Easily the most popular feature on Social Science Space is the Social Science Bites podcast series, in which an important social scientist sits down and talks about the research that defines, or is defining, his or her career. The series hits its 50th podcast with this month’s interview with computational political scientist Gary King. (No. 1 was Danny Dorling addressing inequality).
In an environment that rewards novelty in science, these podcasts allow academics with a track record of scholarship a chance to talk about a body of work in a serious, but not sonorous, conversation. On the occasion of the 50th podcast, Social Science Space turned the tables and talked with the man producing the podcasts and doing the interviewing, David Edmonds.
A BBC journalist by day, Edmonds is a man of many talents. Some current achievements include being the editor of the new book Philosophers Take on the World, hosting The Philosopher’s Arms on BBC, and entering The Guinness Book of World Records (if it’s not immediately obvious, Edmonds was associated with the world’s largest Jaffa cake).
The Road to 50
In the beginning, Edmonds said, the idea of doing as many as 50 Bites episodes wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye. Originally, SAGE’s Ziyad Marar approached Edmonds and his podcast partner ‘freelance philosopher’ Nigel Warburton, about doing two dozen recordings for Social Science Bites. Marar, now SAGE’s president of global publishing, was a big fan of another Edmonds/Warburton production, Philosophy Bites, and thought the concept would work well with social science.
“Ziyad initially said two years; this is now year No. 5,” noted Edmonds, who also added that Philosophy Bites is now in its 10th year, with roughly 400 podcasts (it started out as a weekly podcast before becoming fortnightly and now, like Social Science Bites, monthly).
Based on that experience, Edmonds suggested 50 podcasts from the social sciences is just a milestone, not a finish line. “You would have thought you would have run out of interviews on philosophy, but there remain gaps in our coverage,” he said. “So, for example, we’ve never done anything on Leibniz. I think we’ve not done anything on Schopenhauer. Social Science Bites is much, much wider. … It could go on indefinitely.”
He pointed out another fundamental way the two Bites projects are dissimilar. Philosophy is essentially non-empirical, and when it becomes empirical it becomes non-philosophy and gets hived off into something like psychology – i.e. a social science. And so in contrast, Edmonds said, “Almost all the interviews we’ve done for Social Science Bites have an empirical basis to them, and certainly the ones I’ve most enjoyed are the ones that are strongly empirically grounded. “That’s been very refreshing for me; when it comes to the social sciences, I have a sort of empirical bias.”
Two of the people we’ve interviewed – I’m sure it’s a cause-and-effect relationship – have gotten Nobel prizes after we’ve interviewed them
That bias also extends to his philosophical underpinnings. Edmonds has a book project under way based on the Vienna circle of philosophers and has a personal interest in Karl Popper; both the circle and Popper pushed philosophy toward empiricism, verification and testability.
That empirical bias also reflects in Edmonds’ favorite episodes. Asked if he loved all his children equally, Edmonds agreed, albeit haltingly. Pressed a bit, he did name a few recent interviews that left a particularly lasting impression, such as Steven Reicher’s talk on crowd identification (“I’m not entirely convinced by his thesis, but it made me reflect”) and Sandy Pentland’s on social physics. He also named podcast No. 51, Scott Atran’s work on valuing the sacred. Edmonds described Atran as “an Indiana Jones figure” whose fieldwork has taken him to the front lines of various battlefields.
Looking back, Edmonds sees Schopenhauer-esque gaps in the Social Science Bites oeuvre, starting with Atran’s field, anthropology. “Think of how little we’ve covered just in anthropology; we’ll never be short of material”. He then pointed to organization studies, sociology, criminology, cultural studies and media studies (“It would be interesting to do something related to fake news, for example”) as other fields at which Bites has only nibbled.
Many fans of the podcasts are not social scientists – and neither is Edmonds. While he finds it refreshing to approach the interviews as an outsider, it does make the effort a little more difficult since he must do a fair bit of homework before each talk.
The interview itself is straightforward, although there’s a fair bit of prep work done through email. Guests normally spend about 90 minutes with Edmonds in the studio, which includes a quick chat about the expected trajectory of the interview. “But we don’t go into too much detail [about the content] because that ruins the conversation afterwards if they repeat everything they said a second time. They never say it the second time as well as they did the first time.”
The recorder is on for about 35 minutes, with the resulting podcasts ranging from 15 to 25 minutes. “I edit as ruthlessly as I can,” Edmonds said. “The key thing is it has to work as a linear interview. … So even if you’re editing something out, you can still go A, B, C, D, E.”
Social Science Bites has not achieved the same penetration in the broad social science community as Philosophy Bites has in the more insular philosophy community, where thinkers jockey to get interviewed. To determine who will be on Social Science Bites, Edmonds said he relies on recommendations. “I have an unofficial informal rule. If someone recommends somebody, when the same name pops up from a second source, I’m more likely to go to that person for an interview.”
That’s resulted in a number of very high profile guests, like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt. “Two of the people we’ve interviewed – I’m sure it’s a cause-and-effect relationship – have gotten Nobel prizes after we’ve interviewed them: Angus Deaton and Robert Schiller,” Edmonds said, undoubtedly with a smile.
“It has been a great pleasure to see the podcasts showcase social science across such a range of interesting areas,” said SAGE’s Marar, who you recall commissioned the series in the first place. “There’s something particularly apt that the 50th in the series is by Gary King on big data. A central theme for SAGE in our ongoing commitment to innovation in social research methods.”
Meanwhile, the urge for a scoop remains alive in the journalist host. “The most exciting is to identify and to give a helping hand to people who are on their way up,” Edmonds said. “To get in there before their ideas are too familiar.” Still, he added, even when going after the stars of social science, while their ideas seem so familiar in the academy, for the general public most people still couldn’t name the guest behind that otherwise familiar idea.
And so far, no one has turned down being a guest. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s schedule has allowed an interview, and in the case of the late Stuart Hall – the series’ ‘get’ that wasn’t gotten — email exchanges had yet to bear fruit before he died. “I regret not getting to him in time.”
Whether current stars or rising ones, Edmonds said he’s learned that even when these social scientists appear untouchable, in the end they have all been approachable. “They now look at the Social Science Bites archive and, I think, anybody would be proud to be a part of that list of people.”