Social scientists and public accountability

This was originally published on social science space. I’m happy to admit it is a piece of rhetoric, designed to make a point. If you are interested in debating this more, I’m on the panel for a Guardian Higher Education livechat on research communication later today (or use the comments below, as ever).

Every now and again I see someone argue that the models for public engagement and impact built for natural sciences are all very well, but can’t possibly apply to us in the social sciences or humanities.

Whilst I have some sympathy, some of this amounts to sticking slightly snobby scholarly fingers in pairs of already too-deaf ears and going ‘yada yada yada, I can’t hear you’ at political realities knocking on the doors of lovingly constructed ivory towers.

Ideas of public engagement and impact are, in themselves, not a bad thing. I’m all for cynicism about particular definitions of these terms sometimes offered to us (cough – Big Society fuss – cough). But we should take these offerings fairly too, and accept that organizations like the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement are there to help us be better academics.

The scientific community woke up to demonstrate their worth around the mid 1980s. They then started a long and painful process of realising that they can’t simply shout ‘BUT YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO ME I AM VERY CLEVER’ (and ‘while you’re at it, leave me alone to get on with my work in peace’), gradually realising they needed to get imaginative about explaining not only their work, but themselves. Moreover, they realized that they need to listen to the public too. This doesn’t necessarily amount to being told what to study, it just means listening (this might be useful as background). It may seem like an imposition, but those who bother are reaping the benefits.

Of course, you could study whatever you want to, in exactly the way you choose, and only bother to have the cosiest of chats about it. You can do that in your spare time. Want independence? Go, join the hobbyists. Me, I’m a public sector professional, and as such, I take pride in the ways in which I may cultivate an independent voice, but do so within a network of constraints provided by public service. Listening to outside voices is not a threat to my professionalism; it’s an expression of it.

I don’t want to sound entirely unsympathetic, and I admit I’m being deliberately provocative. I know many people in the social sciences aren’t nearly so blinkered. I also know from personal experience than communicating our scholarship can be bloody difficult. Yeah, everyone loves a nice historical story – a little ‘factette’ about Newton inventing the catflap for example – but what about the more complex offerings from professional historical research, the less convenient ideas, the less appealing detail?

A scientist friend puts a fart joke in his explanation of methane and get congratulated for being so down to earth. I seethe with envy. Part of my research involves unraveling the cultures and politics of fart jokes in popular science. When I try to explain this work, I sound like a spoilsport.

Most people feel uncomfortable talking about the abstract entities of science. Traditionally scientists have seen this as their great challenge, but in some ways they have it easy. Everyone’s got an opinion on the research objects of social sciences and humanities, and this is precisely what makes sharing our expertise so hard. But we shouldn’t loose sense of how it can be an advantage. We should listen to all these opinions, and then work out how to challenge them, how we can offer something more. We have these opinions for a living, we have taken time to have a proper look and good, deep think about it. What new stuff have we dug up? Moreover, as someone who worries about these issues for a living, surely we want to have our ideas and evidence extended, our assumptions poked at, our ideas used?

We are paid to do our research. Teaching a small set of kids privileged enough to go to university, or publishing in esoteric journals only a couple of people will read does not cut it. Moreover, it doesn’t challenge our ideas enough to make the sort of high quality work we should be producing. Earn public trust by showing off your worth. You may well learn something in the process too.

You don’t have to do what you are told, what’d be the point of you if you did? But for goodness sake take those bloody fingers out of your ears. Me, I’m a professional scholar, not a hobbyist. That’s why I try to stretch my work outside of the academy, and why I think you should too.

6 thoughts on “Social scientists and public accountability

  1. Rebekah Higgitt

    Thanks Alice – I enjoyed this, and feel some of it could have been written for me ;-) This sentence feels very familiar: “Yeah, everyone loves a nice historical story – a little ‘factette’ about Newton inventing the catflap for example – but what about the more complex offerings from professional historical research, the less convenient ideas, the less appealing detail?” But what’s your view on how to avoid “sound[ing] like a spoilsport”? I understand that I should be listening, but there’s not always anyone out there wanting to have a conversation.

    1. alice Post author

      Yeah, the catflap thing comes from a personal experience of working at the science museum, but can see how it’d resonate!

      Avoiding like a spoilport – well, I guess the question is what will sharing this information achieve? Are you *just* spoiling people’s fun by simply trying to show off how clever you are, or giving them something they might really enjoy or find useful? Medical com’s spoil people’s fun all the time! In terms of pop history, I guess QI’s quite an interesting example of playing with the nice little stories we have about the world, and then going ‘but it’s all more complex than that’ – in many ways, I’d say they handle the spoilsport-ing really well, though also we might argue that they mainly provide a chance for their audience to show off cleverness too (maybe that’s ok? maybe that’s what pop sci/hist does… I would also say they provide an opportunity to enjoy the complexity and surprise of study).

      Re “there’s not always anyone out there wanting to have a conversation” – I think sometimes academics need to present work to start the sorts of conversations they can listen to, but then if no one is listening there might well be a reason for that… Do you mean there are people who wont listen back, preventing a conversation…? I can sympathise, though I guess it doesn’t stop you from listening so that what you try to say to them might be more productive.

  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    What I mean by people not wanting a conversation is that many of the audiences I address just want either to be entertained with a nice story and/or for me to speak as ‘the expert’. In neither case is there much desire to discuss things further. QI is the same in that regard and I’m not sure I would call it engagement.

    1. alice Post author

      Gottit – and arguably, the lack of public desire for much of PEST is the movement’s stumbling block…

      I wouldn’t call QI engagement either, but it is a form of popular science and popular history. It is also, in it’s way, conversational. I’m not offering it as a model, more as a context.

      All of this depends on how narrowly you are choosing to define engagement (and I’d argue that sometimes a narrow definition of engagement is a good thing…). My point with listening was simply listening to what people other than academics think and might want.

      I’d also say that you are in a rather different position as a curator compared to, say, a sociological researcher. You are employed in many ways to be an advocate for other peoples expertise, no?

  3. Rebekah Higgitt

    I think curatorial roles vary hugely between institutions. At the NMM, at least, I suppose we are research curators – producing original academic work as well as cataloguing or exhibitions work, which may be based much more on secondary research. What James Sumner wrote about his experience of media work – that you are a spokesperson for a discipline, usually talking outside your direct expertise – felt familiar.

    1. alice Post author

      Yes, curators vary a lot, I just meant there is a traditional route for public facing dissemination for many.

      The Sumner post is a good point – I think a lot of researchers are advocates for other peoples’ research. Wherever they work.


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