The social sciences have been an important driver of human progress throughout history. Research findings are still an important source for decision-making for professionals around the world. However, the reputation of social sciences has started to suffer as critics argue that they are lacking in usefulness. We argue that they do have a point and that some social sciences indeed face an impact crisis while others thrive. Furthermore, we have a look at the state of social sciences and how to overcome the impact crisis.
Social sciences are a driving force for human progress
The social sciences are, by design, intended to provide grounded, meaningful information and recommendations for various aspects of human life – from education, to criminal justice, to management, and many more. Yet for many years, social science research has yielded findings that are very limited in their relevance and applicability (Bornman, 2013).
Small experimental studies and surveys, typically conducted on college students, cannot consistently tell us meaningful things about how people in the world-at-large think, behave, and feel. Furthermore, highly theoretical work that is conducted in a laboratory may not provide useful conclusions that extend to the office.
Some social sciences face an impact crisis while other thrive
In this vacuum of meaningful work with real-world applications, the social sciences have developed a reputation for being navel-gazing and lacking in usefulness. However, there is a plethora of useful, grounded social science research being conducted today.
Scientists in the fields of social psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, and management can provide working professionals with advice and predictions that are both empirically and theoretically supported. In addition, productive scientists can extend the value and impact of their work by sharing their findings in “applied” settings – real workplaces, with real working people in them.
The impact crisis finds its origins in the academic preference for research that can yield clear-cut findings
Within academia, there seems to be a deeply embedded preference for “basic” research. “Basic” research is highly theoretical and speculative in nature, and is typically conducted in a controlled, laboratory environment (Rosenberg, 2010). Because basic research is so tightly controlled, it can yield clear-cut findings about cause and effect, and explain human behavior in a relatively simplified way. This work is seen, within the scientific community, as more “pure” and rigorous than work conducted in a real-world setting such as an office, industrial plant, or school.
While “basic” research can yield simplified explanations of human behavior, reality is rarely simple. An experimental treatment that may have an impact in a controlled, sterile lab may not have as much an influence in a crowded, noisy co-working space (Orne, 1962). The responses a research participant gives in an anonymous survey may not be consistent with the behaviors they exhibit at work (Bornstein, 1999). Because of this, the findings of “basic” research do not always line up with real-world observations.
This phenomenon has created a disjoint between the scientists who claim to be interested in things like human motivation, decision-making, and skill development, and the managers and workers whom they claim to serve (Bornman, 2013). It has also led to the training of thousands of academics who are deeply well-versed in academic science, but who do not know how to conduct work in a professional, applied setting. Thus, the impact crisis harms people conducting research, as well as organizational managers and team leaders, who could benefit from relevant, useful research on human psychology.
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The social sciences are vital - academia and the real world are catching on rapidly
While a great deal of writing about the impact crisis may sound bleak, there is sufficient research & collaboration being done to merit hope. One of the largest and most rapidly growing subfields of social psychology, for example, is Industrial-Organizational Psychology. Social Psychology PhD’s routinely work as faculty within Business, Communications, and Management schools, conducting research that is both empirically rigorous and firmly grounded in real-world questions. In recent years, the published social science research with the biggest “impact” in the literature and in popular media has been work that addresses social problems and examines how to make workplaces more productive, creative, and harmonious.
In addition, a number of statistics promise a brighter future for the social sciences and the working professionals who could stand to benefit from their knowledge. As the number of social science PhDs increases while the number of tenure-track positions dwindle, more and more researchers are actively choosing to work in large business organizations, nonprofits, schools, and government agencies (Macera & Cohen, 2006). And as numerous workplaces strive to increase diversity, boost innovation, and develop work processes that help employees thrive, the demand for real-world-oriented research is at an all-time high.
Most social science research aims to uncover core principles about why people feel, act, and think as they do. While some laboratory-based research may not yield very useful insights into these subjects, the reality is that most social science findings are applicable in some form to “real life”. A growing body of younger, more outward-looking academics are now focused on taking age-old psychological knowledge, and applying it directly to the workplace. They have been assisted in this effort by an ever-growing population of business managers who seek to learn more about how social science research is conducted, and how it can be used to boost organizational effectiveness. Working as a team, these two groups can help identify the potential “impact” of research work that has not been effectively put to use in the past.
The real-world impact of social science research at the workplace can be maximised with insights from evidence-based management
The social sciences are, by design, intended to provide grounded, meaningful information and recommendations for various aspects of human life – from education, to criminal justice, to management, and many more. Yet for many years, social science research has yielded findings that are very limited in their relevance and applicability (Bornman, 2013). Small experimental studies and surveys, typically conducted on college students, cannot consistently tell us meaningful things about how people in the world-at-large think, behave, and feel. Furthermore, highly theoretical work that is conducted in a laboratory may not provide useful conclusions that extend to the office.
Managers can bring social science findings into their own decision-making by becoming skilled, capable consumers of the scientific literature. While reading journal articles and learning about theories and statistics can be intimidating, there is a wealth of social science knowledge available that is accessibly written, practical, and geared towards a business audience. Sites like CQ Net - Management skills for everyone! specialize in translating years of social science research into distilled, practical advice that is both empirically supported and easy to comprehend. This movement to rely on the best available evidence when making decision rather than opinion is referred to as evidence-based management (EBM).
On the other side of the equation, social scientists can work to address the “impact” crisis by conducting research outside of the lab (Bergman & Jean, 2016). Through a combination of workplace observations, large-sample survey studies and program evaluations, today’s researchers can amass useful data on how real-world employees act, think, and feel; conclusions can be tailored to pressing social problems, rather than abstract, theoretical questions.
In addition, researchers can broaden the “impact” of their work by making sure they describe their findings in language that doesn’t require a PhD to understand. Effective scientific work should be communicated broadly, with useful take-away points and approachable language. When research is clearly and usefully conveyed, it can influence a much larger body of stakeholders, and help business professionals and scientists alike.
References and further reading
Bergman, M. E., & Jean, V. A. (2016). Where have all the “workers” gone? A critical analysis of the unrepresentativeness of our samples relative to the labor market in the industrial–organizational psychology literature. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 9(1), 84-113.
Bornmann, L. (2013). What is societal impact of research and how can it be assessed? A literature survey. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 64(2), 217-233.
Bornstein, B. H. (1999). The ecological validity of jury simulations: Is the jury still out?. Law and human Behavior, 23(1), 75.
Macera, M. H., & Cohen, S. H. (2006). Psychology as a profession: An effective career exploration and orientation course for undergraduate psychology majors. The Career Development Quarterly, 54(4), 367-371.
Orne, M. T. (1962). On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American psychologist, 17(11), 776.
Rosenberg, N. (2010). Why do firms do basic research (with their own money)?. In Studies On Science And The Innovation Process: Selected Works of Nathan Rosenberg (pp. 225-234).
Erika Price is a social psychologist, writer, and statistical and methodological consultant based in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Erika's research has focused on the psychology of political tolerance and open-mindedness. In addition to conducting experimental and survey-based research on these topics, Erika helps clients use methodological and data analytic tools to answer pressing questions that challenge their organization.