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.

This doesn't need to be the case. Over the past decade as a professor, I have discovered that the best way for students to learn about social science theories and methods is not to foreground these topics across weeks; relentlessly moving from one theory and statistical finding to the next; but rather to embed analysis of these theories into broader readings and conversations about the scientific, social, and ethical implications of contentious policy debates and politicized controversies. (The same approach holds true for scholars who in defining their research agendas want to engage broader audiences and interdisciplinary communities.)

I have applied this approach in designing and teaching courses on Environmental Politics, Communication, and Advocacy and Media, Technology, and Democracy. As I transition this fall to the faculty at Northeastern University, I have brought a similar approach to designing a course on Health Debates, Communication, and Culture.

In this course, analyzing politicized debates ranging from those over the causes of obesity to skepticism of childhood vaccination, students learn about the relevant scientific, political, and ethical dimensions of each case; the generalizable theories, frameworks, and methods that social scientists use to analyze them; and the implications for effective public communication, policymaker engagement, and personal decision-making.

On these highly polarized, "wicked problems," students also gain an appreciaton for the factors that shape expert knowledge, its' portrayal in the media; and strategic use by advocates. They similarly think through the many ways that our own biases shape how we perceive these debates and what we prefer should be done.

The goal is not for students to choose among competing perspectives, but to acquire skills and experience in grappling with their tensions and uncertainties. In the process as they navigate today's world of ideologically fragmented politics and media, they will hold their own convictions and opinions more lightly; learning what is of value among the clashing perspectives offered by public intellectuals and advocates on the right, left, and in the center.

To achieve this outcome, relative to the case studies addressed, I require students to author short analysis papers that can be turned into commentaries, op-eds, and essays placed at popular media outlets (including at The Public Square). They are also required to identify their own relevant case study to research and assess; compiling a rigorous review of relevant scholarship and noteworthy popular works; and authoring a white paper that not only speaks to specifics of the case but also the value of social science research to its analysis. Drawing on studies and evidence, they are expected to offer their own informed outlook on policy directions, advocacy, and communication strategies.

Below are the specific case studies addressed in the course on Health Debates, Communication, and Culture. Follow each link for assigned readings, most of which are freely available online.



Few debates are as confusing, personal, or divisive as the evolving arguments over the connections between our food economy, regulatory system, personal choices, and health. In this case study, you will learn not only about the science, economics, and politics of these debates; but just as importantly gain generalizable insight on how complex health controversies are strategically framed by experts, journalists, advocates, and industry as they seek to influence media coverage and public perceptions.


Over the past decade, experts have grown increasingly alarmed by the claims made by activists and celebrities who question the safety of childhood vaccination. In this case study, you will not only learn about the dynamics of this debate, but generalizable insights on why activists and segments of the public might reject expert advice including the role of ideology and social ties in fostering false beliefs; and the power of celebrities, political leaders and the Web to spread false information.


Few areas of medicine hold as much promise and capture as much attention as advances in biomedicine and personalized genetic testing. In this case study, you will not only learn about the social, legal, and ethical implications of these fields; but also the influential role of direct to consumer marketing; the “cycle of hype” in the news media as scientific organizations compete for prestige and funding; and how different segments of the public respond to and make sense of these debates.


Protecting society against the risks posed by climate change while transitioning to cleaner, abundant energy sources is among the most important challenges faced by your generation. In this case study, you will learn about how social scientists are applying strategies from public health campaigns to more effectively engage the public on climate change. We will also re-visit key theories and frameworks from previous case studies in order to assess the role of the news media, ideology, advocates, and experts in shaping debates over nuclear energy and natural gas “fracking.”

See Also:

Dot Earth, Vox, and The Upshot: Why We Need Knowledge-Based Journalism

Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2012, Aug.) The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Promotes Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism. Breakthrough Journal, 3, 55-69.

Shellenberger, M. & Nordhaus, T. (2012, Aug.). Wicked Polarization: How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America. The Breakthrough Journal.