Focus areas: Writing on the future of scholarly knowledge, public policy

Kenneth Prewitt is the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs and Special Advisor to the University President. Prewitt's professional career includes: Director of the United States Census Bureau, Director of the National Opinion Research Center, President of the Social Science Research Council, and Senior Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Russell-Sage Foundation. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, honorary degrees from Carnegie Mellon and Southern Methodist University, a Distinguished Service Award from the New School for Social Research, the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany, the Charles E. Merriam Lifetime Career Award, American Political Science Association.

Prewitt holds a BA from Southern Methodist University (1958); MA from Washington University (1959), Harvard Divinity School (1960) as a Danforth fellow; PhD from Stanford University (1963).

His most recent book is What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans. He has authored or coauthored another half-dozen books and more than 100 articles and book chapters.

Research & Publications

December 2016|International Journal of African Higher Education|Kenneth Prewitt
October 2013|Princeton University Press|Kenneth Prewitt

Professor Prewitt began by declaring that the racial classification system used in the 2000 Census was not well designed to help our society address the public policy challenges of the next century. He referenced modifications he felt were necessary to improve the census, though he recognized that not all would be feasible given the time constraints under which the Census Bureau operates. He stated that race classification originally stemmed from racist ideologies that did not lose their influence until at least the late 1960s. Landmark legislation of the 1960s and 1970s utilized the same classification categories, this time to combat discrimination in education, health care access, employment, and political participation. He said that counting and classifying by race had always gone hand in hand with public policies.

As the present classification system evolved, Professor Prewitt explained, problematic features remained, making it difficult for the current system to inform coherent policies for the 21st century. Among the factors he identified as making the current system unstable: 1) the blurring of racial boundaries through inter-marriage; 2) the introduction of the multiple-race option in official statistics; 3) multi-culturalism as a way to describe the society; 4) the increased use of census categories in the quest to assert group identities; e) the rhetorical and legal references to diversity in education and employment; 5) the increase in demographic diversity resulting from recent immigration; 6) the growth of the Latino population, counted in many venues as a racial group but in others as an ethnic group; 7) recent studies of race as biologically significant; 8) DNA testing as a fashionable way to uncover individual ancestry; and 9) political efforts to eliminate race and ethnicity from the statistical system all together.

Given the new conditions and the absence of a social norm defining race and racial identity, Professor Prewitt posed what he felt was a basic and essential question to the Commission: What purpose should guide official statistics on race and ethnicity?

October 2012|National Research Council on the National Academies|Kenneth Prewitt, Thomas A. Schwandt, Miron L. Straf, Committee on the Use of Social Science Knowledge in Public Policy, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council

Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy encourages scientists to think differently about the use of scientific evidence in policy making. This report investigates why scientific evidence is important to policy making and argues that an extensive body of research on knowledge utilization has not led to any widely accepted explanation of what it means to use science in public policy. Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy identifies the gaps in our understanding and develops a framework for a new field of research to fill those gaps.

For social scientists in a number of specialized fields, whether established scholars or Ph.D. students, Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy shows how to bring their expertise to bear on the study of using science to inform public policy. More generally, this report will be of special interest to scientists who want to see their research used in policy making, offering guidance on what is required beyond producing quality research, beyond translating results into more understandable terms, and beyond brokering the results through intermediaries, such as think tanks, lobbyists, and advocacy groups. For administrators and faculty in public policy programs and schools, Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy identifies critical elements of instruction that will better equip graduates to promote the use of science in policy making.

October 2010|Russell Sage Foundation |Kenneth Prewitt, Sunshine Hillygus, Norman H. Nie, Heili Pals

American democracy relies on an accurate census to fairly allocate political representation and billions of dollars in federal funds. Declining participation in previous censuses and a general waning of civic engagement in society raised the possibility that the 2000 count would miss many Americans–disproportionately ethnic and racial minorities–depriving them of their share of influence in American society and yielding an unfair distribution of federal resources. Faced with this possibility, the Census Bureau launched a massive mobilization campaign to encourage Americans to complete and return their census forms. In The Hard Count, former Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt, D. Sunshine Hillygus, Norman Nie, and Heili Pals present a rigorous evaluation of this campaign. Can a busy, mobile, and disengaged public be motivated to participate in this civic activity? Using a rich set of data and drawing on theories of civic mobilization, political persuasion, and media effects, the authors assess the factors that influenced participation in the 2000 census.

The Hard Count profiles a watershed moment in the history of the American census. As the mobilization campaign was underway, political opposition to the census sprang up, citing privacy concerns and seeking to limit the kind of data the census could collect. Hillygus, Nie, Prewitt, and Pals analyze the competing effects of the mobilization campaign and the privacy controversy on public attitudes and cooperation with the census. Using an internet based survey, the authors tracked a representative sample of Americans over time to gauge changes in census attitudes, privacy concerns, and their eventual decision whether or not to return their census form. The study uniquely captures the public's exposure to census advertising, community mobilization, and news stories, and was designed so people could view video clips and photos of actual campaign advertisements on their sets in their homes. The authors find that the Census Bureau campaign did in fact raise awareness of the census and census participation. The mobilization campaign was especially effective at increasing participation among groups historically undercounted by the census. They also find that census participation would have been even higher if not for the privacy controversy, which discouraged many people from cooperating with the census and led others to omit information from their census form. The findings of The Hard Count have important policy implications for future census counts and offer theoretical insights regarding the influence of mobilizations campaigns on civic participation.

The goal of full and equal cooperation with the decennial census and other government surveys is an important national priority. The Hard Count shows that a mobilization campaign can dramatically increase voluntary participation in the decennial headcount and identifies emerging social and political challenges that may threaten future census counts and contribute to the growing fragility of our national statistical system.