Academic work can be impenetrable but good social science still brings vital knowledge into the public realmby Christopher Grey / October 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
Every day, in universities across the world, social scientists research and debate matters of significant public concern. Every day, too, those matters are discussed by politicians, journalists and the public.
Yet there is a disturbing disconnect between the specialist and non-specialist camps. The faults lie on both sides. Social scientists are often too preoccupied with theory and methodology, tend to write gracelessly, and can be pathologically averse to taking a stance. Non-academics can be impatient readers, reluctant to engage with complexity, and unrealistic about what social science can and can’t do.
This isn’t a new problem, but it has become a pressing one. It’s widely remarked upon that we live in a post-truth, post-trust world, and social media abounds with convincing-sounding conspiracy theories as well as carrying a massive glut of information which is all but impossible to assess for accuracy.
In that context, academic social science potentially has a lot to offer, since its knowledge base ultimately derives from research which has been assessed by others with expertise. That peer-review system is far from perfect, but it provides a test which keyboard warriors and bedroom vloggers don’t face and would rarely pass.
Yet accessing academics’ work is difficult. It is often in subscription-only journals or expensive books. It is typically written in a way which makes little sense to those outside the academic community, and the reward systems of universities encourage that. Worse, even when ostensibly written for public audiences, it is too often pretentious and condescending.
To seek to address these problems, last year saw the launch, under my editorship, of a series of short books. The idea behind them is captured in the title—What do we know and what should we do about… X?, with the X being issues like immigration, inequality, the future of work, housing, internet privacy and social mobility.
Written by leading experts in each topic, they on the one hand show the state of current knowledge in the area. On the other, they give the authors’ prescriptions about what should happen to address specific problems.
No doubt there are many other initiatives underway to communicate social science to the public, and I mention this one not simply because I am involved in it but because it serves to clarify some of the issues involved, especially by considering the twin themes…