What are the main goals of social science?

One of the personal challenges I have been grappling with over the past few months is a professional identity crisis. This crisis is partly related to the issue of credentials – some of which is related to how my PhD was not awarded in a specific academic discipline (it’s a generic Doctor of Philosophy degree awarded by UTS), and some of my earlier tertiary education didn’t lead to widely recognised professional credentials – along with my present unemployment and career uncertainty. But the bigger emerging issue may be increasing uncertainty around my personal goals and to what extent these are aligned with the goals of specific disciplines and research programs (in academic contexts), or other areas of professional work which I may shift towards outside of academia.

In this context, one thing I have taken a greater interest in is the main goals of social science and related research. This appears to be an increasingly contentious issue. One fault line concerns orientations towards policy and/or major reform – especially contributing to deliberate actions aimed at transformation – which some researchers view as a central part of their work. Others contend that this should not be a main goal of social scientists (or social researchers). Over the past decade I’ve met and worked with people whose main focus could be placed at various points on such a spectrum, including academics for whom stimulating major social transformations is their primary goal and ‘north star’.

A related issue regarding the roles of social knowledge is how it gets used (or not) and associated uncertainties. Sociologists of knowledge have observed that “it often happens that those who take up an author’s ideas use them in ways that he or she did not anticipate” (Collins, 2014, p.25). I also observed these patterns in my PhD research which involved an impact evaluation of three high profile CSIRO-led prospective studies.

In this post I’d mainly like to focus on one interesting opinion regarding the main goal of social science. American cultural anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker (who is based at The George Washington University) offers the following perspective:

Transformations are rarely the product of deliberate action; they are the result of a multitude of factors that act in concert to shape our beliefs and behaviors, often without our ever being aware of what is happening until it has already happened. This is why the great thinkers of the modern age, like Freud, Weber, Spinoza, and Marx, argued that the goal of social science is to expose the powerful but hidden forces that shape our assumptions about the world” (link)

Grinker then adds the following comments: “As Marx famously put it, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” It follows that we cannot purposefully change our consciousness unless we unmask the historical processes that created it”. In his latest book, Nobody’s Normal, he adopts such an approach to the examination of historical and cultural processes and their effects. A broad normative orientation appears to inform such work but the analysis and text is mostly aimed at understanding and explanation.

Of course, one issue with such sweeping statements is that there is likely to be some variation across the broad range of disciplines that social science covers. For instance, management science/studies is often considered a social science and this is a very different discipline to sociology or anthropology. There is also likely be both historical variation and variation across different cultures, such as whether a theoretical or applied orientation is valued (and some social scientists will also question such a dichotomy), and the extent to which scholars focus on solving explanatory puzzles or other focal problems.

For example, Grinker’s perspective isn’t well aligned with a field like sustainability transition studies. Many scholars in this field give little attention to explanatory claims and understandings. The field seems to be dominated by activist-scholars whose principal focus is contributing to real-world transitions and related forms of deliberate change-making, though some of these activist-scholars draw on explanatory perspectives developed by other transition scholars. A related division of labour has kind of emerged.

Another view of the primary aim of social research is that social researchers try to uncover “the persistent patterns in social life, as well as the social meanings inherent in these [patterns]” (Walter, 2013, p.7).

Or we could consider the field of sociology. Introductory texts like Social Things: An Introduction to the Sociological Life by Charles Lemert provide interesting perspectives. Lemert distinguishes between professional sociology (e.g. of academics) and practical sociology (e.g. of everyday people). He suggests it is the responsibility of professionals to “explain social things” and develop related causal explanations whereas “the duty of practical sociologists [is] simply to live and to tell the stories that account for their actions”.

Since reading some of Grinker’s work – and his assertions regarding the main goal of social science (as per the above quotation) – I have come to better appreciate how the objectives he emphasises guide much social science work I have read over recent years and related communications efforts. For example, German sociologist Jens Beckert seeks to reveal hidden generative mechanisms underpinning capitalist dynamics in his book Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, and The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach seeks to elucidate hidden forces that they argue tend to lead people to think they know more than they actually do and make it harder to change false beliefs (amongst other phenomena and consequences they seek to explain). More recently, I spotted the new book entitled Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives published by two law professors who are seeking to ‘unmask’ the cultural rules which shape ownership claims and how they’re settled.

In some instances there may be a hope that revealing such processes and forces will inform or influence social action – for example via public engagement efforts and popular science books (e.g. see The Knowledge Illusion by Sloman and Fernbach) which aim to enhance the understanding of the public – and in other cases there might not be.

Certainly the context of a serious pandemic has brought to the fore practical foci such as potential contributions to mitigating public health threats (e.g. achieving participation in vaccination programs and understanding the causes of vaccine hesitancy, or achieving compliance with other measures) or the design of other policies aimed at reducing the negative effects of interventions. The same could be said for other challenges.

But I’m also beginning to think that there may be a need for a more fundamental questioning of the main goal(s) of social science similar to how social thinkers pondered this in the late 19th and early 20th century when fields like sociology were just getting established. Related to this, I’ve also found that there’s a need to think about how goals of such social scientific work align (or not) in the context of interdisciplinary social research, and how such resulting knowledge may be best utilised in more ‘transdisciplinary’ research activities.

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