The State of Social Science: only itself to blame?

Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby of  AcSS gave a talk immediately before the annual general meeting of the Academy of Social Sciences on 5 July 2012 entitled ‘The State of Social Science: only itself to blame?’.

Professor Taylor-Gooby said that both society and government relied on social science a great deal, and that people who criticised it for what they saw as its failure to predict events had misunderstood the nature of the knowledge it could produce.

Speaking to an audience of 50 at the event in London, he pointed out “one central puzzle – social science, as we are all aware, comes in for a great deal of public criticism these days from all sorts of directions, and to some extent feels itself beleaguered.

“At the same time it’s clear to anybody who looks at how our society functions – at the economy, public life, media, processes of government and popular discourse – that social science has an enormous influence on public life and it’s very much in demand.

“It’s an interesting puzzle: why on earth do people criticise something they use in their everyday lives such a lot of the time?”

Professor Taylor-Gooby, who was recently given an OBE for his services to social science, talked about the question the Queen raised during a visit to the LSE when she asked why none of the academics had predicted the credit crunch. Professor Taylor-Gooby also mentioned two Guardian opinion columns by Aditya Chakrabortty this year criticising social science for not offering an alternative to failed economic policies.

The criticism was “in effect saying ‘you social scientists can’t really tell us anything helpful about the really big issues that we face’, and there’s always the threat that lies behind that – ‘why is the government putting money into supporting your activities if you are not really much use to us?’”

Professor Taylor-Gooby, Professor of Social Policy at Kent, pointed out that in fact political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, policy experts and psychologists were researching such issues, and the government and private sector employed many social scientists.

Social scientists’ work featured heavily in the media – he had carried out an online search of articles in UK broadsheet newspapers using the term “research” in April. More than two-thirds of these reported social science research.

“If you use media discussion as a basis for understanding of how people think about the role the social science you will find considerable attention paid to social science findings.”

More than half of the government’s Foresight projects, major long-term analyses of important issues such as migration, wellbeing, addictions, trust, land-use and identity had “very substantial social science input”.

“Government needs to use social science. You could also suggest that our society uses social science a very great deal and relies to a considerable extent on social science.”

He pointed out that undergraduate applications this year across all subjects had fallen by about 5.5% (April figures). Some social science subjects had done relatively well with real increases in recruitment or a decline of less than 5.5%: law, accountancy, geography, economics, business studies and anthropology. This was not so much a moving away from social science but a shift within it.

“You could construct the argument that there is quite a lot of public demand. Even in a climate where people have to pay substantial fees and incur substantial debts to undertake their education there’s a clear demand for major social science disciplines.”

He analysed recent debates about responses to climate change and to the economic crisis and argued that the social sciences deal with issues of conflict and crisis which trouble our society and to which there is no easy answer. People such as the Queen and Chakrabortty expect social science to explain what is happening, predict what will happen and set out a way of dealing with the problem.

“But it’s extremely difficult to do that, so social science ends up in the position of a scapegoat – it deals with those areas of our society that are problematic and cause us unease, but very often there are issues which it’s difficult to produce an answer that’s satisfactory to those outside the social science community.

“Social science deals with areas where the world outside needs answers but by the nature of the case it cannot provide the sort of simple, definitive, directive answers that are wanted because the knowledge it produces isn’t like that. That’s the real reason why people don’t love social science.”

• The Academy’s Annual General Meeting was attended by over 50 people, who heard that it had a successful year, with 44 learned societies as members, with 86,000 social scientists in total. It had broadened its links with government, and now recommended experts to work on the government’s Foresight research projects. It organised events including a conference on the Riots of summer 2011, produced more booklets in its ‘Making the Case for the Social Sciences series of summaries of important research, and published its journal Contemporary Social Science.

Adapted by a talk originally given by

by Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby

FBA AcSS OBE, University of Kent

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Academy of Social Sciences

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.

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