2014-02 - Debate Writing @MindLab - Prompt#1 Social sciences in action
Prompt #1: How do we put social sciences into
Jesper's Opening Statement:
Public organizations cannot merely adopt a strategy of survival by adapting to their
environment. The fundamental consequence of being legitimized by a democratic system
and run by political leadership is that, as a public servant, your purpose is to actually
shape the environment. Not through politics or political ideas, but through applying a
political epistemology that takes the nature of the problem seriously.
Political epistemology has to do with the nature and scope of knowledge and processes
in which the state (or other relevant institutions of power) is rediscovering the public and
its problems in order to make interventions in the everyday lives of citizens. The social
sciences has a critical role to play in this respect by influencing (and perhaps changing)
how to understand public problems. The common role for social sciences is explore,
frame, theorize and illustrate how social reality can be grasped and dealt with. In relation
to public policy and reform, social science mostly serves as cultural and historical
critique. It is yet to reveal a significant productive forward-oriented value.
This is where design enters. Design and design-thinking seemingly takes ownership of
both the reflexive approach of social science while combining it with forward-oriented
processes of making the future accessible through experimentation and iteration Often,
practices of policymaking still assume linear models where knowledge, actions and
outputs have to be represented as in direct connection and where the plan for change
has to be specified in advance. Design emerges as a challenge to this often inefficient
way of dealing with social change in public sector contexts. But is it promising too much?
And is design just a way of talking about social sciences in action?
The challenge of putting social sciences in to action in a context of public decision-
making is quite immediate in a current MindLab project that aims to rethink the practice
of policy development in the Danish Ministry of Employment. This project has the purpose
of improving the capacity of the ministry to create politically intended outcomes. It aims
to ensure successful implementation through the establishment of a practice
policymaking that allows for a more dynamic relationship between policy and practice in
the implementation of central labour market reforms.
But what this project might really be about is embedding approaches of social sciences in
order to enable the ministry in better ways to continuously rediscover and understand the
consequences and outcomes of its interventions and reforms. As the ministry is working
towards developing a new ‘implementation strategy’, they are trying to reinvent their
current culture of decision-making as well as their theory of knowledge acquisition in the
processes of realizing political intentions.
It is perhaps not ‘social sciences in action’ per se, but this process is drawing on
principles from social sciences to transform the processes of envisioning and formalizing
social reality in order to enable a more open, responsive and adaptive approach to public
policy and reform. They are attempting to recognize the changing conditions and
unpredictable developments of social reality while at the same time working in a
bureaucratic context idealizing pre-composed scripts and plans. This paradoxical
premise, I think, makes the concept of design appealing because it promises both a
better understanding of the problems and processes of public development while
maintaining the ideal that we are able to design solutions, processes, services, and even
systems. The ever-looming risk is that design, as many other ‘instruments of government’
before it, becomes another instrumental way to deliver ‘the product’. The failure of
design-thinking in government would be to not challenge existing ideals of coming up with
perfect ‘solutions’ that ‘solve’ the public problem rather than fueling the processes of re-
discovering and addressing it.
This is why the tendency to squeeze social sciences under the umbrella of design is a
risky one. My contention is that the value of social sciences in action, with the multitude
of different approaches to the understanding of human behaviour, motivation and
culture, can be seen in relation to not only their ability to rediscover and nuance the
problem at hand. Social sciences also offer perspectives that illuminate how public
problems, as multi-sited, multi-faceted and dynamic entities, can be addressed in various
The goals of public organizations are complex, ambiguous and even contradictory at
times. In this light, it is risky when design (human-centred or other kinds) promises
innovative solutions as an automatic outcome of designing. The role of social sciences in
action is at least to remind us that often what is possible when dealing with the
employment systems or other complex service systems is not the creation of consensus
or one ‘best practice’. Instead, renewed knowledge about the social world often sparks
more contradicting perspectives and complexity where the main outcome is a new debate
about what characterize the problem and what would be a good way of dealing with it.
This debate should also be about what is useful to know about the public, how this
knowledge can be acquired, how it is established as legitimate in formalized systems of
justification and what kind of outcomes that would create public value in which contexts.
Social sciences in action thus have a role to play in establishing a useful political
epistemology and ensure that politics remains an actual and legitimate part of public
What can appears as contradictory in the sentence “social sciences in action” would be
that this action is usually not explicit when it is happening. Usually, the chronology is the
following: a social scientist participates in a project, and we discover new conceptual
concepts, framing, and formalisation of this project once an article is published. That is to
say, way after the time of the project. We have the feeling that social sciences are a way
to document and share things that already happened, but it is difficult to understand how
it could help us to enlighten things that are about to happen. The social scientist, usually
specialist in only one field, seems to use his academic background as general culture and
personal intelligence to adapt to different situations of a project, but may not be explicit
about the theoretical frames he is using.
However, social sciences have a rich and broad history of explaining changes in human
organisations. Every discipline such as sociology, philosophy, management sciences,
anthropology... present various theoretical frames - sometimes contradictory - that could
become tools along the way of a project to understand what is happening, describe
situations and drive the changes that we hope for.
• How to discover and understand those various theoretical frames without having
to be an expert in every field?
• How to choose the most appropriate one for a precise subject?
• And finally, how to popularise and use them without making them meaningless
because they are over-simplified?
Social sciences have been embedded for a long time in public administration agencies -
and have helped to document their changes, their evolutions, and their cultures. Who
could remember that in the 1980’s, French government began to speak about
“experimentations,” “users," “self-determined objectives,” or “incremental
modernisation” if there were no social scientists to document those changes?
In many ways, social sciences play the role of memories of our administrations, tracing
new worlds, new theories, new philosophies of how to reform and make them work
better… And are great tools for designers or professionals who have to work in this
In one of our projects at La 27 Region, a designer asked civil servants in the room, on the
first day of the project, what was the meaning of those three letters “D.G.S.” - that is, a
General Director of Service. This simple question reveals how some professional circles
lack an understanding of the magical world of public administration, which is radically
different from the private sector and cannot be treated in the same way.
We have to change the way public managers and civil servants are treating citizens and
are creating new policies, that’s for sure… but those who help this change happening
should be careful to understand the history of those beautiful institutions.
“What are the social sciences?”
It was in the second semester of my second year of university that I was finally asked the
obvious question. Here I was a budding ‘social scientist’ and I didn’t really have a good
definition of the discipline I was on the precipice of entering.
Luckily, I had a book. Roger Trigg’s Understanding Social Science. And on page 1, he
answers that very question, writing:
“What is social science? This is a characteristically philosophical question, examining the
assumptions and presuppositions of an area of human activity. It seems easy to give a
list of would-be social sciences. Sociology and social anthropology would inevitably be on
it, as would such such subjects as politics and economics. History has a claim there to be
there too…It certainly studies the interactions of humans in society. The main difference
between it and the others is that it confines itself to the past. Psychology, even social
psychology, should probably not be there as it concentrates on the individual rather than
on his or her place in the wider group…. It is already obvious that the notion of social
science is not as clear-cut as might be first imagined.”
It’s precisely the lack of boundaries that I’d contend gives social science such power in
our work re-imagining and re-making social systems with and for every day people.
Because it enables us to look at those every day people (and ourselves) in the round, in
context, and over time.
Anna and Jesper both give persuasive accounts of the value-add of the social sciences in
social innovation and public sector redesign. They note that the social sciences help us
• Understand human behavior, motivations, and culture
• Project the consequences - intended and unintended - of a line of action
• Remember the past
It’s hard to disagree. But how do we extract this value and put it into a live, quick moving
design process? And how do we build our capacity to actually unearth and examine the
assumptions and presuppositions of our activities? All the while forming new
assumptions and presuppositions to test? In other words how do we become creative &
critical thinkers & doers? All at once?
Design tends to make creative thinking & doing pretty accessible. There are games,
materials, post-it notes, markers, crayons, clay. That serve to externalize our thoughts.
Social sciences tend to make critical thinking & doing pretty darn intellectual. There
aren’t so many gimmicky tools. Just a lot of journal articles, books, and maybe a neon
green highlighter, if you’re lucky.
There’s also this belief that civil servants, social workers, and other professionals working
in the social space are already adept at social science. That design is the thing that’s
new. In our work, I find that rarely to be the case. Because so many social workers and
professionals have been trained in a vocational way - learning applied theory without first
gaining the liberal arts foundation - the philosophy, the history, the humanities that helps
you form an opinion of what’s a good theory.
Let me try and get super practical. In the work I co-led in Australia, that eventually led
to Family by Family, it was diving into philosophy, history, and empirical psychosocial
studies that gave us a fresh way of making sense of the ethnographic field work. A re-
read of Aristotle’s work on human flourishing as juxtaposed with the all too common
psychosocial literature on resilience helped me to realize these two concepts were not
the same. Where resilience was about bouncing back, thriving or flourishing was all about
being present, looking back, and moving forwards. With this ‘critical lens’ I was able to
take the stories from families and from professionals and see something I hadn’t seen
when I was in the field.
Anna smartly asks: how do we discover and use these different theoretical frames
without having to be an expert in the field? How do we choose the most appropriate one?
And how do we popularize them without making them meaningless?
Here, I can only point to my own experience. I wasn’t an expert in family systems, or in
eudaimonic ethics (that’s Aristotle), but I was able to take these frameworks and test
them against our on-the-ground data. I believe it’s less about choosing the appropriate
framework. And more about prototyping frameworks in our on-the-ground contexts. It’s
this capability set I’d like to learn how to build in my teams going forward.