Ingredients for 21st Century Social Science

Listicle of 6ways to ‘Make Social Science Great Again’

My local Goods Shed in Canterbury brings together quality ingredients that fed and nourished our workshopping social scientists. Image Credit: The Frustrated Gardener

Wondering how to make sense of your social science research outside of the so called academic ‘bubble’? I addressed the problems surrounding this type of question through this blog which introduced the workshop ‘Make Social Science Great Again’ and what I learnt from co-organizing it.

I concluded that I have reason to believe that the old regime of social science is transforming. I have high expectations that social science can come to address 7+ billion people. Towards this aim I am sharing a few ingredients I have come across. Ingredients I believe can be used to cook up a social science to feed a growing world toward a better society. Here is a listicle of these loaves and fishes that I have observed changing hands:

(1) Find Jesus and be their John

Each of us must find our own way to politically engage or place our work in the world. It is our responsibility but we can help each other and help institutions more amiable to such a consideration. In the meantime focus on your specific way. As Keith Hart noted, he has decided to take the metaphorical role of John the Baptist in his relationship to Jesus. As Keith noted, his reaction to being at the intersection between studying social science and world politics was not to play the role of politician or political leader, as he sees the character of Jesus. But instead to be an instigator of a creed that informs such a political leader. This arguably being John the Baptist’s relationship to Jesus. So go ye social science academic and learn about the world and listen and bring back what ye have learnt, that ye may inform and inspire yours and others political action.

(2) Be a Scholar not an Information Conduit

As I was reminded by fellow social science scholar Luke Shovellor, we must not forget or denigrate teaching in academia. With both the current historical oddity of the University being research focused and the development of the corporate idea of research impact, the primacy of the relationship between research and teaching seems to have been forgotten. In the sense that a scholar conducts research or studies a subject so as to inform their teaching. They then teach students, the most concrete audience and tangible impact a university scholar has.

Whereas in many cases other types of ‘impact’ are simply bureaucratic performance, that rarely have any real impact anyway. This deteriorating relationship, between research and teaching, means that curriculum at Universities are based less and less on a teacher’s own studiousness or research. Instead they have become more of a generic genealogy of ideas artificially pulped together for students to learn, and those able to recant their disciplines genealogy, are then inducted into it.

This is part of what I call ‘School Creep’, where the fundamental problems of schooling and its different priorities have crept into Universities. In part assisted by the performative student feedback used to justify this creep. A result is the production of information conduits instead of scholarly students and teachers.

Instead see teaching as a great opportunity to share research and explore social science further. Those who can, do teach.

(3) Make Social Science a Vocation

Immigration reform will starve NHS of healthcare workers. University of Sheffield

A nursing student, Jennifer Jackson, who attended the workshop noted to me something along the lines of “nursing is vocational and has a concrete task. However the study, research and understanding that inform it are not really questioned and considered very much, and therefore what wider political project it is a part of is not really evaluated. That is why I am here.” High five to such a consideration!

One key implication of defining social science as something that can feed a growing world toward a better society, is to embrace it as a vocation. Not vocational in a strictly positivist sense though, where a nurse’s vocation is understood as some form of service sector job, delivering nursing to customers. Where the medication and procedures are often simply things they administer, and the political-economy of the medical institution something above their station — unless of course they are allowed to join the corporate managerial class on rare occasions.

Instead where both nurses and social scientists see that they do not need to limit themselves to being the holders of a specific fairly static knowledge that they deliver or discover as a service. A situation in which one has to give up asking and deciding where nursing or social science fits in the wider political world.

Nursing and its interdisciplinary social scientific partners in healthcare are an example of a transformation of this situation. One where their study and practice are being connected with ‘big P’ Politics. Attempts to democratize these Politics should be welcomed. A recent example is in the form of the 2017 ‘summer of protest’ by nursing and midwifery students in the UK. This is a manifestation of student nurses reclaiming the right to decide what nursing will look like, as an informal part of their research and education into being a nurse.

Whilst from another angle I only have to look to my Mum to see established social and health workers researching and educating themselves. Educating themselves through democratizing the very knowledge they were told to selfishly value as their personal intellectual property, in the form of their qualifications.

Instead here are a few of these democratizing approaches being born: (i) empowerment of patients into participating in the process of their own healthcare (ii) the movement from a ‘pill’ approach to a complex model of understanding healthcare and (iii) healthcare workers redesigning the very organizational structures they have previously been subjects of.

On the one hand this is what a transforming social science can look like when it doesn't limit itself to institutionally designated empirically niche productions. Whilst on the other hand it does not have to cut itself off from the creation and adaptation of the very social and political architecture within which its socio-scientific work takes place.

Taking control of these two hands, whilst dedicating oneself to not chopping them off as an act of postmodernist desperation, is a truly vocational step. A step where one can claim to be studying and working on a better world society as connected through you, your research and wider politics. If you’re not convinced here is Keith Hart arguing for this from another angle: ‘Studying World Society as Vocation’.

(4) Water People’s Ethical Desires

This book watered my ethical desires

From observation it seems politically engaged social scientists tend to end up analytically comprehending movements of resistance and different ways of life. Like an archaeologist they critically unpack life and history, deconstructing and critiquing its hegemonies, whilst fleshing out its diverse and diffuse marginalities.

The political actions that often follow from this are then based on a theoretical a-priori that what unifies people as a political body is hegemony. This is the fundamental basis of academics Hardt and Negri’s idea of the bringing together of the ‘multitudes’ in their difference. Valuing their different experiences and expressions of life as the a-priori state of humanity. In short this type of politics starts from the point of dissolving all hegemonic unity and then trying to bring together the multitudes of people. Where differences are their key identifier. Some dude called John Sanbonmatsu convinced me not to let this social archaeologist’s theory of knowledge and power define our political actions. Hegemony is not the only way to share common ground (and for that a matter arguably not always based on coercive authority as is often implied).

This means social science asking on the one hand what are the deepest needs and desires that drive the movements and activism resisting an unequal world society. Ethical needs and desires that unify them, as well as the ethical side of all people, and what theory about this can social scientists bring to water those ethical desires and let them bloom. Therefore the job of the social scientist is to recognize a unifying shared ethic as a priori, to produce knowledge about it, and then to produce more knowledge and theory to enable it.

In short universals — not disciplinary towers — need to be made by social science, ones that take into consideration the unknowns of dealing with social complexity, instead of academically pretending the world is confined to the knowns. Ones that start with studying and theorizing a post-hegemony of unifying solidarity, that of belonging to a world society better for all. Rather than starting with our difference as individuals unified only by our rejection of an unequal hegemony, or for that matter continuing with a broken humanist philosophical hegemony of the shared human experience that happens to both false and anthropocentric. It is our universal desire for a more ethical society, not the existence of a common or different experience, that we should build our social science on. Go find and water such an ethical urge!

(5) To Associate, To Knowledge, To Power

First Unified School in BIH with a diverse, inclusive and collective curriculum.

As a lecturer of mine -Nick Newton-Fischer- noted:

“Peer review is about establishing that a threshold of quality has been reached in an article, not about establishing the findings of a paper as fact. Anyone who thinks that the findings of a paper are undisputable facts doesn’t understand science”

Social science is not just a bureaucratic category, but an association of people who decide as a group through various means, including peer review, on what is acceptable knowledge at any given point in time. Therefore if social science is an association of people, social scientists have both a potential collective agency as well as power over knowledge itself and the politics involved in that. In the sense that it is based on deliberative and iterative decision making and agreement about what the truth of knowledge will be decided to be.

However this does not mean signing up to an institution that dictates that you have an identity. It means strategically working together with persons. It means becoming aware that you are part of a political body of people through being part of a process of knowledge production.

One way to understand this is how fellow social scientist Marko Barisic explained. In Bosnia and Herzegovina students got fed up with their curriculum and their teachers being the product of nationalist politics. In a similar spirit to the ‘decolonization of academia’ movement, they are literally desegregating their institutions of learning, and reintegrating marginalized knowledge into their curriculum. Marko is a social scientist along with others that is a part of this movement of awakening to the very material, as well as intangible, democratic power that can come from realizing the association between people through the process of knowledge production. Be like Marko!

(6) Listen to the Future

When wealthy futures are imagined on the big screen, they are usually filled with shiny white buildings packed with digital shit. It makes me pity social scientists as they usually confine themselves to studying the past and present. Yes on rare occasion they might imagine what the future will look like. In doing so the architects and techies own the vision of our future.

I say let’s get ourselves into studios like architects and architect. Not architect a fixed society based on naturalized political ideals, but architect answers for better ways to live together that take into consideration the perceived problems of the future. Embrace our creativity in imagining the radically different political futures that will be needed to achieve this, and the radically different social science that will be a part of it. Not as a form of architectural dictation, but as ethnographic architecturing; one where we listen to what is needed, what can be done, what can be negotiated, not cooked up from our abstract thoughts and force fed.

Architects get together in studios and cook up crazy ideas, now let’s have social studios where we cook up crazy ideas using the quality ingredients of our world’s diverse biocultures. At least one side effect would be different types of buildings get picked in the future and not the dead white and glass towers of a totalitarian future. Otherwise it will be left to the people who do digital shit to design your culture. For example Facebook is designed and it is an interface made up of people’s relationships, which in turn make up people’s lives, which in turn means some techie is literally designing the format of your life.

A small design suggestion as a first step toward such a future is to listen to the future in your own listening today. When you read something online or have a conversation, give the other person the benefit of the doubt to start with. Try to hear what they mean in the sense of the future that they would like to see, in the sense of what their aspirations are. What is the ethical side to their imagined future and how can it be brought together in negotiation with other peoples potential futures, as the basis of a future social architecture. Now converse with that vision of the future, not your limited view of your interlocuter.

Do not confine yourself to the 3 most common ways of listening. Try this fourth way (see Image). Combined with a trust in your own critical thinking, you will learn a lot more instead of just reinforcing what you already know. And you will do it toward trying to hear what a shared future between you and your conversant might look like. To adapt the maxim Programme or be Programmed, Programme Together or be Programmed Together.

These are the first 6points I gathered from talking and listening to the different people involved in the ‘Make Social Science Great Again’ workshop. This involved over 70 social scientists via multiple emails, f2f and Skype conversations as well a day long event. As more arise they will be published.