Not all scientists wear lab coats

Talk about the “hard sciences” and social scientists start to prickle. But pinning down exactly what the social sciences are, and what they contribute to an increasingly complex world, can be…well…elusive.

Enter Professor John Flint; based in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, John is also our faculty’s Co-Director of Research and Innovation. John was recently appointed a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in recognition of his achievements in housing research. We spoke to him about his work, but also what role the social sciences play in human progress.

John, congratulations on your appointment as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. In our age of soaring technological and biological advancement, many might assume that it is the natural or computing sciences that have the most to offer the great societal challenges of our time. Can you talk about how the social sciences can also deliver solutions to our most pressing problems?

Thank you! The need for social sciences is as great as ever. It is true that there is rapid technological, biological and environmental change, but the social sciences are primarily about what it means for all of us to be social beings- from our own individual behavior, feelings and orientations through to large global groupings and movements, and the economic, social, cultural, environmental dimensions of this. So social sciences will also be relevant in any period of history. Increasingly, we also try to work across disciplines, within and beyond social sciences as it is this combined expertise and methods that will enable us to find responses and solutions to the great global challenges of our time- climate change, technology and automation, poverty, urbanization and many others. It is also worth remembering that around a third of students in UK Universities are studying social sciences subjects, so we have a massive role to play in the education and training of future generations too.

Your research is dominated by issues around housing and urban development. Progress on housing policy seems glacial at times; if your research could result in one change to the law, what would you seek to do?

It does certainly appear that addressing the scale of the housing challenge in the UK (and many other nations) is proving to be far beyond current policy. I don’t think the key change is actually a specific legal or policy one though- it’s more a cultural and political shift that restates the ambition of previous generations to ensure that government, working with others, ensures that home is, first and foremost, a place of shelter and safety and the essential unit that enables us to live all other aspects of our lives. If we saw housing like this, and were committed to ensuring that every single household could access the accommodation they needed, we would behave very differently, both individually and as a society.

You have also explored anti-social behaviour and sectarianism; can you tell us more about how these issues are influenced, or even exacerbated by historic housing policy?

Housing has always been strongly linked to these issues. In relation to anti-social behaviour, the type of housing significantly affects the forms of neighbor dispute, especially as the most common form of complaint is noise and there are issues of what is private or public space. The different population mix in an area can also have a major impact on the actual and perceived levels of anti-social behaviour. Housing organisations also play a major role in managing incidents and trying to address the underlying causes of the problem. With regard to sectarianism, housing has had a major influence on the geography of the issue. So, for example, the segregated housing estates (and their murals) are a well known feature of Northern Ireland. However, in Scotland, to the extent that sectarianism exists, it has much less day to day visibility and there is no obvious pattern of religious segregation within the housing system.

The 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU seemed to represent a high water mark for discarding, and in many cases distrusting expertise. As a prominent scholar, what do you feel the academic community needs to do to engage more successfully beyond its own sphere?

There are many thins that we can do, but the key ones include making sure we focus on what we have actually found and why this is interesting and important, rather than explaining the process of what we have done; making sure we capture all the opportunities of the new and emerging techniques for getting our messages across; and ensuring that those who will use our work are involved in the design of our research from the outset.

Finally, with so much emphasis on the impact of academic research as a measure of its quality, if you look back at your career to date, what part of your research do you feel has had the most meaningful impact outside the academic world? And where does your research go from here?

I was pleased with my role as Academic Advisor to the Scottish Government’s development of it’s national anti-social behavior strategy, which explicitly sought to draw on all the existing research evidence (not just my own) and a result, I think the strategy was more effective in many ways than those in other parts of the UK. In terms of my own research, I am fortunate to be involved in the ESRC UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence: a major new initiative to provide research-informed solutions to the challenge of providing decent and affordable housing for all.