Over the last year SAGE has devoted time and energy to celebrating the social sciences. We have done so by convening a series of workshops, author panels, conferences and public lectures around the world. Whether in California, Delhi, Beijing, London or Washington, D.C. to name a few locations we have heard inspiring and passionate arguments for the importance of social science to healthy societies.
And yet, despite the power of these arguments, their ‘impact’, for want of a better word, has been diffuse. In the UK we start this year in the knowledge of an astonishing fact: in future not a single penny of state funding will go to support any student studying for an undergraduate degree in the social sciences (or in the arts and humanities for that matter).
Part of the problem comes from the wide-ranging nature of the arguments presented. Social science ranges in subject matter from evolutionary psychology to international relations, from criminology to economics. And the sources of value thereby created by these disciplines are equally diverse.
Whether discussing similarities with science, or the humanities, whether evidenced-based policy or knowledge for its own sake, social science faces the ‘wicked problem’ of justifying itself.
Here are five of the arguments we have been repeatedly hearing over the past year, some of which were also presented at the recent House of Lords launch of the AcSS’s Campaign for Social Science and at which we announced Social Science Space:
1. Social science is engaged with key government priorities such as: wellbeing; life chances, talent and social mobility; the ageing and increasing diversity of the population; family life and communities; crime and public safety, terrorism and extremism to name a few. As The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee argued at the event, these priorities require government policies that are clearly grounded in the evidence provided by social science.
2. Social science contributes to empirical and theoretical knowledge in its own right; making discoveries and creating concepts that increase the store of knowledge about everything from the human mind to social norms to globalization. As the renowned sociologist Lord Anthony Giddens said in his speech at the House of Lords ‘most people in politics and the media do not know where they get their ideas from’.
3. Social science makes a major contribution to the economy. Aside from the range of subjects dedicated to improving business competitiveness (from understanding consumer behaviour through to leadership and management skills); employers are crying out for the well rounded individual with strong communication and research skills that is the natural product of a social science degree. And let’s not forget that the vast majority of the Cabinet are beneficiaries of social science degrees.
4. Natural scientists are arguing for the importance of social science in delivering behaviour change necessitated by the science itself – Climatologists for example routinely argue for the need to shift our focus from the science (which is relatively settled) to the social science problem of changing behaviour in order to tackle global warming. At the launch event David Willetts talked of the difficulty medical researchers face in getting vaccines adopted in societies that are suspicious of Western medicine. They are calling for help from social anthropologists to address the problem.
5. Social science, like the humanities, contributes crucially to the development of a healthy democracy. Martha Nussbaum’s argument for the value of the humanities in her recent book Not for Profit makes eloquent arguments that are true of the social sciences too. They provide those who study these fields with skills of argumentation and critical thinking that are necessary to evaluating information and imagining others’ perspectives. These skills provide a bulwark against the uncritical consumption of propaganda or a prejudicial world view that leads to discrimination and oppression.
The range of ways that social science can be valued is its weakness as much as its strength. Whether discussing similarities with science, or the humanities, whether evidenced-based policy or knowledge for its own sake, social science faces the ‘wicked problem’ of justifying itself. The value of social science is as complex as the subject matter with which it engages; offering long term and short term benefits that are both qualitative and quantitative in nature. Too much for the easy tabloid headline which our culture so often demands. In addition the voices, ranging across disciplines and geography, often talk past each other.
We who believe passionately in the value of the social science face what economists call a coordination problem. We need a focal point. In this context we have launched Social Science Space to meet that need. In our position as a global publisher of social science with a network of thousands of authors and hundreds of learned societies we feel a responsibility to acknowledge the debt we owe the disciplines we have published over the decades and are well suited to convene these discussions, and to provide that much needed focal point.
The forum is not just about advocacy. Not just about funding, impact and public policy. We will provide a central place in which we can see and debate social science in action. Whether identifying new paradigms, interdisciplinary connections or the challenges of rigorous research methodology, we will showcase the value and rich diversity of the community as a whole.
Our hope is that through Social Science Space academics from across the world and diverse disciplines will create discussion and debate alongside people from media and government through this forum. We encourage the widest kind of participation, and are already thrilled to see the levels of interest and enthusiasm indicated by the numbers of registrants and society partners who have already participated. We invite you to explore the website and to join the debate.
Ziyad Marar is global publishing director and deputy managing director of SAGE.