American Sociological Association

Trump’s Triumph and Social science adrift… What is to be done?

Michèle Lamont, Harvard University

President, American Sociological Association

A few days before Election Day, economists, political scientists and sociologists circulated petitions denouncing Donald Trump for his mischaracterization of social and economic facts and for his violation of the American constitution. The day after the election, the social science community immediately faced an acute existential crisis. Students are considering how to best deploy their energy over the next four years while many faculty are embarrassed by the inability of their discipline to anticipate Trump’s triumph.  Despite our diversity of political opinions, social scientists are now taking stock and pondering the way forward, given our role as partners invested in a general societal project aimed at greater equality and inclusiveness and collective well-being.

With the Republican lock on Washington on the horizon, the public sphere will gain greater prominence as a battleground for the opposition than it did under the Obama administration.  Just as was the case during the presidential campaign, an acute tug of war is being set in motion. This is where social scientists may have the greatest impact.

Working together with medical, legal and other experts in recent decades, we have been crucial partners in the partial de-stigmatization of African Americans, people with HIV/AIDS and other groups, such as the obese. We have mobilized our knowledge to understand how moral boundaries and stereotypes feed into inequality. This expertise will be needed more than ever in a context where the Republican political agenda aims to strengthen various group boundaries, working hand in hand with a White working class intent to keep the world in moral order and to reassert its place in it.  

Against this background, what message should social scientists deploy? Since Occupy Wall Street and the mega success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital, awareness of the causes of growing economic inequality has grown tremendously. However, much of the recent events is attributed not only to an increasing gap in the distribution of material resources, but also to a recognition gap.

We already knew about the recognition claims represented by the Black Lives Matter movement, whose victories have been more remarkable in the symbolic realm than in achieving anything concrete. The recent electoral results can be interpreted as an expression of the white working class’s parallel move to assert its worth as a group that perceives itself as playing by the rules while others “cut in line” (as argued by Arlie Hochschild in her recent book Strangers in their Own Land).

Social scientists should explicitly tackle this recognition gap. Just as we have provided citizens the language needed to describe realities such as “unemployment rate” and “stereotypes,” it is time to mount a campaign to help people think about how to weaken group boundaries. As shapers of cultural frameworks, we need to help people understand that scarcity and group competition makes group boundaries more rigid, that group contact does not necessarily result in less stereotyping, but that inclusion benefits collective well-being for all. We also need to systematically compare the recognition gaps wherever they exist. This may be a viable strategy moving forward.  

By focusing increasingly on “nudging” and on what is between our ears (behavioral economics and the cognitive), the Obama administration and social scientists may have lost sight of the big picture. If Trump succeeded in convincing the white working class that he represents its interest, it may be in part because we have failed to make sufficiently salient the social and economic determinants of the recession and other societal failures that lie beyond individual control. In Coming up Short, Jennifer Silva shows that today’s downwardly mobile working class turn to the self-help lessons provided by Alcoholic Anonymous and similar organizations to find within themselves a solution to their problem. They believe they have to look inward for the willpower needed to pull themselves up by their britches and to resist the tide of economic decline. Those who suffer from long-term unemployment have become blind to the structural forces that shape their lives, unlike their counterparts in Europe or Israel, as shown by Ofer Sharone’s Flawed Systems, Flawed Selves. Such books illustrate how social scientists illuminate the conditions that shape people’s lives. Understanding is essential to identifying opportunities and openings ahead.

Thus, most importantly, social scientists can also show the way forward by interpreting the current situation and proposing narratives that feed into hope. As anthropologist Catherine Panter-Bricks has shown in her work on Syrian refugees, narratives feed hope and  social resilience, which ultimately feeds collective well-being. So yes, social scientists have a crucial role to play moving forward.