Where Disciplines Meet for the Better
All the problems that we as a school are fundamentally interested in are about improving the lives of the most vulnerable. BCSSW is addressing the problems of children in adversity, here in the U.S. and around the globe; racial and ethnic disparities in economic, health, and social well-being; family strengthening and mental health of youth, with particular attention to Black and Latinx families and communities and refugee and immigrant families; and the poverty and extreme poverty in low- and middle-income countries that is coupled very closely with the lack of fundamental resources such as clean energy and water. We are particularly concerned about ways to attain equity, justice, and inclusion in the workplace. Our faculty are also keen to improve the social, health, and economic well-being of older adults in their civic and work lives.
We are focused on alleviating problems like these; merely understanding them is not sufficient. Flawed understanding leads to flawed interventions that can do more damage. But good, robust understanding of the complexities opens pathways to designing better interventions—and that gets us to the cusp of another challenge. Once you know that an intervention is good, how do you scale it for population-level outcomes for societal benefit?
So, we have to be
- Human centered
- Experimental and iterative to arrive at solutions to problems
- Data-driven in our approaches to derive new insights into complex social problems affecting our most vulnerable and to arrive at evidence-based interventions
- Focused on designing interventions and solutions for scalability so we see social impact
Social dilemmas do not come in neat packages. They are messy, they involve complex human behavior, and when you dig deep, they cut across many of the disciplines that we have kept segregated in the university for centuries.
If we as universities are to matter for our societies, then we must develop knowledge that matters to the real world. We must engage in scientific research that has relevance for real-world social dilemmas. We need to discover which other disciplines and professions can effectively address the problem of interest.
So, I am arguing that new understandings and solutions to seemingly intractable social problems are located at the intersections of disciplines. If we are to advance our understanding of messy social problems and intervene in them, then we have no choice but to scale the walls of our own disciplines and reach out to disciplines that are adjacent to ours and relevant to addressing a problem and improving the human condition. In the process, we also need to broaden to include the perspectives of people and institutions—individuals, families, communities, and programs—embedded in the problem to inform our understanding and subsequently the design of our interventions.
To work across disciplines is not easy. It requires respect for other disciplines, and a commitment on the part of universities and faculty to be open and to engage in a healthy debate when differences in disciplinary orientations arise. It takes commitment on the part of a university to abandon insular thinking in order to educate and train the next generation of youth to build better societies. We search for colleagues who understand the problem we’re interested in and keep that problem in the crosshairs at all times, without bias toward their own disciplinary or professional training. Often when you look at the complexity of a problem, it is not just one professional discipline that is central. But if you are privileging your own professional and disciplinary lens, then you’ve given up on that fundamental goal of bringing about a better social outcome, improving human well-being. Therein lies the case for transcending disciplines.
Integrating sciences for their elegance, without a focus on the societal impact, is a cul-de-sac.
We are committed to providing students across BC with innovative courses and project-based experiences—courses, independent studies, internships, placements—that give them opportunities for involvement in these projects and build platforms for sustained transdisciplinary education, research, and practice to address the problems of refugees and migrants, children in adversity, or environment and sustainable development. We are creating novel courses and trainings for students and faculty in the use of design thinking, systems science, and implementation science to develop insights into complex social problems, and then adapt and implement evidence-based interventions.
This is formation at work. Experiences like this give students a very practical sense of what it means to work on real-world problems, and what it takes. Identifying your own strengths and gifts; realizing your limitations; and developing a real relationship with the communities experiencing a problem so that what you’re bringing to that community actually has value—our students need to understand all this. And we can do that so they don’t need to wait until they join the working world. Today we can create a new set of courses and experiential opportunities that are very much aligned with this human-centered approach and in accord with the aims of the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society.
We are addressing complex social challenges through applied research in designing and studying practice interventions. Our approach is supported through the Center for Social Innovation (CSI). CSI supports education, research, and practice innovations that strategically leverage systems science, implementation science, data science, and design thinking to adapt, test, and scale evidence-based interventions. It aims to improve the school’s ability to understand and intervene in the complex and messy realities and compound problems of the lives people live in Boston and around the globe.
I’m very excited about the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society for exactly this potential. The Schiller Institute is keen to do the same, integrating different disciplines to improve societal well-being—finding new doorways, new pathways, new avenues for innovative interventions that can then be scaled up for the greater social good.