Will Hutton on the State of Social Science

Black and white photo of Will Hutton

Political economist and journalist Will Hutton, author of the influential 1995 book The State We’re In, offers a state-of-the-field report on the social sciences in this Social Science Bites podcast. Hutton, who was appointed in 2021 to a six-year term as president of Britain’s Academy of Social Sciences, addresses various critiques of modern social science – especially in its British incarnations — from host David Edmonds.

As defined by the academy that he now heads, “social science is the understanding of society in all its dimensions,” and encompasses the societal, economic, behavioral and geospatial sciences. Despite that broad remit, the first question posed is whether social and behavioral sciences take a back seat to the natural sciences in the public imagination.

Hutton, for his part, says no – although he does see them not always getting their due. He notes that in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, yeoman’s work was conducted by social and behavioral science. “It wasn’t called social science, but it was driven by social science.” The same, he continues, is happening as Britain confronts its economic demons.

“Academic prowess is a kind of team,” he details. “You need your humanities, you need your physical scientists, your natural scientists, your medical scientists and your social scientists on the pitch. Sometime the ball falls to their feet and you look to them to make the killer pass.”

One thing that might help in achieving that overdue recognition, he explains later, would be if the social sciences themselves shared their commonality as opposed to denying it. “[T]he Academy of Social Science was established 40 years ago, because we felt that good as the British Academy is, it couldn’t represent humanities and social science co-equally. Social science needed its own voice. Four decades on, I would say that social science’s standing in the world is higher than it was 40 years ago. But if [a score of] 100 is what you want to get to, we probably haven’t gotten beyond 20 or 30.”

Impacting society, meanwhile, is how the sciences must improve their score (although Hutton acknowledges the vagaries of what impact looks like by saying “I’m not willing to castigate people if it looks as if what they are immediately doing is not impactful or having an impact.”) Asked what he sees as the “most fundamental issue” social science should tackle straightaway, Hutton offers four broad avenues to move down: Economics, governance, change behavior to keep the planet in good shape, and constructing a civil society of institutions that serve both individual and community needs.  Among those, he concludes, “I think combining ‘the we and the I’ is the most important thing that social science can do.”

Hutton’s wide-ranging answers follow from a wide-ranging career. He served as editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper, was chief executive of the then Industrial Society, was principal of Hertford College, Oxford from 2011 to 2020, and has authored a number of bestsellers since The State We’re In: Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome It. Those books include 2008’s The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century, 2011’s Them and Us, 2015’s How Good We Can Be, and 2018’s Saving Britain: How We Can Prosper in a New European Future (written with Andrew Adonis).

To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.

Join the debate and discuss this episode with fellow listeners on our Multytude conversation. Multytude is a new social media app that aims to make sense of the online conversation. With support from the SAGE Concept Grant, the Multytude team is working to create a new method of qualitative research for social scientists to better understand what people are saying about the big issues of today.

For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.

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Social Science Bites

Welcome to the blog for the Social Science Bites podcast: a series of interviews with leading social scientists. Each episode explores an aspect of our social world. You can access all audio and the transcripts from each interview here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @socialscibites.

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Tim MacIntosh

Hello, I’m a regular listener and really try to take insights from the podcast into real life. I’m a little worried about the conversation with Hutton. The social science field is very pumped up in this episode for its ethics and vision of a better world. I’d really like to hear guests like this pushed for response on some of these topics: The number of social scientists working in marketing is enormous. Given that their vast knowledge of human behaviour is being leveraged to sell unsustainable mountains of trash to people segmented into I-I-I bubbles, it seems, at times, rich… Read more »


Thanks for your comment Tim. It is a fair point that social science can be and is leveraged for bad ends too. I try and keep interviews reasonably short, and there are usually angles I leave out….but perhaps I should have put that to him.

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