What Is the Value of Social Science?

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…In US political circles, the answer seems to be not very much at all…

Last month a bizarrely under-reported “voice vote” of the US Senate waved through an amendment designed “to prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the political science programme in the division of social and economic sciences… of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the director of the … foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States”.

The argument used by its sponsor, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, was that the money – a measly $11 million out of the total NSF pot of $7 billion – would be better spent on breast cancer research. This echoes a larger attack on social science by Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican and majority leader in the House of Representatives, who said in a major speech in February that “funds currently spent by the government on social science… would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.”

In the UK, by contrast, social science’s political fortunes appear to be more favourable. In March the government announced funding for a network of independent “What Works” centres, modelled on the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, charged with providing evidence-based advice on social policy. The Campaign for Social Science hailed the move, hoping the creation of a national advisor for the centres would be a “significant step towards the restoration of a government chief social scientist post”.

However, the UK and US moves share an assumption that is ultimately bad for social science: namely, that there is no difference between social and natural science.

This assumption can also be seen in Research Councils UK’s open access policy, which came into force this month. The policy insists on the same permissive licensing for all papers published via the “gold” route, even though many social science – and humanities – academics believe this is not appropriate for their disciplines.

This absurdly one-dimensional view of exact equivalence between the social and natural sciences, and the corollary that the impact of both should be measured against the exactitude of their knowledge claims, inevitably condemns social science to the status of a poor cousin.

Each discipline has its distinctive way of creating contributions that inform debate and policy. Some scientific conclusions, such as the speed of light, attain the status of undisputed fact or even cliché. But even within the sciences a lot of theory is contested and the discovery process starts to look more creative. Examples include research into the genetic effects on human behaviour or the long-term consequences of climate change.

As soon as we move from studying the natural world to studying the human world we complicate the picture further still, and in a quite fundamental way. Defenders of social science often understate this difference, but you would have a hard job getting psychologists to agree on a definition of intelligence or sociologists to agree on the definition of power (which Bertrand Russell once called “the fundamental concept of social science”) as robustly as physicists agree on the definition of an electron. And this is not because they aren’t being scientific enough.

In the humanities and social sciences knowledge claims are highly contextualised by the complexity of the phenomena they seek to explain. Hence, a lot of important work does not issue in law-like generalisation or predictions. Experts analysing messy, “wicked” systemic phenomena like terrorism, inequality or well-being will rarely agree on solutions without adding caveats about why, how, for whom, under what conditions and even why the issue should matter in the first place. Facts and values blend, and the data are unruly.

So it is not a reasonable test of the value of political science, for instance, that no one predicted the end of the cold war. But that does not mean political science is without value. The application of rigorous theoretical and empirical care, combined with familiarity with the scholarly literature, still leads to a hugely enriched understanding, from which politicians could greatly benefit.

Politicians are inevitably influenced by so many other factors, so it is easy to see why a social scientist might dangle “solutions” before them: nuance would blur the message and gets lost in the crowd. But nuance is the nature of social science.

Social scientists should instead echo Albert Einstein who said: “Understanding physics is child’s play compared to understanding child’s play.” Only then will they be able to articulate the distinctive value of attempts at the latter.

Ziyad Marar, Global Publishing Director SAGE — ‘Implementing Finch — Workshop

Ziyad Marar is global publishing director at SAGE, and author of The Happiness Paradox (Reaktion, 2003), Deception (Acumen, 2008), and Intimacy: Understanding the Subtle Power of Human Connection (Acumen, 2012). Ziyad can be followed on twitter at @ZiyadMarar


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SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne and Washington DC.

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