A Reflection on the Scientific Foundations of Social Sciences

By Diana Soeiro

In the wake of the current pandemic each profession is impacted in its own way. Social scientists seem eager to prove their usefulness and value and the many posts, new blogs, new discussion groups and newsletters seem to confirm this tendency. The motivation is to be able to provide others an informed opinion. Those looking a little bit more ahead try to find ways to collect data in order to be able to produce scientific articles about the current situation – conducting surveys, interviews, or soliciting personal reflections.

A few examples that are relevant to refer at this point in the realm of health are: 1) The website Barómetro COVID-19, an initiative conducted by the National School of Public Health (ENSP) – Universidade Nova de Lisboa, taking an interdisciplinary approach, featuring different sections dedicated to ‘opinion and commentary’, public policy, occupational health and epidemiology. The goal is to provide informed and updated information; 2) The Life and Health Sciences Research Institute (ICVS), School of Medicine, Universidade do Minho, is conducting a long-term study to better understand the impact of the pandemia on mental health. The study encompasses Portugal and Spain, working in partnership, and is coordinated by Maria Picó Pérez and Pedro Morgado.

ICS has also developed two projects that are worth mentioning:

1) Covid19 Survey: A Pandemics’ Social Impact, developed by a group of researchers at ICS-University of Lisbon and ISCTE-Lisbon University Institute. The survey’s first results can be consulted at https://www.ics.ulisboa.pt/docs/RelatorioInqueritoICSISCTE.pdf

2) Confinement Diaries: this research project encourages those who wish to do so to share their confinement experiences due to restrictions imposed by Covid19. The research team is comprised by Mónica Truninger, Ana Delicado, Roberto Falanga, Luís Junqueira and Helena Vicente. More information at http://www.diariosdeconfinamento.net/index.html

The impact of the restrictions imposed by the state of emergency, declared at this point in almost every country in the world, not only affects health but also every sector of the economy. The Network of European Museums Organisation (NEMO) has recently conducted a survey in an attempt to assess the impact on cultural organisations.

The Portuguese Association for Hotels and Restaurants (AHRESP) which represents a large part of existing companies in Portugal has also conducted a survey. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the government’s economic growth strategy has been to promote foreign investment and tourism and therefore this is a significant sector. The survey concluded that 75% of the sector is closed (half of these have no prediction on when, or if, they will re-open) and 80% predicts zero monthly bills in April and May.

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Fonte: Sandra Seitamaa (Unsplash)

How can Social Sciences positively contribute to the current situation? Or better yet, I will re-phase the question: How can Social Sciences positively contribute to the current situation and its aftermath? A significant part of the answer lays here: there will be an aftermath and that is the time when social sciences will be able to make an important and necessary contribution. However, in order to do that, Social Sciences need to be available to reflect and to change — like everything else.

Social sciences usually take as their object of study events and phenomena that took place beforehand. In the aftermath, data is collected, research questions are designed, categories are created, hypotheses are formulated and a reflection is proposed. As I write this, in the early days of April 2020, the whole world is at the eye of the storm and the word ‘quarantine’ is inevitably repeated in every conversation. Those reading this in the future hold the answer to when has this situation ended and how. Current readers and I myself have no idea what will happen. We find ourselves sharing a state of angst and an existential crisis where we struggle to remain human, fighting the monster that builds inside of us. We will not be the same after this but that also contains the possibility that we can become better.

How can the current situation positively impact the way we conceive Social Sciences? I claim that Social Sciences need to make a stronger bet in producing research that looks forward instead of exclusively looking backwards. Research takes a lot time fitting concepts together and designing research questions in order to make the perfect puzzle. However, this brings added difficulties when facing new and unexpected problems because the web of concepts and questions is too tightly connected with previous questions and events.

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Fonte: Ben White (Unsplash)

Surprise and bewilderment need to become elements that are incorporated within the research process. Perceived as a source of discomfort they are usually quickly dismissed and put aside, or quickly moulded to fit our expectations. However, we should learn to live with them, giving them time to develop and grow, learning to listen what they can tell us. The advantage in doing so is that we can more readily contribute to design a solution, or part of it, to address a given problem when the time comes. ‘Foresearch’ instead of ‘research.

Not everybody is interested in doing this kind of research and some may consider it non-scientific because it is too speculative in nature. However, to those who take interest in this kind of approach, academic institutions should be more welcoming. What is the foundation for this proposal? The foundation is a closer collaboration between Humanities and Social Sciences where Humanities inform and define the background of the research and Social Sciences are invited to contribute. Among Social Sciences, Sociology rules due to the power it claims through the heavy use of statistics. Math is power. However, the excessive focus on data, statistics and the struggle to conduct a research that follows hard science is a heavy inheritance from the early 20th century movement known as Positivism.

Among Social Sciences, it became more frequent that articles present data with no idea behind it. To test the same idea over and over, while presenting a new case study, with ‘new’ data is usually enough to attest an article as scientifically original. Institution wise, usually we have, on one side, research that is conducted in the aftermath of a given situation/ event and on the other, consulting services provided by scientists or by research centres to address a current problem. However this leaves little room to more experimental approaches within research that enable researchers to more effectively bridge original thinking and solutions with real problems when they occur. My proposal is therefore twofold: 1) Across all academic institutions, there should be more room for original ideas, to work and develop new concepts, speculative in nature that look forward and that through the anticipation of scenarios can more readily formulate solutions and recommend public policies; 2) Humanities should be perceived as having a meaningful contribution to do this, in cooperation with Social Sciences, for its ability to think-outside the box framing old problems in different ways and having the ability to provide new solutions.

In order to produce results and outputs about the pandemia, following the traditional and prevailing approach across social sciences, social scientists need to wait for the aftermath. However, while waiting, they can reflect on how this situation strongly questions the methods they have been relying on for over a century now. Is it time to change? Yes. Like everything else.


Diana Soeiro (Philosophy, PhD and Economics and Public Policy, Post-grad) is a postdoctoral researcher at the ROCK project “Regeneration and optimization of cultural heritage in the creative and knowledge cities” (2017-2020), hosted at ICS-UL, funded by the European Union, under the Horizon 2020 programme.

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