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Usable Social Science

Neil J. Smelser
John S. Reed
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Usable Social Science
    Book Description:

    This volume is a one-of-a-kind contribution to applied social science and the product of a long collaboration between an established, interdisciplinary sociologist and a successful banking executive. Together, Neil Smelser and John Reed use a straightforward approach to presenting substantive social science knowledge and indicate its relevance and applicability to decision-making, problem-solving and policy-making. Among the areas presented are space-and-time coordinates of social life; cognition and bias; group and network effects; the role of sanctions; organizational dynamics; and macro-changes associated with economic development. Finally, the authors look at the big picture of why society at large demands and needs social-science knowledge, and how the academy actually supplies relevant knowledge.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95414-4
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: The Problem and Our Take on It
    (pp. 1-12)

    The starting point of our th in king about usable social science is that all purposeful human action—whether the behavior of individuals, organizational action, or activities by collectivities such as social movement groups—is informed by some kind of definition of the situation in which the action takes place. Put another way, any action is always accompanied and given direction by an explicit or implicit “theory” about one’s own motivations and intentions, what kinds of effects the action is likely to have, how others might react, how the world operates in general, and, often, notions about the larger social...


    • 1 Space and Time: Constraints and Opportunities
      (pp. 15-52)

      We focus first on two omnipresent dimensions of human life: space and time. Their very pervasiveness, however, sometimes renders their precise influence elusive. It is not common to find them as chapter headings in books such as this one. Therefore, our gathering of knowledge under these headings as organizing principles for usable knowledge is unorthodox and sometimes speculative, but also, we hope, novel at times.

      We notice initially an apparent paradox. Time and space can be regarded as both universal and unyielding but at the same time manipulable by humans and therefore culturally and socially variable. They are universal in...

    • 2 Some Dynamics of Cognition, Judgment, and Bias
      (pp. 53-89)

      In this chapter we present a view of the mind as embedded in its personal history and its contemporary—including its social—situation. Our account yields a special perspective on human nature. Not all its ingredients are new; many echo ancient philosophical traditions that still inform our worldviews. The view we represent derives primarily from systematic, often experimental, scientific traditions in many disciplines, all from their recent histories. We describe our depiction of human behavior as neitherrational(as in some philosophies and some social-science accounts in economics, political science, and law) norirrational(as in some philosophical works [Nietzsche],...

    • 3 Sanctions in Organizational and Social Life
      (pp. 90-120)

      The play of sanctions—devices to influence behavior by rewarding or punishing—is pervasive in social life. We praise, cajole, withhold love, and sometimes coerce when rewarding and punishing our children. Sanctions are the cement of informal social relationships, as we see in the flow of influence and power in families, friendships, and small groups. They are the lubricants of organizations, as evidenced in the interplay among financial rewards and punishments, the exercise of authority, and informal processes of influence and resistance. Monetary sanctions are the lifeblood of markets and finance, and political sanctions are among the mechanisms for sustaining...

    • 4 Groups, Teams, Networks, Trust, and Social Capital
      (pp. 121-150)

      In perusing the social-science literature, we often find that a research topic—for example, individual stress—is claimed to bebothimportant in itselfandmore important in social life than ever before. Reasons for this are then given. It is also sometimes claimed that the phenomenon is being studied more than ever before. Another variant is that, while the phenomenon is important, it is understudied in relation to its importance (is any topic ever proclaimed to be “overstudied”?). Such assertions are usually not well documented, and one suspects that they are rhetorical, if not self-serving for the authors who...

    • 5 How Decisions Are Made
      (pp. 151-184)

      In one respect, this chapter is at the core of our efforts because it is the point at which issues of usability of social-science knowledge arise most directly. Decisions include assessment of problems, determining what to do about them, the psychological and social processes that go into making decisions, setting in place machinery and processes to make and implement decisions, and tracing their short-and long-term consequences. The subject matter of this chapter overlaps with material in chapter 2 (cognitive and related processes), chapter 3 (sanctions), chapter 4 (groups and related social forms), and chapter 6 (organizations). We make specific note...

    • 6 Organizations and Organizational Change
      (pp. 185-228)

      In this chapter, we provide knowledge on the settings in which most decision makers live: formal organizations. This knowledge ranges from general to specific, which means that it varies in its usability; some is generally orienting, some more immediately relevant to decisions and actions. Such a chapter is mandatory for several reasons:

      Formal organizations are the preferred social forms in most spheres of life—business, government, medicine, law, religion, academics, and organized labor—even for those who advise organizations, such as management consultant firms. They have also become dominant in voluntary enterprises such as political parties, charities, philanthropies, and social...

    • 7 Economic Development and Social Change
      (pp. 229-253)

      The fields of growth and developmental studies pose a great challenge to the idea of usable social science. It may seem odd to include a relatively difficult account, but our view is that we learn as much from difficult as we do from easy cases. In the first part of this chapter, we elucidate problems in theory and application. The remainder is more positive, attempting to pinpoint some salient themes and guidelines for academics, planners, development agencies, governments, and others involved in the developmental process nationally and internationally.

      Scholars of growth and development, perhaps more than others, bemoan the difficulties...

    • 8 Methods of Research and Their Usability
      (pp. 254-290)

      Our strategy in chapters 1 to 7 was to select important areas in the social sciences—almost all interdisciplinary—and employ our best judgment in identifying findings, perspectives, and theoretical outlooks most usable for people with decision-making responsibilities in organizational contexts. In chapters 9 to 10, we move in a macro direction and explore demand for and supply of social-science knowledge in society. As a transition between these two parts, we dedicate this chapter to theways,ormethods—in contrast tosubstance—in which social science is created and presented. We examine strengths and weaknesses, focusing on usability, deriving...


    • 9 Social Change, Social Problems, and Demands for Knowledge
      (pp. 293-314)

      Why, we might ask, should human history ever have produced a situation in which society might find it necessary, valuable, and desirable that groups of specialists calling themselves social scientists should specialize in the production of knowledge that might be regarded as useful? The answer to that question is not self-evident, and any intelligible answer calls for reflection on many levels.

      At the broadest level, it is essential to underscore that, historically the social sciences did not simply “happen,” but have been the outgrowth of cumulative cultural changes in cosmological views of the world; changes in assumptions about nature, man,...

    • 10 The Production of Knowledge in the Social Sciences
      (pp. 315-354)

      In the foregoing chapter, we learned that societies are continuously “demanding” in their search to define their situations, to find their way, to locate answers to specific questions, and to acquire resources to implement decisions. These forces have driven much research and intellectual development in the social sciences. In addition, their several disciplines have had developmental trajectories of their own, and their internal dynamics are important influences on producing knowledge. Salient features of that development include the following:

      the location of these disciplines in the system of higher education

      priorities emanating from national and regional preoccupations

      government intervention and the...

    (pp. 355-410)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 411-424)