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From “Civics As Applied Sociology” (1904) to “Toward A Public Social Science” (2011)

“The social sciences deal with humanity’s most pressing problems, but there are barriers between practitioners and the public. We must restructure these disciplines from the ground up. In times of economic and political distress, the social sciences must become more relevant and useful by devoting their attention to society’s major problems.” Thus opens a fascinating essay penned early in 2011 by Herbert Gans, one of America’s most renewed sociologists. (And author of The Urban Villagers, perhaps the best book ever written on the social impacts of slum clearance)

Pentagon moving into social science

The New York Times reports on a new Pentagon program to make more systematic use of social scientists.

Eager to embrace eggheads and ideas, the Pentagon has started an ambitious and unusual program to recruit social scientists and direct the nation’s brainpower to combating security threats like the Chinese military, Iraq, terrorism and religious fundamentalism.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has compared the initiative — named Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom (and warriors) — to the government’s effort to pump up its intellectual capital during the cold war after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.

Although the Pentagon regularly finances science and engineering research, systematic support for the social sciences and humanities has been rare. Minerva is the first systematic effort in this area since the Vietnam War, said Thomas G. Mahnken, deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning, whose office will be overseeing the project.

But if the uncustomary push to engage the nation’s evolutionary psychologists, demographers, sociologists, historians and anthropologists in security research — as well as the prospect of new financial support in lean times — has generated excitement among some scholars, it has also aroused opposition from others, who worry that the Defense Department and the academy are getting too cozy.

$50 million will be routed through the National Science Foundation, in an effort to make the program feel more familiar-- to reduce anxiety among researchers about working with the military, and increase the scholarly rigor.

The impact of the Hajj on social attitudes

In David Lodge's great novel Changing Places, Euphoric State University professor Morris Zapp declared that "travel narrows." He was a world-renowned Jane Austen scholar, he said, precisely because he had never been to England: his lack of interest in the real England let him focus more sharply on the novels, and made him a better critic.

This attitude may hold true for literature (or not), but Slate reports on a fascinating recent study (available here) suggesting that Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca "came back with more moderate views on a range of issues, both religious and nonreligious, suggesting that the Hajj may be helpful in curbing the spread of extremism in the Islamic world."

Conference on the future of social science

One of the things I've started paying more attention to since starting the X2 Project are announcements for interesting conferences that deal with some aspect of the future of science. There's an interesting-looking workshop this summer on "Challenges and Visions in the Social Sciences" at ETH Zurich:

the workshop aims at identifying future trends in the social sciences, and problems that will have to be addressed.

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