How we can help build the case, by David Walker

18 April 2011

David Walker

Here David Walker, the Campaign’s Advisor, writes about building a case for social science:

‘Society, socialism sociology…Public money could not be spent to support such error.’ That was view of the Tory minister Sir Keith Joseph in the early 1980s, as paraphrased by Michael Posner, the then chairman of the Social Science Research Council – which Joseph tried to axe. He did not succeed, but convinced most bystanders Conservatism, at least of the kind practised by the Thatcher government, viewed social research as unnecessary and possibly dangerous.

Whatever arguments are to be had about funding or higher education, you could not fairly lay the ‘uninterested’ charge at ministers today. Conservatism, as practised by the Cameron government, is deeply interested in society and social dynamics. The ‘Big Society’ is a sociological vision, however unformed or empirically underpowered.

Iain Duncan Smith, the social security secretary, shares characteristics with Keith Joseph – a predecessor in the job – but appears to be engaged with the shaping of households and the causes of poverty. Other ministers talk about social mobility, inter-generational justice and similarly rich themes – they are both theoretically complex and demand empirical investigation.

The trick, then, is to align interest in society (there is such a thing, despite the continuing strength of individualism in Tory thought) with the case for adequate, even extended funding for social science research.

Here is a programme for the Campaign: to connect the government’s interest in social dynamics with the social science base, which has to include well-founded departments, a continuing flow of postgraduate students and disinterested allocation of research funding on criteria of excellence.

It’s not about embracing the Big Society but, rather, encouraging the apparent interest of government ministers in attitudes, behaviour, equality – in the sociological detail that’s necessary for understanding participation and civic engagement.

Then follow practical responses to what government actually does, which unfortunately includes axing the Citizenship Survey that was providing such useful empirical material on people’s willingness to get involved with voluntary organisations.

If David Willetts, the higher education minister, sees that longitudinal studies are vital in charting behaviour over time, we also need to persuade his colleagues to maintain research capacity and support such resources as Understanding Society.

The Cameron government has inherited the rhetorical commitment to collecting evidence for policy entered into by the Blair and Brown administrations and that too gives us a leading edge in making the case for keeping up social science capacity. No one is going to be naïve about the time horizons of ministers or, often, the inconvenience of evidence but their acceptance in principle that the sustainability let alone the quality of public policy does depend on maximum deployment of evidence gives us a campaigning tool.

It’s probably true that the Cameron government has no uniform view of social sciences, which will be affected obviously by the changes to university finance, especially the future affordability of postgraduate study. But ministers’ interest in ‘society’ deserves recognition – and our support and encouragement.

David Walker, Campaign Advisor