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