Meeting of the Minds: Creative Collaboration Highlights Psychology’s Role in SSRC

The Social Science Research Council champions cutting-edge interdisciplinary, international social science fields as they first emerge. The SSRC also brokers graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, funded by foundations or government agencies, and distributes them to applicants in areas ranging from human sexuality to child survivors of war to culture-specific health practices to media, culture, and education. Founded 80 years ago by several social science disciplines (psychology, economics, sociology, political science, history, anthropology, and statistics), the SSRC has over the years facilitated work groups of scholars who were founding areas such as evaluation research, psycholinguistics, life-course development, personality, and culture. Although it does not solicit individual grant proposals, it does provide opportunities for training and for workshops in its areas of currently funded focus. Its Web site,, lists such present key interests as international migration, democracy and the public sphere, children and armed conflict, HIV/AIDS as a global challenge, and economic growth, development, and inequality.

Susan Fiske (right) and Craig Calhoun
Susan Fiske (right) and Craig Calhoun

APS Fellows and Charter Members Robert Zajonc, Eugene Borgida, and Immediate Past-President Susan T. Fiske have recently served on the SSRC board as psychology representatives, and APS Fellow Paul Baltes has chaired the Board, as has former associate director for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Cora Marrett. Opportunities for interdisciplinary cross-talk make the board meetings fascinating, as are the working groups of scholars invited to help develop new methods and fields of inquiry.

All psychologists offer much to the SSRC, psychological scientists being the main experimenting discipline among the member societies and the discipline specializing in cognitive and affective underpinnings of the human mind in its social context. Many SSRC-sponsored discussions reflect this cross-talk between macro-social and micro-psychological analyses.

APS and SSRC share many interests, the least-well known being Miss Louise Pliss’s fourth-grade classroom on the south side of Chicago. SSRC President Craig Calhoun and Fiske first met there in the early 1960s, where they learned a useful first lesson for any budding academic, namely, that teachers could be writers (Miss Pliss wrote children’s books: That Summer on Catalpa Street and The Trip Down Catfish Creek). They also learned that productivity requires feedback, as Miss Pliss read aloud early drafts of her books (we told her “too much description,” or “more action”). APS recently sponsored another conversation about creative collaboration in the service of new, more scientific endeavors to describe human nature, as Fiske interviewed Calhoun about SSRC and psychology’s role in it.

FISKE: Let’s start with a little of the history of SSRC.

CALHOUN: Sure. The [Social Science Research] Council was founded in 1923 by early Rockefeller philanthropy. The founding itself is memorable partly because the term “inter-disciplinary” first was used in the meeting that set up the Council. Even in 1923, there was concern that the growth of disciplines and subspecialties within disciplines [like psychology] would have scientists only communicating with their own small groups, not only to the detriment of interdisciplinary knowledge but of the detriment of being able to speak to public issues. The SSRC idea was that addressing many large pubic issues, like political development or immigration would require a broader interdisciplinary focus.

So, one enduring SSRC theme has been to build interdisciplinary bridges.

Just a bit more on our history. In addition to Rockefeller money, the Council was founded by seven professional organizations. The American Psychological Association, the American Historical Association, the American Economics Association, the American Sociological Association, American Political Science Association, American Agricultural Association, and the American Statistical Association. Those all remain constituents, although there are also a number of independently named members of the Council Board. And, more recently, it would be typical that a psychologist on our Board would be a member of both the APA and the APS, as indeed you were and as [former APS Board member] Gene Borgida is now.

The Council also has been funded by a range of governments – it has US Government funding, but it also has Japanese, Norwegian, German, and British Government funding for various projects. It has a relatively small endowment of its own, and most of its budget is made up by theme specific or project specific grants from a variety of sources. Some of these are renewed over very long periods of time, particularly those that are tied to fellowship programs.

FISKE: Let’s talk structurally about the SSRC. From my time on the Council Board, I saw the SSRC as a sophisticated, intellectual intermediary – sort of an honest broker who would talk, on the one hand, to foundations about the kinds of things they were interested in funding, but on the other hand, to the research community, to give out that money.

CALHOUN: Yes, the Council is, in many ways, engaged in brokering – in two senses of the word. It is engaged in getting large grants and then making re-grants to arrange research, as in fellowships or as in grants for research teams. But also brokering in that the Council’s projects are put together by people who wouldn’t necessarily become a team without the Council. So, a Council team is typically not a group already working together, but rather a group we put together because they bring together different expertise around an idea.

Sometimes that idea is something similar to what is emerging within multiple disciplines, but not yet across disciplines. We try to make that connection. For example, there’s been a lot of work on various kinds of “institutional” learning questions in recent years that involve psychology, economics, sociology and other fields, but with different agendas in each. Take the case of creating new financial markets in emerging areas. If you’re going to create stock markets in China, one question is, how do people learn to judge what they’re doing in the contexts of innovation? Psychologists are involved in decision-making, but the bridges are not specific to financial markets. We try to promote an economics to psychology bridge. And we’ve also promoted separate and different links between sociology and psychology.

FISKE: That’s really one of the marvelous things about SSRC. It really does invent interdisciplinary teams to address larger issues.

CALHOUN: Yes, often our structure is an SSRC Committee – anywhere from eight to 15 researchers in various fields. People who didn’t know each other before, and who then will work together to either guide a set of research projects or to try to develop work in a new intersection among their various fields.

Being a member of an SSRC Committee presents both a practical task to its team members of choosing who else to support in this new area, and an intellectual opportunity, because it means you’re there with 15 other people who are deemed leaders in other fields that you are then charged with coming to understand. So, we hope that at a point in the process you say: “Oh, that’s what the anthropologists are all about.”

About a third of the Council’s committee activity is about fellowships and training. This is our largest component, in fact. The Council supports a great many PhD dissertations and, sometimes, post-docs. Here, Committees choose the best proposals for the Council to fund.

FISKE: SSRC is so international. Can psychology students apply to SSRC for international collaborations? Suppose you have contact with a lab in Japan and you want to do comparative research. Say you’re a cultural psychologist interested in doing comparative studies between Japan and the United States, could you apply for this kind of fellowship?

CALHOUN: Absolutely. And I would refer APS students to our Web site for specifics of our training opportunities. There are quite a few. But many are for fieldwork, and psychology may be less well represented in these because fieldwork is a less central technique in psychology than it is in, say, anthropology. But working with a lab someplace or doing other kinds of work also would fit. And there are many developmental psychologists and cultural psychologists in our projects. I recall one psychology Fellow recently looking at how pastoral nomads assess risk in East Africa, in a way an outgrowth of environmental psychology, but it also was about core issues of risk and decision making not narrowly tied to environmental psychology.

Beyond fellowship and research support, we fund other kinds of training activities – like summer institutes on themes such as on research ethics or on a new methodological technique. Our agenda is trying to get a subfield to coalesce better, to create a critical mass of an interdisciplinary group.

Other projects have a particular research emphasis; they’re really trying to get work done on a particular public interest issue. One is around Children and Armed Conflict, reflecting what we see as the humanitarian imperative to address the enormous number of children worldwide who are among the principal victims of nearly every civil war and international conflict. We are attempting to improve the infrastructure in this area, for example, to have common definitions in order to collect palpable data across a variety of different locations so that new scientists can go out and do research and so that interdisciplinary methodologies and common user data sets will be available.

FISKE: I know there are people who become involved in a committee like that one by invitation of SSRC. But for somebody else who is interested in this topic, what would be the resources for them?

CALHOUN: There will be publications. Or, there might be data sets that are then made generally available. And there are sometimes open competitions where people can apply for small or sometimes larger grants within an area, where a steering committee for a project doubles as the selection committee to give out the further grants.

FISKE: One of the SSRC projects I knew about when I was on the Board was human sexuality research, which also obviously touches on psychology.

CALHOUN: That is an example of a program that has mainly supported fellowships. The SSRC Sexuality Research Fellowship Program has been a core funder of non-medical work on sexuality. The starting premise was that as biomedical research on sexuality took off, there wasn’t a comparable growth in research from other perspectives, so we would provide support for that. The Ford Foundation has funded us to do this for nearly a decade, and the result is that there is now a cohort of SSRC-funded Fellows who form the core of an active interdisciplinary research community.

FISKE: Could students who are interested in doing graduate work in various areas such as this one also find out from the Web site where relevant faculty members are?

CALHOUN: Absolutely. We publish a directory of research so you can find out where the major centers of research are in substantive areas. And these directories also give some indication of what resources are available on a particular campus.

Publicizing that kind of information flow continuously and electronically is one of the useful things we do. But there are also other kinds of resources we publish electronically, like a guide to how to write a proposal – our single most popular item on our web site. It is a “how to” for writing a proposal to fund dissertation research. What do you keep when you’re forced to condense your dissertation to a three-page proposal? What is in it that’s crucial? What belongs in that first paragraph? This is all in the Guide

FISKE: Another one of your projects is about immigration.

CALHOUN: One of our immigration projects is on the transformation of American religion. The minute you say this, you get part of the message, which is realizing that one major impact of immigration is very significantly on religious institutions. Immigration is the reason Catholicism has become the largest denomination in the United States after being a minority for so long; the reason a significant modern pattern is that priests who are Irish and Italian are now ministering to Hispanic congregations. But the impact of immigration also has to do with how immigrants get social welfare services, and other institutional help when they come to the country.

FISKE: Are there psychologists or psychological issues involved with the immigration work?

CALHOUN: There have been psychologists involved because a good bit of the work is on the assimilation process and how people construct social support systems, and that has further impacts on things like: How do immigrants use or not use existing health care systems? What are the mental health issues that are unique to immigrants? One specific area of SSRC support has to do with things like the gender issues among immigrants, where immigrant women are often more stably employed than immigrant men, reversing a gender hierarchy from a more traditional culture. How do people deal with this?

Another SSRC project in which there’s significant engagement by psychologists is on HIV-AIDS. This is just being drafted, so it likely will to be around and available to APS members for sometime. Some questions driving it are: Do people listen or not to safe sex messages? What are the determinants in whether people adhere to treatment regiments? What are the conditions that shape the scaling up of an anti-retroviral therapy (ART) program, which range from family dynamics to cultural issues to the structure of communities to the availability of health care workers to the political will of the national government in question. So, if you’re talking about whether Haiti going to be able to deliver ARTs on a national scale, you’re talking about something that has to do with a national political conflict and you’re talking about something that has to do with interpersonal relations at a very local level. And about factors that lead people to use or not use health care services in general, and about competition from non-traditional medicine.

Also, a critical question for HIV-AIDS is what’s going on with tens of thousands of AIDS orphans globally? We have no doubt that there will not be one answer, which is why we need research in a variety of different local settings. How do these kids understand what has happened to their parents and to their communities? How do they understand their own vulnerability? How has this changed their own ideas, not just about sexuality, but about other things?

FISKE: I can see all kinds of connections with health psychology, community psychology, developmental psychology and social psychology.

CALHOUN: Exactly. I think psychology absolutely should be central to this, and internationally too. This is a huge issue in Africa, but a growing issue in China, India, Russia, and other places. One of the things we, the research community, haven’t got a grip on is what are the significant differences among those places. So, it’s really an opportunity for comparative research that will figure out how, for example, how different patterns of family structure exert a different impact in one setting versus another.

FISKE: This is another example that shows the SSRC particularly likes to emphasize projects that involve international or inter-cultural comparisons that are also cross-disciplinary. Those are really ideal projects to the SSRC.

CALHOUN: Right. It’s comparative and ideally collaborative. Obviously students doing dissertations are very seldom engaged in collaboration the same way full professors might be, but the international character and interdisciplinary character are both things that make issue attractive to the Council.

Also, the Council’s work is disproportionately focused on things that are not already major continuing lines of work in a field. New problems on which some people are working, but for which there isn’t yet a critical mass and a strong institutional structure. Those are the ones where we can be most helpful. Those places where the researchers who are doing good work don’t know each other, are a little bit dispersed, or seem to have some clashes of perspective that need to get ironed out so they get comparable data, are the cases the Council has its best comparative advantage.

FISKE: So what are a couple of those that are on the horizon?

CALHOUN: One has to do with communications, media, and public discourse, which do have openings to psychology. For example, somebody studying the nature of discourse in communication at an interpersonal level through the Internet, around political issues, might be asking: What’s the difference in the way people experience so-called online communities when they’re structured around political issues, versus when they’re structured around personal taste issues, like pop music. There certainly are psychologists who study things like the interpersonal dynamics of communication; what I’m don’t think has been studied is the comparison across genres, in effect, looking at how people do and do not engage political and public policy kinds of questions. Where do youth get their knowledge about AIDS, and what do they filter it through? You have MTV attempting to send social marketing message about AIDS or getting out the vote. But, does it matter whether you get these messages in the context of MTV or whether you are getting them in school? I think those are things for psychologists of relevant skills.

Another of our projects is on complex humanitarian convergences. which basically means things like what’s been going on in central Africa, where forced migration, displaced people, and conflict are enormous issues, but where few are studying what is going on. There is little research for example on the issues of displaced people and what those mean to an individual to become displaced. When you’ve got to get people food and blankets, you may not stop to ask psychological research questions. But of course there are big psychological research questions that should be asked.

Many displaced people are kids. Do they go to school? Do they learn? What do they learn? Do these kids become more vulnerable to a whole host of issues? For kids in the middle of emergencies and crises, we’ve looked at high vulnerability children and youth in the US a lot, but have done much less in extending that into these kinds of crisis situations in the rest of the world. So, here was a natural extension for the SSRC.

One of the things that came out of our Children and Armed Conflict initiative was the therapeutic orientation that says what you have to do is give people an opportunity to recover from the circumstance in which they have been victims. But this labeling may or may not be the best way to recover, and doesn’t pay much attention to the differences of self-understanding. And this is what we need to know more about. For example, if you’re a 16 year old that’s been caught up in the fighting in Liberia, you’re self-understanding may not have been that of a victim at all. You might have said, “I was a national hero who was struggling for the future of my people. Don’t call me a victim. Don’t say that what I did was not my choice, because I was by your definition a child.”

FISKE: These are complex, enormously important issues you’re dealing with. Thank you for giving APS a better sense of SSRC.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Comments will be moderated. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.