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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2001

A National Knowledge Crisis

John Harp

If Only We Knew: Increasing the Public Value of Social Science Research

John Willinsky. New York: Routledge, 2000; 252 pp; paper $38 US.
John Willinsky has written a provocative and informative analysis of why social scientists need to improve the contribution their research makes to public knowledge. He argues that the public value of knowledge can be improved, and he discusses how access to this knowledge will help people to make greater sense of the world. In addition he calls for new public spaces for social science knowledge designed to improve the quality of knowledge and provide for greater participation in the public sphere. Given a generally recognized need for a revitalized public sphere, this project warrants our attention.

The book is divided into three sections entitled "Knowledge," "Social Science," and "Politics." Willinsky situates his discussion of knowledge within what he calls "Knowbis Economies." He accepts an information society model that includes a centrality of information facilitated by innovation in technology. Indeed, he states that universities must compete in this knowledge economy, which he refers to enthusiastically as the "new civic-spirited approach to knowledge." (p. 47) The academy's defense of its intellectual position within a new knowledge-based economy is described as "rooted in religious and political corporate fervor and remarkably flat and milquetoasty." (p. 53)

However, Willinsky overlooks a voluminous critical literature since the early eighties which argues that our universities have bought into a corporate/state discourse based on neo-liberal policies and as a result have become more technocratic, more utilitarian, and more concerned with selling products than with education. Furthermore, a complex and thorny issue in any discussion of public knowledge relates to how the public will engage with different ways of knowing. Willinsky draws upon his public knowledge project at UBC as somehow resolving this issue by allowing people to make up their own minds. However, I would argue that it is a positivist epistemology that continues in most policy debates to constitute an imprimatur for knowledge.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book for social scientists is his analysis of the context for social science research. Topics include social contracts, academic freedoms and epistemological theories. These are issues that have dominated debates within social science since the inception of its various disciplines. However, today they resonate within the relatively new context of an information society with its technical possibilities often rationalized in terms of business and industrial interests.

Willinsky cites research programs that are based on close cooperation among researchers, professionals and communities. He describes them as programs that connect the knowledge-scholarship experience. Here participatory action research could also be included since examples from universities across Canada are available. Here, too, one could add Peter Scott's discussion of trans-disciplinarity as a problem-solving capability on the move. A characteristic of such research and one consistent with Willinsky's public knowledge is that results are disseminated not so much through journals and conferences but through the scientific and management skills members of the team carry from one project to another. (Scott 1995, p. 150) Willinsky also calls for research to improve the public process of policy formation.

Reading Willinsky, I am reminded of Stephen Ball's suggestion that three levels of analysis are relevant in policy research, namely analysis of the social economic/ political context, the institutional arena, and finally a biographical analysis. This is a major undertaking for any research project to be sure, but knowledge gained could contribute to greater public understanding of the institutions in which we live and work and the larger social and political contexts in which they operate.

Willinsky reminds us that both probability and issues surrounding risk are central to methodological debates within social science. Although it is generally acknowledged (public knowledge) that social science generalizations are couched in probabilistic language/terms, Willinsky also asks who informs people of the moral import and consequences of such knowledge. He grounds his discussion in current debates pertaining to the uses of SAT scores and a critical analysis of racial profiling. Concerning risks, Willinsky states that "social science research must continue to inform prevailing perceptions of how well and fairly the state is helping its citizens to manage the risks it faces." (p. 161) Consequently we also need to emphasize and disseminate as part of public knowledge those alternative social indicators that focus on equity and social justice issues.

Willinsky firmly believes that technology can play a positive role in all this. "It would take little enough effort, within the hyperlinked environment of the web, for researchers to connect their studies on what is at risk and what is possible to sites that can help people implement new programs, obtain grants for innovation or connect to those experimenting with similar possibilities for practice." (p. 170) Technology also has a role to play in an extended function for the footnote now revitalized with the aid of hyperlink technologies thereby expanding scholarly references.

All the good intentions about improving the uses of social science research would be empty platitudes without an explicit theory of politics and political process. For this Willinsky draws selectively upon Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Habermas and John Rawls to promote the idea of deliberative democracy. Simply stated, he has in mind improved ways for citizens to participate in the decisions and policies by which they are governed. Some of these ideas are grounded in a discussion of a public knowledge website on British Columbia's educational policy initiative which is designed to allow teachers, ministry personnel and the public to initiate discussion on policy issues. However, it is here that Willinsky acknowledges that commercial interests are at stake in the battle between private and public interests. This is a perspective I would like to have seen developed more extensively to examine, as Willinsky puts it, "the footrace between private and public interests in the political economy of this information age." (p. 217)

Reflecting both public and private interests, Willinsky mentions sociology's long term concern with its role in the public domain, citing the theme chosen for the 1962 ASA meetings, namely the uses of sociology. A Canadian example that comes to mind is the 1992 book Fragile Truths, a collection of articles by anthropologists and sociologists commemorating 25 years of research. This volume reveals the conflicting beliefs and multiple ways of knowing engaged in by its contributors. For social scientists to ask how their research will work in public may well require a new mind set for many, but an even more daunting task is one that involves bringing to public knowledge an understanding of the pluralism that currently exists within the social sciences.

Moreover, if its member disciplines are to be more than knowledge brokers on the Internet, they will indeed require more people researching and reporting on what is really going on at both societal and local levels. University academics continue to play a role in this process as critical public intellectuals in their teaching, research and community activities.

With regard to teaching and given the necessary institutional sites and pedagogical conditions, students will be able to critically study and use the new electronic media in order to engage and transform the public cultures of the university and the wider society. (Giroux 1995, p. 252)

Willinsky's account of the issues involved in directing social science research, in combination with new technologies, toward public ends, is part of a larger ongoing debate about the future of the university and its research activities. As such, the book will attract a wide readership both inside and outside the world of academe.

John Harp, professor of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, was CAUT's 2000-­2001 visiting scholar.

Fragile Truths: Twenty-five Years of Sociology and Anthropology in Canada. William K. Carroll, Linda Christiansen-Ruffman, Raymond F. Currie, & Deborah Harrison, eds. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1992.

The Meaning of Mass Higher Education. Peter Scott. Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press, 1995.

Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Political Sociology. Stephen T. Ball. London: Routledge, 1990.

"Public Intellectuals and the Crisis of Higher Education." Henry A. Giroux. Higher Education Under Fire. Michael Berube & Cary Nelson, eds. London: Routledge, 1995.