Get out into the real world

December 14, 2001

The public will appreciate social scientists only when they make the case for their work's value to society, argues David Walker.

Social scientists ought to be singing "happy days are here again". Under Tony Blair, social policy has taken centre stage. The Economic and Social Research Council's budget is up. Whitehall doors have opened to the likes of (Lord) Richard Layard, Steve Nickell, Ann Power, Chris Ham and Anthony Giddens.

Yet they are not content. Economists, sociologists, human geographers, specialists in international relations, psychologists and the rest have of late been willing to lay aside traditional animosities to voice their complaints: about funding, of course, but also about recognition and appreciation. They want a place at the top table. The society they study does not appreciate them enough.

The Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences (Alsiss) - its invigoration a sign of the times - last year set up a commission on the future. It is chaired by David Rhind, vice-chancellor of City University, who, as a geographer with "physical" interests, could be considered neutral enough to shepherd disparate disciplinary interests. It hopes to report next year. I am a member, partly to symbolise the role the media may play in disseminating social scientific knowledge - or not, for many social scientists feel they get a bad press and rarely melt the hard hearts of news editors.

But I suppose I am also there along with Sue Duncan from the Cabinet Office, a fellow non-academic, to witness one reason modern universities punch so far below their weight in society's conversations about policy, resources and influence. It is their sprawling and brawling intellectual diversity. We call ourselves a commission on the future of the social sciences, but many "social researchers", as they prefer to be called, reject the positivist idea that what they do is science. Some postmodernists go further and question the Enlightenment promise that focused thinking about social and economic circumstance "sees through" institution and illusion to a single, true version of social relationships.

Such epistemological subtlety is, needless to say, not entirely understood by the political class that has to persuade the public to pay the taxes that support research, and not at all by those coarse news editors. Social scientists regularly complain about the mindset they encounter in Westminster and Whitehall that demands answers. But they are reluctant themselves to convince the public of any alternative. At best, this is the promise of a rich, explanatory narrative that will take time and money (and longitudinal surveys) to compile. At worst, it is a crude rejection of existing politics and a utopian insistence that things be different - but meanwhile let the taxpayer pay for more generous salaries and expand research slots.

Even on the commission itself, the economists and sociologists resemble cats and dogs, prickly, wary and (out of earshot) mutually contemptuous. Is it any wonder, then, that social science has found it so hard to congregate, to brigade in the way the physical and life scientists have done to make a powerful lobbying force of such bodies as Save British Science, let alone the royal and other learned societies?

But maybe the enterprise of social science is too important to be left to social scientists. To this outsider and, I think, to Rhind, too, the commission's great challenge is to burrow underneath the surface disparities of the specialisms and mine the ore of common purpose. To me, the seam runs something like this. Social science is about enriching the tales we tell one another about our behaviour; ultimately it must seek to return to society a (more) convincing story about how people operate. Economists may claim to have detected regularities in behaviour that approximate the laws of natural science (though few are foolhardy enough to use them to make predictions in the way physicists do). Sociologists may resist this nomothetic approach and prefer to deal with actors' own understanding of their collective lives. But both surely can unite round the proposition that their studies are worthwhile because they have the potential to enlighten social and economic actors - us - about ourselves.

I know the word "enlighten" is a red rag to some because it has connotations of superior knowledge, but so be it. Social science is about knowing more, but it is also about returning that knowledge to society. One of the reasons why social scientists feel unloved is their generic failure to communicate - to "sell" the excitement, the challenge of social and economic investigation to politicians and the public at large. Why can we not, asks Jane Lewis of Oxford University, a fellow commissioner, in a paper on the Alsiss website (www.the-academy.org.uk), rally round the flag of "understanding" - that the social science endeavour is to bring methodologies to bear on comprehending human behaviour that match its rich diversity?

In the mid-1960s when the Social Science Research Council, forerunner of the ESRC, was established, this was the great promise: that knowledge might be found and put to use for social betterment. That could be rephrased in terms acceptable to Keith Joseph, the Tory minister who insisted that the SSRC change its name: not so much collective betterment as providing the understanding that allows individuals to choose better in their social and market lives. Yes, that is to make an assumption about people's rationality, but it is not to commit to the dry-as-dust methods of economics with their implication that rationality rules OK in all circumstances.

The other week, a group of us fielded questions about the commission from a group marshalled by Alsiss. I was dismayed by their failure to see that their frustration at lack of recognition will mean compromise. To get a better hearing, social scientists must sacrifice methodological purity and substitute for postmodernist angst a renewed conviction in the, dare I say it, social utility of what they are doing. Not in the naive sense that David Blunkett can call them in and demand a "solution" to crime, but rather to emphasise social scientists' responsibility to educate politicians and the public in the complexity of social reality.

Action has unintended consequences. People often misunderstand what they do. But social scientists have failed to persuade people that rigorous and disciplined research into their behaviour is worthwhile. Too many social scientists seem sunk in indifferentism or even autism; their version of truth is locked up in peer-reviewed, small-circulation journals and never gets abroad, to challenge accepted wisdom. Perhaps that is because some social scientists, in deep privacy, fear that they do not actually have much to say, that social science is a false promise.

But others, of more positive temperament, have been unwilling to engage with the press and the politicians or the public at large. Bruised during the Thatcher years, they switched off, retreated into the academy. The Blair years have not exactly brought sunshine, but the weather is different. I strongly hope the commission will say it is time for social science to get out more.

David Walker writes for The Guardian and is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4's Analysis programme.

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