Social sciences and social imagination
12 May 2020
By Professor Geoff Mulgan CBE (Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation, UCL)
Crises – whether wars or pandemics – can sometimes, though not always, fuel social imagination. New arrangements have to be created at breakneck speed and old norms have to be discarded. The deeper the crisis the more likely it is that people ask not for a return to normal but for a jump to something different and better.
So it is now. Across the world countries are beginning to think about how life after COVID-19 might be different: could we use the crisis to solve the problems of carbon, low status for care-workers, or welfare states ill-suited to new forms of precariousness? As this debate gathers speed, it’s opening up questions about the role of the social sciences. They’re playing a vital role in helping countries to manage the crisis, and to plan for recovery. But how much are they there to understand the past and present – and how much should they help us to shape the future?
A century ago the answers were perhaps more obvious than today. HG Wells early in the last century described sociology as ‘the description of the Ideal Society and its relation to existing societies’. The founders of UCL in the mid-19th century and of LSE at the end of the 19th century, saw them as vehicles to change the world not just to interpret it. It was taken for granted that social science should help map out possible futures – new rights, new forms of social policy, new ways of running economies.
Unfortunately, these traditions have largely atrophied. Within academia you are far more likely to make a successful career analysing past patterns, or critiquing the present, than offering designs for the future. That is partly the result of very healthy trends – in particular, more attention being paid to evidence and data. But it’s left a gap since, by definition, there isn’t any hard evidence about a future that hasn’t yet happened. There are a few small pockets of more speculative, future-oriented work in universities. But they’re seen as quite marginal, and a fair proportion of this work is inward looking – feeding into academic journals and very small audiences – rather than feeding into political programmes and public imagination as happened in the past. Meanwhile one of the less attractive legacies of several decades of post-structuralism and post-modernism is that many academics believe they have much more of a duty to critique than to propose or create.
Outside the academy the traditions of social imagination have also atrophied. Political parties have largely closed down the research departments that once helped them think. Thinktanks have become ever more locked into news cycles rather than long range thinking.
In the late 20th century the progressive movements of the left lost confidence in a forward march of history, and the green movements that have partly replaced them have proven more effective at persuading people of the likelihood of future ecological disaster than promoting positive alternatives (though the green visions of future arrangements for food, circular economies are a partial exception to the picture I’m describing here). As a result much of the role of future imagination has been left to fiction.
One symptom is that many fewer people today can articulate a plausible and desirable better society than was the case 50 or 100 years ago. Majorities in countries like the UK now expect their children to be worse off than they are.
Business does rather better and invests heavily in thinking through the possible future of smart homes, smart cities or health. As a result there’s no shortage of ideas about technological futures – from AI to genomics. But their proponents are usually unaware of all that’s been learned about how societies shape technologies as much as vice versa, and the social equivalents of technological imagination are hardly visible at all.
Lenin is often (mis) quoted as having said that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. This may be one of those times. Academics and civil servants (I have been both) become adept at giving detailed reasons why change in general and new ideas in particular are impossible. Much of the time their worldly realism is right. But at moments like this they can become dramatically wrong, unable to see the plasticity of the world.
This is why I believe that part of the job of social science is to protect us from seeing social arrangements as more natural and immutable than they are. Part of their role should be to help us understand just how socially constructed our world really is. As the philosopher John Searle put it, ‘there’s an element of imagination in the existence of private property, marriage and government because in each case we have to treat something as something that it is not intrinsically’.
In a similar spirit the social sciences can also critique the dominant frames through which our societies think about things like artificial intelligence – as is done by the school of ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ associated with Sheila Jasanoff.
But their even more important role may be to help us to imagine more coherently and rigorously. That means helping with the design of future welfare systems, family law or forms of democracy and then interrogating their plausibility. What might a zero carbon economy and society feel like and look like? How could platform ideas be adapted to new fields including mutual care? How would we govern and cope with a world of ubiquitous AI? How could we reimagine property rights to handle new kinds of commons? Is UBI the right answer or just the right question? Will happiness and mental health become as important as physical health and what might that imply?
There are many methods to help with this work. They include thought experiments and models; scenarios and backcasting; speculative design and worldbuilding. And increasingly we hope for the results of this work to lead to practical experiments rather than overly grandiose blueprints, so that society can feel and learn its way to the future.
In some parts of the world there are also institutions to help. Finland’s parliament has a Committee of the Future, first set up in 1992, as well as a national foundation for the future (SITRA). Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Foresight has for the last ten years provided a space for imagination close to the core of a government, a role played in the UAE by the government-supported Future Foundation. Here too there have been some attempts to better orchestrate imaginative future thinking. Britain had the Sustainable Development Commission, at least until a decade ago, and Wales in 2015 passed a ‘future generations act’ that created a new post for a future generations commissioner.
Overall, however, UK-level politics has rather lost this sense of possibility. Past leaders like Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher were confident in trying to articulate the direction of travel of our society. But more recent ones have been more concerned with just surviving, or coping with Brexit.
Some may even feel that these exercises are somehow at odds with British culture which we take to be only empirical and pragmatic. Yet the truth is that no country did more than Britain to promote social imagination in the past, whether in the form of comprehensive utopias (from Thomas More to William Morris), social reform (Robert Owen to William Beveridge), radically generative ideas (Mary Wollstonecraft to Beatrice Webb) or the use of science fiction to explore the future (HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke). And we also have a great tradition of eminent social scientists being unafraid to think far into the future, from Keynes to Peter Hall.
The crisis has forced actions that were scarcely imaginable six months ago. Could we use the crisis to rethink systems that are no longer fit for purpose, and discard of zombie orthodoxies that have outlived their usefulness? And could we rekindle a forward-looking social science that combines rigour and imagination? I hope we can.
Geoff Mulgan CBE is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London (UCL). He was Chief Executive of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation between 2011 and the end of 2019. Between 1997 and 2004 Geoff had roles in the UK government including director of the Government’s Strategy Unit and head of policy in the Prime Minister’s office. From 2004 to 2011 he was the first Chief Executive of The Young Foundation. He was the first director of the think-tank Demos; and has been a reporter on BBC TV and radio.
The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.
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This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its Covid-19 programme https://campaignforsocialscience.org.uk/hub-of-hubs-social-sciences-responding-to-covid-19/.