'Social Sciences Matter'

Editor discusses new volume on the importance of key disciplines to solving key societal problems.

February 17, 2015

Many social scientists believe that their disciplines have never been more important to society -- and yet they feel that they struggle for support from governments and other funding entities. The essays in Why the Social Sciences Matter (Palgrave Macmillan) cover topics such as parenting, climate change, poverty, the Arab Spring and more. The editors of the volume sought a wide cross section to answer the question posed by the title. The editors are Jonathan Michie, professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at the University of Oxford, and Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University. Michie responded via e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: How did you select the authors for the chapters? Was there a particular diversity within disciplines that you wanted to reflect?

A: We sought to identify those we knew were currently researching the topics -- in some cases these were the acknowledged leaders in the field, but in other cases we were aware that there were current research projects actively underway, so we invited those researchers. So whilst being actively involved in researching the various themes, we were also minded of who had successful track records in communicating the results of their research to wider audiences beyond their own academic communities -- i.e., to practitioners and policy makers, and also to academics from other academic communities, whether in other social-science disciplines or further afield.

Regarding the diversity of disciplines, our starting point was to identify the major issues facing society, and to work from there -- especially since a key message of the book is precisely that to understand fully such issues (which is vital for developing appropriately evidence-based policy) requires researchers from a variety of disciplines to collaborate in researching the issues.

Q: Are there common themes you see in the various essays?

A: Firstly, the need to be open to working with and learning from other disciplines (across the social sciences and beyond). Second, that to do so successfully requires researchers to have an open mind about their own disciplines, and be prepared to question and develop those disciplines. And thirdly, that developing successful policy requires the creation of an appropriate evidence base, and ensuring that this evidence is communicated effectively to opinion formers, practitioners, policy makers and the general public.

Q: In the United States and in the U.K. today, many politicians praise the physical and biological sciences, seeing them as crucial. But they question the value of the social sciences (or some of them). Why are the social sciences devalued?

A: In part it is more "obvious" that to understand, say, climate change, one has to utilize the "hard" sciences to analyze changes in the atmosphere and so forth, and it is not so immediately obvious that we need to change people’s behaviors, including decision makers by managers and others, and to do this requires social science. It may also be that Germany and other successful economies have had a reputation for being strong in engineering and the sciences, and the same is true of emerging economies such as China, so there is the fear that without strong science we will lose out in the global economic competition, and again it is not so immediately obvious that it is insufficient to make the scientific breakthroughs -- one also has to ensure that domestic companies can bring them to market and fully utilize them, which again requires social science. So the answer is to have an understanding of the need for disciplines to work together -- but that is perhaps not such an obvious headline for politicians.

Q: Should social scientists change the way they talk about their work, in hope of building more public support?

A: Yes, social scientists do need to ensure that they communicate their work in appropriate ways to the various audiences. But also, they do need to approach that work in a genuinely open-minded way, seeking to learn from other disciplines. That way, there could be a unified message coming from the academic community to the public.

Q: How would you briefly answer the question posed by your book title?

A: Firstly, it is vital to understand how society functions -- how consumers behave, how laws are formulated and operate, how managers form and implement decisions, and so on. But also, even the more "scientific" issues facing us do require social-scientific work alongside the "hard" sciences, otherwise hugely costly mistakes can be made by politicians and others. So social science matters to ensure we get the best evidence-based policy across the whole spectrum of issues facing humanity.


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