For our November meeting, we took the opportunity to reflect on issues of impact, purpose, and methodological innovation. We reflected on the constantly changing landscape of data and the research process. We started with Christakis’ editorial claiming that the social sciences have stagnated due to holding onto disciplinary hallmarks, and a lack of innovation and collaboration with other sciences. To some extent his argument was reminiscent of Rose’s claim that we need to work more with the natural sciences and others have commented on the need for social scientists to actively engage with new social concerns and forms of data. Despite blog posts claiming the great impact of the social sciences, we were left wondering where the enthusiasm, both within academia and society at large, for the social sciences has gone. In part, we felt that some of this was down to how we are trained as social scientists and how we present ourselves as a discipline.
There were a few issues with current social science training that we think contribute to the perception of stagnation. Firstly, the emphasis on understanding classical social theory, as well as the developing new insights, has brought with it an appreciation for the delicate connotations of our disciplinary jargon. Whilst invigorating for us (at times!), it does make it difficult to clearly share our key messages with colleagues and with wider public, and at times forces us to engage with what Christakis viewed as old debates. Secondly, the validity of our research is in part tied to the methodology (e.g. participant-observation and ethnography), which can make it difficult to be confidently and persuasively innovative with our research methods. Thirdly, several of us noted that within our fields, academics who have become more publicly visible often lose their authority within the discipline. The implicit message in this is that being a public voice for research does not necessarily help your career within academia. And yet, it was felt that often academics do not take responsibly for the implications of their research, by for example not providing guidance on how to apply findings to practical situations, which reduces the public’s understanding of our ability to comment on social life and developments. In total, these result in a perceived inability to adapt and engage with current trends and have a public voice about them.
So, as a group and individuals, what are we going to do differently? Here is an overview of our responses and ambitions:
• Be aware of the language we use and simplify the jargon
• Write more concise papers with clearer messages
• Hold a social science event as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which may or may not include the use of finger puppets explaining social theory in relation to medical issues
• Think about the methods we use and be willing to try new things
• Look into holding a training event about the use of Big Data
We are interested on hearing your views. Do the social sciences, particularly those working within/on health issues, need a shake up? What is the public role of our work? What can we do better?
List of sources discussed in November’s meeting:
Christakis (2013). Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences
Goodall and Oswald (2014). Do the Social Sciences Need a Shake Up – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/do-the-social-sciences-need-a-shake-up/2016165.article
Besteman, C. (2013) Three Reflections on Public Anthropology. Anthropology Today 29(6):3-6
Burrows, R., & Savage, M. (2014). After the Crisis? Big Data and the Methodological Challenges of Empirical Sociology. Big Data & Society, 1(1), 2053951714540280.
Woodfield, K., Metzler, K. & Blank, G. Blurring the Boundaries? New Social Media, New Social Research…
Write For Research’s blog post on citation practices