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Kenneth Prewitt, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

This is the fourth issue of Social Research since 2009 that is concerned with changes occurring in universities both in the United States and elsewhere. It may seem a disproportionate number given the many other subjects we might have considered, but we do not think so, given our history.

Scholarly knowledge differs from experiential, craft, or religious knowledge. It is not superior, or inferior, but a kind of knowledge reached through disciplined, systematic, and cumulative inquiry. Since Bacon and the rise of modern science, scholars have understood their practice as methodologically rule-governed, though not methodologically uniform. Astronomers, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers differ in their methods, sometimes radically, but each must honor transparent standards of evidence and inference—as is nicely illustrated by the essays in this volume.


Public trust in the academy has been waning for more than a generation now; and in that time, the public support of academic scholarship has been under an almost constant threat of drastic cuts. As accountability has been bureaucratized inside the university itself, scholarship has also come under the suspicious eye of cost-benefit accounting performed by external agencies. Accountability may press so far against autonomy that “tension” seems too weak a word to describe the divergence. Scholarly autonomy, if it means anything, means that the individual scholar, answerable to no judging body higher than his scholarly peers, is able to give the law to himself concerning the nature of the work and how it is to proceed.


In pondering the future of scholarly knowledge, it’s misleading to focus too narrowly on elite institutions, and also myopic to imagine that we are in uncharted waters. As Ralph Waldo Emerson knew, and as David Bromwich reminds us in his keynote paper for this issue of Social Research, the American Scholar has always faced an uncertain future—not least in institutions that prize adherence to professional norms more than integrity or originality.

Pressure for practical payoffs has been the norm in federal science most of the time from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II, and it was manifest in key areas of federally supported R&D even in the seemingly ivory tower era, the half century after 1945. Yet the pursuit of practical purposes has yielded enormous dividends in basic knowledge, a fact revealed by the history of the US Coast Survey and other agencies in the mid-nineteenth century, and that dynamic is likely to continue in federal science despite the anti-science orientation of the Trump administration.

Conservative critics today often blame identity-based scholarship for a perceived crisis in the Humanities. In doing so, they misrecognize the symptom for the cause, and fail to ask why identity offers itself as a solution to the structural and epistemological problems in the contemporary knowledge system. This paper reviews shifts in funding, institutional logics, and values in the American university that have been discerned since the late 1970s, and asks what is new about the current conjuncture. It argues that alternative models for knowledge production, and especially those provided by the corporate university, fail to provide for the dual function of the Humanities, namely to conserve culture and cultivate its transgression, to transmit knowledge and a critical relationship to it.

The question of freedom of inquiry has been in the air since human inquiry began. But institutions of learning face the question in a rather more specific form since, on the one hand, they may claim to be uniquely privileged in possessing such freedom because inquiry itself is their most central function, yet on the other hand, they may be host to constraints on freedom that are necessitated by the institutional protocols that academies, as sites that combine both pedagogy and research, must adopt.


Each contributor to this section considers social knowledge to be an instrument of democratic reason. In these respects, their contributions implicitly stand on the shoulders of a powerful article written as war raged in 1942 on “Science and Technology in a Democratic Order.” The ethos of science, extending into social science, Merton noted, includes methods by which knowledge is certified, a stock of certified knowledge, and cultural values that underpin the quest for knowledge, embracing organized skepticism and the impersonal standing of truth claims. These features, he underscored, make science both dependent on and a contributor to democratic values.

Through content analysis of highly cited articles and books in the social sciences between 1980 and 2010, this paper finds that the development of new concepts is a principal contribution of the social sciences to public understanding. "Emotional intelligence," "self-efficacy," "social capital," "stakeholders," and "communities of practice" were among the illuminating concepts developed by social scientists during the period. The paper highlights the impact of scholars in neighboring disciplines and the internationalization of social science scholarship as likely influences on the future of scholarly knowledge in the social sciences, but finds little evidence that interdisciplinary teams or performance auditing will have an important impact.

Social scientists seek to do work that informs and improves decisions. Changes in technology introduce challenges for researchers who seek to have these effects. This article explains the challenges and then explains how improvements in communication, transparency, and stakeholder engagement can improve the public value of science, and with it, public support for social science research.

The title of this essay is meant to suggest a particular understanding of the mission or end of the modern academy as exemplified by certain ideals associated in the minds of many academics around the world with the University of Chicago. The title is also meant to signal and raise concerns about contemporary threats to that mission, even at the University of Chicago itself. Examined in the essay are three of the core values of the modern academy. Are they foolish ideals? Have they become postmodern antiques?


Scholarly knowledge in the physical sciences has been increasingly departing from its (perhaps too) simple methodological origins, and, while some practitioners are aware and concerned about the changes, the vast majority of young scientists plow forward in whatever direction their mentors indicate, without much concern for the increasingly unstable foundations of their disciplines. Some aspects of this issue are unavoidable. But the practice of science would be improved if greater attention were given in the education of scientists to logic and to methodological issues.

A “scientific method” was established in the 16th century based on experimental input followed by a mathematical representation of the regularities observed and tested by additional experiments that could falsify the theory proposed. Initiated in astronomy and the physical sciences by individual investigators its success has led to its spread to other disciplines with increasingly pervasive deviations from the original model. There is very little methodological introspection in the disciplines; and the future of scholarly knowledge in the physical sciences is becoming unclear.

Current discussions about scholarly knowledge do not necessarily concern great discoveries, disciplinary advances, or epistemological puzzles. Words that often come up instead are “measurement,” “autonomy,” and “accountability.” Sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, academics worry about potentially punitive policies or other possible threats to the scholarly enterprise as we know it. While it can be easy and engaging enough to speculate about institutions and incentives this way, what ultimately matters are not discussions but decisions.

Science finds itself under growing pressure from both within and outside the scientific system. The consensus between science and society going back to the postwar period and encapsulated in the formula of “basic science” has been shattered. This essay discusses the main challenges of this development and describes strategies science is using to respond to the situation.


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