(2000) 'Who Wants to be a Social Engineer? A commentary on
David Blunkett's Speech to the ESRC'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/5/1/hodgkinson.html>
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Received: 10/5/2000 Accepted: 24/5/2000 Published: 31/5/2000
Some of you may find the title I have chosen for this lecture a little surprising: can the social science community have a major influence in improving government or is it destined to be ever more detached from and irrelevant to the real debates which affect people's life chances?(Blunkett, 2000)
Too often in the past policy has not been informed by good research: a former permanent Secretary once ruefully described the old Department of Education and Science as a "knowledge free-zone"
i) leads to a coherent picture of how society works: what are the main forces at work and which of these can be influenced by government ...[and]More categorical still, Blunkett knows what he doesn't want:
ii) research to evaluate specific policy initiatives...
We need to be able to rely on social science and social scientists to tell us what works and why and what types of policy initiatives are likely to be most effective.
We're not interested in worthless correlations based on small samples from which it is impossible to draw generalisable conclusions. We welcome studies which combine large scale, quantitative information on effect sizes (sic) which allow us to generalise, with in-depth case studies which provide insights into how processes work.
One of our prime needs is to be able to measure the size of the effect of A on B. This is genuine social science and reliable answers can only be reached if the best social scientists are willing to engage in this endeavour [emphasis added].
'The aim of every science is foresight [prévoyance]. For the laws established by observation of phenomenon are generally employed to foresee their succession. All men, however little advanced, make true predictions, which are always based on the same principle, the knowledge of the future from the past ...Manifestly, then, it is quite in accordance with the nature of the human mind that observation of the past should unveil the future in politics, as it does in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and physiology. The determination of the future must even be regarded as the direct aim of political science, as in the case of the other positive sciences. Indeed, it is clear that knowledge of what social system the elite of mankind is called to by the progress of civilisation - knowledge forming the true practical object of positive science - involves a general determination of the next social future as it results from the past.' (in Kumar, 1978: 23-4)
'In the case of a prediction the statements of the relevant general laws and the particular facts are given and the statement describing a particular event not yet known to have occurred is deduced from them; in the latter case [causal explanation], the event is known to have occurred, and the general laws and statements about particular facts from which it can be deduced are sought. A prediction is thus simply the obverse of a causal explanation.' (Fay, 1975:33)
'...precisely because scientific explanations are the obverse of predictions, they lay the foundation for the instrumental control of phenomenon by providing the sort of information which would enable one to manipulate certain variables in order to bring about a state of affairs or prevent its occurrence. It is thus no accident that social science positivistically conceived is historically linked with a social engineering viewpoint, for it is in the very nature of the sort of understanding given us by science that it underlies such a viewpoint.' (ibid: 38)
'...the social engineer conceives as the scientific basis of politics something like a social technology ...as opposed to the historicist who understands it as a science of immutable historical tendencies.' (Popper, 1962: 22)
'At present, the sociological knowledge necessary for large-scale engineering is simply non-existent.' (ibid:162)
surprising that applied research useful to government is more common in the USA than here and also carries more prestige relative to theory?
This Government has given a clear commitment that we will be guided not by dogma but by an open-minded approach to understanding what works and why.
sometimes, when it [social science] does try to be directly relevant to the main policy and political debates, ..[it is] seemingly perverse, driven by ideology paraded as intellectual inquiry or critique...
'...public policy positions taken by policy actors are the resultant of three sets of forces; their ideologies, their interests (e.g. in power, reputation, financial reward) and the information they have' , and the third of these, to which social science is but one contributant, is usually outweighed by the first two, which carry 'higher emotional loadings.' (Weiss, 1983:221-2)
'...the very 'facts' themselves may be the outcome of the overall processes of mutual accommodation between all parties, scientists included.' (Bartley, 1996: 23)
'...'social-problem processes' are central to policy-making, and usually involve the making of both knowledge-claims and value-claims by various groups pursuing a range of interests. Each process may go on to give rise to either new facts, or new policies, or both or neither. But in many cases, it is the success of value-claims in changing policy which leads to the acceptance of knowledge-claims as fact, rather than the other way round.' (ibid:.20)
I too may let my prejudices over-ride the legitimate empirically based evidence (politicians have a tendency to believe research when it reinforces their own view).
Previous administrations have not been prepared to be receptive to what research can tell them. There has, in the past, been a seam of anti- intellectualism running through government both at the political level and amongst officials which has served to alienate academia. I acknowledge that we still have some way to go before we can overcome this mind set within government and the defensive reaction it inevitably provokes. This has been one of the reasons research has itself become too inward looking.
Policy makers need to make clear for researchers what they see as the key questions and why these are interesting and important.
For researchers [ not named] to tell my constituents that perpetrators of vandalism, neighbour nuisance, all night parties, and health destroying noise and intimidation, are really the victims rather than the perpetrators does very little for the public credibility of social science!
some research [ not named] ..reminds me of the investigations a few years ago by a certain newspaper which, perversely, set out to prove that there was no such thing as AIDS!
I have put a great deal of emphasis so far on research with practical applications. But if we are to encourage a more open debate of ideas there must also be a place for the fundamental 'blue-skies' research which thinks the unthinkable. We need researchers who can challenge fundamental assumptions and orthodoxies and this may well have big policy effects much further down the road. Civil servants, politicians, journalists and others do not have the time for this kind of work. If academics do not address it, then it is difficult to think of anyone else who will. We must recognise its importance.
'Here the goal of research is to contribute to knowledge in a particular discipline, with abstract theoretical knowledge being given priority. While research is seen as ultimately making a contribution to practice, that contribution is not intended to be very immediate or specific. What is involved is the production of general- purpose knowledge, which is valued as much for its own sake as for any instrumental value it has. Findings are simply put into the academic public domain for others to use: as, when and if they wish.' (Hammersley, 1995:125)
'To claim that knowledge can be of value for its own sake is not to imply that any knowledge is of value, or that we should value knowledge according to its uselessness. It means that we should value knowledge about matters relevant to human life above ignorance about such matters. And such knowledge has value in terms of its relevance to our lives irrespective of whether it can be shown to have a direct and powerful influence on our practical activities. In other words, it is not to be judged, and the pursuit of knowledge does not need to be guided, by some sort of calculation of the degree of instrumental value it has. The fact that the practical benefit of disciplinary knowledge is not calculable does not make it worthless.' (ibid:142)
preferring to work on questions of little interest to those outside the research community. There is a danger of too much concentration on the micro level - what is the point of research which becomes narrower and narrower, with small groups of people responding to each other's writing in esoteric journals, read only by themselves and relevant only to themselves? This is a dangerous turning which we must try and address.
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