What's the point of the social sciences?

Saturday 30 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Courtyard Gallery

The change of government might have signalled a change of focus for social policy. Or maybe not. Of late, social policy is as likely to be determined by academic evidence as ideological difference. Since Tony Blair’s oft-quoted declaration that ‘what works is what counts’, politicians of all hues have tended to talk about evidence rather than political ideals, and ‘evidence-based policy’ has become a Whitehall mantra. Social scientists seem keen to reap the rewards. Long gone are jokes about the ‘ologies’, and the uselessness of studying sociology, for example. These days social scientists aspire to help shape public policy rather than languishing in ivory towers. In February, the Academy of Social Sciences (ACSS) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) launched a report ‘Making the case for the social sciences’ which gave myriad examples of social science helping achieve social goals, from reducing crime and poverty to improving parenting, education, healthy eating and the wellbeing of children.

Some critics are concerned that the prominence of academic evidence in social policy can lead to a denigration of ordinary wisdom, lay competence, and indeed the expertise of professionals like social workers and teachers. The study of the ‘skills’ required for everyday life – such as communication skills, parenting skills, and even intimate relationships skills - has even created an opportunity for the expert to step into the private sphere.

The social sciences have obviously come a very long way since they were pioneered by Durkheim, Marx and Weber in the 19th century. In the context of a complex and uncertain world, and a crisis of authority in politics, it seems the prestige of the expert is on the rise. But as they become more influential, is there a danger social scientists lose their capacity to be objective, independent and possibly critical of the status quo? Should they confine their role to critiquing social policy rather than formulating it?  Does social policy gain from the new role of the social sciences? Do the social sciences thrive when made real in the world of policy implementation? Have the social sciences at last found a point, and at what cost?

Listen to session audio:


Jude England
head, social sciences, British Library; co-author, Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses

Professor Val Gillies
director, Families & Social Capital Research Group, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, London South Bank University; co-editor, Family Troubles? Exploring changes and challenges in the family lives of children and young people

Dr Ellie Lee
reader in social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies

Peter Taylor-Gooby
professor of social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, ESRC Social Contexts and Responses to Risk programme; author, Reframing Social Citizenship

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
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