October 19, 2005

A contrarian definition of big social-science history

In crafting the call for papers for this year's Social Science History Association annual meeting, incoming SSHA President Richard Steckel asked SSHA members and networks to think about the meaning of "big social science history," defined in the call as "large collaborative research projects within and across disciplines" roughly tied to social-science history. In some ways, this call was a reflection of the original mission of SSHA, to which this year's call for papers referred, and perhaps asking us to evaluate those large research projects.

But Steckel also asked us to dream big. In network meetings, he referred to multimillion-dollar grants in medicine and other fields and framed the call for papers as a thought experiment: "Networks are encouraged to imagine the research program they would conduct with a multi-million dollar grant."

Since I've recently finished a collaborative project among 5 historians of education, 3 sociologists, 1 criminologist, several grad students, and a partridge in a pear tree (though the partridge is not a coauthor in the book that will be coming out), and because I have benefitted indirectly from other collaborative (data-collection) projects, I think I have some experience with today's collaboration, including the prospects for multimillion-dollar grants. And while I will not discount the possibilities of getting large grants, I think Steckel framed the issue too narrowly at last year's meeting. Because the SSHA annual meeting is half a month away, I'm putting out this contrarian definition in hopes of starting a dialogue before the meeting (and one I hope will extend through the meeting).

Framing the issue as one of multimillion-dollar grants was inapt for several reasons and conflicts with the questions raised elsewhere in the call for papers:

  1. Multimillion-dollar grants have large price tags for very specific reasons tied to the needs of the projects, not to the intellectual integrity of the work. Below, I'll describe multimillion-dollar social-science research projects worth every penny and more, but size only matters to the spam in our inbox and ambitious institutional officers who look at federal funding figures. Medical research requires labs, technicians, physicians and nurses for treatment studies, and so forth. Engineering research requires labs, expensive equipment that has a limited life, and technicians. There are social-science history projects that require such funding, but they're generally data-collection efforts. Those are incredibly important, but that requires a different definition of "big social-science history," one I propose below.
  2. Multimillion-dollar grants in social-science history are inconsistent with the current research funding environment, for the most part. Maybe other countries are more generous, but the big federal funding agencies in the U.S. (NSF, NIH) aren't as free with their money as we might like in our fantasies. Funded NSF project budgets are routinely shrunk in negotiation. And while I love the NIH's modular budget philosophy, that only applies for small and moderate grants (I think $250,000 is the cap for modular budgeting at NIH). The last time that the major funder in my area (the Spencer Foundation, sponsoring disciplinary research in education) dangled a few million dollars to several groups, it was in 1999 and early 2000, and the grants that eventually came out of that initiative shrank to shoestring size.
  3. The type of collaborative work funded by multimillion-dollar grants is frequently targeted at specific projects with well-defined research questions. I love well-defined research questions, but is this the only definition of fruitful collaboration? I'm not speaking of the normal development of an area of literature but unusual projects (topical conferences, summer workshops, collaborative volumes) that can move a field but neither need huge gobs of cash nor the type of research question that focus grant proposals.
  4. The multimillion-dollar model is inappropriate for most faculty and other researchers we want to engage in SSHA in the future. In the past 30-40 years, more teaching faculty across the nation have been expected to carry on active research, and a far higher proportion are on regional state campuses of public university systems. SSHA is like most other academic bodies and draws disproportionately from institutions that give faculty significant time for research. While we talk about significant research, there is a growing body of scholars who face research demands with little infrastructure on their own campuses apart from an office, a computer, and maybe a few hundred dollars of travel funds per year. Few of them have the institutional resources necessary to draw such grants, and yet they can both contribute greatly to social-science history.
  5. A multimillion-dollar model will preferentially affect some disciplines and tools, by the argument I presented above in #1. The tool for which money can most easily and legitimately be requested is GIS. I love GIS as a tool. I want it well-funded for basic data collection, such as the National Historical Geographic Information System, as well as good individual projects. But not every good research project is a GIS project, and not every collaboration requires or can feasibly use GIS. This is suggested by the abstracts available with the preliminary program for the meeting. Apart from the roundtable sessions (which are skewed a bit towards GIS), I could only identify one or two paper abstracts not associated with GIS where a multimillion-dollar investment seemed to be part of the research agenda. Abstracts are not papers, and I hope to be proved wrong in Portland.

Given these concerns, I hope that the discussion of big social-science history will veer away from the size of desired grants and instead towards the environment necessary for fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration. Let me start with an abstract but serviceable definition. Big social-science history is interdisciplinary collaboration in history that can create, develop, or support a research agenda that would not be possible by researchers acting alone. Big social-science history should focus on collaboration and infrastructure that makes research possible. Big social-science history makes the tools and end results widely available to researchers and other readers worldwide.

Let me give some ideas that look like big social-science history to me. Some of these exist already and will be discussed in sessions at the SSHA annual meeting. Some don't.

  1. Data-collection and archiving projects such as the Integrated Public Use Microdata Sample projects at the University of Minnesota. A few weeks after the National Science Board published its Long-Lived Data Collections report, we should see data collection as the foundation of big social-science history. Any faculty member with skills in SAS or SPSS can sit in a tiny office, download huge datasets, and manipulate them on today's computers. Today, I can replicate in a few hours what took me months to do with a mainframe in 1990-91. In essence, any time I download a data set, I'm involved in a collaborative relationship with those who collect and maintain the data. Or, rather, I'm benefitting from that infrastructure. With these huge collections, any scholar around the globe with a decent computer can engage in big social-science research that would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1970s.

    The reason why one should focus on these large-scale data collection projects is because they require a certain amount of expertise in organizing the work effectively, and because local projects can still be done using this model. I hope Steve Ruggles and others of his ilk might be interested in spreading the Secrets of Data Collection and Management for projects of smaller scope... or might be willing to take on the digitizing of local data.

  2. Data "digesting" projects with end results free on the web. These exist with contemporary data (e.g., Current Population Survey reports and data), and it's essential to create professional approbation (or a brownie-point market) for these in social-science history. They require multi-year, large grants, with the clear expectation that the resulting data sets and reports will be available online, free to anyone. This expectation will require a change in the norms of historical scholarship dissemination, which currently favor books over all other ways of disseminating research. Why is it important to create a new norm? There is currently a long-delayed project of this sort in social-science history that Amazon lists (pre-publication) for $825. Who will buy it, other than libraries? Who will read and use it, other than those of us who still venture to libraries? The editors are well-meaning researchers who started the project with a model of big social-science history that would have worked well in the 1980s because there were no other options then. But there are now, and deadtree statistical compilations that you and I can never have at home or in our office are truly dinosaurs.
  3. Online scholarly encyclopedias. For some years, I was surprised at the fad of encyclopedias among some publishers, and then I became irritated. This type of work is precisely the collaborative scholarship that should be online, refereed, and updated. Typically, scholarly encyclopedias are highly mixed in quality, because editors can't get writers for all entries without dredging for authors. Then you're stuck with an encyclopedia with a major entry that ignores huge swaths of historiography. And then it's obsolete within five years. But with online publication, everything changes. If you don't like an entry? Write a competing one that gets refereed! There are unmediated (or semi-mediated) versions of this on the internet, commonly known as wikis (such as Wikipedia. But we can do better! And we should.
  4. Working-papers archives for historians, with the infrastructure necessary for archiving commentaries and make metadata available. Some version of this exists for physicists and economists, though I'm not sure if they have commenting and metadata attached that would allow such archives to be used by academic library software. Similarly, someone needs to collect dissertation abstracts and metadata in a publicly-available site that could be folded into academic library software.
  5. Online communities centered around areas of interest, where scholars around the globe can discuss topics of mutual interest and ... hey! That's H-Net. (Speaking of which, you can donate to support this infrastructure for Big Social-Science History with just a few clicks.)

None of these look like the "big social-science history" projects that were legends when I was in grad school. I don't know what the budget for the Philadelphia Social History Project was, but the time for that type of project is probably over. Its data collection was important, but that's different from the project as a whole. We need to conceive of big social-science history in ways that faculty around the globe can engage in it. I take Professor Steckel at his word in the gist of the call for papers—we need to evaluate and think about it as a whole, with large ambitions—and hope that this is a reasonable prod for the debate.

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Posted in Research on October 19, 2005 10:32 AM |