Social sciences ‘will become more unified over next 10 years’

16 July 2014

Patrick Dunleavy

The social sciences will become more unified in their methods and conclusions under the influence of big data, software developments and innovation from STEM subjects, Professor Patrick Dunleavy told the Academy of Social Sciences annual lecture.

“A lot of new methods are coming in from the STEM sciences [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] that are having a great impact on the social sciences,” he said. “I think we’ll move away from social science-specific work to much more maths and physics-based quantitative work in the next 10 years. Software engineering and IT will become much more important, and stats software for small datasets and reliance reactive surveys will decline.

“We are going to need a lot more systematic reviews [of evidence]. This approach is beginning to spread in from health studies to social policy more generally, and it will have very good effects. We are going to have great new ways of handling text, qualitative evidence and organisational analysis.

“That’s a very big of concatenation of positive developments all happening at the same time and all tending to push towards a pooling of methods and evidence criteria with the STEM disciplines.”

Speaking to an audience of 70 Academy Fellows in London, Professor Dunleavy FAcSS, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the LSE, said that the next decade would see three big changes in the social sciences. A video of this

“Firstly we will move towards moderate consensus and rapid empirical advances in the social sciences disciplines. I think we have already moved to that extensively. We will have fewer methodology wars –fewer debates where everybody says ‘This whole stream of analysis is utterly without value and should be repudiated’ – the sort of ‘pulling up the roots that kills the plant’ debate.

“I think we are going to enter into much more applied work, accomplished much faster work that is much more timely and more cumulative.

“I think academic blogging and related social media are already playing an absolutely critical role in that. Sad to say, we still have to fight this battle over and over again with benighted university administrators who don’t recognise that digital modes of scholarship have already moved everything.”

Although he didn’t agreed that the days of social theorists were over, “I think there will be a push away from prestige and kudos inside the social sciences sitting with big thinkers and big picture-drawers towards people doing more applied empirical work.

“Ten years from now the social sciences will be much more internally unified. It is staggering the extent to which the social sciences at the moment are still run by different single disciplines in terrifically siloed and short-sighted ways, isolated from one another.

“If we are going to connect more effectively with the STEM sciences – which I’m very hopeful about – it’s got to be at a discipline-group level. It’s got to be a broad-front advance, which I believe is very viable and plausible.”

He gave an example of how STEM subjects could influence social science approaches fundamentally. A blog piece and working paper by economists using their conventional post hoc regression analysis suggested that market reforms had improved the UK health service.

But after publication, “the skies fell in on them from researchers in medicine and health studies, who said ‘This is poor, shoddy work because you haven’t done a randomised control trial. You haven’t established beforehand that the factors that you said were key were enough to produce the effects claimed’.

“That’s interesting because the economists had been for 30, 40 years operating in their world and a lot of this ‘small N, post hoc stuff’ was perfectly good enough for them. Actually the methods standards of economics are not all that great – there’s a lot of ‘We have only got a small N dataset, but let’s compensate by funking it up with a lots of hi-tech maths’. But this approach is no longer at all convincing, by emerging social science big data standards.

“Big data has changed the whole picture, not just for economics but for large areas of  political science and cognate disciplines. People who were at the forefront of their discipline five years ago are not necessarily at the forefront now. They are often a protesting rearguard, hanging on to methods from 20 years ago.”

Professor Dunleavy said that the most interesting and innovative research was necessarily being carried out on disciplinary borders, whether in cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary ways.

“Single discipline work is still a foundation, and a very important foundation, but it is not the be all and end all of academic research any more. The world especially outside universities has moved on from single discipline work.” Social scientists were being brought into research teams by IT companies and government, where a huge amount of work was being carried out in what many commentators now call trans-disciplinary teams, he said.

• Professor Dunleavy sits on the Board of the Campaign for Social Science, which was set up by the Academy.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.