Have the social sciences failed us? Andrew Gamble says no

25 April 2012

The British Academy has published a response to an article that appeared in The Guardian in the UK: Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices? According to  the financial crisis has proved that economists do not have a clue and that the rest of the social scientists have missed the chance to step up to the plate with new ideas.

So have the non-economists grasped their moment? Have they hell. Look at the academic conferences held over the past few weeks, at which the latest and most promising research in each discipline is presented, and it’s as if Lehman Brothers never fell over.

Britain’s top political scientists met in Belfast a couple of weeks ago, and you’d have thought there’d be plenty in the crisis for them to discuss, from the technocrat governments installed in southern Europe to the paralysis of British politicians in the face of the banks. But no: over the course of three days, they held exactly one discussion of Britain’s political economy. There was more prominence given to a session on how academic research could advance dons’ careers.

I get the feeling though that he is confusing research with the communication of research. As evidence of non-economists’ irrelevance he looks at the British Sociological Association’s website and concludes that no, they must not be interested in the financial crisis because they have not issues a single press release on the matter:

Scroll through the press-released research, and you will not come across anything that deals with the banking crash. Instead in April 2010, amid the biggest sociological event in decades, the BSA put out a notice titled: “Older bodybuilders can change young people’s view of the over-60s, research says.”

This is certainly bad comms but I am not sure it can be used to say that the entire discipline is not in tune with the times.

So Andrew Gamble has responded in an article published by the British Academy: Have the social sciences failed us? Again bad comms: the article he is responding to was published in the Guardian’s website while this one has been published in the think tank’s site (@commentisfree has 44k followers against 700 for @britac_news). But his arguments are sound:

Contrary to Chakrabortty’s lazy caricature of British academics as a bottomless pit of irrelevance, there is a ferment of ideas and writing, and some excellent thinking both about how we got here and where we might be going. He focuses on particular disciplines, but the real action takes place between disciplines, and not just in universities but in the engagement of academics with the wealth of institutions, media and thinktanks which constitute the public sphere, ranging from the British Academy to ippr, the Resolution Foundation, the Guardian, YouGov, Policy Network and Compass among many others. Chakrabortty cannot see this because he misunderstands the relationship between ideas and action. He seems to think that if all the sociologists in Britain spent their annual conference discussing the financial crisis revolution would come overnight. But producing ideas is one thing. Changing the ideas that govern policy is very different. It concerns power, and politics.

I believe he is right. There is overemphasis on visible commentary instead of sound reflection. Ideas, when they are discussed and understood, are more likely to be adopted and maintained in the long run that decisions made on the basis of killer facts or comment is free opinions.

But Gamble misses the opportunity to challenge Chakrabortty on another point (but I understand why). The social sciences are not really a science. Not in the say way that chemistry or biology is a science. This is the world of uncertainty –where things cannot be controlled. And so the social sciences are doomed to fail in their predictions and in any attempts to remedy all the ills of the world.

The history of politics in any country is marked by cycles of periods of technocratic policymaking followed by periods of ideological policymaking. Science makes promises that it cannot keep, people get bored with not being able to express their values freely and join fringe political parties and groups, mainstream parties take notice and rekindle their love for ideology, then it gets messy and too political, and people turn away from parties again, the parties then claim that the old ways are over and a new evidence based era has to take over, etc.

We have all seen this before. The challenge for all disciplines then is to recognise their limitation and to allow (and encourage) values and ideology to play a role. For think tanks (and researchers) the challenge is similar: make your case but do not ask research and science to do things you know they can’t.