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Illustration by Tom Abi Samra

Social Scientists: Academics and Advocates?

As experts in all realms of human behavior, is it the responsibility of social scientists to generate solutions to social problems?

Oct 14, 2018

Set among the flashy and lavish high rises of Abu Dhabi on an idyllic island of luxury, NYU Abu Dhabi could not be further away from the suffering and conflict that many of its social scientists choose to study. One might refer to their distance and privileged seclusion as a sort of proverbial ivory — or desert — tower. This perceived distance and disconnect from the reality of the world raises questions about what the role of the social scientist really is. What is the point of social research? And what obligation do social scientists have, if any, to serve as advocates for the causes they study?
The role of advocacy in social research has long been a subject of dispute within the discipline. In a field that focuses on human behavior in all aspects of life, its academics are bound to encounter some of the most depraved and shameful human acts. As experts in all realms of human (mis)conduct, is it their responsibility to generate solutions to social problems?
The proliferation of social justice movements globally has compelled many in the highest positions of academia to encourage an activist role for the social sciences. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, the 109th President of the American Sociological Association, has called all academics to action, saying, “It is time for us all to recommit to the struggle; it is time, once again, for action.” Mary Romero, the incoming president of the ASA, echoes his views. “To best serve our members, ASA must continue to emphasize social justice in sociological inquiry,” said Romero.
But not all agree.
Some argue that advocacy is the opposite of academic practice because it requires scholars to relinquish the very objectivity that is intrinsic and necessary to academic research. Arguing against a perceived professional obligation among anthropologists to engage in advocacy, Kirsten Hastrup, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, and Peter Elsass, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the same institution, write “There is, however, an inherent dilemma in anthropological advocacy. Anthropology is concerned with context rather than interest, while advocacy means making a choice among interests within the context.” Advocacy requires taking sides. As such, they argue that advocacy may arise as an opportunity during social research but is not, nor should be, a professional imperative. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Professor of Medical Anthropology at UCLA, argues to the contrary, stating that noninvolvement is a moral choice in and of itself. She contends that academics must be more than mere observers; they must be witnesses too.
There seems to be a fundamental debate about what the purpose of the social sciences really is, even between academics at NYUAD. Laila Prager, Visiting Assistant Professor of Social Research and Public Policy at NYUAD, believes social scientists must apply their expertise to real world issues.
“I think what is important is that when you’re an anthropologist or a sociologist, that the knowledge you actually acquire due to your research helps other people somehow. It is really important that your knowledge on society is then used for social aims,”said Prager.
On the other hand, Zeynep Ozgen, Assistant Professor of Social Research and Public Policy at NYUAD, argues that the primary role of social scientists is the generation of knowledge.
“My job is to understand and generate knowledge and make it public, not really to help them solve their problems. And I don’t think it’s ethical or expected. If that was my job, then I would work at an NGO or in the policy [field]. So for me, from an ethical point of view, as long as I can make their problem heard, to sound evidence and analysis, based on real factual evidence that I collect systematically, that is what I consider is doing my job and being true to ethical principles,” said Ozgen.
Essentially, social scientists’ expertise lies in research, not necessarily in its application, so they may not be the most appropriate candidates for enacting social change.
These comments, however, reveal an even more fundamental misunderstanding among social scientists about what advocacy in the social sciences even looks like. Some believe that advocacy involves a more hands-on approach. Dawn Chatty, Visiting Professor of Anthropology at NYUAD, talked about her efforts at the University of Oxford in establishing a briefing series in which academics would present policy briefs to policy makers in the public sector and the development field. She has also done consulting work with development companies, applying her many years of anthropological expertise to tackle social problems. Likewise, Prager, who has conducted research among refugees and migrant communities in Germany, implemented a program at the University of Hamburg, in which university students teach German to immigrants who are not recognized as refugees by the German government and do not qualify for free language instruction. Clearly, among some social scientists, advocacy involves explicit action to affect change in people’s lives. They believe social scientists are as much practitioners as they are researchers.
This more direct form of advocacy raises significant moral dilemmas. Social scientists are often outsiders to the peoples and topics they study. They enter the field with the privileged position of being distant from and invulnerable to the social problems they study. As such, they might risk imposing their own ideals and morals on the very people they are trying to help. Those who choose to engage in such direct advocacy must navigate a thin line between genuine concern and paternalism. For Chatty, there is a clear difference between objective matters of personal health and safety and more subjective issues of local customs and practices. In her work with the Harasis of Oman, a local Bedouin tribe whom she studied for a prolonged period of time, she became increasingly concerned about the health of the children following several measles outbreaks. Feeling a sense of obligation toward the health of the children, she felt compelled to intervene and vaccinate the children. While she was lucky that this move actually helped create a greater sense of trust between her and her subjects, often the line between what is right and wrong is far more obscure and ambiguous. Those shades of gray are a dilemma social scientists must consider when they engage in more activist pursuits.
On the other hand, some argue that the generation of knowledge and raising awareness are more appropriate forms of advocacy in the social sciences. John O’Brien, Assistant Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, shares this viewpoint on the role of social research in countering misconceptions.
“For me it’s been more about trying to raise that awareness about how life is like for someone different from yourself,” commented O’Brien.
In a similar vein, Ozgen argues that advocacy in the social sciences manifests itself in the revelation of truth and making this information accessible to the public, who may or may not act upon that research.
“In many ways, social scholarly work borders on advocacy, because our job is to unearth those hidden or taken-for-granted issues that are not obvious, especially to people who hold power. So we want to disclose that, and to do that, perhaps, one could say is a form of advocacy,” said Ozgen.
It seems that most social scientists agree that advocacy does have a place within the social sciences, but the more salient disagreement lies in what form that advocacy should take. Advocacy might lie in what social scientists do best: research. It may also require social scientists to go beyond generating knowledge and informing others, actually applying their expertise to make more effective social policy. While this debate will likely endure the lifespan of the discipline itself, it is at least clear that social science doesn’t inhibit anyone from pursuing advocacy as a personal moral obligation, even if it is not necessarily a professional imperative.
Back among the towering palm trees and pristine beaches of Saadiyat Island, it seems that this physical separation and seclusion does not create much of an ivory tower after all.
Paula Estrada is Managing Editor. Email her at
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