Fox Professing
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Social Science's Limited Role
in Resolving Psycholegal Social Problems

Dennis R. Fox


Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 17, 159-166.

I wrote this quickly to present at the 1990 APA convention at a poster session on the use of social science to resolve social issues, sponsored by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). I planned to expand the paper before submitting it somewhere, but then a journal editor who saw the poster offered to publish it as a short essay. So it stayed short, though some aspects are expanded elsewhere.

A strange invention if you think about it, poster sessions - all those people milling around looking at bulletin boards with summaries of papers that sometimes never get written. Another institutionalized method to help academics pad the vita in response to the pressure to publish.

Note: This version may not exactly match the published version!


Reform-minded social scientists often assume that increased social scientific knowledge leads inevitably to advances in the understanding and amelioration of difficult social problems. Given the example of the nonsocial sciences, the reformist assumption may be in error. Although important social problems do raise empirical questions, at their core these problems are nonempirical. Their solutions, systemic and radical, must be based on the political resolution of value conflict rather than simply on amassing more data. This argument is developed in the context of psychology and law.


It is not surprising that the theme of the 1990 meeting of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues was "The Use of Scientific Knowledge in the Analysis and Solution of Social Problems." SPSSI members and other reform-minded psychologists, rejecting the antiquated notion that science is value free, have turned their attention to social problems such as war and peace, environmental degradation and resource scarcity, prejudice and discrimination, crime and victimization, rape and sexual harassment, and many other aspects of the sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, materialism, alienation, disempowerment, class inequality, and other problems endemic in our society. The focus of social scientists on real-world problems in applied settings is to be welcomed. The resulting analyses are often useful, and the proposed solutions often make a certain degree of sense.

Unfortunately, even the best research motivated by the best of intentions can have only limited success. This is the case for at least three related reasons:

1. Complex social problems are interconnected.

2. The resolution of significant social problems requires solutions that are more radical than most social scientists and policy makers are willing to support.

3. Most social problems persist not because of lack of empirical knowledge but because of conflicting value priorities and competing societal interests.

The Interconnectedness of Social Problems

That seemingly separate social problems are in fact related to one another in both origin and solution has frequently been noted. Thus, as M. B. Smith noted (1972), "to make headway on one problem, another equally difficult one must be attacked" (p. 13). Unfortunately, for reasons ranging from lack of resources to lack of imagination, most investigators remain narrowly focused, proposing limited solutions rather than seeking "to understand social problems in their entirety, from a more systemic, holistic viewpoint" (Nelson & Caplan, 1983, p. 505).

As a result of the systemic nature of complex problems, single-purpose cures are doomed to fail. As demonstrated by the example of the nonsocial sciences, technological advances, often developed to solve one problem or another, frequently have "unanticipated" consequences, both social and nonsocial, that make other problems even worse. The development of the automobile comes to mind, with "side effects" ranging from environmental pollution and depletion of resources to suburban sprawl, lack of exercise, and the decline of city centers. The more recent development of computers has similar unanticipated consequences; loss of privacy, worker dehumanization and routinization, the risk of catastrophic error, and the eased production of useless or harmful output may ultimately be recognized as more significant than the computer's supposed benefits (Fox, 1986).

Like engineering and the hard sciences, social science also approaches many issues with a basic faith in "can-do" technology. Yet the technology of social science can bring similar negative outcomes, as much of the debate over intractable "welfare dependency" makes clear. While complaints about so-called "liberal social engineering" often simply mask disagreement with the desired end result, they sometimes do have merit, at least in pointing out that predictions for success are usually exaggerated. Social scientists who are determined to focus on narrow "manageable" issues inevitably overlook relevant factors that stem from the relationship of their particular problem to other equally difficult ones they choose to ignore.

The Need for Radical Solutions

The failure to consider the linkages between seemingly separate social problems stems not only from failure to see the links. Perhaps even more significant is that many social scientists at least suspect such links, but realize that to fully examine them and to propose comprehensive solutions might lead them into dangerous waters. As Bevan (1982) noted, "Human problems, if taken seriously, will surely require humankind to change its behavior, both individually and collectively, and, more likely than not, its social institutions as well" (p. 1316). The logic of a systemic view is that the resolution of social problems requires radical solutions rather than reformist ones. Proposals to investigate the benefits of radical change, of course, do not generally receive government or corporate funding, even if the social scientist is inclined to seek it.

And most social scientists are not so inclined. Given the benefits that psychologists receive from society as it is structured today (Sarason, 1981), it is not surprising that psychologists "in the moderate-to-liberal mainstream generally act on the belief that social change is possible--and desirable--only within a narrow, 'realistic' range of options" (Fox, 1985, p. 48). The realism that precludes even wide-ranging reforms because they are "too expensive" especially precludes more radical change that seeks to fundamentally alter long-standing political, economic, and social arrangements that are at the heart of many of our more serious problems.

For example, serious proposals to solve the so-called "drug crisis" generally cover the "realistic" range from more crime prevention to more treatment and education. Proposals for the more widespread, systemic reform of selective drug legalization are often ridiculed or ignored. Yet there is almost no public discussion of a truly radical option: getting to the root causes of most hard-core drug use (and a number of other serious problems) by ending poverty, inequality, and hopelessness. There is little doubt that in an egalitarian, resource-rich society, much of the urge to overdo drugs (as well as alcohol) would subside. Such a society would likely have less crime, less despair, and less alienation as well. Yet most social scientists do not focus on such a possible solution because it seems on the surface to be unrealistic. To many of those who benefit disproportionately from the status quo, it also does not seem desirable.

Values Outweigh Facts

Unfortunately, even systemic, holistic research explicitly designed to challenge the status quo can have only modest impact because it inevitably confronts the third limiting factor: Most social problems result not from lack of knowledge but from conflicting value priorities and competing societal interests. The solutions, in other words, are primarily political rather than scientific. Although greater social scientific knowledge can play an important role in the political process, that role is necessarily circumscribed, as is typically discovered by social scientists testifying at congressional or legislative hearings. Social scientists often overestimate the potential significance of their own research for the resolution of social problems, resulting in either puzzlement or cynicism when policy makers, responding to a variety of pressures, do not immediately put into practice the data-based suggestions.

I am not arguing that social problems do not encompass significant empirical issues. On the contrary, examination of most social problems frequently exposes assumptions about factual issues that reflect the potential usefulness of research. What limits that potential usefulness is the fact that in many cases empirical assumptions mask rather than illuminate the core of the controversy. Greater scientific knowledge is more likely to simply shift the terms of most debates to a different issue than it is to resolve the issue in any meaningful sense. The liberal social scientist's belief that increased knowledge and understanding will conclusively resolve value issues--that social policy is, and should be, based on "the facts"--reflects a failure to acknowledge that most issues are primarily value-relevant rather than fact-relevant. The solutions are political rather than empirical.

Psychology and Law

Most social problems are wrestled with in many arenas. A particularly significant one is the legal system. In recent years, psychologists have become increasingly active in efforts to influence both the legal system's decision making procedures and the substance of the resulting decisions. For example, psychologists interested in "psychology and law" do research on jury competence, eyewitness accuracy, child testimony, alternative dispute resolution, and other procedural topics, seeking answers to practical empirical questions confronted by the legal system. Are six-person juries as accurate as 12-person juries? Are sexually abused children traumatized by testifying in court? What kinds of procedures do litigants consider to be fair?

To the extent that these are narrow empirical questions, psychologists may be able to answer them. Often there is no danger in that. But some of these seemingly narrow questions, when placed in a broader context, turn out to have greater significance. Reducing jury size, for example, may affect the historic political role of the jury as a potential check on prosecutorial abuse, a factor that a narrow focus on accuracy may not consider (Hans & Vidmar, 1986). Providing data on what procedures are seen as fair may help the authorities provide the appearance of fairness without the substance (Tyler, 1990). These are potential consequences that we should not ignore.

Psychologists have also addressed broader issues of legal substance. It is in this area that empirical and normative questions become even more confusingly intermixed. For example, the legal, moral, and political question of whether or not society should abolish the death penalty is translated in social science research into narrower empirical issues such as "Does the death penalty deter crime?" and "Is there a racial disparity in death sentences?" For liberal social scientists, the generally accepted empirical answers to these questions (the death sentence probably does not deter crime more than does life in prison; race does play a role, particularly the race of the victim) are final arguments that settle the issue. For judges, legislators, voters, defendants, and potential victims, however, such empirical answers are not only insufficient but clearly misplaced. More often than not, when death penalty proponents accept the liberal's empirical points, their support of the death penalty simply shifts to other grounds--for example, they argue, the death penalty is necessary for retribution rather than for deterrence; racial disparities are unfortunate but should not stand in the way of a just sentence. Although the data cause some shifting around of positions, they do nothing to truly resolve the controversy.

Similar empirical-normative confusion is evident in a variety of substantive areas in mental health law. These include legal restrictions on adolescent abortion; the appropriate level of testimony for mental health experts appearing in court; the criteria for civil commitment of the mentally disordered, competency to stand trial, and the insanity defense; laws restricting nonnormative sexual and family relationships; the administrative rationale for finding someone too disabled to work; and selection of the "best" parent after a divorce. Efforts by psychologists and others to make these decisions "objectively" have been criticized on the grounds that these are value decisions, not factual ones (e.g., Bursten, 1984). Assessing maturity, competence, insanity, disability, and sexual morality cannot be reduced to "facts," even in theory. Efforts by psychologists to do so may do more harm than good, causing a backlash when the data analysis seems from a distance merely to be a screen for a particular liberal social agenda. Such a backlash exists even within the American Psychological Association, as the many letters in the APA Monitor complaining about APA's "liberal positions" make clear.

Although the writers to the Monitor may be on target in their categorization of APA positions, they miss the essential point. It is true that social issues are inherently value laden and ideological. But this does not mean that psychologists should thus avoid the issues of the day "until all the data are in." That day will never come, and such a position would merely reinforce the status quo.

I am suggesting instead that social scientists acknowledge the values inherent in their work rather than hide them, and enter the political debate more aware of, and open about, those values. Rather than hiding our values behind our data, we should explicitly blend our data and values in order to make strong arguments for the kinds of significant change we think is necessary (Fox, 1990). Such arguments must be systemic, radical, and value-based if we are to have any hope of making a significant dent in the serious problems we address.

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Bevan, W. (1982). A sermon of sorts in three plus parts. American Psychologist, 37, 1303-1322.

Bursten, B. (1984). Beyond psychiatric expertise. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Fox, D. R. (1985). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commons. American Psychologist, 40, 48-58.

Fox, D. R. (1986). Technology, productivity, and psychological needs. In J. W. Murphy & J. T. Pardeck (Eds.), Technology and human productivity: Challenges for the future (pp. 59-66). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Fox, D. R. (1990, August). The autonomy-community balance and the equity-law distinction. Paper presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston.

Hans, V. P., & Vidmar, N. (1986). Judging the jury. New York: Plenum.

Nelson, S. D., & Caplan, N. (1983). Social problem solving and social change. In D. Perlman & P. C. Cozby (Eds.), Social psychology (pp. 503-532). New York: Holt, Rinehart.

Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology misdirected. New York: Free Press.

Smith, M. B. (1972). Ethical implications of population policies: A psychologist's point of view. American Psychologist, 27, 11-15.

Tyler, T. (1990). Why people obey the law. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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