Higher Education Reform

Campaigning for Social Science: Public Sociology and ‘Public Sociologists’ Higher Education Reform
Marcus Aurelius

Campaigning for Social Science: Public Sociology and ‘Public Sociologists’

March 29, 2015 1399

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius too knew a thing or two about marrying ‘the business of the people’ with a stoic outlook.

About 25 years ago, the late Phil Strong and I analysed the history of British sociology as a struggle between romantics and stoics. Responding to the challenge of utilitarian thinking, and its influence on the politics of the 1980s, we noted the collapse of belief in the possibility of creating a world planned and governed by reason. The reformist ambitions of British sociology had lost their foundations. This vacuum had been filled by various modes of Romanticism. These had always been present in sociology’s virtuous concern for the ethics of practice and its outcomes. They had now become vices: ‘the substitution of evangelical zeal for scholarship, the lust for experience over reflection, the elevation of the personal over the communal’. We sketched a Stoic alternative, based on detailed empirical studies, investigating both the universal in human nature and social organization and the variety of responses that had evolved in different contexts. This did not involve discarding a moral vision but emphasised the importance of equal respect for all humanity – as I later wrote elsewhere, of empathy for top dogs, bottom dogs and lapdogs alike.

I was reminded of that paper by the recent exchange between John Holmwood and James Wilsdon over the Campaign for Social Science’s report, The Business of People. This document was produced for lobbying purposes in the run-up to the general election on 7 May 2015. It develops a case for increased public investment in the social sciences, within a context where policymakers are focussed on the continuation of austerity.

Holmwood — who responds to this column below — is one of the UK’s most prominent ‘public sociologists’. The core of his attack on the Campaign report is that it does not present a political critique of government policies on behalf of ‘the public’. This, imagined, public exemplifies public sociology’s romanticism. Reinventing a classic Marxist position, public sociologists appoint themselves to speak for those whose consciousness is false or are disengaged from the channels of influence in a society. It is not a real public: the voices are not those of religious fundamentalists, marginalized working-class communities, affluent home-owners in London suburbs, or Russian oligarchs in their Mayfair funk-holes. Public sociology fills the space left by the failure of vanguard parties of the left.

Public sociologists assume that the world owes them a living. The ‘public university’ has a right to well-funded existence regardless of its returns to those who pay for it. An imagined history of universities is invoked to support this. In fact, from their very foundations in 12th and 13th century Europe, universities have been funded and regulated by church or state. Alexander Humboldt’s 19th century German model, which is the closest practical implementation to the radical version of academic freedom, limited this to a few full professors pursuing scholarship and innovation without political engagement. Ironically, the nearest approaches to ‘public universities’ have often been founded on private wealth.

Wilsdon’s response reflects a widely-shared concern about sustaining the material base for the social sciences in times that could be as difficult as the 1980s. In his words,’ making the best possible case we can to enable the richness, diversity and breadth of all UK social science to be protected and strengthened’. As international colleagues are finding, if we cannot produce credible arguments about why taxpayers should buy our work, the winds of austerity are likely to blow very chill indeed.

The Campaign report is a recipient-designed version of the stoic programme. As Wilsdon notes, its target audience is those civil servants, mostly utilitarian economists, whose advice will determine tax-based funding for the social sciences over the next decade. It also seeks to enlist major foundations, whose voices may persuade government to play its part in contributing to a plurality of funding sources that maintains diversity in the social sciences. Potentially, there are also arguments here for allocating a proportion of student fees to preserve the absorptive capacity of their teachers: if the latter are not engaged in cutting-edge research, this will not be reflected in their classes.

Given the audience, there are, of course, also silences. The report does not directly challenge the preoccupation of utilitarians with efficiency and effectiveness, although it implicitly acknowledges the other criteria relevant to policy or programme evaluation: equity and humanity. ‘Public sociologists’, of course, tend only to recognize the latter pair of concerns. Is it really ethical, though, to be indifferent to efficiency and effectiveness when money is being levied from one section of the population to fund provision for another?

The report also plays into the utilitarian demand for quantification: qualitative work hardly gets a mention and the quantophrenic programme is further promoted. There is, though, a big difference between accepting that UK social science graduates need better quantitative skills and training them all to be Treasury employees. Even the Fabians acknowledged the importance of marrying quantitative and qualitative investigations: Beatrice Webb’s discussion of ‘watching institutions at work’ still encapsulates the reasons why all social science graduates need to appreciate both. Why are economists not trained in qualitative methods, to encourage their scepticism about sophisticated models built on fragile and socially constructed data?

We might also question the idea that big problems necessarily need big research and big data. Sometimes big changes come from small interventions. If we are concerned about the growth of anti-microbial resistance, for example, we may simply need to apply things we have known since the 1970s about how doctors can be helped to resist patient demands for antibiotic prescriptions. This has become somewhat more difficult since governments started telling patients to behave more like consumers, but there is US research to show that it is possible.

The Campaign’s report is an important document, at least for those of us who, like Wilsdon, care about the prospects of our former graduate students and postdocs. Feedback from international colleagues has also been positive. Other social science communities have seen a model for engaging proactively with their own policymakers. Surely this is more helpful than haranguing politicians and civil servants from a distance on their duty to support people whose only objective is to denounce them. As Phil Strong once wrote, though, some of our colleagues have an infinite capacity for preferring to be ‘right on’. Public sociology is too important to be left to ‘public sociologists’.


Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

View all posts by Robert Dingwall

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John Holmwood

Like James Wilsdon, Robert Dingwall argues that my criticism of the narrow and one-sided report produced by the Campaign for the Social Sciences is made from a different, one-sided position, that of a Marxist-inflected commitment to public sociology. He suggests that the recent Report produced Campaign for Social Sciences “implicitly acknowledges the other criteria relevant to policy or programme evaluation: equity and humanity.” Neither of his claims is correct. There is no implicit acknowledgement of the public value of social sciences in the report other than a thoroughgoing instrumentalism; and there is no repudiation of utilitarian aims for social science… Read more »