‘Glass half-full’ for social science, Campaign Annual Lecture hears

October 9, 2014

Craig Calhoun lecture2

Watch a video of the lecture | Read a transcript of the main address | Hear audio of all the speakers
Watch a video interview with Professor Craig Calhoun

LSE Director Craig Calhoun told the Campaign for Social Science’s 2014 Annual Lecture that the ‘glass is half-full’ for social science in the UK, as it had great influence on our society but also faced important challenges.

In a wide-ranging speech Professor Calhoun urged academics to work in a more inter-disciplinary way to tackle important societal issues and disseminate their work in the news media and on social media. He also said that there was a danger that areas of social science, such as economics and psychology, did not think of themselves as part of social science as strongly as other areas.

Professor Calhoun said that teaching was the biggest path to influence for social scientists. Because so many students taking social science went on to work in business, for government and in many other areas of society, the work of those educating them was highly important.

“In all the discussion of influence we have we talk about the impact of research,” he told the audience at the lecture in London on 8 October. “This is hugely important – we need the funding and to renew and advance knowledge. But teaching is the biggest pathway to influence – almost all social scientists will have more impact through their students’ future work and their students’ lives as citizens than they will have as researchers and we should keep that in our minds.

“Teaching is changing and we should pay attention – we need to improve and rethink our teaching and put social science knowledge into how teaching is changing as it’s an area in which to aim for excellence just as much as research – it’s extraordinarily important.”

He spoke about the way social science had an influence. “Social science has a public influence through several different channels in several different ways. In particular its influence is felt as much in the way it contributes to broad patterns of public understanding and knowledge as in specific policy formulations. Its influence is felt in changing the terms and quality of debates as well as in fixed and definite instructions to policy makers and others.

“Social science informs us about nearly every aspect of social life and how they relate to each other – it is not just in those issues that government officials have chosen to make the immediate focus of state policy that knowledge proves useful.

“Indeed one of the issues we sometimes face in demonstrating the usefulness of social science is that its influence is pervasive enough that it shapes entire conversations and is seldom is confined to simply immediate contributions to the policy debate. It informs management in many different kinds of organisations, for instance.

“Although social science has a great deal of influence social scientists are not always very good at understanding their own influence or making sure it is as great as it should be. Take the media – we study the media but still we don’t learn to write clearly or to give journalists information in forms and on schedules that they can use. So there is a bit of a task before us, as well as before government officials and before others, in making use of social science knowledge.

“Media are crucial to the public influences of social science but it’s up to us to make them work better. The media are changing – the old legacy media aren’t the whole story. Blogging matters more and more and other kind of new media and working with media is matter of mastering schedules and rhythms – when to release a study and contact journalists.”

Professor Calhoun spoke about the need for inter-disciplinary approaches. “We are much, much better at distinguishing ourselves into groups based on these disciplinary, methodological and theoretical differences than we need to be, and not nearly adept enough at finding common ground and articulating public messages on a shared basis. We speak always of ‘the social sciences’ and quickly shift into speaking of our own discipline and within our own discipline – we continually undercut the message by not unifying it.

“Citations across disciplinary boundaries – of anthropologists by sociologists for example – are down in all major journals of all the fields. It’s true across the board that we are disunited and we weaken ourselves by being disunited in this way – we weaken ourselves intellectually, not just in the sense of a PR campaign to get attention, but in terms of our very work.”

He said that some strong links had been built, for example between psychology and economics, where work had been undertaken to bring the disciplines together. However, the effect of the growth of business schools had been to concentrate work within them and not between scholars of different disciplines.

“The social sciences have been reconfigured by the secession of economics to stand by itself and psychology joining the natural and life sciences. Economics has growth dramatically in size and stands alone more often. It has developed its own complex internal structure with relatively less connection with other disciplines.”  Psychology had been transformed by rise of methods such as brain scans which brought researchers closer to colleagues in the natural sciences.

“This is not right or wrong but is a challenge to social science and the impact of social science if key fields are reorganised and begin to think of themselves less clearly as social science. This sort of thing is an impediment to some of the work we to have a public influence. I think that the unity of social science is in question as well as its influence, its thriving and its funding, and we would do well to work on this.”

He spoke about the need for timely information to be given to policy-makers. “Most impact comes from work that is already available and is mobilised in a timely fashion – most of the impact can’t be from work that is done after policy-makers decide that they need to know about something. I hear it all the time [from academics]: “we can find out the answer for you if you give us a grant” rather than “yes, we can tell you what’s known in our community now.”

There was a potential for academics to influence the policy debate – in the UK the Department for International Development was much more likely to consult academics than the US Agency for International Development was to consult American researchers, for instance. “The structure and the experience for academics collaborating with government are just much better here than in the US,” he said.

However, both in the UK and US there was “a turn against scholarship – a turn against more theoretical knowledge more underlying scholarship I don’t just mean blue skies research. Remember part of the message has been it’s our ability to translate the general knowledge of our fields into effective policy that is so needed.”

Despite this, “the pervasive influence of social science is huge and even in policy it’s at lots of different levels – think of all the impact assessments that are being done. It’s ubiquitous – the number of people trained in social science who are not working as social scientists but as senior civil servants or as business people is very large – the influence is pervasive.” Apple, Microsoft and Google each employed thousands of social scientists.

He told the audience that social scientists should “be upbeat – I think the glass is either half full or half empty, but my advice is to see it as half full every time you set out to have an influence.”

• This was the second lecture in the annual series – last year’s was given by David Willetts, the then Universities and Science Minister.

social science campaign annual lecture collage 2014

campaign annual lecture collage 2014