Social Science – a few more reasons why we need it

18 July 2011

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Professor Audrey Osler has written ten reasons why we need social science for the Campaign’s website – see previous entries. Here she adds six more:

1. Democracy and devolution. Audrey Osler’s tenth reason is to do with the capacity of social science to assist in guaranteeing democracy by helping us to hold politicians to account. In Scotland, the societal campaign for devolution was rooted in the idea of a more inclusive and participatory political system in which politicians were more responsive in their policy‐making at a level that meant something to people. Elements of this so‐called ‘new politics’ filtered into the devolution projects in Wales and Northern Ireland. A very large group of researchers from a great number of universities across the UK have been examining the extent to which these hopes have or have not been borne out – and, if they have not, what the reasons are for this. Moreover, insights into these processes have been gained through comparative work on other countries with similar constitutional situations or conflicts. Learning has been a ‘two‐way’ process and, therefore, represents another example of Audrey Osler’s eighth reason for our need of social science (‘chang[ing] the world for the better’ for ‘humanity at large’). To this can be added research in and on Northern Ireland in respect of ‘dealing with the past’, policing, transitional justice, restorative justice, human rights and equality (which arise from item 3 below).

2. Devolution and identities. Over the last decades, questions of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Englishness’ have been much on the agenda – partly because immigration (Norman Tebbit’s cricket test once and, now, new rules about naturalization and citizenship) and partly because of devolution (and fears about the ‘break‐up of Britain’). The surveys of attitudes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, noted at item 5 below, together with more in‐depth research, show us that identities, and what those identities mean, cannot easily be distilled into a fixed and enduring phenomenon. How people identify themselves is fluid and related to political and social contexts. Interestingly, perhaps, indigenous Scots and immigrants or settled minorities in Scotland tend to share a view of ‘Britishness’ that is at odds with that of the previous, Scottish Prime Minister and some Asian contributors to his effort to encapsulate its meaning. That is, both tend to see it as being a legal label and the corresponding passport.

3. Conflict and conflict resolution. Though many in Great Britain think of Northern Ireland as ‘a place apart’, there is no cordon sanitaire around its ‘troubles’. One senior policy‐maker noted in 1982 ‘the sad fact’ that ‘the only place in the world where British soldiers’ lives were [then] being lost in anger was in the United Kingdom’. Historical, anthropological, sociological, social‐psychological, legal and political analysts in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain have brought their different perspectives to the examination of the roots of inter‐group conflict and potential methods of ameliorating it. Many of them assisted in the long process that led to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement in 1998. And many continued to do so in the implementation of key provisions, in and related to the Agreement, on equality. These measures are similar to some of that have subsequently been introduced to Great Britain (for example, new race, disability and gender equality duties in Scotland (2002) as in England (2006) and Wales (2007). There is, therefore, a body of research on what works and what does not which, while born out of a specific context, could help to improve both understandings and actual lives elsewhere. Policy‐learning across different levels of government is at the heart of the Scottish Policy Innovation Forum, one of several networks in Scotland that bring together analysts and practitioners.

4. Education as a means of increasing inter‐group understanding. Audrey Osler’s seventh reason for the necessity of social science is that ‘all societies and all governments want to show they are doing the best for children’. While her examples are about attainment and self‐development, much interest in Great Britain has focused on the competing claims for the benefits or disadvantages of ‘faith schools’. Researchers and broadcasters have looked to claims and counter‐claims in Northern Ireland about the effects on inter‐group relations of ‘integrated schools’ versus parallel provision through the state and ‘maintained’ (Catholic) sectors. New research in Northern Ireland tackles another dimension. Researchers in education at Queen’s University Belfast have been comparing previous public policies aimed at ‘mutual understanding’ with a new approach, funded by philanthropic organizations, which brings schools from the two different sectors into collaboration over specific subjects. Critically applying the well‐known ‘contact theory’, they find that this new programme is working where others have failed. It succeeds both in increasing friendships and understanding ‘across the divide’ and has intrinsic educational benefits.

5. Social surveys. Surveys of social attitudes that are specific to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are able to identify issues and attitudes in those areas of the UK more deeply than is possible in the British Social Attitudes Survey. In revealing differences, as well as commonalities, across the UK in respect of social and political attitudes (see item 2 above) and, for example, equality in general, gender relations and the situations of various minorities, these surveys can help to hone public policy. Indeed, the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey inspired the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party to declare his intention for it to become a ‘cross‐community’ party.

6. Social science and the creative industries and digital media. These are a growing sector of economies and depend as much on arts and social science graduates as they do on engineers and computer scientists. This was a point made with some force by the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in response to a public investigation in Ireland into the societal role of the humanities and social sciences.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another EU state – Ireland. Many initiatives intended to illuminate the implications of the separation of Ireland and Great Britain and the partition of the island of Ireland involve research collaborations between universities in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Irish funding and scholarly institutions have also made extensive cases (before and during the current financial crisis) that humanities and social science disciplines represent ‘social innovation’, are the central means of understanding ourselves and provide insights into ethical questions about ‘what we should, ought, or must do’.

Article on ten reasons why social science is important.