Social Sciences Learn the Tactical Benefits of Concentration


Join or Die cartoon from American Revolution eraAs Benjamin Franklin reportedly observed at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, if we don’t hang together then we will hang separately. At the time he was speaking about 13 of Britain’s American colonies, then yearning to break free. Today’s social scientists, in contrast, are seeking a different sort of compact, one that binds them closer to their mother governments.

“I think we know and understand that social science often is up against it when it comes to getting its point across,” Ziyad Marar, SAGE’s director of global publishing, said a recent panel on the impact of social science. “It is often misconstrued, misreported. Its impact is often considered lesser than some other fields.”

Like the 13 colonies, diverse fields don’t always hew to confederation. Creating a fraternity of disciplines clustering under one banner, then pledging fealty to that flag, doesn’t always come naturally or easily. And so it is with the sciences as a whole, and the social sciences in part. Pushing geographers and sociologists, anthropologists and economists, to make common cause, or to have behavioral scientists and social scientists acknowledge their shared humanity, can be fraught.

“Not much attention has been paid to the social sciences in the past as a broad front concept,” according to Simon Bastow, co-author of a new book we’ll encounter shortly. “This kind of turf warfare is a real constraint on being able to tackle the pressing reach challenges that we face,” adds one of his collaborators, Jane Tinkler.

“Ultimately,” argues Marar, “the argument for the social science will be best carried when we see that all forms of inquiry and knowledge claims are fundamentally interrelated.”

It’s thanks to a shared outside threat–in this case, efforts to reduce funding, or public dismissal of the disciplines themselves — that talk has turned to coalescence. In turn, a newly unified front is gathering weapons to battle opponents. And in the tradition of the academy, the arsenal is less iron and wood and more data and anecdote.

‘I think we know and understand that social science often is up against it when it comes to getting its point across’

Two years ago, for example, the National Science Foundation set out to demonstrate “how social, behavioral and economic research addresses national challenges” by showing that disparate issues—say responding to disasters or defending the nation—rely on scholarship from the social sciences.  That report followed up on one the year before, “Rebuilding the Mosaic,” meant to show how vital they were to the future. (And both the words “rebuilding” and “mosaic” were carefully chosen, that report’s authors noted.)

In the United Kingdom, the Campaign for Social Science took a different tack to show vitality, studying how social science graduates turned out to be more employable (with caveats) that university grads from other areas of study.

Making common cause on an even broader spectrum, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences recently linked the humanities with the social sciences to argue that citizens “educated in the broadest possible sense”—i.e. with healthy dollops of the humanities and social sciences—were necessary to lead the United States into a bright future, something that “cannot be achieved by [hard] science alone.”  (It could be argued that the humanities’ are even more disdained than the social sciences.)

And just this month, a multimedia presentation titled “Prospering Wisely,” the British Academy also harnessed the humanities and social sciences as a necessary force for national renaissance.

impactAmongst these efforts the London School of Economics Public Policy Group, sponsored by the Higher Education Funding Council of England and in conjunction with SAGE (this site’s sponsor), produced a book that documents quantitatively and to a lesser extent qualitatively how big of a splash social science makes in Britain. And now, that 332-page volume—by Bastow, Tinkler and lead author Patrick Dunleavy-– is being released in America now, a month after its British publication.

Returning for a moment to Benjamin Franklin, what utility does an investigation into the impact of social sciences in Britain have for a U.S. audience? The colonists, after all, won that particular contest.

Ken Prewitt set out to answer that question in a preface to the book, which is titled The Impact of Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research Make a Difference.  “What differentiates the social science project in the UK and the US,” argues Prewitt, a political scientist at Columbia and former director of the U.S. Census, “is slight when stacked up against their similarities.”

As evidence of this, I offer a small and only illustrative sample of the similarities: we share common origins in German social thought and academic practice; we share nearly identical disciplinary structures based in very similarly designed universities; in both countries social science careers are not lim­ited to the academy but in good measure are pursued in the three branches of government, as well as think-tanks, advocacy groups, consultancy firms and busi­ness enterprises; social sciences in the UK and US benefit from – and contribute to – an extensive, high quality national statistical systems; in each country funds for social science come from a mixture of public and private sources (though the US foundation sector has been a comparatively larger funder); the UK and US are similar in how the social science overlaps arts and humanities on the one hand and, also, biological, natural, and engineering sciences on the other.

In short, what Americans can learn from the British experience might very well resonate in the USA.

Last month, to mark the launch of the book in London, LSE held a panel discussion featuring luminaries from a variety of generally non-academic fields – journalist Mark Easton, Penny Lawrence of Oxfam, the National Audit Office’s  Aileen Murphie, former British Telecom strategist Jeff Patmore, and former World Bank chief economist (and current LSE professor) Nicholas Stern.  Stern is also president of British Academy and was involved in the “Prospering Wisely” report.

He deployed a business world analogy to show no matter how deeply you drill down into a modern institution, social science is likely to be found.  “Think of an oil company: An oil company is finance, risk management, law, international relationships, anthropology, economics, with a little bit of geology and small piece of kit attached. But it’s mostly those things, and if you say that to an oil company they’ll say, ‘Yes, of course.’  The things we do in the social sciences, and the humanities as well, are just everywhere.”

But familiarity may breed a modicum of contempt. Easton, an editor for the BBC, agreed that “social scientists enjoy a mixed press. Journalists like stories, simple stories that chime with the prejudices of their audience. Social science sometimes gives us just that, and that’s terrific. But more often than not it comes up with a subtly nuanced conclusion that’s almost impossible to capture in a single punchy headline.”

Despite finding himself “drowning is a sea of imponderables and caveats” as he peruses the often punch-free social science terrain, Easton said he finds genuine value in the effort. It’s a value he related to a larger public good, especially when it puts conventional wisdom to the test. “To go with evidence-based policy we must have evidence-based analysis to actually know what’s going on with our country. It must be done with clear eyes, not through the prism of contemporary politics (although that may well help identify important questions).”

Approaching social science from the bureaucracy, Murphy offered a similar endorsement. “Social science research is critically important to the full and proper evaluation of government policy and its effects. It makes a huge difference to the work that we attempt to do. I think it’s central to government policymaking because you have to work out what the question is first.

“It’s very easy sometimes to slip straight to the solution without anyone being terribly clear about what the question is that they’re trying to answer.”

That’s a tendency seen on both sides of the Atlantic, one of the reasons social scientists pursue “impact” in their own enlightened self interest.

“The social science enterprise in the UK and in the US, since their beginnings,” Prewitt wrote, “have engaged two fundamental projects: deepening the scientific understanding of social behavior and structures; and, bringing the result­ing knowledge to bear on improving social welfare, economic growth, and national security. In both countries, the ‘science project’ and the ‘nation-building project’ continually overlap, each feeding off the other. It is the nation-building project that motivates a long preoccupation with ‘external impact’ – that is, in addition to other scholars and our students, to whom are we talking? Are they listening? Do they get what we are saying? Are they acting on it in ways that we intended?”

And so, he concludes, “Impact, as analysed in this volume, is a step toward research on use, in the sense that an ‘invisible’ science will not be used. The next step is to focus on use itself.”


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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