April 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 4

to print a pagePrint This Page

09mtgLooking Forward to the 2009
Annual Meeting in San Francisco

Bringing Communities
Back In?
Setting a New
Policy Agenda

by Patricia Hill Collins,University of Maryland-College Park

The Obama administration has signaled its desire to make science more central to its public policy decision-making process. And, in March, the nearly $800-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by Obama infused the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) with about $13 billion over a two-year period to fund basic research. Since then, ASA has provided ongoing updates (at www.asanet.org/cs/root/leftnav/advocacy/research_funding_available_from_nih) for researchers interested in applying for this funding.

stockIndependent of the stimulus investment in science, NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences is enhancing research capacity to examine the effects of the economic stimulus support of science. Through its Science of Science & Innovation Policy Program (see p. 2 of the January 2009 Footnotes, NSF will use its Rapid Response Research five-year funding mechanism to support short proposals (see the NSF article Here) that address questions on the impact of this jumpstart science investment on science, technology, the economy, and the scientific workforce.

In anticipation of this research capital, ASA Executive Officer Sally Hillsman explored social science’s potential in the national recovery in her February 2009 (p. 2) Vantage Point Footnotes column. Subsequently, NIH solidified its plan, identifying 15 Challenge Areas, with three of particular interest to social scientists (Health Disparities; Behavior, Behavioral Change, and Prevention; and Models for National Mentoring Networks for Individuals from Diverse Backgrounds in Mental Health Research). In addition, each NIH Institute and Center has issued RFAs (Request for Applications) tailored to their specific missions, many of which are relevant to social science.

This favorable shift toward science creates new opportunities for social scientists generally, and sociologists in particular, to highlight how social structural analyses might profitably address macro policies (e.g., social aspects of the economy), as well as tackle longstanding social issues within health, criminal justice, education, housing, and other key areas of public policy. But this one-shot research funding surge for NIH and NSF will have a time-limited impact even as the agencies attempt to stretch the financial impact. The long term has to remain in our focus as we aim to identify the most suitable social science paradigms to satisfy policy needs.

Social Science Paradigms and Policy

Long-term solutions require social scientists to revisit two prevailing paradigms that frame public policy. One paradigm contends that, because causes of social problems as well as their solutions reflect an accumulation of individual choices, the individual should be the basic unit of public policy. Yet, the recent global financial crisis suggests that market-based solutions that focus on individual decision-making as the foundation for public policy come with serious limitations. In contrast, the other paradigm posits that social structures should be the basic unit of public policy and that changing social institutions eventually changes the behavior of the people within them. However, this approach has been criticized for its seeming erasure of individual choice and personal responsibility.

There are signs among federal agency leadership that the Bush administration’s tendency to overemphasize individual factors and underemphasize social structural factors is lessening. Take, for example, the Obama transition team advisors’ approach to the federal investment in biomedical and health research. They listened to the science advocacy community’s assertion (via Research! America) that the effects of most medical treatments hinge not only on individual factors, such as patients’ age, sex, and co-morbidity, but also on social structural factors. Social science advocates’ chronic drumbeat heralding the role of social structure—across the spectrum of macro policies—is being heard in Washington. Yet this short-term shift to pay more attention to structure may yield only short-term fixes. Effective social science paradigms for long-term policies must find a way to encompass both prevailing paradigms.

Because sociologists routinely study social networks and communities, sociology as a discipline may be uniquely positioned to reconcile these seemingly disparate paradigms. Specifically, the construct of community incorporates both individual behavior and social context, suggesting that peoples’ individual beliefs and actions cannot be understood without attending to their communities and diverse social networks, and that social networks and communities are meaningless without some knowledge of the actual people within them. Bringing multifaceted ideas about community that view individual choice in the context of social structural realities might develop more robust social science paradigms for long-term policy needs.

Plenary Panel

The 2009 ASA Annual Meeting program theme, The New Politics of Community, contains many opportunities to investigate renewed possibilities for social science and public policy. Yet one important and exciting plenary session, "Bringing Communities Back In? Setting a New Policy Agenda," should not be missed. Four prominent sociologists have been invited to grapple with the question of how making ideas about community more central to sociological thinking might catalyze new avenues of investigation for public policy. All of our panelists are renowned scholars with significant accomplishments within their respective public policy venues, and all work with communities and social networks broadly defined.

Panelists who are scheduled to join us for the plenary session include Robert J. Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and Department Chair, Harvard University. Sampson’s recent publications have focused on race/ethnicity and social mechanisms of concentrated inequality, collective efficacy and crime, immigration, the social meanings and stigma of "disorder," poverty traps, the spatial dynamics of social life, the comparative network structure of community influence, collective civic engagement, and other topics linked in general to community-level social processes. This research stems from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, for which Sampson serves as Scientific Director.

Pedro Noguera is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. An urban sociologist, Noguera’s scholarship and research focus on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. Noguera has served as an advisor and engaged in collaborative research with several large urban school districts throughout the United States and has served as the Judith K. Dimon Professor of Communities and Schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Noguera is currently the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and the co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings.

Bernice Pescosolido is Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research agenda addresses how social networks connect individuals to their communities and to institutional structures, providing the “wires” through which society’s energies (social interaction) influence people’s attitudes and actions. The majority of her work has aimed to understand how individuals, their families, and their communities respond to illness. Focusing primarily on the case of mental illness, she has examined how the social networks of both patients and medical providers help determine the fates of illness and occupational careers.

Steven Gortmaker is Professor of the Practice of Health Sociology and director of the Harvard School of Public Health Prevention Research Center (HPRC). HPRC’s mission is to work with community partners to design, implement, and evaluate programs that improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce overweight, and reduce chronic disease risk among children and youth. HPRC projects involve community partners in every phase: conceptualization, design, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Gortmaker’s research is focused on the health of children and adolescents, particularly households living in poverty and minority populations. His research is focused on a broad variety of risks that face the young, ranging from sociological concepts such as income poverty, social stress and social networks, to behaviors such as smoking, inactivity (exemplified by television viewing), and diet. logo_small


Back to Front Page of Footnotes