Christopher Uggen, University of Minnesota and Co-Editor of The Society Pages
At The Society Pages, our readers and writers (as well as our friends and partners) have been asking what the election of Donald Trump and Republican legislative majorities might mean for social science and social scientists. The sky is (probably) not falling and new opportunities will (almost surely) arise, but there are some significant challenges ahead for many of us who think of ourselves as social researchers–regardless of our own party affiliation. I am thinking here about the institutions that affect our research, teaching, and learning, rather than our individual or collective views or concerns as citizens or political actors. Most pointedly, the new regime has signaled that they will offer less material and symbolic support for sociology, for science, for criticism, and for higher education. Nobody can predict what will happen at this point and it may be too early, dumb, or offensive to raise practical professional questions from a position of unusual privilege, but I will follow Doug Hartmann in offering some personal reflections and semi-educated guesses based on the recent past.
Your work. There is no sugarcoating it: the conditions of work for most social scientists are unlikely to get any easier in the next few years. But our field has proven remarkably resilient. How many scholars believe their research, teaching, outreach, and engagement work suddenly became less important with this November’s election? Like obstetricians or immigration lawyers, our life’s work may simultaneously become more challenging and more meaningful in coming years. Consider the topics listed atop our main page at TSP: gender, race, inequality, crime, culture, health, and politics. You think the election won’t bring new urgency to work in any of these areas, or new research questions to investigate? To paraphrase Etta James, the blues is our business and business is good. That said, federal research funding streams may slow to a trickle. I anticipate a pivot toward foundations, community partners, and universities that are already stretched thin. I spoke with a foundation representative today who seemed keenly aware of this potential vacuum–and is sincerely interested in learning where their investments might do the most good. Of course, most social scientists will continue to do good work without major grants or fellowships and there will likely be new grant solicitations in narrowly-defined target areas. But at this point I would rather scale back my projects (and those of my students) than delay them in anticipation of a large infusion of federal social science research dollars.
Your institution. I know it isn’t the first issue on your mind, but life could also get more complicated for the people who sign your paychecks. Boo freaking hoo, right? Well, imagine being a public university president in a state transitioning from an education-friendly governor (and/or legislature) to a new regime less committed to higher education (or, perhaps, one that is explicitly anti-intellectual). Top administrators and their staff in government relations must now reframe their appeals simply to hold onto the 20 percent (or whatever, your mileage may vary) they (we) currently receive. If experience is any guide, they will offer both a vigorous defense of liberal arts education and renewed claims about “ROI” (return on investment) and your university’s role in workforce development. Such talk strains relations with faculty and students but does not (necessarily) mean that your leaders have sold out or turned their back on “core mission.” It may be one among many strategies to bring the resources needed to sustain that mission. Yes, they can and must “fight the good fight” and they might be better served leading a march on the state capitol, but their messaging, their invitation lists, and even their hires will respond in some way to the new power dynamics. Hold your leaders and institutions accountable, but remember that they are probably not your principal enemy and do what you can to help them advocate for the social sciences.
Your peers. Though our positions and power vary greatly, many of us share at least a loosely-connected professional identity. This election has been especially divisive within sociology, pitting sister against sister in heated debates, whether over Bernie versus Hillary or the best path forward under Trump. But sociologist-on-sociologist violence will get us nowhere. As one election post-mortem noted, it simply isn’t tactical for groups to insist on moral purity or 100 percent consensus. And our professional life already exaggerates differences imperceptible to civilians, whether we’re arguing the nuances of Foucauldian theory or the relative merits of Poisson vs. negative binomial regression. The Society Pages believes that sociology needs a “big tent” to prosper–one embracing both our pure science wing and our social activist wing. Because we don’t have a lot of weight to throw around, we’d likely be further diminished if we “cleave it in twain.” So I’m going to continue to love all y’all – even when y’all disagree. Of course, smart people of good will disagree on what to do next. Some advocate resistance, protests, and letter-writing campaigns. Others “stay in their lanes,” only taking policy positions when they have direct and empirically verifiable expert knowledge on a subject. And, yes, others will work directly with the new regime – often on the same sorts of policy questions they are pursuing with the current regime. I was more frequently summoned to Washington under the Obama and Clinton administrations than during the Bush administration(s), but the latter also took up issues that mattered to me (such as prisoner reentry). I saw how social scientists can make a tangible difference under blue, red, and purplish regimes. Maybe this time it’s different and more nefarious, but on balance I would almost always prefer to have good social scientists in the room when decisions affecting society are made.
Yourself. Social scientists extrapolate. That’s what we do. And when we lack good information, we tend to extrapolate based on worst-case scenarios. So, many of us will end 2016 with great apprehension not just about 2017 but about the longer-term trajectories of our careers, our students’ careers, and our disciplines. That said, even the most pessimistic observer should recognize that the social sciences are too strong to ignore and too tough to die. Put differently, it is a good time for many of us to reflect on our privilege and to direct our efforts toward aiding people and groups who are far more vulnerable or marginalized. And if you’d like to support the social sciences in ways that go beyond your own research and teaching, commit yourself to deploying your expertise in ways that directly confront the howling fantods you might be feeling. For me, that means doing all I can to protect the integrity and transparency of basic social indicators and U.S. government statistics – and to redouble our efforts at The Society Pages to bring social science research to broader visibility and influence.
This article was cross-posted at TheSocietyPages.org