Re-posted from the Campaign for the Social Sciences
The social sciences are vital in understanding the social world but unlike the natural sciences, they lack the powerful popular imagery to entice people to study them. Set again this background, the Campaign for Social Science was set up to help define an identity for this diverse discipline in the public eye. Kate Roach is a science communicator who here discusses the importance of putting the social sciences firmly back into the potent realm of popular discourse where, she argues, it belongs.1 In this fascinating article for GMT, she uses dashes of humour, discourse analysis and popular imagery to describe the necessity of the task.
The recently inaugurated Campaign for Social Science has set its sights on promoting its brand of knowledge to public, press and powers that be. It is an unusually conscious bid to create a popular vision of social science in the UK and beyond.2 Its aims to mirror those of a group calling themselves Save British Science, which was instigated in the 1980’s by a few natural scientists who, perceiving a popular and professional science malaise, became concerned about dwindling funds.
Social scientists now face the same challenge. If the amount of natural science now in press, on-line and on television is anything to go by, the natural science effort has been a success and, in the course of this, it has rather highlighted the public plight of its poor cousin; the social science.
Natural scientists do have distinct advantages when plying their trade in public. Their science is the partner of technology and it can make exciting things like play stations, three-D films and smart phones. It is also a particular type of knowledge that is amassed with an affirming touch of techno-magic. Only think of the imagery of science – scanners that see slices through our bodies; rabbits that glow in the dark; sixteen mile long particle accelerators that make antimatter; robots; space stations; satellites; and on and on. Image may seem like an irrelevance or an unnecessarily shallow approach to a serious issue. Yet, it is a serious business. Joe Public is apparently more likely to see research as valuable and worth funding when its method includes a dash of the techno. A brain scan packs more power than a pie chart it seems.
This is perhaps one reason why natural science can hold a powerful position in public. It is bestowed with its own dedicated pages that are written by its own specialist journalists who see social science as a minor backwater. Yet most of what is in the daily papers is typical fodder for the social scientist – crime, conflict, finance, fashion, politics or gossip. The reporters who write these stories are not specialist social science writers, but they are experts of the social world. That is their heritage as journalists. And there is the rub for social science because such journalists often do not feel the need to go outside their own investigative sphere to be able to report on what people do. This is the situation that the Campaign for Social Science seeks to change.
And indeed, the situation could be serious because the coming changes to Higher Education funding in the UK mean that students are consumers in an education market. In this case all disciplines will vie for space in popular press, each competing for the best position like brands on a supermarket shelf. Yet social science is not often reported in and of itself with the effect that the average person on the street probably wouldn’t recognise it if it hit them in the face.
The trouble with social science is that it is consists of a whole scramble of different subjects which together have no obvious single public identity. How does social geography relate to communications studies or linguistics to urban planning? A huge diversity of topics, with enormous relevance and appeal, languish behind a rather banal sounding label, ‘social science’. And this image, or lack of it, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Campaign, which is going to have re-brand the field if it is to have broad popular appeal.
Perhaps the lack of image has something to do with the fact that the adjective ‘social’ seems to belie its noun, ‘science’. As journalists teach us, we are all experts in the social world but we are not all experts in science. Science is a specialism – social is not. The two words appear to take us in different directions. The term ‘social’ appears to drag the mad and magical world of science into the mundane mores of everyday life.
Natural scientists periodically bemoan their own popular image, worrying away at the stereotype of a mad and magical man, unkempt, often evil and almost always an outsider who has lost touch with his social bonds and responsibilities. This is clearly a fantasy image, but it appears also to be a universally acknowledged type. When instructed to ‘draw a scientist’ children and adults alike revert to the same image.
For some, the story that is the cause of the all the trouble, tells of a scientist who, intoxicated with the scent of his own power, made a monster out of the remnants of bodies stolen from graves. The deepest roots of this figure reach into magical myths like Pandora’s Box, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Promethean or Faustian legend, all of which are cut through with anxieties about our power to transform nature. Mary Shelley, who turned magic to science in her novel, Frankenstein, secularised the old myth and ultimately spawned a whole host of similar scientists who create all manner of mayhem for the modern world.
In point of fact this is not a bad image. It is the image of a bad scientist. It speaks to the power of science. Science is a regular cause of horror movie misadventure because it is plausibly powerful, if it were not it would be comedic rather than horrific. And not all images of science are horrific. Lest we forget, one of the most enduring scientific figures in fiction ever to exist works out of 221B Baker Street and uses his power to put the world to rights. Sherlock Holmes, every bit the mad scientist occasionally found in a lab, is eccentrically misanthropic, mysterious and prone to eureka moments. Although he is seen today as the quintessential detective, his scientific roots go deep. Science of many kinds is still a strong presence in the detective genre, which perpetually combines the latest forensic fads with good old-fashioned leg work.
Such fictions may seem trivial, but my point is not. My point is simply that natural science has a powerfully evocative image, while it is often derided as a stereotypical crazy, negative force, it does at least constitute a single immediately recognisable identity. It works like any good branding would. The mad scientist has become science personified.
Yet, what of social science personified? There is not a single fictional social scientist that can get close to the towering status of a Frankenstein or a Holmes, iconic and universal as they both are. Neither is it immediately obvious what an iconic social scientist might be like. There are paltry few in fiction and many of them turn up as descendants of Sherlock Holmes. In crime fiction forensic psychologists rub shoulders with profilers and anthropologists, all social scientists no doubt, but it is debatable whether they are actually recognised as such or just seen as scientific crime fighters.
Indeed, the nearest thing to an iconic social scientist, in the UK at least, is the current star, or rather the butt, of a successful BBC comedy radio show. This particular image is of a hopelessly inept girl, who enthusiastically sums up every problem with jargonistic flourish, but is utterly ineffectual when it comes to understanding real people. One could equally imagine a rather drippy, politically correct man in a similar role. In this view the mad scientist’s social discord is retained, but is risible in a person whose very purpose is to be an expert in the social world.
This returns us to the disjunction between the two words, ‘social’ and ‘science’. The scientific expert is by definition a bumbling fool in the social realm. The irony is obvious. Why should we want or need a scientific expert to advise us on the very parts of our lives that we all negotiate daily, with aplomb indeed, by using common sense alone?
It is this question that the Campaign for Social Science must address. It emphasizes, quite rightly, that face to face relations might be manageable by commonsense alone but that sprawling urban environments, global politics and international boundary conflicts are unlikely to be. Now more than ever, we have a need to understand how people behave in, and are affected by, their place in the kinds of convoluted societies we inhabit in the post-industrial world. Otherwise how are we to work out the best way to conduct ourselves in the light of conflicting global pressures such as food shortage, burgeoning population, continued economic development and climate change?
There is no doubting the urgency and gravity of such concerns, and this is the message that the Campaign seeks to broadcast loud and clear. But, if we, the public, are to take them seriously we have to have in mind a more powerful image than a parochial, inept social worker. There is probably no getting rid of this image. We like it and it’s funny. But there is a possibility of creating an alternative story.
In thinking about that story, we would do well to remember that Frankenstein created a monster, not by the physical, scientific act of creation itself, but by neglecting the needs of the being that he had created. This is a salutary note for those who would dismiss social science as irrelevant. It tells us that we ignore the needs of people and society at our own peril.
Acknowledgements and References
· Cassidy, A., ‘Communicating the social sciences’ in M., Bucchi and B., Trench (eds), Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (London, 2008)
· Morton, T., A., Haslam, S. A., Postmes, T., & Ryan, M. K., ‘We value what values us: The appeal of identity affirming science’, in, Political Psychology 27(6), pp. 823-838 (2006)
· Save British Science (now Campaign for Science and Engineering): www.sciencecampaign.org.uk
1 Kate Roach is a writer and academic, and she has written for the Campaign for Social Science.
2 You can find out more about the Campaign for Social Science, and how to get involved, at:www.campaignforsocialscience.org.uk