Is social science useful?

Este é o primeiro post da série “A utilidade das Ciência Sociais

Por Andy Inch

I’ll start by saying something that a relatively new member of an academic research group in a dedicated Institute of Social Sciences probably shouldn’t own up to but sometimes I’m not really sure of the value of academic social science research.

There, I’ve admitted it.

But I don’t think this is just a crisis of self-identity. Questions about the role and purpose of social research are vital, and perhaps have particular relevance to those of us working in more applied areas of the so-called social sciences. With budgets for research funding likely to come under increasing pressure across Europe, they are also likely to have much wider significance in the near future.

Like many others, I came to research out of a fuzzy belief that knowledge can improve society – this was underpinned by a set of equally fuzzy commitments to the creation of more socially just, democratic and environmentally sustainable ways of life. Unfortunately, steeped in the pseudo-scientific search for objectivity much ‘traditional’ social research still prefers to hide away any trace of such normative values. Shaped by increasing disciplinary specialization and the prevailing model of academic publishing, meanwhile, I worry that our practices often resemble a retreat from the complexities of the world rather than a serious attempt to engage with how we can play a part in changing it for the better.

The traditional model of academic knowledge production is imagined as a linear process, moving from the conception of questions to the collection and analysis of ‘data’, and ultimately ending with the dissemination of ‘results’. You then sit back in your ivory tower to see how your sage insights make the world a better place. This may be the case in some areas of scientific endeavour, but I don’t know many social researchers that really believe it works.

As researchers, our ‘outputs’ are increasingly weighed and measured, rewards are distributed based on metrics of ‘quality’ and so we put huge amounts of time and effort into publishing papers in ‘top’ international journals (which overwhelming privileges work in the English language). While we shake our heads and mutter about the inadequacies of measuring performance in such a limited way, ever more papers are published, generating substantial profits for multinational companies who place them behind paywalls to be skim read by a few colleagues and maybe some students.

If social media echo-chambers were partly responsible for the ‘shock’ political events of 2016 – from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump – social researchers should hardly have been taken by surprise. We’ve been working in our own echo-chambers for years and the purpose of the publishing game often seems to be more about developing careers than influencing the world.

Open access publishing can help in this regard. But the problem is not just one of access to information. It is that so much of that information is written in esoteric language that is often impenetrable to all but the most committed of non-academics. I know this from first hand experience. Planning Democracy, a small non-profit organisation I am on the board of in Scotland struggles patiently to translate my devotion to dead French philosophers into something usable in their campaigns for a fair and inclusive planning system.

Blogs like this perhaps offer more effective ways of reaching wider audiences (though I’m acutely aware that by writing in English I’m alienating potential readers here!). Media coverage can take research to wider audiences, and initiatives like The Conversation that enable academics to work with journalists to develop stories are promising in this regard. Some researchers are remarkably effective in their use of social media too, ensuring their work is seen by communities of practice for whom it might be valuable. But this type of writing and dissemination is still usually an optional extra that must always be done on top of the obligation to publish or perish in academic journals, and little time and attention is devoted to developing the skills required to do it well.

But dissemination is not the only moment when our work engages with the world. We go into communities, engage with people, draw on their experiences and observe their practices, all in order to better understand how the social world works. In the traditional model we then disappear having collected our data. The language we use to do this frequently reifies the social relations involved – people become ‘research subjects’, places become ‘fieldwork sites’. All of this is meant to dress up what we do as respectable ‘science’. I worry that it is also a way of justifying research as an extractive industry – mining knowledge from society with too little concern for what we leave behind or give back [i]. If the intractability of social problems in the world is any measure to go by, this extractive model of knowledge production hasn’t really been very effective either.

End Coal Now action. Reclaim The Power / Tom Richards under a Creative Commons Licence

There are, of course, other models of social research. I have become drawn towards participatory work, and commitments to the co-creation and co-production of knowledge are generating an increasing variety of different approaches, often promising a more ethical engagement with the people and places we interact with. Such methods also offer a means of being involved in, and learning from, the complexity of real processes of change – rather than simply observing them or collecting post-hoc accounts of what happened.

Funders too are increasingly interested in the ‘impact’ of academic research, and requirements to work with ‘users’ are becoming a standard part of many funding calls. This brings opportunities and challenges for those interested in changing the world, rather than simply interpreting it (to paraphrase Marx). The opportunities lie in an increased openness to new types of research. The many challenges include how this type of work can be done well, rather than simply as an instrumental response to financial incentives and how such approaches can be fitted in alongside other pressures: can meaningful, trusting relationships be created in the context of fixed-term project funding? Can such projects respond effectively to real needs in society? Can academic publishing pressures be squared with more accessible forms of dissemination?

Much of this agenda also assumes a world that wants to work with academics and believes the knowledge we produce can make a difference. Yet that is not always the case. During the Brexit referendum in the UK when faced by a wealth of hostile reports, one of the leaders of the leave campaign, Michael Gove, openly questioned whether the opinions of ‘experts’ mattered. This drew considerable commentary and no little criticism. But scepticism about the role and value of academic expertise is not confined to opportunistic right-wing populists.

In my experience, for example, urban planning practitioners often express scorn for anything they regard as theoretical. For me this usually brings to mind Keynes’ view that: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back” (p.383).  If social research becomes too applied, and seeks only to respond to the stated needs of users, there are real dangers of evicting critical approaches, losing sight of how the world might be made a different and better place.

This is why theorizing matters but it needs to be as Stuart Hall once said “a detour on the way to somewhere more important” (p42). It is also therefore important to find ways of communicating and sharing the value of such critical thinking in a world impatient for instrumental solutions.

“I think but I do not exist”. Source: Andy Inch

All of which brings me back to my crisis of self-identity. I suppose research like researchers comes in all shapes and sizes, there is no one true path and we all have to find our own ways of making a contribution. Though the traditional model of academic publishing and extractive research still dominate, there are arguably signs that it is breaking down.

Albeit often in limited ways, opportunities to publish differently or to collaborate in new ways do seem to be opening up. These create new tensions that we have to navigate without losing our vital critical faculties, or the ability to explore alternatives. But if we accept that prevailing models of social science are not well equipped to make a difference then we should welcome any opportunity to reimagine the role and purpose of social research.

For anyone interested in discussing these and related issues in the context of urban studies we are organising a one-day workshop at ICS on the 10th of July along with the INTREPID COST-action and the Association of European Schools of Planning Young Academics Network. You can find further details about the event bellow.

[i] This is a term my colleague at the University of Sheffield Lee Crookes and I have used a lot in recent years. I’m not entirely sure anymore where we extracted it from, but it’s definitely a product of our ongoing collaboration.


Hall, S. (1991) Old and new identities, old
and new ethnicities. In Anthony D. King, ed., Culture, globalization and the world system. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Keynes, J.M. (1936) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, London, MacMillan.

Andy Inch is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon

Este artigo faz parte da Série “A utilidade das ciências sociais”


Transformative Knowledge for an era of Planetary Urbanization?

Questioning the role of social sciences and humanities from an interdisciplinary perspective

Pre-Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) one-day seminar
Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Universidade de Lisboa (ICS-ULisboa)
An INTREPID Action workshop

11.00am-5.30pm, 10th July 2017 (followed by drinks/ pre-arranged dinner)

Submission of motivation letters by 15th March 2017

 Keynote speakers:

  • Heather Campbell (University of Sheffield)
  • Second keynote TBC


  • INTREPID COST action (web);
  • ICS-ULisboa, research group Environment, Territory, Society (web);
  • AESOP Young Academics Network (web).

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in so many ways.
The point, however, is to change it”
(Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach, XI)

 [T]he scientific study of and training in creative conceptual and practical thinking on the relation between society and environment at various territorial levels and in the search, development and advancement of opportunities for purposeful intervention in that relation to ensure sustainable development
(AESOP, 1995)

 A few decades ago, Henri Lefebvre (1970) prophesied that human society, under capitalist organisation, would inevitably become entirely urbanised. If, as many argue, that moment has arrived and we live an age of ‘planetary urbanisation’ (Brenner, 2013; Buckley and Strauss, 2016), the problem(s) of the urban – the ‘urban question’ (Castells, 1972; Merrifield, 2012) – are amongst the central challenges facing the world. From a different perspective, the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’, has popularised the idea that mankind has become a planetary force (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). Given its dominant urban form, the Anthropocene’s sustainability becomes increasingly a matter of urban sustainability, and that is a major 21st century challenge. The New Urban Agenda by UN-Habitat (2016) summarises the main obstacles to sustainable urban development as: ‘the persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities, and environmental degradation […], with social and economic exclusion and spatial segregation often an irrefutable reality in cities and human settlements’.

If awareness of ongoing climatic change has generated growing public concern, there nonetheless seems to be widespread uncertainty that environmental (and hence social and economic) disasters can be avoided. Prevailing commitment to increasingly far-reaching ‘techno-fixes’ seem to either confirm such, potentially dystopian, pessimimism (see Klein, 2014), or appeal to a utopian ideal under the notions of smart and intelligent cities (de Jong et al., 2015).

This one-day seminar starts from the idea that the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) are crucial to produce and disseminate the knowledge necessary to envision and collaboratively shape ‘sustainable’ futures, avoiding the traps of dystopian and anti-utopian developments. However, at present, mainstream research and education approaches seem ill-equipped to address the major economic, environmental and societal challenges generated by contemporary urbanisation. The social sciences, for example, are dominated by an ‘entrenched empiricism’ (Brenner and Schmid, 2013) that prevents the production of novel, and theoretically/critically informed, paradigms. Disciplinary barriers meanwhile stymie the creation of real inter- and trans-disciplinary knowledge (Harkavy, 2006; Petts et al, 2008; Davoudi, 2010). All in all, SSH have been too focused on studying the past and present (Appadurai, 2013; Adam, 2009) and risk missing the opportunity to shape a ‘sustainable’ future (Bina et al, 2016a).

This certainly seems to be true of urban studies, an inherently interdisciplinary field (AESOP, 2009), but one in which standard practices fall short of the holistic approaches necessary to equip the next generation with the methodological and conceptual capacities to shape sustainable futures (Bina et al, 2016b). Urban disciplines and mainstream SSH therefore urgently need to develop new approaches if they are to contribute positively to the creation of just and sustainable urban futures (Dimitrova, 2014; UN-Habitat, 2009).

This seminar aims to bring together a group of particularly early and mid-career scholars to discuss the kinds of transformative knowledge, pedagogy and practice required to achieve sustainable development in an era of planetary urbanization. We invite scholars from (and beyond) all areas of urban studies and SSH linked to urban issues, including, but not limited to, planning, architecture, urban design, urban geography; and economics, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, comparative literature, cultural studies, to participate.

The session will critically consider the strengths and weaknesses of SSH approaches, and how they might be reconfigured. Key issues to be considered will include at least two of the following themes:

  • challenges and potentials of shaping new interdisciplinary agendas in research and education (especially from the perspective of early career researchers);
  • role of theory in the production of the urban, and the value of critical approaches (cf. Brenner, 2009; Marcuse, 2010);
  • search for new epistemological and methodological approaches – ‘mondialisation’ (Lévy, 2008), beyond divides such as local/global (Healey, 2012), West/South (Santos, 2010) and human/nature (Moore, 2015), and the potential of comparative studies for the production of new knowledges (Robinson, 2016);
  • role of SSH in envisioning and shaping futures – including co-production (Watson, 2014; Palmer and Walasek, 2016; Campbell and Vanderhoven, 2016), and foresight methods for exploring urban futures (Güell and Lopez 2016; Hopkins and Zapata, 2007; Freestone, 2012; Phdungsilp 2011).

The seminar will be participatory in format, with two keynote addresses and a core discussion in the form of world café. It is intended that discussion will feed directly into a linked roundtable discussion proposed as part of the main Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) conference that will run from the 11-14 of July in Lisbon. Building on a brief Position Paper by the organising team to be circulated in advance to participants, it is anticipated the session will also generate collective written outputs in a suitable international journal.

 The seminar is free of costs to the participants. To be considered for the seminar, please submit by 15th March 2017 a letter of motivation (max 2 pages A4) to and, stating what your background and researcher/education interests are, as well as what perspective and topics you want to bring to the discussion. 20 participants will be selected, with priority given to early- and mid-career, scholars – at least 5 seats will be reserved to YA members. Notice will be given by early April.

It is currently expected that we will be able to fund a number of travel bursaries (which would cover approximately the cost of travel and one-night accommodation), with priority given to early-career scholars from universities in low- and middle-income countries (more information by February 2017) – with a proportion reserved for YA members. If you want to apply for the scholarship, please submit a letter stating why you think it should be awarded to you.

Works cited

Adam, B.E. (2008). Future matters: Futures known, created and mindedTwenty-First Century Society, 3(2), 111-116.

AESOP (Association of the European Schools of Planning) (1995). Core requirements for a high quality European planning education.

Appadurai, A. (2013). The future as a cultural fact: Essays on the global condition. London: Verso.

Bina, O., Balula, L., Varanda, M. and Fokdal, J. (2016a). Urban studies and the challenge of embedding sustainability: A review of international master programmes. Journal of Cleaner Production, 137, 330-346.

Bina, O., Mateus, S., Pereira, L. and Caffa, A. (2016b). The future imagined: Exploring fiction as a means of reflecting on today’s Grand Societal Challenges and tomorrow’s options. Futures, online first. Doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2016.05.009.

Brenner, N. (2009). What is critical urban theory? City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, 13(2-3), 198-207.

Brenner, N. (ed.) (2013). Implosions/explosions. Towards a study of planetary urbanization. Berlin: Jovis.

Brenner, N. & Schmid, C. (2013). The ‘urban age’ in question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), 731-755.

Buckley, M. and Strauss, K. (2016). With, against and beyond Lefebvre: Planetary urbanization and epistemic plurality. Environment and Space D, 34(4), 617-636.

Campbell, H. and Vanderhoven, D. (2016). Coproduction: Knowledge that matters. Manchester: Economic and Social Research Council N8 Research Partnership.

Castells, M. (1972). La question urbaine. Paris: Maspero.

Crutzen, P.G. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000). The ‘Anthopocene’. IGBP Newsletter, 41, 17-18.

Davoudi, S. (2010). Planning and interdisciplinarity. In Geppert, A. and Cotella, G. (eds.), Planning education. Quality issues in a changing European Higher Education Area (pp. 33-36). Leuven: AESOP.

de Jong, M., Joss, S., Schraven, D., Zhan, C. and Weijnen, M. (2015). Sustainable-smart-resilient-low carbon-eco-knowledge cities; making sense of a multitude of concepts promoting sustainable urbanization. Journal of Cleaner Production, 109, 25-38.

Dimitrova, E. (2014). The ‘sustainable development’ concept in urban planning education: Lessons learned on a Bulgarian path. Journal of Cleaner Production, 62, 120-127.

Freestone, R. (2012) Futures thinking in planning education and research. Journal of Education in the Built Environment, 7(1), 8-38

Güell, J. M. F. and López, J. G. (2016). Cities futures. A critical assessment of how future studies are applied to cities. Foresight, 18(5) 454-468.

Harkavy, I. (2006). The role of universities in advancing citizenship and social justice in the 21st century. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 1(1):

Healey, P. (2012). The universal and the contingent: Some reflections on the transnational flow of planning ideas and practices. Planning Theory, 11(2), 188-207.

Hopkins, L. and Zapata, M. (eds.) (2007). Engaging the future: Forecasts, scenarios, plans and projects. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute for Land Policy.

Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything. Capitalism vs. the climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lefebvre, H. (1970). La révolution urbaine. Paris: Gallimard.

Lévy, J. (ed.). L’invention du Monde. Une géographie de la mondialisation. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

Marcuse, P. (2010). In defense of theory in practice. City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, 14(1-2), 4-12.

Merrifield, H. (2014). The new urban question. London: PlutoPress.

Moore, J. (2015). Capitalism in the web of life: Ecology and the accumulation of capital. London: Verso.

Palmer, H. and Walasek, H., (2016). Realising just cities: Towards realising just cities. Gothenburg: Mistra Urban Futures.

Petts, J., Owens, S. and Bulkeley, H. (2008). Crossing boundaries: Interdisciplinarity in the context of urban environments. Geoforum, 39(2), 593-601.

Phdungsilp, A. (2011). Futures studies’ backcasting method used for strategic sustainable city planning. Futures, 43(7), 707-714.

Robinson, J. (2016). Thinking cities through elsewhere: Comparative tactics for a more global urban studies. Progress in Human Geography,  40(1), 3-29.

UN-Habitat (2009). Planning sustainable cities, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). London: Earthscan.

UN-Habitat (2016). HABITAT III. New Urban Agenda. Draft outcome document for adoption in Quito, October 2016. 10 September 2016.

Watson, V. (2014). Coproduction and collaboration in planning: The difference. Planning Theory and Practice, 15(1), 62-76.


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