Making Social Science Relevant Again
Engaging Students Via Politicized Social Problems
Over the past decade, among the most frequently voiced criticisms of higher education is that universities are not adequately preparing students to be successful professionals, engaged citizens, and/or informed consumers of information. The social sciences and the humanities are among the most vulnerable to these charges; as fields like communication, sociology, and political science are charged with lacking rigor and or relevance.
In these fields students are inundated with intensive-reading about jargon-heavy theories or statistically driven bodies of research related to, for example, the psychology of media effects or public opinion formation. The dynamics of political controversies such as those over climate change, childhood vaccination, or obesity are reduced to convenient opportunities to run ever more advanced experiments or survey analyses that test or replicate a theory, rather than analyzed as significant social problems worthy of study in their own right.
As a consequence, students learn (often reluctantly) about a multitude of theories or research methods, but are left unable to critically apply this knowledge to their lives as professionals, advocates, or consumers. There is also a cost for communication scholars, sociologists, and political scientists as the design of these courses reflects the approach to their own research, an approach that is increasingly viewed as politically tangential, intellectually obscure, and unworthy of funding by policymakers, philanthropists, journalists, and the public more broadly.