Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Expanding the Domain of Policy-Relevant Scholarship in the Social Sciences

William Julius Wilson
Harvard University

2/2002 - Social Science Research Network
LSE STICERD Research Paper No. CASE052

In this paper the author argues that social scientists need to do more to
provide policy-relevant research. Rapid technological and economic
change raise new issues about how policy should adjust that are not
adequately addressed by older and narrower approaches. The author
suggests two ways in which the domain of policy-relevant scholarship
can be expanded. First, social scientists should be more flexible about the
kinds of data they use and the ways they use them. Preliminary data can
suggest new hypotheses, which can widen debate, and ethnographic
and other qualitative methods can uncover patterns of behaviour
invisible in quantitative sources. Second, social theories, concepts and
ideas should play a greater role in the policy arena, shaping the way
policy actors think about how the world works.

The 1996 Gulbenkian Commission Report on the Restructuring of the
Social Sciences stated that the traditional boundaries in the social
sciences have been weakened by pressures for change.1 These pressures
include those stemming from the rapid expansion of the university
system that increased specialisation, which in turn "encouraged
reciprocal incursions by social scientists into neighbouring disciplinary
domains" and those from feminist and other groups that have
challenged the parochialism of the social sciences.2

In the process there has been, according to the Report, a growing
recognition "that the major issues facing a complex society cannot be
solved by decomposing them into small parts that seem easy to manage
analytically, but rather by attempting to treat these problems, human
and nature, in their complexity and interrelations."3

However, the report does not discuss another major pressure felt by the
social sciences that I believe will ultimately have an impact as great or
even greater than those pressures that have emerged during the past
several decades. I refer to the impetus to address policy-relevant issues
that are associated not only with emotional and economic adjustments to
the events of September 11, but, more fundamentally, those that emerge
from the struggles of nation-states to adapt to the impact of rapid
technological and economic changes on individuals, families,
communities, institutions, and the society at large.

Technological innovations are occurring exceedingly rapidly and the
lagging societal adjustment to these changes in many areas of life place
strain on our basic institutions and challenge traditional practices in
preparing individuals to fulfil adult roles and responsibilities. Take, for
example, the impact of the decline of the mass production system. The
skill requirements of this mode of production were reflected in the
system of learning. Public (state) schools in the United States were
principally designed to provide low-income native and immigrant
students the basic literacy and numeracy skills required for routine work
in mass production factories, service industries, or farms. Today's close
interaction between technology and international competition has
eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system. In the last
several decades almost all of the improvements in productivity have
been associated with technology and human capital, thereby drastically
reducing the importance of physical capital and natural resources.

Moreover, under the traditional mass production paradigm only a few
highly educated professional, technical, and managerial workers were
needed since most of the work "was routine and could be performed by
workers who needed only basic literacy and numeracy."4 Accordingly,
workers in the United States with limited education were able to carry
home wages that were comparatively high by international and
historical standards. Not so today.

At the same time that changes in technology are producing new jobs,
however, they are making many others obsolete. The workplace has
been revolutionised by technological changes that range from
streamlined IT (information technology) to nanotechnology, robotics,
and biomedical engineering.5 Since education and training are now more
important than ever, the gap between the skilled and unskilled workers
is widening. While educated workers benefit from the pace of
technological change, lesser skilled workers face the growing threat of
income stagnation and job displacement.

The impact of technological change has been intensified by international
competition. In order to adjust to changing markets and technology,
competitive systems are forced to become more flexible. Companies can
compete more effectively in the international market either by
improving efficiency, productivity, and quality or by reducing workers'
income. To the detriment of the labour force, American companies tend
to follow the latter course. Many new jobs have been created. However,
except for the last half of the 1990s and the year 2000, incomes of lower
paid workers remained stagnant, despite tremendous job growth.6

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