what should we do about this?

I have a new piece in GOOD (one that didn’t get rejected for being critical of their sponsor!). And now I’m starting to get emails asking, “so, what is to be done?” I get this question a lot, particularly in classrooms. In a recent interview on inequality by Channel Arte, I’m pretty sure I pissed off the interviewer by basically saying, “I have no idea.” I often find the last chapters of books — the ones that are proscriptive — to be the worst. In my own work I’m very hesitant to talk about “should” statements. But for most non-academics, this can be really annoying — we’re all about criticism and have nothing to say about solution. One of my colleagues has a stock answer to all of this: “This is the kind of question you should ask policy people; those who are trained to think through these things.” I don’t find this to be satisfying. But I do think the impulse to think about the necessity of policy training for “should” claims to be an interesting one. To a degree I think some of the problem has to do with the logic of scientific inquiry. One wherein we seek to reject rather that affirm propositions. But I’m curious how others handle these questions. How do you answer the, “what should we do?” question? I often talk about what has be shown not to be effective, but I really hedge on positively affirming a particular position. In my next piece for GOOD I’m going to go out on a limb and see how that goes. But I’m curious if others have felt more confident with should statements, and if so, how/why.

4 thoughts on “what should we do about this?”

  1. I’m guessing you mean the prEscriptive and not the prOscriptive stuff in books. Proscription is easier. The very title of your piece, for example, suggests you might want to prOscribe the mere sale of qualifications (or, at least, the sale of qualifications that mean anything but that the buyer is rich and willing to cough up the dough).

    As to your question… (which, given that you end your piece saying you’re gonna say how Texas is a model you seem to have answered…), I’m one of those people who think it is a cop-out to *refuse* to draw the normative implications of one’s own work. It’s one thing to say that you suck at it. But to say you *won’t* do it, well, you know what you know better than others — e.g. you know what didn’t go into the published work — and even if you are (arguably) less talented (meritorious) in coming up with policy than are policy people, that doesn’t mean you can’t say what one *might* do based on what you know. I mean, it’s not like you are the Pope and can just issue encyclicals, and it’s therefore oh-so-important that you spill nary an errant word :).

    If it makes you more comfortable, you can just go all William James on folks. “Grant an idea or belief to be true … what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? What experiences [may] be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?” Basically — think of all policy prEscriptions as essentially hypotheses. If what you are saying has truth value, someone somewhere should do something different. Say who and what. It might be just individuals. Or businesses. Or schools. Or policymakers. And, well, they can check your work for you… — but you are in the best position to say just how that would be done.


  2. When I was first doing my racial disparities slide show, people always asked what should be done. So I added some “what to do” slides. I always made a point of saying that the preceding was fact and that the suggestions about what to do were my opinions about the implications of the facts. My bullet points were things like end the drug war, revisit probation and parole, talk back to “tough on crime” political rhetoric, address the deep structures of racial discrimination and economic inequality. It was not uncommon for a reporter to sit through the entire hour talk and then write a news story entirely about one bullet point at the end, usually “end the drug war,” but it is still helpful to audiences to point them in a general policy direction, even if you leave it vague. And it is certainly fine to make a point of distinguishing between evidence about what is and opinions about what should be.

    In your case, the underlying problem is a competitive economic system in which there will be “winners” and “losers” no matter how you run the system, so what policies one will advocate has to depend partly on your values about intergenerational transmission of status and your reading of the education literature comparing the outcomes of different institutional systems in different countries. If you don’t want a child’s chances for academic success to be correlated with a parent’s wealth, what do you have to do? Who would win and who would lose from a narrower focus on academic merit rather than being “well-rounded”?


  3. I tend to feel similarly to Shamus that the “policy recommendations” chapter at the end of many books is not particularly good, often not even supported by the findings of the rest of the book. Honestly I’d say my final chapter in Citizen Speak, which is policy-oriented, is far worse than the rest of the book. I suppose I agree with jdw that if there are clear policy prescriptions then it makes sense to offer them. But I can think of two rather common situations where I think it’s far better not to offer a policy recommendation:

    1. When the study’s principal point is theoretical or documentary, that is, there just aren’t clear policy recommendations to be made. Science for science’s sake.
    2. When the prescription isn’t policy. There’s been a turn recently toward legitimating social science as an input to policy, but reasonable prescriptions could include participating in a social movement, reading more, talking to others, and lots of other things that aren’t policy-oriented.


    1. RE: Andrew’s point 2. I very heartily agree. When I say it is worth asking what, based on one’s results, someone somewhere would do differently, there is no reason to assume a priori that the relevant someone is a *state* policymaker. I’m as statist as anyone, but building in the view that all findings have to say something to the state seems to bias things a ton in that direction…. But there is private “policy” as well. Social movements need not operate through the state, and they do, when successful, effectively make policy insofar as they change e.g. corporate behavior.

      My point is just that it can be nice to draw implications for someone in the world, and not just for “the literature.”


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