Just came across this piece by a former Columbia prof, Herbert Gans, calling for the social sciences to “become more relevant and useful” by reforming the Academy and by choosing to use social research to correct “society’s major problems.”
And a single happy tear rolled down my bearded cheek.
I have a tremendous, undying amount of appreciation for humanities and social scientists: I know a lot of really cool stuff today because of them. I’m married to one. I also secretly hope to be one, myself, one day.
But I’ve also sat in on more than a few classes and conversations and smart-people things—described probably as “symposiums” or “seminars” or “colloquiums” (yeah, “colloquiums,” shut up!)—in which wildly nuanced conversation about a single topic of some social relevance was discussed and debated at impossible lengths, the effect of which—if we can salvage an effect in the first place—was nothing more substantial or meaningful than a collective call by all nine people present (two professors and the equivalent of four-and-a-half graduate students; mostly white, mostly male) for further study of the “field” and for a reconvening of the same “roundtable” of the same “working group” of academicians in ten years’ time.
And it’s like so many of the scholars in the world are trying to light a bonfire and everyone has brought all the firewood they’ve collected over ten and thirty and fifty years of painstaking searching but nobody has brought any damn matches for any of it to be useful.
(I like metaphors.)
Please, don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge fan of all the nerdy stuff, too. When I first learned about Geertz’s “Thick Description” I thought I was going to pass out from the mind blow of new and seemingly infinite social research possibilities. (Then five years later when I finally actually understood it, I think I probably really did pass out.)
But if you’re so convinced that meaning can be assigned to your niche subject matter (and I’m sure it can), then I’m equally positive that meaning can be extracted from it, as well—that we can use what you’ve learned about your research’s places and times and apply this knowledge and its lessons to something both current and socially immoral and detrimental to the preservation of the society from which your research must be derived and for which it must be dedicated.
Because trust me, I think your stuff is cool, too. But then there’s still poverty and racism and all kinds of other crap going on… And doesn’t that or shouldn’t that make you not enjoy your stuff as much? Maybe even just a tiny little bit not as much?
So maybe don’t worry about trying to get your three expert colleagues to appreciate Bede or Chaucer or Morrison or quantitative analysis or structural theory as much as you do. Instead, show that your government-funded or privately-funded or by-whomever-ly-funded five years of endangered language acquisition and six more years of archival research and dissertation writing on the social implications of twelfth century northwest Mongolian toilet paper trends can be applied to some kind—any kind will do—of contemporary social problem that our world is facing on this plane of reality.
And justify it not to me, necessarily, but to Lloyd and LeAlan—or two similar boys growing up in a dirt-poor, disease and gang and deadly drug-infested wasteland of racial and socio-economic oppression not four blocks from your fine, pristine institution of higher learning. Be able to explain to them why your research, in particular, is so wholly necessary to the canon of thinking and problem solving: Be able to validate why what privileged society has invested in you is worth it to us and to them.
Herbert Gans calls this kind of application “Public Social Science.” I’d never heard of that until this evening, I don’t think. And it really got me fired up and excited—and I get that way sometimes, albeit often naively.
And, look, too, probably, if you and I are already friends and you’re reading this, then I’m not necessarily talking about you. Because I cannot possibly overlook the undoubtedness that I only believe what I believe because I’ve been lucky enough to know and to learn from and with some of the really, really good ones, the ones who both learn and teach not just with books but also experiences and also their entire heart. They are mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and teachers and friends and confidants and advisors and a million other things simultaneously empowered by knowledge and faith and an honest-to-God understanding and sense of the Common Good, well before they are anything of a social scientist—and they probably don’t even use that word anyway.
And always take with a grain of salt my rants. Because I say a lot of things about a lot of things. And I rarely say anything at all from any perspective that might be called “expert.” I understand that. And I fear every minute of every day that what I do might be irrelevant, too.
Oh, and, P.S., I strongly dislike the word “data.”