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Sociology Is Well Represented Among NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics Grantees

by Roberta Spalter-Roth and Nicole Van Vooren, ASA Research and Development Department

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) innovative three-year-old interdisciplinary Human and Social Dynamics (HSD) initiative brought together a number of sociologists this fall at a twoday seminar of Principal Investigators (PI) in Washington, DC. The nearly 200 participants, including 25 sociologists, presented their findings, learned about other PIs’ findings, participated in discussion sessions, and asked questions at this NSF-sponsored event. The attendees also heard presentations by NSF staff and from John Marburger, III, the President’s Science Adviser and Director of the White House Office of Science, Technology, and Policy.

The HSD program funds potential breakthrough research that fosters the understanding of human, organizational, cultural, and social dynamics. The four-fold aim of funding these projects is to: (1) understand the complexities of change; (2) understand the dynamics of human and social behavior at all levels; (3) understand the cognitive and social structures that create and result from change; and (4) manage profound or rapid change. These goals also necessitate a comprehensive, interdisciplinary effort that includes the development of associated research infrastructure. Sociologist Richard O. Lempert was instrumental in developing the HSD program at the NSF in 2003. (See July/ August 2003 Footnotes, "Public Affairs Update", and February 2004 Footnotes, "Cross-cutting 'Human and Social Dynamics' Is First NSF Priority Area Led by Behavioral & Social Sciences", for historical background on the HSD initiative.)

Collaboration, Tools, and U.S. Competitiveness

In their plenary presentations, NSF staff members emphasized that the HSD projects funded in the 2006 round of HSD grants reflected a movement away from curiosity-driven research toward more purpose-driven research that engaged with real-world problems. According to NSF’s Anne Carlson, Senior Staff Associate for Policy and Planning, NSF wanted these projects to bring about new scientific collaborations across fields, greater knowledge and technology transfer, stronger focus on real-world problems, and increased American competitiveness in creating a globally engaged science workforce. Mark Weiss, Senior Advisor of the Division of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, assured the audience of NSF’s commitment to social, behavioral, and economic research in order to understand major social issues such as “natural” disasters, homeland security, technology growth, and health. Marburger pointed out the need for greater use of the social sciences but also the need for sociology and the other social sciences to “grab new tools and to gain prestige by answering important questions.” In so doing, he stated, American competitiveness (in the sense of the gross domestic product) would increase.

According to sociologist Edward Hackett, NSF’s new Division Director of Social and Economic Sciences (see September/October 2005 Footnotes, "Public Affairs Update"), research policy can be an agent for change. To this end, hybridization is important as is engagement with real-world ideas in order to stimulate creativity. He encouraged researchers to study scientific/ intellectual social movements, their motives, opportunities, group processes, and framing of issues in order to develop usable knowledge for innovative policy. The goal of this policy is increased social well-being, not just increased gross domestic product.

Among the issues raised in discussion groups were the advantages and disadvantages of interdisciplinary work. Participants debated whether there is a need for a common language or perspective, what investigators get out of these projects, the reward structures that encourage interdisciplinary work, the roles that organizations play, the funding processes, the building of infrastructure, and social spaces needed for ongoing work.

Sociology Projects and PIs

The HSD PIs presented posters describing their projects. Sociologists’ posters reflected not only the scope and depth of the discipline but the usefulness of its concepts, methods, and frameworks for other disciplines. Below is a list of the sociologist PIs (names in bold type) and a brief description of their interdisciplinary HSD projects.

Ronald Angel (University of Texas- Austin), Laura Lein, Katrina Evacuees: The Transformation from Disaster Victims to Welfare Recipients: An Interdisciplinary Approach. The PIs interviewed Hurricane Katrina refugees and service providers in Austin, TX, to test theories of civil society. They found that the combination of changing federal guidelines and the large number of NGOs led to confusion, and refugees received ineffective service in the year following the disaster.

Carter Butts (University of California- Irvine), Mapping and Analysis of Emergent Multi-organizational Networks in the Hurricane Katrina Response.

Christopher Chase-Dunn (University of California-Riverside), Peter Turchin, E. N. Anderson, Global State Formation: Modeling the Rise, Fall, and Upward Sweeps of Large Polities in World History and the Global Future. The PIs will develop three models of probable future paths for world integration based on the historical patterns of networks between international governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Elizabeth Frankenberg (University of California-Los Angeles), Jed Friedman, Thomas Gillespie, Nicholas Ingwersen, Bondan Sikoki, Cecep Sumantri, Wayan Suriastini, Duncan Thomas, Social and Economic Effects of a National Disaster. The PIs seek to research the costs of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and how people cope with a disaster of this magnitude. Initial results suggest that the majority of survivors still express optimism for the future.

Patrick Heller and Daniel Schensul (Brown University), Remaking the Apartheid City: Housing and Residential Change in Durban after the Transition. The PIs of this study map the main residential racial clusters from census data. They find that the city of Durban shows little change in the post-apartheid era even though important adjustments have taken place.

J. Craig Jenkins and Katherine Meyer (Ohio State University), Mary Ann Tetreault, Philip Schrodt, Jillian Schwendler, Christian Davenport, Dissent and Repression in the Middle East. The PIs examine the types of relationships between political dissent and repression to overcome the inconsistent results provided by previous studies that neglect context, time, and space, conflicting perspectives, and the status of women.

Yoshinori Kamo (Louisiana State University), Tammy L. Henderson, Karen A. Roberto, Aging Families in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The PIs interview aging families living in Baton Rouge who are recovering from Hurricane Katrina to advance the literature concerning the functioning of aging families in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Verna Keith (Florida State University), C. Airriess, A.C. Chen, W. Li, K. Leong, S. Russaini, The Aftermath of Katrina: Differential Responses to Trauma among African and Vietnamese Americans in One New Orleans Community. The PIs studied the spatial, socioeconomic, and psychological effects on two resource-poor groups of evacuees. They found that lack of resources, emotional and financial support, and linguistic isolation increase the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

James Kitts and Martina Morris (University of Washington), Michael W. Macy (Cornell University), Disseminating Computational Modeling in Social Sciences. The PIs make a case that computational modeling captures the intricate relationships between macro-institutions and micro-interactions. A main goal of this project is to improve training in computational modeling within the social sciences.

John Logan (Brown University), Disaster, Resilience, and the Built Environment on the Gulf Coast. The PI focuses on the resilience of coastal communities frequently affected by hurricanes, especially in terms of which communities are rebuilt and which are temporarily or permanently displaced. Data on storms are combined with 1950- 2000 U.S. Census data.

Stephen Perz (University of Florida), Grenville Barnes, Graeme Cumming, Jane Southworth, Infrastructure Change, Human Agency, and Resilience in Social Ecological Systems. The PIs studied the impact of new infrastructure on the social-ecological resilience of complex systems and on human resource and livelihood decisions in Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru in order to develop more complete frameworks of human agency and environmental change.

Jennifer Reich (University of Denver), Susan Sterett, Martha Wadsworth, Government and Voluntary Association Coordination and Evacuees’ Experiences of Assistance in Colorado. The PIs examined the response of Denver, CO, government officials and service providers to evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Preliminary findings suggest that the service providers were constrained by federal government policies and that there was a high-rate of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hal Salzman (Urban Institute), Beatiz Clewell, Leonard Lynn, Carlos Acosta, Robert Lerman, B. Lindsay Lowell, Pamela Meil, Globalization of Innovation, Migration, and Systems of Human Capital Development. The PIs examined the new “third generation” stage of globalization in which multinational corporations move high-level knowledge employment to emerging economies. They focus on the effects of this change on specific countries, especially for migration flows, changes in education capacity, and shifts in science and engineering work.

Lynn Smith-Lovin (Duke University), Miller McPherson (University of Arizona), Alex Rosenberg, Stephen Teitsworth, Social Isolation in America: Results from the First Phase of the Networks and Niches Project. The PIs answer key questions of association theory by comparing responses to questions regarding social networks, voluntary groups, and social isolation in America, using data from the 1985 and 2004 General Social Survey. They found that reports of close confidants in voluntary groups decreased, while reports of close con- fidant networks among spouses and parents increased.

Roberta Spalter-Roth (American Sociological Association), Norman Fortenberry, Social Dynamics of Engineering Instructional and Curricular Change: Creating an Interdisciplinary Research Agenda. In order to understand the dynamics facilitating acceptance and diffusion of new curricula and pedagogy, the PIs organized a workshop for sociologists to work with engineers. The workshop’s purpose was to develop hypotheses and study designs based on sociological concepts and theories to better understand the relations among rates of acceptance, prestige of educational institutions, distribution of rewards, and types of networks.

Edward Tiryakian and Kenneth Land (Duke University), A.Bejan, G. Merkx, Constructal Theory of Social Dynamics. The PIs focused on expanding the field around the constructal theory of physics by bringing together physicists along with social scientists and engineers. Some issues discussed in a workshop were globalization, global migration, and development.

Tricia Wachtendorf (University of Delaware), José Holguín-Veras, Noel Pérez, Satish Ukkusuri, Bethany Brown, Characterization of the Supply Chains in the Aftermath of Katrina: Logistical Issues and Lessons from an Integrated Social Sciences-Engineering Perspective. The PIs identified three broad issues that led to the logistical challenges resulting from Hurricane Katrina: Initial impact on the system, institutional impact, and logistical impact. The PIs are developing models to make recommendations concerning national response to future extreme events.

Mary Waters (Harvard University), Jean Rhodes, Christina Paxson, Adversity and Resilience: Effects of Hurricane Katrina on Vulnerable Populations. The PIs investigate how varying levels of resources and capacities of low-income, minority parents before Hurricane Katrina affected their ability to adjust to the trauma caused by the hurricane. Both quantitative and qualitative research was used.

FY 2007 Solicitation

Final remarks at the seminar were given by Keith Crank, the outgoing Director of the HSD program. He reminded the audience that the FY 2007 competition includes three areas of emphasis: agents of change; dynamics of human behavior; and decision making, risk, and uncertainty. The deadlines for HSD funding range from January 23, 2007, through February 21, 2007. More information can be obtained on the NSF website at