Futuring Paper – Social Sciences

October 11, 2016

To : Interim President James Stellar, Ph.D,
From  : Nancy Denton, Ph.D. (Sociology) and Robert L. Miller, Jr., Ph.D (Social Welfare)
Re : Responses to the Futuring of Social Sciences


Question One

What forces are shaping your discipline today (learning, work, and professional practice)?

The forces shaping the social sciences today (learning, work and professional practice) broadly encompass issues of diversity, managing both technology and climate change, understanding knowledge generation and dissemination, as well as the economic forces that shape the members of the civil society.

Diversity and Globalization

The social science departments report an increasing international presence in their classrooms.  While these students are acquiring an “American” understanding of the various fields, they are framing their learning in the service of their countries of origin. In effect, they are engaging in “translational efforts” to use their skills and knowledge in the service of their homelands and global institutions. At the same time, it is unclear whether these students will return to their countries to work or to use agencies and resources in America in the service of their home country.

Concepts of culture within the construct of diversity and inclusion on a domestic level remain salient in the classroom, however, such issues are broadening in their scope.  Exploration of low, high and material culture remain present. The study and utility of media is also a force affecting the culture of the classroom.

An additional force is the recognition of changing demographic attributes of society. It is unclear how well the presentation of the social sciences research and pedagogy are preparing their students to attend to changing demographics.  The demographics of the civil society are changing in ways that out-pace the theories of practice for those dealing with society members. 

The current political climate recognizes segments of the population who are feeling disenfranchised, as well as those who remain marginalized.  It is unclear whether our current social sciences understand the problems and provide solution-oriented services consistent with the needs of the population. 

Moreover, how families are managing, being conceptualized and formed is changing.  Men within families are no longer assured the same employment legacy as their forefathers. Their wives are having to train and retrain in order to sustain their economic viability. There is some suggestion this change is both challenging, if not marginalizing for the men who are not college prepared. In some ways, these unanticipated changes makes the men seek political solutions, which in some instances demean those they do not respect. The current presidential race is cited as an exemplar. Additionally, homosexual couples and transgender individuals are increasingly making themselves known in communities.  It is unclear whether their realities are universally recognized and honored as viable teaching topics in the social sciences.

Research

There is a pressing need for more cross-disciplinary research and collaboration in the social sciences. 

There is increased importance placed on not just working among members of the community, but actually working with them. The goal is to create a shared knowledge with them and for them, so that the research is mutually beneficial for researcher and the community.

There is also a concern about the diminishing research funds for projects that attend to marginalized and oppressed communities.  There are more research funds available for science, technology, engineering and math than available for social science research.

Technology

Lastly, information generation technology utilization is rapidly evolving and spreading into the general population, which impacts the classroom.  Social sciences need to grapple with adjusting its theories and methods to better incorporate the information revolution.  For example, digital social networks, cyber dating, mate choice on-line, digital socialization and socializing, and the use of “Big Data” will shape social science thinking. 

Other important forces the social sciences must address are climate change, huge movements of undocumented refugees, and the interaction of the Internet with social movements. 

Question Two

In ten years, what forces will shape changes in your discipline? How will professional practice be affected?

The primary forces include economic shifts, technology and issues related to diversity.

Economic Shifts

The social sciences will react to ongoing changes in the US and the world: declining living standards for all initiated by the rich in the US and Europe.  In the absence of systemic changes in affordable quality education, our classrooms will become more socioeconomically homogenous and the inequality divide will grow larger.

Further, if budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels continue, there will be fewer opportunities for social science graduates to find relevant employment for government agencies and community based organizations.

Foreign students will continue to pursue admission to our programs.  The implications include producing non-US students for academic, public service and private business jobs. This opportunity will certainly diversify the work force and it will require additional opportunities for diversity and inclusion training.  It will further necessitate that US based programs develop training programs consistent with the needs of our non-US students.

This economic and cultural divide portends a wider achievement the gap in our society.  This gap will further segment the civil society.

Technology

In 10 years universities will be very different and the social sciences will need to adjust and stay relevant to the mission of a university of the 21st century.  Social science will have to cope with teaching on-line; appealing to the general public, and interpreting social structures that will radically change, e.g., schools, families, and government institutions.  So teaching must change to meet the needs. 

Teaching may need to transform to involve more community engagement than relying on traditional pedagogical methods. 

At the same time, research has to provide social science research findings quicker and allow for interactions via the web.  The social science peer reviewed journal publications will still be necessary, however the social sciences will have to become adroit at using technology for the more efficient dissemination of the findings and make greater use of networking devices.

There is a sense that the social sciences will have to collaborate with and integrate the hard sciences related to the human condition. Understanding the links between genetic, epigenetic and non-genetic factors and the social sciences will be a relevant undertaking as well.

Diversity Issues

The social science curriculum will need to change to meet the needs of the future civil society. Just as the current demographics of the civil society are changing, the shifts will be more dramatic in the years to come. Managing the change process as well as the final outcome of the change is in the purview of the social sciences. 

Universities must equip those in the social sciences to assess, theorize and develop practices that attend to the issues of social change. These changes will include the browning of the society as well as the impending and deepening economic divide such changes portend.

Question Three

What are the implications for your profession, continuous professional development, and teaching and learning?  Specifically, what new opportunities may be created in the future?

Globalization

As globalization becomes more important, social scientists will seek ways to expand their appreciation and knowledge of the world beyond the U.S.  Comparative research will become more prominent, with implications for faculty travel and study abroad.  There will be opportunities to partner with universities around the world.

Substantive topics that are new opportunities in the social sciences include environmental sociology, digital social research, population and environmental sociology, high-level computational methods (from big data), all of which have U.S. and cross-cultural implications. 

With a more diverse population, a wider range of viewpoints, beyond the traditional liberal-left, will become more prominent on campus.  There is pressure to treat conservative/fascist/alt-right viewpoints as a kind of “protected category” as conservatives have done a better job at getting their message across. 

Interdisciplinary research will become more and more prominent, necessitating social scientists be trained in biology, genetics, statistics and other natural sciences.

Community Engagement and Job Preparation

Community engagement will be increasingly important and social scientists will have to learn to relate their work to the local community.  Greater community involvement will also build trust between scientists and the community, a relationship that needs improvement.

There will also need to be a greater coherence between course work and job-preparedness.  Students will increasingly look for degrees that have clear and defined job opportunities.  It will be a challenge to encourage them to prepare for a broader range of opportunities as careers can change quickly and new ones emerge all the time so students need to be able to change and learn new things.

Technology

Social scientists need to know how to program and adroitly use micro-technologies such as smart phones for research and teaching.   Teaching will have to become more interactive and team-based.

The social sciences may be severely impacted by the increased competition for funds, even as the university is increasingly emphasizing outside funding.

Question Four

How will future developments and opportunities affect the university—impacted departments or units?  How might The University at Albany respond to these within the strategic planning process?

Globalization

UAlbany needs to continue to encourage ties with universities in foreign countries.  This is already being done but more is needed. 

Faculty research interests have to meet the needs of the students coming from abroad, as well as still train students who want to work in the U.S.  This is particularly true of doctoral programs.

The university could foster interdisciplinary collaborations, particularly between the social and natural sciences.  Such collaborations should be reflected in standards for promotion and tenure and joint teaching of courses.

Curriculum Delivery

The success of online learning will force the university to be sure it is adding value above and beyond what the student can learn online, from their own home. 

Expansion of the number of undergraduates will disproportionately affect some of the social sciences, particularly sociology (as it is often a fallback major). 

The university could sponsor training opportunities for faculty (provide rooms and resources) for faculty to gain needed expertise in areas outside their major area of expertise.  Incentives would help given that faculty are increasingly tasked with more duties.

New faculty hires should “bridge” areas:  e.g. a cultural environmental anthropologist or medical sociologist would help build bridges and develop new programs. 

Involvement of undergraduates in research will also be increasingly important and it would be nice if the university could help the faculty develop ways to make that happen.  This is particularly difficult if the faculty do not have “labs”.  Faculty tend to guard their research time and focus their training on their graduate students.  The large numbers of undergraduates makes this very challenging.

Faculty are likely to need more training in community engagement, as well as diversity and gender studies, and the university could help provide it.

Funding/Resource Needs

The lecture center model of teaching is increasingly out of vogue and the university should plan to change/upgrade its learning environments.

Better and faster Wi-Fi and broadband connections throughout the campus.  Service is poor in many faculty offices, and with the increasing use of mobile devices, the hard-wired connections are not sufficient.

Resources are needed to establish more stand-alone MA programs, particularly in CAS.  These could be multidisciplinary and include an internship component that will link them to actual jobs.

Increased internal seed funding for new projects may help in the competition for outside funds.