'Social Knowledge in the Making'

Editors discuss new book on the creation of knowledge in the social sciences.

October 26, 2011

Numerous studies in the last few decades have examined how physical and biological scientists make discoveries and face challenges in their labs. A new collection of essays and original research -- Social Knowledge in the Making (University of Chicago Press) -- applies this sort of analysis to the social sciences, exploring the process of creation in very different disciplines. Chapters in the volume cover such topics as peer review, academic conferences, interdisciplinary work and institutional review boards. The editors (who are also among the volume's contributors) are: Charles Camic, the John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University; Neil Gross, associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia; and Michèle Lamont, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies, professor of sociology, and professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University. They responded via e-mail to questions about the book:

Q: Why do you think there has been more focus to date on the creation of knowledge in the biological and physical sciences than in the social sciences?

A: The inspiration for our book comes from the field of science and technology studies. There, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and others have worked diligently for more than two decades to document the many "social practices" involved in the making of scientific knowledge: the social relationships and patterns of exchange that make scientific collaboration possible, the cultural beliefs and assumptions at play in laboratory settings, the tricks of the trade that scientists learn and employ to get their work done, and so on. Most studies by science and technology scholars have examined the biological and physical sciences because it has generally been assumed that these are harder nuts to crack, sociologically speaking. It's obvious, scholars have long thought, that social processes and influences affect the social sciences and the humanities — so why devote much attention to them? Better to study the harder to see ways in which "the social" impinges on physics, say, or chemistry.

We think that this work on the natural sciences has been extremely important. But it seemed to us that there would be value in training the same kind of lens on the social sciences, broadly construed. "Social knowledge" is pervasive in contemporary society, and we thought the time was at hand to begin thinking about the mundane social practices involved in its creation and dissemination. Of course, there’s a huge literature on methods in every social science field. But writing about the ways social scientists should do things and analyzing the ways they actually do things are very different enterprises.

A considerable amount of work has been done on the social sciences from the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge, asking how ideas, theories, and methods may grow of out large-scale social or historical developments — for example, how the rise of neo-classical economics was tied to political and economic changes in twentieth-century America. Our book departs from this approach by highlighting not the broad context of knowledge, but the nitty-gritty social activities involved in its creation.

Q: Why do you think it's important to understand not just the findings of social science research, but the patterns of creation of that knowledge?

A: We think that this is important on both scholarly and science policy grounds. First, scholarship: If you are a sociologist or historian or anthropologist who studies the people who make social knowledge — academic social scientists, researchers working in think tanks, applied economists in industry positions, journalists, etc. — it seems to us that you can’t really be offering an accurate portrayal of your research subjects' professional lives unless you pay attention to what it is they spend their time doing, and how they go about doing it. Encouraging more attention to practices means encouraging more richly descriptive scholarship about the social sciences.

What's more, focusing on practices can sometimes give you insight into ideas themselves. For example, there’s a terrific chapter in our book by Johan Heilbron. The chapter shows how the theoretical approach of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu emerged out of his distinctive research practices. Heilbron argues convincingly that understanding the roots of Bourdieu's ideas results in a better understanding of them — of their generalizability and intended scope of application.

Finally, highlighting practices can give scholars a better view of academic change. In his chapter, Andrew Abbott shows how American academic libraries have gone through a number of distinct phases in how they organize their collections. He describes how each of these phases entailed very different practices of library access for scholars — practices that had implications for the ideas they produced and taught. Similarly, Anthony Grafton, for his chapter, shows that the archival materials with which historians work have changed dramatically over the years, with each period corresponding to different kinds of scholarship.

In terms of science policy, highlighting practices is important for two reasons. One, it allows you to measure the distance between the ideal and the real. For instance, most of us would like peer review to be a completely impersonal and objective process, but the reality is that it isn’t. Like all aspects of knowledge production, peer review unfolds in a multidimensional space that includes emotional, interactional and institutional aspects. Social scientists are 360 degree human beings, not disembodied minds. Understanding how social knowledge making transpires on the ground might give us more realistic expectations for it — and could inform meaningful efforts at reform.

Two, close examination of practices helps us peer into the important cultural infrastructure of social knowledge. For example, in her chapter Sarah Igo shows that early 20th-century public opinion pollsters faced a major obstacle: large segments of the public didn’t believe in the reliability of polling. So pollsters worked hard, employing a wide variety of techniques, to convince people of the validity of their method. Had polling not obtained widespread legitimacy, the social and political landscape today would look very different. At a time when the legitimacy of some of the social sciences are in dispute — as in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent comments questioning the value of an anthropology degree — attention to practices might make clear the kind of work that remains to be done to shore up the credibility of social knowledge. It might also give us a better sense for which of the traditional practices of academe are essential for knowledge production and which are merely ceremonial — a key concern in times of resource scarcity for higher education.

Q: Neil, would you describe the issue you explore in one chapter on academic conferences and how they fit into the production of knowledge and a discipline?

A: My chapter, written with Crystal Fleming, is a case study of knowledge production in an interdisciplinary field at the border of the social sciences and the humanities: political philosophy. We started out with the goal of following a paper in political philosophy all the way through from conception to writing to publication. We planned to interview our research subject at multiple points in the process, following his streams of communications and seeing how his ideas evolved through multiple drafts — all in the hopes of illuminating the social practices that went into knowledge creation in this corner of the academic universe.

As time went on, however, we noticed something that we had never really paid attention to before: our research subject was using academic conferences as a key vehicle for getting his work done, promising several months ahead of time that he would give a conference presentation on a paper that at that point consisted of little more than a few notes, and then using the looming deadline to force himself to set aside his many other obligations in order to actually make headway with the project. He also ended up making major modifications to the paper in response to the feedback he received at the conference. While clearly not all social knowledge is produced in this way, Fleming and I draw on the case study to suggest that academic conferences may have an underappreciated role to play in the knowledge production process: they’re not just venues for scientific communication, but also socially orchestrated events that participants may use to help them bring new knowledge into being. There’s good evidence that academics are more time-crunched today than in the past, and promising to give a paper at a conference is one technique that scholars may use to “bind themselves to the mast” and actually get papers written amid these time pressures.

Q: Michèle, would you describe the findings of your chapter on peer  review?

A: This chapter builds on my book How Professors Think to analyze how the set up for peer review influences how evaluators go about doing their job of assessing fellowship and grant proposals. In a comparison between European and American panels we studied, my co-author Katri Huutoniemi and I find considerable variation in the customary rules of evaluation that panelists follow — rules that are not spelled out anywhere, but which panelists think they should follow to evaluate fairly. Whether one ranks or rates candidate proposals, whether the panels include experts only, or generalists also, whether the proposals under review emanate from the social or the natural sciences, will influence how panelists deal with the customary rules I had documented in my book on social sciences and humanities peer review in the United States. These rules include deferring to expertise, respecting the sovereignty of a discipline over proposals that emanate from it, adopting cognitive contextualization (i.e., adapting criteria of evaluation to the norms of the disciplines of the applicant), and following the rules of deliberative democracy (as opposed to having an expert make a case to a jury). This chapter suggests a much broader agenda for the comparative study of evaluative practices in a large range of settings. One of our findings, that natural scientists are less contentious in peer review panels than social scientists, may have to do with the fact that their reputations are less contested, especially when these are tied to their past records in grant-getting. In the social sciences, status hierarchies are much less stable. This probably has a huge impact on knowledge production and evaluation in settings well beyond those of the funding panels we studied.

Q: Where do the essays in your book leave you seeing common patterns in the social sciences, as opposed to diverging patterns?

A: In our view, not enough research has been done to allow us to answer this question. It is obviously true that all academic social scientists who do research face common challenges: honing in on interesting research topics, getting financial support for their work, collecting data, developing original and credible ideas, and so on. What we don’t know in any systematic way is whether the practical solutions they employ for addressing these challenges vary across disciplines, subfields, types of institutional settings, and eras and places — much less how academic and non-academic producers of social knowledge differ in this regard. Our hope, with Social Knowledge in the Making, is to encourage the growth of an interdisciplinary research community that could, collectively and over time, begin to shed light on this as well as other related matters.


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