Social scientists, and anthropologists in particular, bring what should be a privileged perspective to public policy debates. Taking as our starting point not idealized theory (say, of rational actors) nor (hopefully) partisan moralization, anthropologists look at, and take seriously, what folks actually say and do. This deceptively simple methodology-cum-epistemology can produce policy insights that respond to actual conditions and the hopes and aspirations that fill our lives.
Mark Oppenheimer, in a recent NY Times Magazine piece, discusses the ethnography of public spaces conducted by sociologist William H. Whyte in the 1960s and 1970s and more recently picked up again in recent years by Keith Hampton. By actually watching people in places like NYC's Bryant Park and talking to them about what they valued, Oppenheirmer writes that Whyte and others realized that is we knew how "the placement of benches, or a plaza's orientation to the sun, affected people's enjoyment of a public space, then we could go beyond mere observation into the realm of smarter policy. We could make people happier."
Interestingly, Hampton's follow-up studies show that use of the public spaces in his sample has gone up over the last decades; that there are many more women in those public spaces; and that there is more, not less, social interaction going on despite the ubiquity of cell phones and other technology.