A Response to Recent Attacks on Social Science

Across the world in the media, in policy and government discussions, and in our daily lives, there is evidence of social science at work. Whether it’s analysis of a cultural phenomenon like crime, or a major international concern such as how climate change leads to changing lifestyles or inequality, social scientists help us understand cultures and behaviours.

Yet extraordinarily last week in the US, Representative Jeff Flake has managed to persuade a House majority (218-208) to vote to block the National Science Foundation from funding political science research.  Flake argues the NSF will now no longer “waste taxpayer dollars on a meritless program.”   Meanwhile the philosopher Gary Gutting in the New York Times has advised policy makers to ignore the social sciences on the grounds of unreliability.

Despite their clear and widespread relevance social scientists often have a problem getting their messages heard. As Lord Giddens said last year, in a speech to the Academy of Social Sciences, “most people in politics and the media do not know where they get their ideas from.”

Social science is often ignorantly disparaged or marginalised because the impact of such work is often diffuse or long term.  Social science is not a poor cousin to the natural sciences suffering from a version of physics envy. Its problem domain is different, and so must be the way it justifies itself. It is publicly engaged and owes as much to history and philosophy as it does to natural science.

Social science represents a very wide ranging set of approaches to what are known as ‘wicked problems’. These are social problems which are messy and ill structured such as: poverty, inequality, consumer behaviour, social cohesion, behaviour change, security, the causes of crime and social determinants of health.

Part of the problem comes from the wide-ranging nature of the disciplines, subject matter and problem domains. Social science can encompass everything from psychology to international relations, from social theory to wellbeing. But while the methods of study used and subjects vary, there is also a strong common thread: explaining our social world.

All of these wicked problems and more are major national and international priorities. They don’t tend to have right or wrong answers but often have better or worse answers. Often the research will cross over from facts to values, from description to explanation and back again, and will not be reliably predictive. In the UK, when the Queen visited the London School of Economics during the economic meltdown and asked why no one predicted this, she had a point. (Though Gillian Tett on the Financial Times who did predict it, gave the credit to her holistic understanding to her PhD in social anthropology!). Social science is not a watertight exercise. As a Nobel prize-winning physicist once said ‘understanding physics is child’s play, but understanding child’s play is a nightmare.’

But this all means social science should be a bigger priority not a smaller one. We at SAGE who are passionate supporters of the social sciences want to do what we can using our global networks to get this message across. This very community and blog network, socialsciencespace, is at the heart of this, as are the series of workshops and public lectures we run (such as the forthcoming first annual behavioral science summit SAGE is sponsoring on behalf of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University), and most recently the new series of Social Science Bites podcasts, which again you can find hosted on this network.

We urge you to raise your voices in the defence of the social sciences. Participate through writing for socialsciencespace, by commenting on the articles by your peers, by joining in online discussions such as the weekly #socsci chat on twitter, or simply by choosing to share what you find here with others.

Ziyad Marar is Global Publishing Director at SAGE

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Ziyad Marar

Ziyad Marar is an author and president of global publishing at SAGE Publishing. His books include Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood (Bloomsbury, 2018), Intimacy: Understanding the Subtle Power of Human Connection (Acumen Publishing, 2012), Deception (Acumen Publishing, 2008), and The Happiness Paradox (Reaktion Books 2003). He tweets @ZiyadMarar.

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David Leigh

Social scientists sometimes contribute to their own limited influence. Some confuse activism with science, and assume they have the answers before any investigations begin. A little more humility and thoughtful analysis would go a long way.

One might hope that politicians would be able to distinguish scientific analysis from ideological assertions but, unless the social science disciplines themselves recognize the differences in quality of the two contributions, the public is likely to continue making overly broad generalizations.

Laura Servage

In my humble opinion, more attention ought to be paid to how the social sciences are taken up by media and policy makers. Attended a very interesting panel at American Educational Research Association conference in 2010 — message was basically that academics consistently drop the ball when it comes to communicating research findings beyond the pages of academic journals.

As for anti-intellectualism in politics — particularly American politics — just…sigh. Heavy sigh.

Tina Hanson

The social sciences are the key to understanding societal behavior. Intelligent and successful individuals understand this as the means to direct and encourage change. Understanding the needs, drives and motives of people will dictate how new programs are implemented, how cooperation is achieved and ultimately the success of any endeavor. Attempts to marginalize these fields of study are usually undertaken by people (or groups of people) who wish to marginalize the people in their own societies in order to keep them uninformed and powerless so that thier own agendas can be met without opposition. This movement is not only objectionable… Read more »


In coming from a social neuropsychological perspective, I look at these attacks as naiveté. If we look at all of the fields involved in the solution generation for social problems, even psychology, I can understand the views behind these attacks. If you look at mental healthcare for instance, you’ll find a success statistics only slightly better than chance – regardless of what mystical philosophical theory they originated from. I just took summer break from a Ph.D. program that focuses on human social nature so to work on a publication on bullying. From an inside perspective of the K-12 academe, the… Read more »

Robert Dingwall

I think it is important to stress that social science is not just about dealing with messy, wicked social problems. It is also fundamental to the positive use of scientific and technological innovation in any field. As soon as you ask how best to promote innovation, you are asking a social science question about incentives, regulation and organization. As soon as you want to get an innovation out into the world, it ceases to be a matter for science or technology and becomes a challenge for social sciences. Who will use it? How will they use it? What adaptations will… Read more »

Ziyad Marar

I completely agree with you on that point. In an article to explain we have launched social science space http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2011/02/why-we-have-launched-socialsciencespace/ I set out at five reasons why social science is so important. The fourth of those reasons, which I extract here, echoes your argument: 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… Read more »

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