The visitor snatchers

August 11, 1995

The site of Edinburgh University's new International Social Sciences Institute has a chequered history, according to legend.

Former inhabitants allegedly include a group of Dominican friars who spent their time contemplating the Apocalypse, and the 19th-century body snatchers Burke and Hare. The institute's strategy inclines more to the latter than the former: it aims to give social sciences a higher profile and to woo visiting scholars both from this country and abroad.

"In the past, we have relied on chance as far as visitors are concerned," says Malcolm Anderson, the institute's director. "But people now expect a certain level of support, and unless these facilities exist, they will tend to go to places like London, Paris and Oxford."

This is bad for Edinburgh but also bad for London, Paris and Oxford, he says. "It becomes impossible for large numbers of visitors to make effective contact with people in the same field."

Edinburgh has one of the largest concentrations of social scientists in the United Kingdom - more than 200 academics in 17 departments. This is not generally recognised, perhaps because peripheral areas, such as the centre for educational sociology and criminology, have been stronger than the core. But there is an enviable record in interdisciplinary links.

When Professor Anderson, former head of the politics department, was researching European police co-operation recently, he worked with a specialist in linguistics, three lawyers and a data protection expert.

"Edinburgh has been good at cutting across traditional disciplines, but if visitors come to one department they tend to get a very narrow view. We want to give social sciences at Edinburgh a more defined identity," he says. "We're not doing anything other than building on our strengths. But I think it is very important that people inside and outside the university know what our strengths are."

The institute forms part of Edinburgh's new school of higher studies in the social studies, alongside a graduate school and the well-established research centre for socialsciences.

Ged Martin, the institute's deputy director and director of the Centre of Canadian Studies, believes a university like Edinburgh, with one of the country's largest research libraries and cutting-edge computerised research facilities, has a responsibility to welcome visiting scholars, including young academics.

"Once you call something an institute, there is a danger that people think they are not distinguished enough to apply. But we want to encourage people on their first sabbatical and hope they will not be one-off visitors but have a continuing connection with the university."

The institute welcomes visiting associates in any area linked to the faculty's research interests especially those who can contribute to an annual theme which promotes interdisciplinary work. This year's theme "Boundaries and identities" will encompass the Centre of Canadian Studies' annual conference and the department of social anthropology's 50th anniversary conference. The 1996/97 theme is "Families and the state".

"The Economic and Social Research Council is becoming more dominated by Government priorities, and these do not cover the whole of social science. We know the people who run it are open to a wide variety of proposals, but there is a danger that social scientists can be forced into providing information and ideas which are useful to Government, but not necessarily very interesting or ones which promote heterodoxy," Professor Anderson says. "I think setting up an institute like this, with international contacts, is part of a process of defending ourselves."

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