduate programs stress the acquisition of expert skills in many different forms of research. These include case studies and other so-called “small-n” methods, which examine anywhere from one to a handful of different subjects, to the “large-n” methods that examine hundreds, or even thousands, of subjects at the same time. These large-n methods are conducted using advanced mathematics, complex statistical models, and highly technical computer programming techniques. In recent years, more and more focus has been shifted toward the latter style, known as quantitative research. “Quant,” as it is known, has many advantages, chief among them the potential to pinpoint hidden correlations and connections within data that the human mind simply cannot uncover on its own. In many social science graduate programs, therefore, instruction has become heavily weighted toward “quant.”

However, quant has an obvious downside: it is simply way too complicated for average person to wrap his or her mind around. The tools and terms that quantitative researchers throw around like Halloween candy—regression, maximum likelihood estimation (MLE), logit and probit modeling, heteroskedasticity (“hetero-what?”), and more—are difficult for many “normal” people to pronounce, never mind understand. Modern-day research has a language of its own. Like any language, then, it needs to be translated by a native speaker for its content to be clearly relayed to the non-fluent public. The dense, technical jargon must be simplified or stripped away entirely, enabling the consumer to focus on the research’s basic meaning and conclusions.

The problem is that when it comes to social science research—quant and “qual” alike—skilled translators are in very short supply.

For all the intensive research instruction it offers, graduate school often provides little or no formal training in writing. Grad students will always take several classes on research methods (quantitative and/or qualitative), but often zero classes on how to communicate the results of their research. Writing instruction, if it exists at all, is generally informal, limited to a few stolen minutes here and there with a faculty advisor (who probably never received any real writing instruction of his or her own.) The result of this imbalance between research and writing is that, by the time dissertations have been defended and degrees conferred, many newly minted PhDs have a wealth of interesting, possibly even groundbreaking, knowledge ready to share with the world… and no ability to convey it effectively to a non-academic audience.

Social science research, therefore, often remains stuck in the all-too-real academic “bubble.” Reams of insight about the sociopolitical world remain forever untapped, doomed to obscurity in peer-reviewed journals read by no more than a few subject-area specialists—let alone everyday Americans who don’t have advanced degrees. And academia can’t honestly blame this unfortunate situation on a lack of public demand for its work. The marketplace success of books like Outliers and Freakonomics has clearly proven that research-based publications can be wildly popular—if they are written in a clear, engaging way. (Tellingly, the author of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, is a journalist, while economist Dr. Steven Levitt wrote Freakonomics with the help of Stephen J. Dubner — another journalist.)

In response to this criticism, graduate programs may argue that their job to teach students how to conduct research, not how to describe research to an uneducated consumer. This is a fair point; after all, there are only so many hours in the day, and grad schools have a ton of subject material to cover. It stands to reason that research is the major focus of program whose end result is a research degree.

Should it be the sole focus, though?

There is no denying that research is incredibly important. However, given the predominance of highly technical “quant” methods in the social sciences today, does it not make sense for graduate programs to focus not just on the learning of these methods, but also on the communication of the information those methods help to discover? Conceivably, influential figures in the “real world”—politicians, businessmen, activists, voters—could use that knowledge to inform themselves and move society in a positive direction, if only they knew about it. Might researchers have some responsibility tell people outside their own tiny professional circle about their findings, if those findings could be used to change world for the better?

Or, to put it more bluntly: What is the point of conducting research if nobody hears about it? Imagine if Copernicus, after discovering the Earth revolved around the Sun, had simply scribbled that little factoid in his diary and kept his mouth shut. How much longer would it have taken for the public’s impression of the solar system to match up with reality? For how long would society’s slow and unsteady march toward enlightenment have been stunted?

As it stands, social science research too often remains stuck in the “bubble,” removed from popular consumption by a language barrier of its practitioners’ own creation. Being published in a prestigious journal like The American Sociological Review or The American Journal of Political Science can make a researcher’s career—but it does little, on its own, to impact the world. Social scientists cannot continue to rely on the odd interested journalist to “translate” their work. For social science research to become as relevant in society as it should be, the social scientists must cut out the middlemen and learn to speak their own mind.

Kevin Wolfman is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.

Kevin Wolfman

Kevin Wolfman

Kevin is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs.