Public engagement was a strong feature of the social sciences from their birth. Could one imagine Hobbes, Locke or the Scottish moralists as mere academics? Weber, Durkheim, and the great Chicago School sociologists had university jobs but both public concerns and public audiences. Social scientists today contribute to public understanding of issues from social inequality to transformations of the family. They also inform public policy on problems from educational reform to economic productivity. But since World War II, dramatic growth in universities and research institutions not only created opportunities for social scientists, it contained much of their communication inside the academy. An ideology that opposed academic professionalism to public engagement and a prestige hierarchy that favored allegedly pure science over applied added to the tendency.
Public social science depends on addressing public issues and informing public understanding. Simply reaching a broader public is only part of the story. Certainly a social science turned in on itself fails to achieve much public significance. But more important than the desire to promulgate what social scientists know is the effort to bring knowledge to bear on pressing public issues.
But it is also true that many academic projects are driven by neither deep intellectual curiosity nor pressing public agendas, but simply by the internal arguments of academic subfields or theoretically aimless attempts at cumulative knowledge that mostly accumulate lines on CVs. To justify these by an ideology of pure science is disingenuous. To let these displace the attention of researchers from major public issues is to act with contempt towards the public that pays the bills.
More generally, the development of better theory or intellectual synthesis, better knowledge of the range of intellectual tools and perspectives developed by earlier social scientists, and better methods of research and analysis are all important. They strengthen the whole social science enterprise so that it can perform better in all ways, including when deployed to advance understanding of pressing public issues. The point is not that all social science should be harnessed to the immediate task of addressing public debates or public policy. Some division of labor is appropriate along with a diversity of tasks. But it is a crucial point that social science demonstrates its usefulness by informing public knowledge, not simply accumulating esoteric knowledge inside disciplines. The value and reward systems of social science accordingly need to encourage attention to improving understanding of the world around us.Will we intellectual hermits come down from the mountain? Equivalent perhaps to the Bodhisattva vow, if I might make this analogy--we step down from our monasteries and actively engage, inform and learn from public involvement. It helps us in two ways: as citizens of a planetary civilization, our active involvement contributes to a mutual learning experience. As academics, we learn something new by working "in the field." The rest of the public also learns something new. They're informed by our more direct presence, encouraging them to reflect on the state of society, and in turn offering us valuable insight. We hermits could be wrong, or just plain non-integrated about our understanding.
Calls for a more public orientation to social science seek to reclaim an important dimension of the history of social science. While universities have roots in ancient philosophy and medieval monastic communities, the roots of the modern social sciences were laid outside academia or in new and reformed universities. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, David Ricardo, Adolphe Quetelet, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer and Lester Frank Ward all made their contributions without university posts. The Scottish universities were more open than the English in the 18th and 19th centuries. And after the Humboltian reforms so were many of the German. In the United States too the social sciences began to gain academic footholds earlier in new universities like Johns Hopkins and especially Chicago than in older ones where classical curricula dominated through the late 19th century.
Indeed, the social sciences came to the fore as part of a rebellion against exclusive study of the old disciplines. They grew along with science and technology because they were deemed forward-looking and important to ‘progress’, relevant to solving contemporary problems and furthering positive innovations. They grew along with broader enrollments as universities became less narrowly elite, expanding beyond the education of gentlemen and clergymen to training a range of professionals and members of the middle classes. The capacity of the social sciences to inform public discourse was vital to their growth.
“Public intellectual… That is to say, the individual still bold enough to put his mind and his knowledge to use in analyzing the world around us, in language that most of us can understand, and with an eye toward effecting practical improvements”.