A step in the right direction

November 19, 1999

After years of being ignored by government, social science is respected again. But for how long? asks Ian Forbes

The social sciences are regularly accused either of having nothing to offer society beyond speculation, or of being able to produce simple answers to the most complex aspects of human social existence.

The truth lies between the two. Social scientific work has immense relevance to our lives, but it cannot produce instant panaceas. The best social science research aims for advancement of knowledge and wisdom through critical, systematic and creative inquiry within an ethical framework of respect for truth, for persons and for democratic values. Best social science practice uses, tests and adds to that knowledge and wisdom. Social scientists are thus indispensable to a well-ordered society because they strive to build a better world.

The value of social science was ignored or denigrated during the last Conservative administration. It drove many social scientists to distraction to see the damage being done to society by policies that disregarded robust research findings and social scientists' experience. Many turned their backs on central government to focus on work for its inherent value, or for professional bodies, local authorities, the voluntary sector or the regions.

The Blair government has shown a willingness to exploit the insights of social science research and the know-how of practitioners. Evidence-based policy is the new mantra. After two decades of ideological policy-making, this is a step in the right direction. But identifying the right kind of evidence inevitably brings political interests into conflict with the methods of the researcher, to the detriment of good social science. In other words, social science may eventually become unpalatable to this government.

A drift to a dirigiste policy culture gives us William Hague's "commonsense revolution". This approach could put scientists of every hue out of business by handing policy-making over to a simple majority of the people. But who but social scientists could design and test this approach, evaluate the data and give feedback not mediated by party politics?

Social science can also help us understand why scientific proof and hard facts have no automatic cachet in the public mind and why they never should. Public debate over genetically modified food shows how science relies on a respectful or credulous public.

Social science is also a bulwark against deficits in a democratic society. It provides independent sources of information and different ways of viewing social reality and evidence. This increases the chances of finding good answers to new as well as perennial problems and it protects against totalitarianism.

Finally, social science offers ways to cope with the growth of information. If we are to filter the data that flood our lives, we must have access to information systems for personal and group use that deploy the best social science techniques.

As society has developed apace, there have been several generations of specialisation and hybridisation in the social sciences, producing a large, diverse community of researchers and practitioners. This community has now set up a new Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, including scholars, practitioners and learned societies, to promote, in everyone's interest, the right kind of social science.

Ian Forbes is professor of politics at the University of Nottingham and chair of the Interim Council of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences.

Are social scientists indispensable or irrelevant?

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