Pathways to social science for public benefit

26 April 2016

We must create “pathways to social science” for students from secondary all the way to postgraduate education, Sharon Witherspoon, Acting Head of Policy for the Academy and Campaign, said at an event on Friday, 22 April in Cambridge.

Witherspoon was speaking at the OCR Sociology and Psychology Consultative Forum, co-sponsored by the Campaign, bringing together representatives from schools, colleges, subject associations and universities to discuss shared areas of interest across both fields.

Students face tough choices in an “increasingly complicated and pressured world.” Noting that employment isn’t the only measure, Witherspoon said it was important to “lay to rest the myth that if you do social science it means you won’t get a good job.”

She pointed to data showing that three and a half years after graduation, employment rates are higher for social science graduates than those from STEM subjects.

“Social scientists don’t just go on to be academics or teachers or to take up roles in government”, she said. “They go on to pursue careers in business, or as clinical psychologists, market researchers, town planners, and other fields partly because of what they’ve learned in social science content, and partly because of what they’ve learned in skills. Social science gives you a broad skills base.”

This includes interpretative and analytical skills, helping understand information and assessing arguments and evidence. Witherspoon said, however, that more could be done on the latter. “Assessing evidence and using numbers is what we do. To analyse evidence at a basic level requires some numerical and data skills. While this is not the only valid form of social science, it’s probably the bit that as discipline-based social scientists we do least well.”

“We need to have stronger maths skills. That doesn’t mean we all have to be maths experts, but we do need certain basic skills to be able to interpret data, helping students overcome maths anxiety.”

While the diversity of methodologies across the social sciences is a valuable asset, Witherspoon recognised the need to understand the challenges this raises when educating young people. The range of skills acquired from a strong social science education fits into an environment that has been stressing interdisciplinary links more and more.

“We are increasingly seeing big issues that are important intellectually and practically being tackled by disciplines working together”, she said. Social scientists are making critical contributions to fields as diverse as health, climate change and law because they are able to understand both the individual and larger social aspects of these issues, such as how to build communities and what sorts of social structural changes need to take place in order to bring about positive societal improvements.

The event was part of the Campaign’s work to support social science teaching in schools, and part of its remit to promote the social sciences within society more generally.

Download the sociology and psychology event posters.