The second great balloon debate

February 9, 1996

Last week young scientists, plunging to earth in an overloaded hot air balloon, debated which of them should jump to allow one of them to float to safety. This week our great balloon debate focuses on the social sciences. There are six of them, each battling to show that his or her discipline is the most important. Which should survive? It is up to you, the reader. Vote and comment by fax on 0171 782 3300; by email on; or through THESIS, our Internet service on The social science ballot closes on February 15.

Next week we hand the page over to the humanities. Then, the survivor from each week (determined by your votes) will go on to argue for his or her entire faculty in the fourth week. This will be our final debate and will appear in the Research Opportunities supplement on February 23, which will also contain research listings.


Welcome to the game of life. Ahead of you is a world which you can expect to find well populated and elaborately organised. Your objective is to come through it unscathed. Our objective is to be the most useful guides of them all. This will not be difficult as we are the only ones with the A to Zs.

We are pretty hot players. Our lowest common denominator is people. You know when you have got a hunch that there is something rotten in the state . . . but no one has caught the whiff? Or when you are up against red tape and it feels like punching jelly? Well, while the rest of the players are getting tied in knots over problems like these, fortunately for them we are busy making sense of it all. So, when we pick up our A to Zs you can follow us straight onto the smart routes.

The other players may have fancy promises to parade in front of you but you will find out pretty quickly that they are no good without our maintenance guides. After all how do you fix an economist? (Except by mentioning increasing returns, in which case they do it themselves).

Ready to play? We can help you already: you will sometimes feel as if you are on your own (after all, as Margaret Thatcher said, "there is no such thing as society"); the playing field is nowhere near level and of course, people do not do what they say or say what they do. Sounds a bit hairy? Then stick with us.

You may think this balloon debate is just a game, a metaphor. But remember, the processes and circumstances of my writing and your reading this are integral parts of the game of life . . .

Jillian Dutton, University of Durham


Let us kick off with an important economic insight: academic research in the social sciences is funded largely by the Government, which is in turn funded largely by the taxpayer. So we should be asking: which of the social sciences deals with matters that affect us, the taxpayers, the most?

Politics certainly affects us, but do we affect it? Few of us belong to political parties; many do not even vote. Similarly, we are not the unanimous victims of psychological disorders (the National Lottery notwithstanding), and our experience of geography may extend no further than trying to navigate the M25.

But the invisible hand of economics tickles us all. And we all affect the economy in our own little ways - whenever we go shopping, or go to work, we are economic agents. We have freedom of choice in that no one dictates to us what to buy or who to work for; but we are subject to forces which determine at what prices we can buy goods or sell labour. Though these forces often have political, psychological or geographic effects, their primary nature is economic; hence it is most profitable to analyse them economically.

It cannot be overemphasised how much these "market forces", based on the aggregation of individual earning and spending decisions, underpin the process of wealth creation and distribution. If we try to ignore or bypass market forces without taking account of economic theory we will probably fail. If we wish to alter the outcomes the market creates because we find them unjust or unacceptable, economists have a policy role in showing how this might be done.

Hence, from an explanatory and a policy viewpoint, economics is the most important social science.

Howard Reed, Institute for Fiscal Studies


You are amazing. You are the most interesting object on earth and the most important one to study. Psychology, alone among the social sciences, can comprehend you at every level. We study you in the greatest depth. We study you as an experiencer of the sensory world (your hearing, seeing and feeling). We study your mental internal world of memory, thinking and language; and we follow this through to your interactions with your social environment. None of these levels is independent. How we think, for example, can influence how we feel. Only psychology addresses them as an interacting set of layers.

The explanatory power of psychology is huge. We address questions of central importance to human experience. You find our discoveries of such importance that you cannot avoid integrating them into your explanations of yourselves.

Since the concept of an unconscious arose from Freud's writings, aspects of psychological study have been informing how we think about ourselves and how we understand our actions. Understanding how children's development influences their adult personalities and mental health informs educational and clinical work.

Meanwhile, our insights into how we remember, how the memories are formed and the consequences of memory loss can explain the practical and emotional problems caused by brain injuries.

Considering why people will comply with unreasonable orders - and why some people do not - addresses the darker aspects of social behaviour. The results of our work can be surprising and disturbing but they are always of crucial interest to describing human nature.

People want to know the answers to these questions and this may explain the enormous popularity of psychology. It attracts large numbers of undergraduates and always commands plenty of media interest. To rephrase Marx, philosophers have sought to understand the world, psychologists seek to understand you.

Sophie Scott, MRC Applied Psychology Unit


Politics is the means by which we organise our lives and our relations with others. Through politics we realise our full potential as inherently social beings. Whether we like it or not, politics is inescapable. It is therefore, as De Gaulle once said, "too serious a matter to be left to the politicians". Yet apathy and alienation from our political institutions are now worryingly widespread. So is the tendency among those who control our political institutions to try to reduce their accountability. The study of politics, which has always concerned itself with both how people conduct themselves and how they should conduct themselves, is now more necessary than ever.

The task for those who study politics has always been, to quote Crossman, "to pry behind the facade and observe the technique of power", thus providing a countervailing force to those who would exercise it in secret. Ultimately, however, the only way to ensure the good society is by the continual civic education of its citizens - something to which we have always contributed.

We also play a part in interpreting to those citizens the political cultures of other nations. Whether the "new world order" is to be based on competition or co-operation, or more likely a mixture of both, it cannot survive without the kind of mutual understanding that the study of politics promotes.

But the means to that understanding will be increasingly diverse. The study of politics has always encompassed the other social sciences and thereby combined rigour with receptivity to new ways of looking at an ever changing world. According to Galbraith, politics is not the art of the possible, but "consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable". To discard any of the other disciplines would be unfortunate, but to sacrifice the study of politics would be worse.

Tim Bale, Sheffield University


Much though I regret the impending demise of so many academics, I believe that this crisis is also an opportunity. By keeping just one discipline afloat we can in fact reverse the negative effects of a century of disciplinary specialisation and fragmentation. But we must choose wisely.

Anthropology is the science of all humankind. It studies not just life in the industrialised west, but the economic, social and intellectual life of humans everywhere. I welcome this chance to reclaim anthropology's wayward subdisciplines - psychology, economics, geography, sociology and politics to name but a few - and consolidate them once more under one roof. Continued isolation was becoming indefensible in any case. What conclusions can psychologists draw if they study only the mind as shaped by western family forms and values? Does it make sense to study political, economic or social history without regard to how homo sapiens has evolved and diversified culturally in every corner of the world?

Anthropology informs us about our biological nature, our cultural capacities, our traditions and our species' potential. Most urgently, in a world where indigenous peoples, whole cultures and therefore whole universes of meaning are being invaded by western capitalist monoculture and lost forever, it teaches us the value of difference and the possibility of connection. Anthropology - queen of the social sciences - is currently in creative ferment as never before. To my colleagues in sister disciplines I say: now is your opportunity to join us and help shape the future of social science.

Losing any of the other disciplines is a gain - they will continue to be taught but placed within their proper anthropological context. Lose the anthropologist, and we have chosen to discard the search for ourselves.

Morna Finnegan, University College London


The popular image of geographers is of academics in anoraks and walking boots, engaged in the "trivial pursuit geography" of studying world capitals. This bears little resemblance to what geographers do, or look like.

Human geography explores people, events and processes through the study of space, place, environment and time. This breadth is the strength of the discipline. Traditionally, geographers stole the best bits of what other subjects had to offer, while the others ignored geography, writing it off as a flag of convenience. But now geography has replaced other social sciences as the fashionable social discipline. The traditionally dominant social sciences, which viewed subjects such as race, class and sexuality as discrete issues, are struggling to cope with the insights of postmodernism. Postmodernism showed us that we must understand the interrelationships between these subjects. It is geography alone which has the theoretical umbrella in the form of "space and time" to deal with this. As The Observer recently noted: "the coolest, most wicked of the postmodernists are the geographers . . . geography has discovered theory and has become really sexy". Geography renders other social sciences redundant because to think about economics, society, politics and culture is increasingly to think about geographies: to ask questions about space and time.

If this were not enough to merit geography surviving the balloon trip, the discipline has the additional advantage of incorporating the scientific expertise of physical geography. As The Times observes, geography is also "the queen of the sciences, parent to chemistry, geology, physics and biology, parent also to history and economics. Without a grounding in the known characteristics of the earth, the physical sciences are mere games playing and the social sciences mere ideology".

Gill Valentine, Sheffield University

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