Facebook users only have seven options to characterize their relationship status: single, in a relationship, in an open relationship, engaged, married, widowed, or it’s complicated. Nobody would view these categories as exhaustive or mutually exclusive (whose marriage isn’t complicated?), but they convey information about exclusivity and commitment, which tells readers something useful about the state of a relationship.
When people like us write for blogs or public outreach publications like Contexts, a big part of the job is characterizing a different sort of status — how much we really know about a particular issue or question. The best writers bring an authoritative voice and perspective to an issue, but they also try to offer a “fair read” of the field. We like to think The Community Pages at The Society Pages are both provocative and responsible — provocative in engaging social questions, but responsible in characterizing what we know and don’t know about the answers.
When academics think we’ve mischaracterized the state of knowledge, they can weigh in with counter-evidence and strong commentary. In forums like this, non-academics can also sniff out potential biases and join the debate; though they are generally at a disadvantage in judging a scholar’s reading of the social-scientific literature, other commenters may also have broad perspective, opinions, and ideas to share. So it is all the more important to support and recruit bloggers who write with a clear and informed vision of the social science research in their area.
In principle, we could imagine Facebook-style drop-down menus to help categorize the state of knowledge on particular questions. These might offer status indicators and updates, such as
- the question is settled after extensive study;
- a preponderance of evidence supports a particular answer;
- it’s complicated but we’ve got some good leads; or,
- we’ve got nothing yet that would help answer the question.
Unfortunately, when reporters ask social scientists a concrete question about the social world, our default knee-jerk answer is to say that “it’s complicated” and leave it at that. In fact, we might go on to say, the answer is so spine-crushingly complicated that any anwer we might provide would only confuse and bewilder a general audience.
But some social scientists, in these pages, the blogosphere, and the popular press, effectively employ their training and experience to offer compelling and useful insights. They know their areas, address provocative questions, and engage them with informed commentary. And they don’t rely on a lazy positivism or simple tally of studies to guide them in characterizing a field. The best among them offer a fifth status alternative — we need to think about this differently — that breaks out of the fixed-choice status box.
In reframing the world’s questions and events, the finest blogs and commentary offer synthesis and interpretation that conveys how we think as social scientists, as well as what we know. Such work is more subtle and demanding than checking a box, but it can yield a different and profoundly useful way to see a problem.