THE BLOG
01/16/2014 06:14 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

A 2014 Challenge for the Social Sciences

The beginning of a new year always compels professional reflection. As I head back into the classroom to face a new set of students -- some eager, some not so eager -- one gripping realization colonizes my thoughts: social scientists are living in increasingly challenging times. It is now commonplace to read reports about the demise of the liberal arts, including, of course, the social sciences. In states like North Carolina, once the very model of excellence in public higher education, there is a politically driven movement to dump the "irrelevant" and "unproductive" social sciences and humanities into the academic dustbin. Last year North Carolina Governor Pat McGrory wondered if public funds -- taxpayers' dollars -- should be used to fund "unproductive" disciplines like philosophy. Here's an exchange he had with conservative stalwart William Bennett, which is summarized in Kevin Kiley's Inside Higher Education article "Another Liberal Arts Critic":

"How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?" Bennett asked, to which McCrory replied, "You and I agree." (Bennett earned a Ph.D., from a public flagship university, the University of Texas at Austin, in philosophy.)

McCrory's comments on higher education echo statements made by a number of Republican governors -- including those in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin -- who have questioned the value of liberal arts instruction and humanities degrees at public colleges and universities. Those criticisms have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in "high demand" fields and taking on flagship institutions.

Does such a movement suggest the erosion of education in the liberal arts at public institutions of higher learning? In previous blogs I have repeatedly described how the politicization and corporatization of universities is eroding intellectual quality. Universities have become institutions that increasingly measure excellence by the number of students processed rather than by the capacity of graduates to think critically and write clearly.

In this rather repressive intellectual climate, what can be done to salvage the liberal arts? Beyond very necessary grassroots movements of students, faculty and parents to protest the politicization -- and slow deaths -- of world-class public institutions of higher learning, there is a number of things that professors can do to enhance the public profile of the liberal arts, giving them a measure of social and political potency.

The challenge for the social sciences -- at least for me -- is to simultaneously maintain rigorous standards while producing works that clearly and powerfully articulate important insights to broad audiences across a variety of media. In my discipline, anthropology, the challenge is to communicate critical insights about social life in such a way that moves audiences to think and to act.

Many of my colleagues devote considerable energy to debate the whys and wherefores of nature, culture, social change, globalization and ontological turns. These debates are usually articulated in specialized languages that may demonstrate brilliance but often limit the reach of insight. There is no reason that theoretically informed findings cannot be communicated to broad audiences.

I present two recent examples from authors who are anthropologists. The first is David Graeber's book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Although the multidimensional subject of debt can be frustratingly complex, Graeber presents his anthropologically informed ideas in a conversational manner, which means he is able to transform a complex tangle of information, some of which is highly abstract, into a readable history of how the notion of debt has shaped economic, social, religious and political relations. The upshot is that this highly sophisticated but accessible work is beginning to change the way we think about something fundamentally human. Such an impact has broad implications for the future of our social, economic and political relations. In short, Debt is a book that is both academically rigorous and broadly appealing. It showcases the power and the reach of the social sciences.

The second example is Alisse Waterston's My Father's Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century, which is an anthropologically and historically informed memoir on the impact of social upheaval on the social, economic and emotional life of one man, Michael Waterston, who fled Poland, landed in Cuba and eventually made his way to New York City. Waterston writes:

This is a story that is also a history. ... It is a portrait of a charming, funny, wounded, and difficult man, his relationships with those he loved, and his most sacred beliefs. And it is a reflection on the forces of history, the power of memory, and meanings people attach to events, things and others.

In this book Waterston employs the considerable power of narrative -- a daughter's intimate but thoroughly anthropological account of her father's fascinatingly troubled life -- to connect with her readers. In so doing she demonstrates how powerful historical forces have a tangible impact on the everyday dramas of family life. Such a tack gives her book broad appeal. Although Debt and My Father's Wars are very different kinds of books, they share one import feature: they both demonstrate quite palpably how the forces of history or of debt -- abstract forces -- have a real impact on our everyday lives. These are works that engage the public. They are works that compel readers to think, feel and act.

The public advocacy of anthropology's founding father, Franz Boas, long ago set the standard for social scientific public engagement. He expended his considerable academic capital on a long battle against racism and social intolerance. As a 2014 challenge, it is perhaps time for more social scientists to follow his lead in order to demonstrate the indispensability of the social sciences. Our future depends upon it.