Does the framing of the social sciences in the media put social science ECRs at a disadvantage?

“The social sciences are largely hokum” according to Dr Sheldon Cooper PhD. Yes, I am aware that I have just quoted a fictitious character from the popular, well, in my opinion, awesome TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory[1]’. However, recently it appears that it is not just fictitious characters disrespecting our work, as many of you will have noticed through recent discussions on this site. The two that particularly caught my eye were; Ziyad Marar’s response on behalf of SAGE to the recent attacks on social science and Andrew Gamble’s ‘Have the social sciences failed us’. Both of these pieces and the articles on which they comment / make reference to, made me consider to what extent these debates or the way in which social science is framed puts social science ECRs at a disadvantage.

What does the negativity around social science mean for ECRS? I have often wondered about the numbers of social science ECRs and their job prospects in comparison with those graduating in the natural sciences. Does it make it harder for us to find employment? Do the natural sciences have an advantage? I don’t think they do. Approximately 1 in 10 post-doc staff will have their own labs and move into academic lecturing positions. While I don’t know the statistics for social scientists I can imagine that our job prospects are different and more varied.

I’m a social scientist; at my most basic form, I would say I am a Human Geographer; I am interested in human interactions with place and space. There are many sub-disciplines of Human Geography by which we all go on to sub-define ourselves a little bit more but it is possible to move between them, in my opinion anyway. If we go back to my PhD thesis and the subject matter of my academic life as a student I would call myself a Development Geographer. My work focused on political, environmental and cultural issues relating to less developed countries. Post PhD my work has focused on what digital technology affords researchers / academics in terms of data collection and analysis as well as professional development. My research now focuses on digital identities and how academics and academic institutions present themselves in, interact and engage with virtual space. I am now more of a Cultural or Behavioural Geographer. However, what I call myself doesn’t really matter its how I apply my skills that does.

I always felt my ability to move between subjects and sectors has been an advantage in the areas that I can apply my trade (and the areas in which I can look for jobs). Examining the social world can encompass a wide variety of approaches and give just as wide an array of answers or best or worst case scenarios depending on what you believe. That is what makes it interesting in my opinion. We can also ‘apply’ our understandings in a range of sectors within and external to academia. At the same time however, I am aware of this ‘jack of all trades master of none’ tag that can be applied to those of us who work in our field. I have friends in the natural sciences who have looked down their nose at what I call ‘research’ and have questioned my ‘methods’ and ‘data’ (I’m a qualitative rather than quantitative researcher which throws them completely). I don’t have physics envy, I am glad there are people who can tell me about the big bang but we all need to work together to understand what happened after, particularly how we, as humans, interact with our environments be they physical or virtual. As Ziyad Marar states in his piece on this site social problems are messy and ill structured and require different thought processes and we as ECRs offer new opportunities and new research, theories and ideas. We can also apply our skills more easily outside academia.

I celebrate the diversity in social science and what we can offer all aspects of academia and beyond. Today (30th May 2012) I am chairing a Public Policy Exchange event on Revolutionising Public Sector Communications: Using The Power Of Social Media To Accelerate the Digitisation of Public Services. Here I will be practically applying my skills in virtual communication, interaction and engagement in a public policy setting. In a couple of weeks I am going to a different University to run a training session for PGRs on digital communication and research techniques. My opportunities are many and varied and are based on my understanding that a PhD is more than just subject knowledge; it is also a process and a set of skills. I believe that social science PhDs develop a set of transferable skills that can stand them in a good position to go out into the world and make a difference.

ECRs should be proud of their messy approaches to research, their skills and their abilities to engage beyond the lab.

[1] Episode 13 Season 2 ‘The friendship algorithm’ (2009).

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Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing.

She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

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