Saturday, December 29, 2007

Good social science knowledge is not available to policy-makers and the public

Secularism: The assassination of Benazir Bhutto posted by Craig Calhoun
Benazir Bhutto was my classmate at Oxford in the 1970s.
It is one of the jobs of social science to help people do better. Social scientists do this by filling in historical background and geopolitical connections. By analyzing demographic trends and structures. By reporting on economic development, gender relations, the state of government institutions, the options for education in villages. Emergencies offer a lens through which to see the interaction of many different factors of social life. But we can only make sense of emergencies if there are studies of these various factors on which we can rely...
Understanding enough to respond in meaningful ways requires knowledge of the contexts and connections in which this event was embedded. And it requires more general knowledge of patterns and causal relationships in social life—of how markets and militaries and popular mobilizations work. Social scientists have long pursued a silly internal dispute that undermines effective public knowledge. Some have favored breaking social life into its most generalizable elements, abstracting from particular contexts. Others have favored studying contexts and connections, seeing the general mechanisms at work in particular situations. We all suffer when one pursuit is valued at the expense of the other.
And by “all” I mean not only professional social scientists but everyone. For when good social science knowledge is not available to policy-makers and the public, both effective planning and democratic judgment of the policies chosen are undermined. Thus we should all want knowledge pursued in depth and discussed among specialists. But we should also want this knowledge synthesized for effective communication—to a broad public, to students, and to policy-makers.
Benazir Bhutto studied social science but made her career in politics. She was an unusually well-educated politician as well as both a courageous and a flawed leader. And one of the virtues of democracy is that well-informed leaders can help to educate broader publics. This is not to say that they should be believed on all points, but that electoral campaigns and public political participation are educational processes. Citizens learn by getting involved. But while we hope that politicians will make use of knowledge and seek understanding, we cannot and usually do not rely on them to educate us fully about public issues. They call attention to crucial points but they also “spin” them. It is vital in a democracy that there also be sources of knowledge to which politicians can be held account, and analyses by scholars who may not always manage to be neutral but whose commitments to the truth outweigh expediency. In Pakistan, as elsewhere, no political party has a monopoly on truth. But when parties and leaders allow open debate, they make it easier for the truth to be seen. And better understanding based on necessary knowledge can make it easier for opposing parties to find common ground on some issues... This entry was posted on Friday, December 28th, 2007 at 4:10 am and is filed under Secularism. [See my most recent book, Nations Matter.] SSRC Home SSRC Blogs Blog Home Pakistan in Crisis.
7. Do social scientists need blogs or other media for interaction? Of course. We need to be challenged by questions, informed about things we forget or never knew, and pushed to be clearer. Would I ever suggest that it makes sense for “the rest of us” just to wait, listen and in due course be enlightened? No! Keep speaking up. Also reading.

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