In this digital age, millions of people can tweet instantly about the issues of their choice: economics, jobs, racial disparities, violence, education, transportation, the environment, and so on. News media and advocates can raise awareness and provoke debates. Major social issues all seem to contain pressing challenges that demand solutions as quickly as possible.
In this era of instant information is social research still relevant? Does the laborious process of systematically gathering and interpreting information add value? That question focuses on the raison d’etre of Wilder Research and other organizations that do social research. I would suggest that we find social research motivating and fulfilling because we see it as a means to improve the quality of life for all people in a just way. Some of the features of social research that make it more important than ever include:
Addressing root causes to achieve long-term improvement. It’s frequently easy to see the symptoms of problems – someone out of a job, a student who drops out of school, a person victimized by violence. But understanding the underlying problems does not always happen easily. Research can dig in and discern those causes. We know, for example, that certain groups of people live longer and healthier lives than others. That’s why we have done research to understand what might account for that. We know that certain groups of children do better in school. That’s why we’ve done research related to academic achievement and early childhood development. We seek to understand what accounts for differences such as these and, more importantly, what we can do to eliminate them.
Separating facts from myths. George Soros of the Open Society Foundation has gone so far as to say that “the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal. When reality is unpleasant, illusions offer an attractive escape route. In difficult times unscrupulous manipulators enjoy a competitive advantage over those who seek to confront reality.” In the absence of information, loud voices gain credence, whether right or wrong. Interest groups along all parts of the political spectrum try to entice us to accept their spin. Prior to our studies of homelessness, for example, many beliefs existed about where homeless people came from, what put them onto the streets or brought them to shelters, and how employment, family background, and health related to homelessness. Good research debunked the myths and validated the facts.
The democratization of information. Transparent, accessible information levels the playing field for all members of a community. Knowledge empowers. In making data freely available, through Minnesota Compass for example, we enable everyone the opportunity to understand trends in living conditions and needs and to monitor the effects of work intended to improve those conditions and meet those needs. No special training or resources are required for someone to obtain information to support themselves in democratic participation and decision making.
Anticipating what lies beyond the horizon. Research on trends can help us anticipate what the future might hold. In addition, needs assessments enable us to identify and quantify both positive and negative community conditions that exist, so we can prevent problems from becoming large and can build on existing strengths.
Increasing our effectiveness to improve our quality of life. We entrust government and nonprofit organizations to meet some of our communities’ needs. Program evaluation research provides a systematic means to obtain information to understand the effectiveness of those organizations and to improve their impacts.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that true education involves developing both intelligence and character. I like to borrow that thought to suggest that our character (our values, ideals, aspirations) motivates us to act to improve our communities; social research offers collective intelligence (information, insight) to make that action as effective as possible.