Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester:
The most important question is not whether Britain is broken but how we decide if it is. The first question produces futile restatements of personal opinions (usually based on no evidence). The second sets up the kind of debate that might actually achieve something. (It is an interesting question how much political debates founder on an inability to see the difference between these two approaches.) The fundamental job of social science is to tell us what is going on. What is happening to crime rates? Is the distribution of wealth more unequal than was? Is Britain classless? Given the inevitable difficulties of measuring behaviour, social science gives convincing answers to these questions. For example, John Weeks clearly shows how UK income inequality got significantly worse (and has remained worse) since about 1984 regardless of the party in power. Of course, one can argue about the weaknesses in any kind of research but this doesn’t undermine the basic result any more than miscounting a barrel of marbles stops there being ‘a lot’ of marbles in a typical barrel. Politicians sometimes cast doubt on the fine detail of research hoping it will distract from the embarrassing consistency of the ‘big picture’ and citizens need to know enough to stop them getting away with that.
The first challenge social science faces is just letting people know what is going on. While about 50% of the population don’t think of themselves as belonging to a class (British Social Attitudes), class (as measured by sociologists) clearly shows that routine manual workers have a death rate that is more than twice as high as large employers and higher managers. This ought to worry us. It would appear that, as far as explaining what is happening is concerned, sociologists actually do know better than ‘the person in the street’ about class. They certainly have better evidence for the claim that class is still important to everything from educational success to life expectancy than do politicians talking about a classless society.
When it comes to solving these problems, however, things immediately get a lot harder though social science can still help. It is one thing to show an association between class and mortality but another to know what causes it and what can be done through policy to change it. It is a commonplace that however the school system is changed to promote equality, those with material and other resources will try and ‘buy’ advantage (whether by moving to better school areas, paying for coaching or whatever). Thus, introducing any policy will also change behaviour in ways that may defeat the policy.
The other thing that complicates matters is that people are just different in what they ‘mind about’ as citizens and social science cannot tell people what to want. (Though sociology, by closely observing real settings, may help to give people the sympathy to care more). While almost nobody would claim that murder is a ‘good thing’, people often believe that a certain amount of unemployment is a ‘good thing’ to promote market competition. (I wonder how many people who believe this have actually been unemployed however?)
Thus the job of a democratic government is, at the same time, to find out what people mind about and figure out how to sort it out given what is actually going on. This is what ‘evidence based’ policy means, the idea that we should do things based on an accurate perception of what is happening and how it might reasonably be changed. Put like this, it is hard to see what the alternatives are. Do what bankers like? Follow your nose and hope for the best? The very fact that there is a debate about whether Britain is broken suggests that these approaches aren’t seen to be working.
Unfortunately, not only do governments tend to use social science like a drunk uses a lamp post (more for support than illumination) but they seem to take every opportunity to undermine its value. Constant ‘fiddling’ with politically sensitive statistics makes accurate comparisons impossible (which is sometimes very convenient). Insisting on ‘applied’ research that contributes to ‘the bottom line’ makes it very unlikely that issues of inequality and disadvantage will be tackled (since disadvantage often helps profitability with its potential for exploitation). Making social science degrees ‘too expensive’ by withdrawing funding will ensure a new generation of voters too ill trained in critical evaluation of evidence to challenge government platitudes (and, in turn, a shortage of competent academics to provide evidence). Even the idea that education is a ‘public good’ (which benefits society as a whole and not just the receiver) has come from social science. Like defence and street lighting, economics clearly shows that the market will under provide public goods. Rather than a debate based on emotion, let the government prove that education only benefits the receiver and therefore (unlike defence or transport) deserves little government support. Only once we really know what is going on (and know we can trust what we know) can we move on to trying to decide how much we mind and what we might do to sort it out. Far too often political engagement with social science doesn’t even get to first base in this regard.
Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester and teaches research methods on the MSc. His research deals with decision-making, computer simulation, social networks and models of innovation and change.
He has also written for Leicester Exchanges on ‘Happy nation – should we measure national well-being?’: Happiness and the unknown unkowns
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