But what happens to a core discipline without an applied counterpart? Social science aims to investigate how people and societies behave. But who uses its basic principles to understand and solve the many problems that organizations and societies face? And is this essentially a problem for the sector?
Contractor Noshirprofessor of behavioral sciences at the McCormick School of Engineering, as well as professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School and of communication studies at the School of Communication at Northwestern, recently sat down with Duncan Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft and an expert on how social influence spreads across networks. They discussed whether social scientists are doing enough to solve problems in the world around us—and what researchers and businesses can do to advance the field.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ADVISOR Noshir: I want to start by asking about one article you wrote last year, which argues that social science needs to be more practical and solution-oriented. You argued that some of the things that social scientists have loved—like focusing understanding and explaining phenomena in themselves—it’s not going to get us far.
What prompted you to write this article? Why did this become an important topic for you?
Duncan WATTS: Well, the article reflects a frustration I’ve had for almost 20 years.
I come from outside the social sciences – physics and engineering – so for me the boundaries between economics and political science and psychology and sociology have never really made sense. And so it just felt natural for me to read all these different disciplines. When I first started trying to understand social influence and contagion in networks, I started looking for articles that had these words in their titles. And sure enough, I found articles in economics journals and I found articles in sociology journals and in psychology and political science journals.
And one thing I found really confusing and frustrating was that even though they were supposed to be roughly the same thing, and often cited the same examples, the content was unrecognizably different. It was partly stylistic, but even the math would be impossible to reconcile!
As a scientist you would like to be able to say, “Well, which mathematical model is better?” But I couldn’t even get to the point where I could express one model in terms of the other. And one makes a case that is fundamentally incommensurable with the other. So they can both be wrong, but they can’t both be right.
The point I make in the article is that social science has this very theory-oriented perspective on the world. And yet we have this jumble of theories that don’t really add up. “Organizational Behavior” is a perfect example of this. We have hundreds of theories about why organizations do what they do. However, if you’re reading this literature with the goal of understanding it, it’s really just a headache.
Here is an example. Take Microsoft, where I work now. A few years ago, Satya Nadella announced a major reorganization. This is a multi-hundred billion dollar company. One hundred thousand full-time employees. Tens of thousands of people moved. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Thousands more people found work. Everything in the company changed.
We have a hundred years of organizational and management science. We have thousands and thousands of papers. You’d think that somewhere in this vast volume of stuff with the word “science” at the end of it, there would be some instructions for Satya Nadella. How should he do this?
I do not believe there is an answer to this question in these thousands and thousands of documents. And if this is not a question we answer in the science of organization and management science, what do we answer?
CONTRACTOR: Thus, instead of being motivated only by a particular theory, economists and sociologists should try to solve, not just understand, the same problem. And if that becomes the focus, then it follows that they will look wherever they can for relevant literature on that problem. This provides the incentive to navigate various industries.
But you make an important distinction between purely applied research and the kind you’d like to see more of.
WATTS: Correctly. What I’m talking about is where you use the applied problem as a way to create new basic science.
For many years, people have come up to me after discussions about how information spreads on social networks and asked, “How can I make my product go viral?” And I would say, “That’s not the question we ask in sociology. We’re just asking about general mechanisms.” But after a while, I thought: maybe we must try to answer this question. This is not a dumb question, this is the question anyone who is not a social scientist would ask.
You try to reach out to the stranger and say, “Hey, social science is useful. We can actually tell you answers to your questions.” But to do that, we’ll have to create a lot of basic science ourselves. We don’t have an answer, we can pull from the shelf.
CONTRACTOR: This may be a challenging question, but I have thought about it. When basic science is applied, we call it engineering. Is part of the point that social science has no counterpart?
Most of us would consider “social engineering” a four-letter word, but computational social science—which uses computational methods to investigate social phenomena—might be a platform for it. How can we use computational social science to address grand societal challenges? How do we accelerate innovation by bringing teams together more effectively on the go? How do we expand global health solutions when we know they exist but haven’t been able to leverage the networks well enough to spread them?
In each of these cases, there is a very vibrant research agenda. We don’t know enough about how groups come together. We don’t know enough about how things spread across the network. Therefore, there are several fundamental scientific questions addressed here. But in the process of dealing with them, we also show that we can make a difference. Even if we cannot provide the best solution ever, it is a better solution than the limited solutions we have today.
WATTS: It’s a really interesting point. One answer to the question of why social science isn’t more solution-oriented is that we’re missing that translation piece in the middle, as you say.
I think a second answer is more on the demand side. I wrote a whole book about how people think social science is obvious, just common sense. Business leaders and politicians think they already know the answers.
Plus, they’re dealing with these incredibly complex problems, but they’re also in a hurry. They don’t have time to wait for the investigation.
And research is expensive. Consider how much it would cost to build a theory about how groups interact—a predictive “science of groups.” But if you want to do social science the way physicists do physics, you need CERNS and LIGO and Hubble telescopes.
CONTRACTOR: Yes, it would be very costly. But the fact that but Regions are able to demand this kind of money says we are not doing something right by selling our ideas. In other words, people literally do not appreciate what social science could do. This applies to funding organizations as well as to businesses.
What do you want others to take away from this discussion?
WATTS: Well, much of the data useful for computational social science belongs to industry, and yet much of the expertise to understand it resides in academia. So we need to do more to facilitate industry-academia collaborations. Again, this is not a new concept in engineering. But it is very new in the social sciences. If we build partnerships around solving big problems, we can help businesses while exploring fundamental scientific questions.
CONTRACTOR: The traditional model of social scientists is to go to a company and beg them to be nice enough to say, “OK, we’re going to share some data with you, even though you’re not going to come back and help us.” And I think that model is broken. An industry-academia collaboration should be win-win.