March/April • Volume 43 • Issue 3

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Social Science Research and Public Policy:
Context, Networks, and Strategies

Patricia White, National Science Foundation, Roberta Spalter-Roth and Amy Best, George Mason University, and Kelly Joyce, Drexel University

How does evidence-based sociological research influence policymaking either directly or indirectly? A recent article in The New York Times on the importance of social science research in the policy process, said “Most striking is the poor showing of sociology, whose relevance to policy makers appears to be minimal, even though it focuses on many of our most pressing problems, including families, crime, education, aging, religion, community, inequality and poverty.” According to the article, over the last decade, economists were cited in the Congressional Record, 4.7 thousand times, historians 2.6 thousand times, psychologists 996 times, and sociologists 233 times. Despite this rather small numerical indicator of the influence of sociologists in the policy realm, many sociologists conduct research that has direct policy relevance, and they are committed to using that research to inform solutions to societal problems. They, however, are not always aware of the contexts, networks, and strategies that can and do result in the use of their research in the policy arena.

Preliminary Model: Social Science Research and Public Policy

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The Sociology Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a workshop, “A Relational Model for Understanding Research in the Policy Process,” on November 20-21, 2014, at the NSF in Arlington, VA. The workshop focused on the impact of social science research on policymaking and the ways in which such impacts occur when a network, activity, and relationship-oriented approach is considered. The workshop brought together a group of knowledgeable social scientists involved with public policymaking, who represent the academy, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. All of the participants, including the ASA Executive Officer and other sociologists, understood the value of social science research. They discussed the broader impacts of social science that extends beyond research that is done to  solve a particular societal problem. Rather than focusing on policy outcomes only, participants emphasized the relationships, strategies, activities, networks, and processes that either enable or constrain the use of social science research for a broad array of policy purposes.

Workshop participants presented case studies and also worked to refine a model being developed by Patricia White that identifies the pathways that lead to the use of social science research in the policy process and the relationships that facilitate use (see graphic). According to the model, the most productive pathway involves research and policy collaborations between researchers and social scientists employed in strategic locations in Congress and the federal government. The workshop elaborated the conditions that enable and constrain the use of social science research for policy purposes, the networks that aid in policy use, and the dissemination strategies that are necessary.

Contrary to the idea that social science has minimal impact in the policy arena, participants said that social science is, in fact, “everywhere” in the process. They provided varied examples of the impact social science currently has in policy realms, whether counting the number of the uninsured or in the evaluation and performance review of government agency programs. As much as research has moved more fully into the policy arena, there is “a lot more competition for ideas,” as one participant observed.

According to White, much social science research affects public policy in non-transparent ways; workshop participants agreed.

Inform Policy, Don’t Push Policy

Participants advised against researchers taking a specific policy position, agreeing that social science research should “inform policy, but not push policy.” While “independence, rigor, and relevance” of research is critical, there was significant consensus among workshop participants that the role of social science research in policy is secondary to context. The broader context overwhelmingly influences the process by which social science research can inform policy decisions. There was broad agreement that “research will never trump politics,” that politics is about power, and that social scientists should not expect good research always to prevail over bad research.

After discussing the research that they and their organizations had done successfully, that had influenced state, local, and federal policy, workshop participants concluded with a series of caveats.  Among the list were many kernels of wisdom:

The outcomes of this workshop will be detailed in a publicly available report that will contain sections on the policy model, the policy context, policy networks, research methods, and research dissemination.  The report will also contain a list of biographies of those who attended the workshop, a workshop agenda, and an appendix with selected case studies. 

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