Research in the Spotlight

Research in the Spotlight

28 May, 2019

How can social science improve the public discourse in a polarized society?

Article published on The Spencer Foundation.
Publication date: 05/14/2019

“I believe that qualitative literacy has been scarce in our public discourse; that social scientists have failed to articulate and teach it; and that the paucity of qualitative literacy in the discourse has been detrimental to our society.” –Mario Small

Widespread deficits in qualitative literacy–the ability to use and interpret data collected from interviews, observations, and similar methods–has contributed to a polarized public discourse, argued Mario Small, Grafstein Family Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, in his 2019 Spencer Lecture at the AERA Annual Meeting in Toronto.

          While there have been considerable gains in quantitative literacy in recent years, Small argued, there has been no commensurate improvement in the public’s qualitative literacy. As a result, both producers and consumers of news struggle to identify or produce empirically sound  journalism and commentary. “This paucity is part of the reason that the election of Trump caught many unaware, that the rise of white supremacist movements seemed to many to come out of nowhere, and that our debates about everything from conditions in poor neighborhoods to the motivations of working class people have been stagnant,” Small asserted.

Small maintained that the “habits of thought” practiced by skilled qualitative researchers can provide a path forward, and he outlined three indicators that researchers, journalists, pundits, and all those who strive to inform and influence the public should meet.  What are these indicators? And how can they help improve the public discourse?

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