I recently discovered a blog sponsored by the Consortium of Social Science Associations. The Why Social Science blog seeks to “to share the benefits and contributions of federally-funded social and behavioral science research with the public and encourage its widespread use for tackling challenges of national importance.” The latest entry — “Because Social Science Helps Us Enhance Diversity in the Interest of Positive Societal Outcomes” — was penned by a graduate school classmate, Dr. Jean Shin!
“Who among us has not experienced the silent embarrassment of struggling to push open a door, only to realize it is clearly marked ‘Pull’? Or perhaps you’ve puzzled over an unfamiliar faucet, or been flummoxed by a light switch that defies logic.” So begins a Pacific Standard article about “Norman Doors,” beautifully designed but dysfunctional objects. See a bad door design video for additional information; the video references a 99% Invisible podcast about Norman Doors.
An advertisement for Dove body wash was recently deemed racially insensitive for its portrayal of a Black woman who removes her brown shirt to reveal a White woman wearing a tan shirt. There is a long history of advertisers being insensitive to African American consumers…when they paid attention to that segment of the market at all. The Pacific Standard article “A Brief History of Companies Courting African-American Dollars” provides an analysis.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted an interesting article, “Can Social Science Tell Us How Much Gerrymandering is Too Much?” The article examines how social science research might impact pending Supreme Court arguments in the case Gill v. Whitford [No. 16-1161], which could have major political implications. For the article the Chronicle interviewed Philip Rocco, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University. The author closes the interview with, “should we hold out hope that social science can really making a meaningful difference in some of these intractable problems we have in society?” Professor Rocco responds:
Social science begins with what people used to refer to as the social question. And especially in the early 20th century, there were a lot of examples where social scientists were working not to dictate the problems of society from on high, but working kind of in collaboration with people both in government and in social society, actors from philanthropies and labor-oriented interests, and large stakeholders, to solve social problems.
When social scientists extensively collaborate with others we can productively tackle contemporary social problems such as gerrymandering.
SJSU Political Science Professor Lawrence Quill has co-written a provocative essay about universal basic income with Hasmet Uluorta, an Assistant Professor of Political Studies and International Development Studies at Trent University. They discuss how technology might enable a system of universal basic income and transform the function of government. For example:
Turning welfare provision into an app that tracks and monitors behavior means you can do away with many of the bureaucratic elements of the state. Of course, this would mean giving technology companies access to the entire database of citizens within a given territory, along with other data such as immigration records. This would arguably swap one form of paternalism for another. But where some observers see Big Brother, the tech entrepreneurs who wish to alter the behavior of people for the common good see “captology” or “persuasive technologies,” and substitute “surveillance” for “using apps to change the behavior of people for the better.” Thanks to phones and other wearable technologies, such “intimate surveillance” is now so pervasive that this participatory panopticon is the norm for a generation who have grown up knowing only the reality of Internet life.
Quill and Uluorta conclude, “The idea that poverty, like other social and political problems, can be solved by turning to technology and reducing the power of the state is a potent one with deep philosophical roots. We should keep this fresh in our minds when debating policies that herald privately owned technologies as the solution to complex social problems.” Well said!
The National Parks Service has issued a report about the Reconstruction Era that followed the U.S. Civil War. According to a Pacific Standard article about the report, “a new initiative by the National Parks Service seeks to designate sites for their historic significance in the Reconstruction era. It’s a bold and vital move for an agency that has only recently begun to seriously address the racial complexities of the Civil War.” Indeed!
The Stanford University Tomorrow’s Professor e-newsletter recently examined the nature of the social sciences. In “What is Social Science?” Rom Harré — Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University — is interviewed by Nigel Warburton, co-author (with David Edmonds) of the book Big Ideas in Social Science. Harré and Warburton compare and contrast the social sciences with the physical sciences in a fascinating discussion.
Today is September 11, 2017, the 16th anniversary of the New York City and Washington D.C. terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. The Pacific Standard website has an interesting article about cable news re-broadcasts of their original coverage.
Pacific Standard recently published an article on improving U.S. Presidential election primaries. The author poses a provocative proportion: “How to improve the primary process? Make it less democratic. It sounds counterintuitive—and would be a hard sell—but making the way the two major political parties nominate candidates less traditionally democratic could also make it more open to compromise and negotiation.” Specifically, he argues that we should:
- Make the primaries and caucuses proportional rather than winner-take-all;
- Shorten the time between the first and last primaries and caucuses so that candidates who aren’t necessarily winning in fundraising might still make it to the end; and
- Make contests less about the candidates and more about the delegates. This could include unbinding delegates from the voters’ choices.
Last week faculty and staff returned to SJSU for the fall semester. Classes started on Wednesday (August 23, 2017), and the next day the President gave her annual Fall Welcome Address. She started the address by discussing the August 11-12, 2017 violence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville surrounding marches and rallies by White supremacists. I also discussed the protests and counter-protests at the conclusion of the College of Social Sciences welcome event, on Monday, August 21, 2017. See below for the transcript.
To close, let me read two brief items to you.
(1) The first is a note I sent to the college the day after the November 8, 2016 U.S. elections:
Dear Social Sciences Family-
Many of us are shocked and saddened by yesterday’s election and our nation’s deep divisions. It seems that across all aspects of the political spectrum many actions were driven by ignorance and fear instead of knowledge and hope. As we process these results two social media posts by colleagues may be good to keep in mind:
“Out of touch. Like me, you are out of touch with the majority of our country if you did not vote for Trump. (I am not a Hillary supporter either….so I am even more out of touch than most.) Whether or not you are right, does not change that we are out of touch. That said, the best route forward is not to vilify those who don’t think like us, nor condemn them as stupid or ignorant, but instead to understand how and why the majority came to be so different from us.”
“Being a teacher/writer/advocate has never been more important. Let’s fight for the next generation. I’m fired up and ready to go.”
In these challenging times let’s remind ourselves of our mission to help our students and the broader community create more complex and nuanced understandings of their social worlds. Our work matters more than ever now.
Warmest Regards, Walt
(2) The second was the start of an article from last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Teaching Newsletter, August 17, 2017”):
The violent demonstrations by white nationalists this past weekend at the University of Virginia have brought renewed attention to one of higher education’s biggest challenges: fostering civil dialogue in class.
There’s no shortage of guidance available. Groups like Project Pericles, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project have been working to help students engage in constructive conversations, especially during fraught times.
When the students return on Wednesday many will be extremely anxious about the futures. From undocumented students worried about their ability to stay in school and study, to students of color wondering if they are safe when formerly closeted bigots are emboldened to openly express their hate, to the increased unease of all students about their economic futures in the midst of worldwide upheaval, the next few weeks will be difficult times.
I know that many of you are already making changes to engage the challenges we will face. For instance, at least two Assistant Professors rewrote their syllabi after the atrocities in Charlottesville. And the SJSU Fall 2017 Faculty Professional Development Series on Whiteness and Race is more timely than ever. I applaud and thank all who have already thought deeply about how we can move forward to build a better society.
I know that many more instructors will use tools such as those listed in the Chronicle article. Others will develop and powerfully implement new ideas over the semester. In the development I encourage you to draw on the collective experience and wisdom of your colleagues. Together we are stronger.
Earlier in this event we discussed new investments in our Ethnic Studies programs. There are also other social justice proposals in development that will help us create more democratic societies. Our work as social scientists is crucial in that endeavor.
So, on the one hand this concluding note could dampen a traditionally celebratory event, but on the other it is a testament to our vibrancy. When I started as CoSS dean two years ago one of the Chairs remarked, “Collaboration is in your DNA!” Well, I was drawn here because collaboration is an essential component of the college as a whole; collaboration is in our DNA. Tough times are ahead, but we will collectively generate ideas that will get us through the current mess as we build better places on the other side. I look forward to the journey with you all. Have a good semester!