Where will we take social science?

Event Concept – Version 1.0 (Next)

With the recent political reconfigurations in the US, UK and across Europe, from PiS in Poland, to Brexit and Corbynism in the UK, Trumpism and Sanders Socialism in the US, the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece etcetera, where has social-science been? To paraphrase Canadian Anthropologist Max Forte in November 2016: ‘Why didn’t social-scientists see the coming victories of Donald Trump and Brexit? Why were social-scientists not better positioned to understand, explain or even predict the rise of these movements? What does the general failure of social-science in anticipating these movements emergence and victories say about their disciplines current theoretical fascination? What does this process reveal about social-scientists remoteness, distance, detachment, and unfamiliarity with their own society and its dominant cultural and political forms? What does it say about their actual understanding of the local impacts of a globalised economy? The big question that confronts us then is the most lethal one of all: What good are social-scientists when it comes to understanding political voices that are upset, that have upset, and people’s lives that have been or will be upset? In other words, what useful knowledge do we really produce?’ Where usefulness need not be interpreted in a utilitarian or instrumentalist sense.

This is not an exercise in ‘impact evaluation’ but a strategic moment to reflect on where social science is going, and what roles it plays in our world. This is not a question of impact or an anxiety about a perceived lack of it. Social science is a collective effort that goes beyond the academe. Many students of social science go on to work as journalists, consultants, ngo activists, and are informed by academic productions. In that respect, social science IS creating impact. But where is the future of social science without a unifying object that better coordinates the diversity of our efforts? As Critical Theorist John Sanbonmatsu presciently argued in 2004, intellectual trends have been without strategy in the sense of a lack of better coordination around a unifying object of research and engagement. This has left us with ‘either an instrumentalist or a baroque approach to knowledge production’ at best, and as Max Forte argues ‘mockery, demonisation and paralysing fear’ at worst. Particularly when contemporary political shifts come knocking at the door. So what then are the critical capabilities of contemporary social science? And what unifying object/aim and eclectic methods can inform this? What direction will we take social science in?

This event invites the forthcoming generation of social-scientists, both within and beyond the academe, but those primarily funded by the ESRC in the UK, to come together to discuss how to situate their research in a shifting world. This event invites you to outline what might this look like. Share how your research already reflects this. Or conversely what your rigorous theoretical and critical opposition to this is. Of interest are engaged examples from your research that help us better understand the processes and people who participated in contemporary political shifts. Of primary interest however, is how you see your work contributing toward a unified object, through what evaluated methods, and in doing so clarify what the critical capabilities of contemporary social science are.

  • What is the object/aim of social science?

You are invited to share one idea for what you believe the aim/object of social science is or should be (or if more relevant your discipline or area of work). This idea must also be grounded in one’s own research project. For example Keynote Speaker Keith Hartproposes our object to be ‘7+ billion people trying to live together on one planet’ and our aim ‘the making of world society’.

  • What are the methods that engage complex glocal reality?

You are invited to share one idea for what you believe the methods of social science are or should be (or if more relevant your discipline or area of work). This idea must also be grounded in one’s own research project. Methods can be considered as (i) the processes of capturing, analysing or communicating results, however they need not necessarily fit within this division of labour. For example Social Scientist Tim Ingold proposes that we conduct research ‘in correspondence’ with our research subject,(ii) the implicit political models for effecting causality or generative emergence in our research. For example Critical Theorist John Sanbonmatsu argues that intellectual trends have left us with either an instrumentalist or a baroque approach to knowledge production and calls instead for a renewed strategic and engaged critical understanding, drawing heavily on Gramsci’s political social-science as opposed to Foucault’s political conclusions.

  • What are the infrastructures of great social science?

You are invited to share one idea for what the you believe the relevant infrastructures of social science are or should be (or if more relevant your discipline or area of work). This idea must also be grounded in one’s own research project or setting. Infrastructure can be considered as the real settings and contexts that research are embedded in, whether this be various forms of (i) organisation including Universities, Research Councils, or NGOs, (ii) processes that move between objective, subjective, and intersubjective scales such as funding, authority, or auditing, (iii) strategy including competing for resources, activism, awareness campaigning, lobbying, or advising, (iv) communication including journal articles, journalism, public intellectual, protest, online following.


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