Should social science be more solution-oriented?

The idea of applied research in social sciences is of great interest. Social sciences will indeed benefit from reaching new audiences and sometimes switch focus. Then, the approach and discussion in this article ttly falls short IMO

“Solution-oriented social science “ was at the origin of social sciences itself and that is exactly why a “critical social science “ has develop at some point. I find quite funny that the paper is based on a comparison with physics and theoretical “incoherency “ of papers about spread of ideas.

This echoes the current tendency of defining “applied social sciences “ by the use of methods imported from the field of physics to social facts. The most emblematic are of course network studies and the studies of complex systems, but to a larger extent most of the methods in digital humanities rely on tools and algorithms created for the study of matter.

I am really enthusiastic about these new methods but we still need to bridge them with traditional apparatus of social sciences, that is field observations and existing theoretical frameworks. The problem often is that new theories are developed to fit these new methods, but there is very few assessments of their validity - like this concept of “social contagion “ mentioned in the paper, which bypass a century of sociology and anthropology.

There is much constructive debate on possible application of social sciences ongoing those days, esp in the field of geography and urban studies (see the 2011 debate about ANT and urban assemblage in City for instance). This is partly because those disciplines have a very practical object to study (cities, land, etc). Sociology is really suffering in the post-Vincennes world of rhizomes.

The main problem IMHO is twofold 1) academic sectarianism and the necessity of showing “results “ prevents scholars from building useful methods 2) there is a total lack of institutions and pipelines for the transfer of these methods - and further findings - to other organizations.

Very few wants to take the painful task of building methodology seriously. Many scholars prefer to run into endless ramble of low-end and super verbose theory. It usually takes outsiders to bring renewal to methods in social sciences (like the physicists and their networks).

Then, once you have built those new methods to decipher social facts, you need to teach them, train people and provide tools so it can be applied to all sort of problems, and eventually provides support for new organizations, decisions or operations - or anything else for that matter.

One of the only place that have taken all those questions seriously is the field of design. It produces tons of interesting and less-interesting methods, tools and frameworks. The problem is that, as it has now be identified as an academic discipline, it will going to follow the same destiny : go vertical into its own re-re-re-definition and miss the great synergy to be found in other disciplines.

There is more and more design plug-ins into institutions that takes the role of doing interdisciplinary and applied research (like the Medialab and others). I think those are all very inspiring, much more than doing “problem-solving social sciences “, which is just a poor trick. The sad thing is that they still very elite and not widespread at this stage.

We need more of those “applied social sciences “ spaces. If anyone is eager to build one, just get in touch !

This text was originally published in quora.

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