The Campaign to re-brand the social scientist – The public re-construction of a diverse discipline

August 18, 2011 1060

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

·         This article was especially written for the summer 2011 edition of HECSU’s quarterly HE policy and graduate careers publication, GMT – Read the Summer 2011 issue.

·         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):

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,

The Academy of Social Science’s mission is to promote social sciences in the United Kingdom for the public benefit. The academy is composed of individual academicians and learned societies; it responds to government and other consultations on behalf of the social science community, organizes meetings about social science and seminars on topics that span social science disciplines, and sponsors a number of efforts that promote social science and enhance its value to society.

View all posts by Academy of Social Sciences

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I found the article fairly straightforward, with one main point that certainly has wide implications. Kate Roach makes the point that, when the public hears the word ‘science’, it thinks ‘natural science’ because the public has at its disposal and is familiar with numerous images, both good and bad, that support this connection. When the public hears the phrase ‘social science’, it has no imagery to support this connection, making social science in a way unthinkable. Social science needs an “obvious single public identity” (Kate, above). I would like to address this point. First, I am so pleased to hear… Read more »

Peter Jeyaprakash

Social Science is inclusive. The very fact that it is a social science gives it the right to include and adopt scientific methods and techniques to qualify the quantitative data. There is no need to look at this convenience as if social science is lacking in something. No science for its part evolved exclusively on its own. The word science does not create a barricade and there is no disjuncture. We need to look beyond this compartmentalization and recognize social science as a major contributing field to understand various social anomalies and its characteristics. Take for example the word community.… Read more »


“Natural scientists do have distinct advantages when plying their trade in public.” deserves some explanations. In public meetings, in particular in front of NGOs’ activists, natural scientists can be strongly questionned if they do not adhere to the audience’s expectations.

Karl Smith

The “problem” with the social sciences is not that we have lost our way from the “over-the-top physics envy” of the old masters, but that we have failed to educate the general public that such physics-envy was and remains misplaced. Clearly even (some) people who are interested enough to read an article such as this remain under the illusion that social phenomena occur according to simple cause-and-effect laws that might be deduced, explicated and disseminated. This is an illusion which continually short-changes those ever elusive entities that constitute the social — those creative, unpredictable, rebellious, conformist, malleable, plastic, imaginative, cooperative,… Read more »


The problem of the social sciences is this: there are no (or very few) testable theories or law-like generalisations in the social sciences that can be used to get things done, with a better-than-average chance of success. As long as social scientists see themselves as the critic and conscience of society, and not as research workers who are interested in finding out how social phenomena actually work (in the sense of cause-and-effect) then the “poor” image of the social sciences will persist. I agree with Bennie Berkeley in that post-modernism has ruined social sciences. While the Old Masters were perhaps… Read more »


Whats’ the name of the BBC radio show? A link would be useful…


Dear Bill

The radio show is Radio 4’s ‘Clare in the Community’ about a rather hapless, well-meaning but very woolly social worker.

Bennie Berkeley (PhD

I think the article implies not just need for re-branding the social sciences but for its complete re-organization, re-concetualization and re-creation in order to illustrates their pivotal role in social well being. The fact is that some persons outside the social sciences (and some within it) do not appreciate their significance. They continue to hold to the view that it is only through natural sciences that human progress and advancement can be attained. The significant contributions of the 19th and early 20th century founding fathers (e.g. Comte, Spencer, Marx, Durkheim and Weber) seems to be lost primarily in postmodern times.… Read more »