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"Why social scientists should engage with natural scientists" by Philip Lowe OBE

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Presentation by Philip Lowe, Director of the Rural Economy & Land Use programme, given as part of the ACES seminar series at the University of Aberdeen: www.aces.ac.uk

Presentation by Philip Lowe, Director of the Rural Economy & Land Use programme, given as part of the ACES seminar series at the University of Aberdeen: www.aces.ac.uk

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  • Let me start with a little history. The founders of social science (amongst whom were engineers, social reformers, philanthropists) saw it as an essential counterpart to natural science and engineering, helping to steer the enormous technical changes they generated and to guide the potential they unleashed for transformative and destabilising social and economic change. Comte, who coined the word sociology, first used the term ‘social physics’, reflecting his vision of social science as the essential counterpart and guide to the technical sciences – a sort of science of the sciences.
  • In Victorian Europe there was an “era of enthusiasm” (Porter 1986 p27) for the techniques and findings of social scientists, particularly noticeable in liberal governments and reform movements. Society was regarded both as a source of progress, revealed by the beginnings and spread of industrialisation, and as a cause of instability, typified by the periodic social unrest. Greater understanding of society was required to secure order and prosperity in the new industrial society. Although improvements in engineering and the manufacturing arts drove the industrial revolution, they were dependent on developments in the social sciences, particularly economics and social statistics, for their realisation in an expanding economy and evolving society. It may seem surprising, but the natural sciences were utterly displaced during the Industrial Revolution: theoretical knowledge of mathematics or the general laws of nature were seen to be of no use to those who needed to design machines, or manage a labour force. Social science was looked to as a means of replacing the confusion of politics with “an orderly reign of facts” thus bringing society under some degree of state control. This incidentally is the derivation of the term ‘statistics’ (or state-istics) – that is the essential facts the state needs to manage social and technical change.
  • This periodic engagement/disengagement is illustrated in the development of the applied social sciences in the past half century and their changing relationship towards technical R & D.
  • The mid-20th century and the emergence of a new world order was a highly innovative period in the application of the social sciences in a systematic programme of social engineering and modernisation. New applied social science disciplines - agricultural economics, rural sociology, consumer psychology, marketing, operations research, ergonomics , etc emerged – to help shape and manage social and technical change in an era of technological optimism. A major focus of the social sciences was on the barriers to the diffusion of innovations.
  • However the period was also one of scientific triumphalism when physical scientists in particular sought to entrench a pure science ideal. Notions of the hierarchy of the sciences, propounded at this time, served to marginalise the field, the applied and the non-reductionist sciences (mainly social sciences but also ecology, geography and engineering). The constant questioning of their scientific status drove social scientists to retreat into a professionalised enclave devoted exclusively to the ‘science of the social’. They rejected their role as social engineers and the champions and apologists of modernisation. Quietly and not so quietly, social scientists disengaged with the post-war technological project.
  • As they grew disillusioned with their role as promoters of scientific innovations and grew increasingly critical of the ability of scientists to solve the world’s problems, social scientists rejected what they came to characterise as an ‘end of pipe’ role in relation to technical developments – parodied by the UK Commission on the Social Sciences (2003: 29) as “we have invented this, now find a market for it’ or ‘we have invented this but it has a few unfortunate side effects. How do we get people to accept it?’”. Social science facilitation of new technologies was challenged for being subservient and instrumental, and displaying an uncritical view of technological change and its consequences. In taking a more detached stance, therefore, social scientists examined growing concerns over the social and environmental impacts of new technologies and investigated the interests lying behind scientific research. Much of this critique, it should be said, has come from academic social scientists as well as from public interest groups. Most of the bigger legions of social scientists employed in commerce, business, industry and government continue to play this facilitation role.
  • In considering the case for a re-engagement of public social science with socio-technical change, therefore, we envisage a different relationship, but one in which social scientists will have to work more closely and creatively with natural scientists and engineers, helping to steer the design of socio-technical change for sustainable development.
  • If societal needs with significant applied components are a necessary precondition for successful collaboration, then climate change could be our 21st century catalyst for renewed attempts at interdisciplinary working. Climate change is one of the biggest threats that the global society has ever faced. It is important not to become utterly fixated with this issue, but I take it as paradigmatic of the big, complex problems of globalisation. In many respects it represents the nadir of globalisation, but it is also driving the development of global institutions. Climate change isn’t just another form of environmental politics - an argument about the distribution of risk. It is instead a Malthusian survivalist politics about the prospects of human society reaching its ecological limits and the possibly widespread and catastrophic consequences if these limits are surpassed. We see this in the set of security challenges – food security, energy security, water security, environmental security, biosecurity – that characterise our times. As a scientific challenge for mankind, climate change presents certain characteristics:First of all it is about future possibilities and uncertainties; about present and past actions that compromise the future; about steps that we could take now that would have implications 30, 50, 100 years hence. Climate change then is about viable futures.Secondly, the politics of climate change is foremost about the politics of science. We rely almost totally on science to characterise the threat we face in the future and the steps we must take to avoid or adjust to it. In this sense scientists are messengers from the future. And we can only engage with their forecasts and prescriptions by engaging with the politics of science.Thirdly, climate change links together distant places and people. The primary changes are to the Earth’s atmosphere and climatic system, but the consequences, like the causes, have strong local dimensions. The fates of the local and the global are thus inextricably bound.
  • The novelty of contemporary problems elicit solutions and expertise from all the sciences. Unsustainable development is seen to have been fostered by the fragmented and constrained logic of monodisciplinary perspectives. Governments, preoccupied with risk and sustainability issues therefore turn to new areas of research. So the ‘hierarchy of the sciences’ formulated in the 1950s is overturned (think of the growing importance of such previously marginal fields as applied ecology, synthetic biology, geo-engineering and meteorology). Significant opportunities arise also for the social sciences, as it becomes clear that natural scientists do not have all the answers, and that major socio-technical changes are called for.Of course, no single discipline has exclusive licence over the scientific creation of socio-technical entities. Having said that, many of the concepts forged recently in an effort to imagine and to fabricate viable futures emanate from the natural sciences: concepts such as the bio-economy, ecosystem services, rewilding, carbon footprints, life cycle analysis transgenic animals or adaption to climate change.It is important therefore for social scientists to pitch in there: to embrace interdisciplinary methodologies that emphasise the need for combined social and technical change (including the significance of social technologies, such as carbon trading, eco-towns, tipping points and socio-technical transitions). That will require innovative methods for working together between social and natural sciences. This is vital if critical social analysis is to be brought to bear on the design of socio-technical change.Undoubtedly, re-engagement involves risks. One would be of a return to an end-of-pipe role for social science, but defined this time not by physical and biological scientists but by climate change scientists saying, in effect, “we define the parameters of (un)sustainable existence, you social scientists now persuade people to mend their ways”. Arguably, though, social scientists have no choice but to re-engage. Not least, because, left to their own devices, natural scientists reinvent the social.
  • Indeed, left to themselves, natural scientists reinvent the social. The physical and biological sciences do that by extending human agency. The environmental sciences do it essentially by moving the natural/social boundary. Take the example of ecologists – scientists of the natural world. The focus of classical ecology in the early 20th century was the field study of natural organisms under natural conditions, with natural taken to mean non-human. However, as the human world has invaded/permeated the natural world, ecologists have been obliged to think firstly about human modified systems and then about humans as ecological objects/subjects. This has taken ecology through successive stages, including applied ecology and most recently sustainability science, pursuing different functions. In doing so, it has gone through different phases of the way it construes people: from people as the ‘ecological audience’, to ‘ecological agents’, to ‘ecological subjects/objects’.
  • An important justification for interdisciplinarity is to bring together different disciplinary framings of a problem, to over-come partial perspectives. One consequence may be the introduction of novel framings of research problems. Other benefits of interdisciplinarity include understanding technological opportunities and environmental constraints in context; the promise of more holisitic solutions to complex problems; and improved accountability of scientific decision making.
  • In thinking about social science partners, ecologists were guided by their sense of what was methodologically and philosophically compatible with their own research. Many felt themselves better equipped to collaborate with those using quantitative approaches which meant that ‘common methodologies, techniques and principles’ could be pursued. Others, though, found collaboration with qualitative social science more demanding but more rewarding.
  • Philosophical divides – some running through ecology itself – also influenced choice of partners. Comparing ecology and various social sciences, reference was made to ‘different ways of conceptualizing and studying things’ and contrasting ‘research paradigms’. Here we see opposite views from a community ecologist and an applied ecologist.
  • A related divide concerned the choice between ‘reductionist’ and ‘holistic’ approaches. Here we see contrasting opinions from a spatial ecologist and a conservation ecologist. The range of opinions expressed by the ecologists reflected the range of their social science partners which spanned economics, human geography, sociology, political science, social anthropology and psychology.Working through methodological and philosophical differences was generally seen to be essential to successful interdisciplinary collaboration. Whilst some were impatient with what they regarded as too much navel gazing, others saw achieving mutual understanding between different scientific perspectives as the great goal of interdisciplinarity.
  • I am suggesting then a resurgence of the intervention sciences (in contrast to the laboratory and field sciences) with their action-oriented epistemology. Acceptance of the ubiquity of environmental change requires that all social and territorial units become sites of experimental adaptation. Every household, business, city and region across the globe must adapt. Thus they all become experimental sites for socio-technical and socio-ecological adaption. It is important that organised science, across the social and natural science disciplines, respond by engaging with innovative initiatives wherever they may be found, to test and validate new ideas, new methods and new practices.
  • Transcript

    • 1. Philip LoweWhy social scientists should engage with natural scientistsACES November 2010
    • 2. Isidore Marie AugusteFrançois Xavier Comte(1798 – 1857)
      Social Physics – later ‘Sociology’
      Queen of the Sciences- organised the lower sciences
    • 3. Social scientists steering technical change in the mid/late 19th century
      • Social engineers of the Victorian era
    • 20th century – disciplinary specialization/ interdisciplinary reaction
      The need for articulation of the disciplines
      Interdisciplinarity: periodic engagement/disengagement of the disciplines
      Different prompts for interdisciplinary collaboration:
      Educational; Academic; External/Societal
      Cycle of practical application and academic abstraction
    • 4. “periods of marching and periods of weaving. For a time, the different academic professions march forward separately but in parallel, each in its own special way; then, for a time, they join hands and work together on the general problems arising in the areas where their techniques overlap”.
    • 5. (Dis)engaging the Applied Social Sciences
      The changing relationship of social sciences towards technical R&D:
      • 1950s-1970s – Era of technological optimism
      • 6. 1970s-1990s – Era of technological criticism/detachment
      • 7. 2000s – Upfront engagement
    • (Dis)engaging the Applied Social Sciences
      The changing relationship of social sciences towards technical R&D:
      • 1950s-1970s – Era of technological optimism
      Involvement in technological developments, focussed on barriers to diffusion of innovations.
    • 8.
    • 9. (Dis)engaging the Applied Social Sciences
      The changing relationship of social sciences towards technical R&D:
      • 1970s-1990s – Era of technological criticism/ detachment
      Social scientists reject ‘end of pipe’ role and address growing concerns over social and environmental impacts of new technologies.
    • 10. (Dis)engaging the Applied Social Sciences
      The changing relationship of social sciences towards technical R&D:
      • 2000s – Upfront re-engagement?
      Interdisciplinary research bringing critical social analysis into steering the design of socio-technical change for sustainable development
    • 11. Climate Change: New imperative for interdisciplinarity
    • 12. Engaging the sciences
      Technological solutions on their own will not suffice
      A need for new technologies to go with grain of social change and social innovation which creatively exploits technological opportunities
      Innovation as combined socio-technical process
    • 13. Engaging the sciences
      • If social scientists don’t construct the social, natural scientists will do it for them Example of ecology
    • Ecologists’ Construing of People
    • 14. How can ecologists best take into account the social/human dimensions of their work?
    • 15. The Relu (Rural Economy and Land Use) programme
    • 16. New Ways of Doing Science
      Claims for interdisciplinary research are that it can help:
      • Avoid partial framings of questions and complex problems
      • 17. Introduce new framings of research problems
      • 18. Contextualise technological opportunities and environmental constraints
      • 19. Provide holistic solutions
      • 20. Improve accountability by opening up framing of problems and resource allocation decisions
    • The Relu programme
      What use social sciences in interdisciplinary projects:
    • 21. Ecologists and social scientists in Relu
      Ecologists collaborating with social scientists by activity (%)
    • 22. ?
      Ecologists in Relu: How to choose a social science partner
      Economists have much in
      common with ecologists –
      they are quantitative, and develop predictive models
      Landscape ecologist
      Working with qualitative social scientists is much more exciting and challenging
      Ecological modeller
    • 23. ?
      Ecologists in Relu: How to choose a social science partner
      Ecology’s hypothetic-deductive approach is quite alien to many social scientists
      Applied ecologist
      As a field scientist, I believe that useful science can be done without recourse solely to hypothesis-testing
      Community ecologist
    • 24. ?
      Ecologists in Relu: How to choose a social science partner
      Conservation ecologist
      Links are easiest to the more reductionist social scientists
      than the more holistic ones
      Ecologists and social scientists
      both have to understand systems that cannot be confined to simple equations or hypotheses, and may not be amenable to experiment
      Spatial ecologist
    • 25. Unity of the social and environmental sciences in intervention mode
      Site of discovery
      Field
      Laboratory
      Field
      Knowledge generated
      Natural observation, leading to induction
      Results of controlled experiment, leading to deduction
      Observation and experiment through intervention, leading to innovation
      Epistemological assumption
      All seeing , but detached and neutral observer
      All powerful experimenter, ensuring completely controlled and replicable conditions
      Researchers learn through field interventions
      Examples
      Classical environmental and social sciences
      Physical and biological sciences
      Action research, engineering, medicine, applied social and environmental sciences
      Mode of science
      Observational
      Experimentation
      Intervention
    • 26. Science in an unstable environment

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