Why we need social science

16 Sep 2011

LATE IN 2009, the United Nations convened a great meeting in Copenhagen on an issue being defined as the greatest challenge of our time. Specialists in climate science had warned for years about the growing turbulence and risk resulting from human activities that change and especially heat the atmosphere. After two weeks of bitter wrangling, the governments of the world went home, having agreed on almost nothing. Developing countries, led by China, refused more extra restrictions on their high-pollution drive for economic growth; rich countries, led by the United States, refused the demand to wind down their high-consumption way of life.

In mid 2010, the British-based transnational oil corporation BP had a nasty accident at an underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting from the urgent search for more fossil fuel as the time of ‘peak oil’ approaches. A media blitz followed the threat of pollution to the southern coast of the United States. A few media stories – only a few – drew a parallel with the catastrophe that had already surrounded oil spills on another continent. The Niger River delta has been the scene of epic corruption, social dislocation, civil war and devastating pollution since the oil companies arrived in the 1950s.

These traumatic events are not bad luck and not failures of personal leadership. They are consequences of the way our institutions and structures work: decisions in the hands of small elites, global struggle for profits and power, massive inequalities of resources, and the triumph of short-term calculation. We do not have a global environment problem, really. We have a global social problem. Ecological crisis and injustice can only be solved by social action and institutional change.

The spread of HIV/AIDS, to take another critical issue, is not just a medical problem. From the early years of the epidemic it was clear that only social action could stop it. Community mobilizations did stop it, in some places – but not widely enough. The global epidemic continues to spread through social pathways formed by poverty, violence and patriarchy.

Across a broad range of other issues, people grappling with practical dilemmas need to understand large-scale social processes. Women in organizations facing the ‘glass ceiling’, teachers troubled about over-surveillance of their work, activists dealing with domestic violence, knowledge workers grappling with marginality, all are stronger if they have reliable knowledge about how the problems arose and why they are intractable.

We need social science because social processes shape human destinies. If we are to take control of our future, we need to understand society as much as we need to understand the atmosphere, the earth, and men’s and women’s bodies.

There are many dubious interpretations of the social world on offer. There is market ideology, where every problem has the same solution – private property and unrestrained markets. There is ‘virtual sociology’ (skewered by Judith Stacey in her recent book Unhitched) where pressure-groups select the research results they like, ignore the ones they don’t, and so present their own prejudices as scientific findings. The most enjoyable pseudoscience is the pop sociology of market research firms: Generation X, Generation Y, the creative class, the mommy track, the metrosexuals, the sensitive new-age guy, the new traditionals, the aspirationals, the sea-changers . . . The names usually define faintly recognizable types, or at any rate marketing strategies, and the audience in wealthy countries fill in the details for themselves.

Social science is harder. It is slower. Knowledge grows by a collective process of exploration that is complex and uncertain. Research must be unpredictable, since we never know at the start what the results will be. (If we do know, it isn’t research!) Social science needs patience and it does not suit media deadlines. It also needs resources, especially people and time. For intellectual work to be done there has to be a workforce; and that is not easily assembled or kept in being. There is often an awkward gap between significant questions and the means of answering them.

Research is usually imagined as the gathering of data, but there is much more to it. Clarifying language, generating new concepts, relating ideas to each other, building interpretations – these too are necessary steps in producing knowledge. Theory is often handed over, with a sigh of relief, to a small group of specialists. It shouldn’t be. Theory is basically about trying to think beyond the immediately given; and this is business that concerns everyone with a stake in social science. In my experience, the best theoretical ideas bubble up in the midst of empirical research or practical problems and start talking to the facts straight away. The theories most widely used in social science come from Europe and North America. This is increasingly recognized as a problem. We have become conscious of the imperial history of social science itself and the limitations of vision in even the greatest thinkers of the global North. There is now a vigorous and exciting debate about how to create a world social science that mobilizes the social experience and intellectual resources of the South –where, after all, most of the people live.

Social practices – including labour, care and struggle – are endlessly bringing new realities into existence. This is easily said, difficult to keep in mind. It is easier to think of the world as composed of things that we bump against like rocks – a family, a bank, a population, capitalism, patriarchy.

But the storm of time keeps blowing: not only destroying what previously appeared solid, but creating and destroying and creating again. Borrowing a slightly pompous word from the Czech philosopher Karel Kosík, I call this the ontoformativity of social practice. Our collective actions, shaped by social structures precipitated from the past, make the social world we are moving into. And this social world is not a performative illusion, it becomes new fact. Social practice is generative, fecund, rich in real consequences.

This is frightening, as many of the consequences are dire. The last hundred years have generated the most intense moments of violence (Kursk, Hiroshima) and the worst famines in human history, as well as the deepening disaster of climate change. Yet the same century has seen the greatest-ever increase in literacy and the greatest increase in expectations of life. Huge empires have been dismantled; there has been an unprecedented global struggle towards gender equality; there is tremendous cultural inventiveness, even in very poor and disrupted communities. Social science, concerned with this reality, has to be empirical; it tries to discover and describe the way things are in the world. The accuracy of its statements matters, its claims have to be testable and, ultimately, tested. That is what distinguishes social science from ideologies and pseudo-sciences, however entertaining or persuasive those may be.

It is usually quantitative researchers who emphasize the empirical character of social science. I value the distributive information that surveys and censuses give, and some will be found in this book. A democratic science must be concerned with all the people, not just an iconic few. But social science cannot be only a system of quantitative statements. That would mean a sadly thin form of knowledge, missing out everything that produces the distributions our statistical methods describe – missing, in fact, the ontoformativity of practice. We need empirical methods that allow the creative surge through time to emerge. I have particularly used life-history interviews, combined with organizational ethnography, survey research and policy analysis in different studies. There are other ways to do it, of course.

In this approach, the purpose of research is to illuminate situations, i.e. moments within the historical process that we call social reality. What social science produces, when working at full stretch, might be called social diagnoses – accounts of the dynamics of well understood situations.

This approach is relevant to studying theory itself. In the conceptual chapters towards the end of the book, I look at social theories as creative responses to historical situations, whether by individual theorists or intellectual movements. This is the core of the argument against the Northern monopoly in theory – a monopoly that installs a privileged set of diagnoses as paradigms for the whole world.

This would hardly matter, if social science were just a remote contemplation of human affairs. I don’t think we can afford this. Good social science, to me, means social science engaged with the world it studies.

There are researchers who believe that to be scientific one must be neutral, because politics means bias. Science does need objectivity, but objectivity does not come from neutrality. Here I follow Max Deutscher’s sharp criticism of the belief that objectivity means detachment. Objectivity, as the attitude that leads to accurate, adequate knowledge of people and things, actually requires engagement with people and things.

‘Democracy’ is a word so contaminated by apologists for the rich and powerful that I hesitate to use it. But the principle remains and there is no better name – a world ruled by all the people who live in it, not by a privileged minority.

No one who remembers the racism of colonialist anthropology or sociology’s surveillance of the poor, or who looks at economics now, would assume social science necessarily works for democracy. But social science can. Research can map the dynamics of the HIV epidemic for communities struggling to control it. Research can document power structures and the machinery of privilege. Social science has some capacity to multiply the voices heard in public arenas. And social theory has a capacity to bring imagination into dialogue with current reality. Doing social theory always means recognizing that things could be otherwise; that – to borrow a phrase again – another world is possible.

For some years sociologists have been debating Michael Burawoy’s idea of ‘public sociology’. In that debate, public sociology figures as a choice for the social scientists. I would put the emphasis the other way around: social science is a necessity for the public. In a world where massive social institutions and social structures shape the fate of huge populations, a participatory democracy needs powerful and accurate knowledge about society. Only with this knowledge can collective decisions be made that steer our societies on the dangerous ground of the future.

I am not suggesting that social science can be a political movement. It is a type of intellectual work, nothing more. But nothing less. It is work which produces a kind of knowledge that has become vital. Clarity and depth of understanding on social issues matter more than ever. I hope some will be found in my new book, Confronting Equality.

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