Scotland the Brave?

The referendum on Scottish independence, scheduled for 2014, may be regarded as an amusing abstraction for those outside Scotland but within it raises many questions about Scottish identity and what is special about Scottish society. This places social science insights at the core of the debate on the advantages and disadvantages of separation from Westminster.  I was therefore fascinated to read the elegantly brief review of current social science research in Scotland that is issued as the  seventh Making the Case for Social Science booklet published by the Academy of Social Sciences.

As an inveterate Sassenach, who lived in Glasgow for six years, alerted to how different is the Scottish perspective on nationality by being told the time ‘the post to England’ was sent, or being looked at in amazement when I asked for a whisky in a bar, rather than specifying which of the myriad brands I wanted, it was instructive to learn how Scottish social science is articulating the distinctiveness of a country which houses around a tenth of the UK population but has about third of its landmass. Perhaps it is this smaller population and the more isolated communities that encourage the dominant characteristics of Scottish social policy, which is for people to be actively caught up in making the decisions that affect them. Many of the studies reported show increasing community involvement.  This covers closing down female only prisons in favour of multi-agency partnerships, developing local services to deal with alcohol abuse, setting up national parenting strategies to assist parents in helping their children reach their full potential, as well as public buy-out of land and crucial neighbourhood assets.

From a social scientist’s perspective the really encouraging aspect of all this work is its integration with policy making. For example the widely reported Scottish Government policy on the minimum pricing of alcohol was based on a careful assessment of studies of the impact of alcohol price on alcohol abuse (including, admittedly, studies from The University of Sheffield…). The interesting process here is that the Government knew that to get acceptance of this policy from the police and others in the community it needed to back its claims with empirical evidence. This indicates an acceptance of the maturity and good sense of its citizens that is not always obvious in what emerges from the Houses of Parliament in London.

Another remarkably progressive illustration of the way the Scottish Government works with social science researchers is the innovative school Transformational Plan.  Supported by substantial funding, over a four year period secondary schools were mentored by academics to develop procedures with teachers for evaluating their own developments in teaching practices. This reminded me of my own research that showed the amazing power in reducing accidents of giving people in dangerous industries the tools for monitoring their own safety procedures. The changes in Scottish secondary education as a result of treating teachers as responsible professionals who just need the social science tools to improve their performance carries significance for many other areas of professional activity far beyond Scotland.

Living in Wales as I do, I am very aware of the way the Welsh language has resurfaced and is taking a hold, with all sorts of positive benefits. But in my ignorance I had thought that Gaelic was virtually dead in Scotland. But not a bit of it!  There are now 60 primary schools teaching entirely in Gaelic, introducing English in the third or fourth year, despite Gaelic not being the main language spoken at home for the great majority of the children.  Such a policy could readily be dismissed as destructive nationalism, disadvantaging children for the sake of misplaced pride in a lost past. Therefore careful, independent research on the policy’s consequences is crucial. So when an Edinburgh University study showed that in English reading, Gaelic-medium pupils performed better than English-medium pupils, and did just as well in English writing, mathematics and science, the policy was vindicated and the study contributed directly to the further development of  the statutory National Gaelic Language plan.

There has been little comment so far on the loss to the UK if Scotland were to be independent. In the social sciences there has been a long history of significant contributions from Scotland, going back to the Scottish Enlightenment with people such as David Hume and Adam Smith, and before. Doubtless the special flavour of Scottish social science would still influence activities in the rest of the UK and beyond from an Independent Scotland, but a distinct political split would probably make that a little less fluid. There is no doubt that the special context north of the border provides a unique environment for social science from which we all benefit.

The Making the Case for the Social Sciences No 7 – Scotland booklet and all the earlier ones are available free from administrator@acss.org.uk.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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