The Institute for European Studies has received a $197,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to fund a project to comparatively study the changes in the social sciences that have resulted from the shifting structures and goals of universities.
Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology Davydd Greenwood, director of the Institute for European Studies, independently proposed the project in response to his perception that the social sciences currently face difficult, undefined challenges that need to be addressed by academic research.
“While all fields are facing transformative pressures, the social sciences are having a particularly difficult struggle and one that has not been studied sufficiently,” he said.
Greenwood’s project involves an initial research planning workshop to “lay out the burning questions,” survey the current state of research and develop an agenda for a year of work which will lead to a second, larger conference that scholars, academic administrators and foundation representatives will attend.
“The goal is to try to set a positive and ambitious research and change agenda for this area of work,” Greenwood said.
The social sciences are unique in that they encapsulate opposing approaches: the positivistic approach, which uses quantitative methods of research, and the constructivist approach, which uses qualitative methods, according to Greenwood. However, the inclusion of these different approaches has led to tension within the field.
“There is strong pressure for the social sciences to split into the scientific side and the humanistic side,” he said. “Carried to an extreme, I think this split destroys the central features of the social sciences.”
Anthropology, sociology and political science experience this conflict more than other fields due to their use of both constructivist and positivist approaches, Greenwood said.
However, not all professors agree with this assertion. In contrast to Greenwood’s belief, Prof. Robert Ascher, anthropology, said that anthropology’s association with both the humanities and the social sciences reduces the number of conflicts in comparison to other social science fields.
“Anthropology is only in part a social science,” he said. “It is also a biological science, an art form and it uses the approaches of the humanities more than methods of the social sciences. So it faces less of a problem in doing what it wants to do than more formal social sciences.”
According to Greenwood, the social sciences were born at the end of the 18th century with the clear desire to study society for the purpose of improving it.
“Over the years, the academic professionalization of the social sciences has removed most of them from direct engagement in social change efforts,” he said. “Increasingly the agenda of social science is set by professional societies and academic peers and less by public issues.”
Some social science fields are more influenced by public needs than others, Greenwood said.
“While economics and psychology still retain a degree of support from the general public, it is not clear to what extent the other social sciences still do,” he said.
Other professors also conveyed concern over the challenges that the social sciences currently face, although they questioned the effectiveness of researching the problems.
“After a century plus, we still have very little idea of what makes people tick,” Ascher said, adding that academic research into the state of the social sciences will not help people address current challenges. “How could it? You would be using social sciences to investigate the social sciences.”
The Ford Foundation, which was founded by money provided by the Henry Ford family, is “a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide” that seeks to strengthen democratic values; reduce poverty and injustice; promote international cooperation; and advance human achievement, according to its website.
Archived article by Stephanie Hankin