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Looking Back to Move Forward

The social sciences are becoming more relevant, diverse and reflective

pplications of social science theory and concepts are central to today’s public life, from social networks to employee trainings to voting reforms. Social science methods using big data and experiments are also of wide and increasing interest among practitioners. But do social science practices need to be reinvented for use in the real world?

In this excerpt from How Social Science Got Better: Overcoming Bias with More Evidence, Diversity, and Self-Reflection (2021, Oxford University Press), I argue that the social sciences were born to guide our practical ambitions and are improving in their ability to guide decision-makers. But their primary area of application is in multidimensional public policy choices, which inevitably combine the uncoverable patterns of social life with our value choices. Because our theories and pursuits stem from our collective goals, we need to reflect on the history of applied social science, which has often had too much hubris and too little diversity. There is no replacing the complexity of social science or the difficulty of building codified knowledge for use by society. But the social sciences are becoming more relevant, diverse, and reflective, learning from their history and public use.

The following excerpt comes from the beginning of Chapter 9, after a review of current practices in economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology and just before a history of the sordid role of social science in the eugenics movement and a mixed assessment of its role in the technology sector. Across disciplines, the social sciences are improving their methods, taking advantage of new data sources and more diverse scholars. But that does not imply any quick fixes for tough social problems. Instead, learning about social life with the tools of science is a long slog with slower accumulation and more controversial application than the natural sciences. The way forward is recognizing the progress in addressing our inherent challenges.—Matt Grossmann

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