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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, March 23, 2015

40 billion pounds' worth of social sciences????

I have a love-hate relationship with the social sciences – grateful for the vistas its literature opened up to me at university in the early 1960s in Scotland when it was still possible to roam widely amongst the disciplines…..still able to feel the energy of the disputes and the freshness of what people such as Durkheim, Michels and Weber were saying…..since then things seem to have closed over a bit – not least, perhaps, because of the “instrumentalist turn” the social sciences took in America as brilliant minds turned their attention in the aftermath of the second world war to social and organisational problems. First corporate planning and management with contributions from people such as Russell Ackoff - then PPBS and the “War on Poverty”.

I was gripped by the stuff and failed to appreciate the hubris involved…….although people such as Aaron Wildavsky; Peter Marris and Martin Rein; Etzioni; and Donald Schoen were exemplars of a more sceptical and humanistic approach……From 1968 I pursued a dual track of political involvement and fairly interdisciplinary academic reading – for 15 years having the freedom to roam the library stacks and inflict monologues on political issues on polytechnic students who were following Degrees courses in Land Economics and Engineering.

From the mid 1970s I had become an almost full-time (Regional) politician but was confronted in 1983 with the need to make a serious contribution to a new full-time Social Science Degree at my Polytechnic. By that stage I had changed my loyalties from economicsto politics/public admin - but could not take the narrowness of what I was expected to teach seriously……after 2 years I got out….  And as the universities increased in number and size, the pretensions of economics, management and even psychology grew enormously (Sociology was a bit of an outrider). Their claims – and language – grew a bit outlandish…..and I, for one, lost sympathy with it all….

In 1978 Stanislaw Andreski had written a magnificent critique called Social Sciences as Sorcery which, significantly, has long been out of print despite the fond memories it produces in many who who have read it…I was trying to find a similar attack on the pretensions of modern social science but could find only the rather puffy  Profscam – Professors and the demise of higher education (1988). 
I had hoped that Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly – how to succeed in the social sciences would have some of the same punch and weight as Andreski but, despite some disparaging remarks about the factory conditions of university life, it ultimately disappoints. It reviewed quite well – but you would expect that!

My surfing, however, did reveal that social scientists are deeply concerned about their lowly status in academic and political circles. So concerned that (in the UK)  they have launched a Campaign for social science (with booklet)…….which has attracted some media coverage. The need for a shake-up was explored in this article
The first thing to have in mind, as background, is the astonishing size of the social science literature. Few people appreciate this. The Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (which is by no means exhaustive of the entire global academic output) lists more than 3,000 social science journals. The journals classified as economics alone contained approximately 20,000 articles last year. This implies that one new journal article on economics is published every 25 minutes – even on Christmas Day.
This iceberg-like immensity of the modern social sciences means that it is going to be difficult to say anything coherent and truly general across them. Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.“The social sciences have stagnated,” he says. “They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge.”

Lack of interdisciplinarity, narrowness and impenetrable language are the common criticisms - which can be found in many publications throughout Europe and North America. Key reports and books include -

More than a million academics are employed (full-time) in British Universities these days – and about 50,000 of them are social scientists with a similar number (according to the UK campaign’s 2015 report “The Business of People”) employed in government and commerce…….
The report proudly claims that they contribute an astonishing 40 billion pounds’ worth of value to the economy – a claim which reveals the very philistinism of which they accuse those who attack social science…..
An excellent critique of what is a quite disgraceful document can be found on Open Democracy

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