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Although there is a growing influence of social science in law, measuring the actual impact of social science research remains fairly difficult (Kraft and Furlong, 2015). Impact studies rely predominantly on citations for an indication of whether policy-makers have used such research (Roesch et al., 1991). Counts of social science publications and findings cited in legal decisions could possibly underrepresent the influence of research because policy-makers are reluctant to cite them even when they have influenced their decisions. Because of their training in law, policy-makers prefer legal scholarship and precedent over social science methodology and statistics. Consequently, the extent of impact in some instances remains controversial; in certain cases, sociology is considered to have had a direct impact on enacted policy.

A widely cited illustration of this impact is the social science contribution to the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools. Other examples of impact on social policy are sociological studies that helped reduce delay in the courts, change testimony procedures, change procedures to select judges, and establish the right to counsel for indigent defendants (Walker and Hough, 1988).

A number of other examples may be cited to support the view that sociology has had an impact on enacted policy. They include the involvement of sociologists in programs to combat juvenile delinquency, to lower juvenile recidivism rates, to reduce school dropout rates, and to prevent narcotics addiction. Sociological research on talent loss as a consequence of inadequate educational opportunities for minority groups and persons of low socioeconomic status led to the enactment of remedial measures, such as the establishment of new scholarships and loan resources and the creation of federal programs like Outward Bound, Talent Search, and VISTA. In each instance, sociologists have contributed research and conceptual skills toward the “formulation of programs and policies that were eventually enacted to ameliorate social conditions deemed harmful to society” (Scott and Shore, 1979:24).

In social-policy research, sociologists doing scientific work are often confronted with problems and issues that have a wide impact. To illustrate, a study that had a significant impact on the lives of many people in the United States is the so-called Coleman Report. In 1964, the federal Civil Rights act authorized the U.S. Department of Education to undertake a survey and to report to the president and Congress on the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public schools in the United States. Subsequently, a social science team led by James S. Coleman, Ernest Q. Campbell, and their associates (1966) conducted a social survey on a huge scale. The survey included 570,000 school pupils, 60,000 teachers, and 4,000 schools. The final report was a 737-page document. One far-reaching policy outcome of the study was the federal government’s decision to implement busing for the purpose of achieving integrated schools. Busing proved highly controversial and led to many protests, counter-protests, and even violence.

The preceding illustrations show some of the contributions of sociology to enacted policy. However, a great deal of applied sociological research has no discernible policy implications of any kind. Many of the recommendations are pragmatically useless (that is, too expensive to instrument) or are considered politically unrealistic or implausible by policy-makers. Furthermore, policy questions are fundamentally political and not sociological questions (Kraft and Furlong, 2015). Often, policies are formulated, and then relevant research is sought to support, legitimize, and dramatize (or even propagandize) these policies. Thus, it would be erroneous to assume that research generally precedes and determines policy actions. Additionally, some sociologists feel that they should not be directly involved through research in the development and instrumentation of social policy, and this position is epitomized by Daniel P Moynihan (1969:193), who contends that “the role of social sciences lies not in the formation of social policy but in the measurement of its results.”

The next section considers evaluation research and impact studies.

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