21 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Why the social sciences matter

Despite various claims over the years about the ‘end of history’, and that ‘there is no such thing as society’, it seems patently clear that society faces problems and challenges as great as ever – whether it’s climate change, increasing inequality or conflict and civil war.

To tackle such issues we first need to understand them, and that requires both data and analysis. Different subject areas have their part to play, from physics to geography and from psychology to international relations. This has led to a welcome recognition that multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary working is vital.

This includes working across, for example, the social sciences – with economists, sociologists, political scientists and others needing to collaborate; it also requires working across the social and natural sciences, most obviously in the area of climate change, so as to understand how to alter corporate and human behaviour to ensure the world changes course in time.

What the social sciences can contribute to our understanding of these and other issues and how they can inform evidence-based policy making is analysed and discussed in a new book produced by the UK Academy of Social Sciences, Why the Social Sciences Matter. Key experts from across the disciplines were invited to analyse and explain, discuss and deliberate.

A common theme is a self-critical one of needing to ensure that we all learn from other disciplines. This is not just the way to ensure the fullest possible understanding of the issues at hand, it is also the surest way of ensuring that our own disciplines develop and grow in their own explanatory capacity and capability.

What becomes clear when approaching each of the major challenges is the considerable complexity of each topic, and the need for this to be grasped intellectually, before one can undertake successfully the methodical research required, and to then analyse and present the results of original enquiry even-handedly. All this confirms the importance of and benefits of pursuing evidence-based policy.

Why the Social Sciences Matter originates in the UK – enjoying the active support of the Academy of Social Sciences. But it is not exclusively UK-focused.

Partly this recognises that problems of the sort referred to above are not exclusive to the UK; partly too because the contemporary world and its concerns are heavily interconnected. Also, most importantly, scholarship transcends national borders. The various contributors have looked beyond the shores of the British Isles, not just to compare and contrast but also to analyse transnational consequences and cross-border effects and implications.

Key issues

For example, analysing health and wellbeing, professors James Quick and Cary Cooper from Lancaster University Management School in the UK and Dr Robert Gatchel from the University of Texas at Arlington in the US draw on the practice of preventive health management on established learning principles, on behavioural and social sciences and on emerging positive practices.

They provide a discussion of the major preventable health risks that can undermine health and wellbeing. By building on strengths, guarding against risks and compensating for vulnerabilities, health and wellbeing can be enhanced.

The authors show how established learning principles offer powerful and positive ways to advance health and wellbeing through the behavioural and social sciences. The environmental context within which learning occurs is shown to be crucial – especially the work environment.

On climate change, John Urry, professor of sociology at Lancaster University in the UK, demonstrates just why society is so important to analysing the nature of climate change. And because society is important the social sciences need to be brought directly into examining the causes of change – and the likely ways in which climate change might be mitigated.

This is not just a question of changing what individuals do, but of changing whole systems of economic, technological and social practice, which presuppose patterns of social life that come to be embedded and are relatively unchanging for long periods.

Thus, high carbon systems have got into social life – and breaking these lock-ins is particularly challenging. It is the need to understand such systems that make the social sciences key to future analysis and policy development.

On the economy, many of the major economic issues such as the global financial crises of the past few years are linked inseparably to other areas of social science research, such as inequality of income and wealth and the effects of this on society.

Indeed, many of the ‘classic’ texts analysing the economy – from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, to Karl Marx’s Capital and John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory – touch on a range of issues beyond the narrowly economic.

One such discussion today relates to whether measures of economic growth or progress need to take account of broader aspects than previously, such as welfare or sustainability.

And in terms of environmental sustainability, the importance of complexity is central – the economy cannot be understood adequately through ‘marginal’ analysis: instead, systems theory and interdisciplinary approaches are vital. Setting prices alone – such as through carbon trading – isn’t enough.

We need to understand how consumers behave and what will change that behaviour; we also need to know how corporate decisions are made, and the role of managerial decision-making within that, and the range of influences that can be brought to bear, including legal, regulatory and social.

We face major issues today that require collaborative and interdisciplinary research and evidence-based policy.

Jonathan Michie is Professor of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange, University of Oxford, UK. Why the Social Sciences Matter is edited by Jonathan Michie and Cary Cooper and published by Palgrave.
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