Category Archives: Social Science
Sociology as a discipline in the UK was shaping up during the 1960s; but there was still an air of mystery about the whole thing when I chose to study it. There was no clear role model on which to base expectations. The discipline has however served me well ever since. For most of my working life I’ve been what might be called a Jobbing Sociologist. This is a version of the account I gave of my interwoven personal and professional experience, writing for the British Sociological Association’s ‘Sociologists Outside Academia’ newsletter, published today.
Pre-History / HerStory (1950-), Social Science and Gender & Women.
1968 remains an iconic year for many. For some it represents a time of dramatic change preceding one’s own individual history, for others it was the start of a new way for us all to see the world.
But for me, 1968 was the point where the personal really hit the political-professional – the year I finished being a teenager and abandoned plans to be a natural scientist or a coloratura soprano (I’d tried both), and the year I got married and then enrolled for a degree in the most daring and mysterious subject I could think of: Sociology.
Needless to say, people opined that it would never last; but truth to tell my heart has stayed on both counts where I put it so long ago, and on many levels the two have interwoven over and over again as time marches on. Allies older and new will confirm that I’ve never been less than a fully paid-up feminist, but hard realities can sometimes get in the way of the more seductive theories of autonomy and self-determination.
My personal journey from undergraduate social science in the Nissen huts of the then North East London Polytechnic, to a freelance career as a writer and regeneration / sustainable communities consultant, via research and teaching Sociology and Social Policy in various institutions of Further and Higher Education and a decade of temporary ill-health ‘retirement’ when community activism was the only way to mitigate the tedium of physical immobility, has been part-moulded by my life as a spouse, mother, daughter, citizen and wage-earner. And I regret not a minute of it.
I started my career in Sociology in London, because the Royal Academy of Music is where putative violinists such as my other half studied; we moved to Liverpool when he was appointed a member – as he still is – of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; I undertook my Master’s (Sociology of Science and Technology, 1973; the first serious piece of research on women scientists in the UK) at Salford, because by a miracle the (then very unusual) exact course I wanted was accessible from our new home city; my PGCE was at Liverpool, so every morning before lectures I could take our baby daughter to nursery.
Having been forced (just pre-1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act) to leave my original FE teaching post when I started a family, I taught the new Open University distance courses at home whilst also sewing in pre-school name tapes, and then returned to teach ‘O’ and ‘A’-levels to many engaging young and older college students alongside checking juvenile homework. Later, I wrote the first-ever Sociology Access-to-HE modules, and academic papers and book chapters on aspects of Sociology. For some years I was (unpaid) commissioning editor for the journal Social Science Teacher, working from my prototype Amstrad computer.
I was also an active member of the British Sociological Association (BSA) Executive Committee, instigating the organisation, FACTASS (Forum of Academic and Teaching Associations in the Social Sciences), which eventually saw off the Margaret Thatcher-Keith Joseph proposal effectively to remove any notions of personal, health, social and civic education (PHSCE) from the school curriculum: ‘History finishes at 1945’ …. Oh no, it doesn’t, not if you’re teaching a decent school curriculum.
And as we all debated in those difficult times, I was learning for real how the prism of Sociology can offer a focus and analysis which rarely fails to stimulate or challenge.
Early on, I was a social worker in Liverpool’s dire council estates, and briefly a youth worker; later I was Research Associate in teenage pregnancy at Liverpool Medical School, and then Head of Health and Social Care at a Merseyside FE college. And in the 1980s and ‘90s I had to take several years out of employment with severe arthritis; so I learnt first hand to cope with illness and disability (which much illuminated my later work as an NHS Trust Non-Executive Director and as a Lay Partner of the Health Professions Council) alongside how, as a volunteer and political activist, to lobby for arts and community organisations, so finding my way into the local and regional centres of decision-making.
Eventually from that arose the initiative to regenerate the area in Liverpool I designated as Hope Street Quarter – and thereby my re-involvement in the whole sustainable development agenda, on a very different basis from when my 1970s membership of Friends of the Earth and Scientists Against Nuclear Arms had been seen as almost subversive. Being Vice-Chair of the North West (region of England) Sustainable Development Group, and a Non-Executive Director and Equality and Diversity Champion of BURA, the British Urban Regeneration Association, are pretty respectable activities.
Widening the portfolio
And in the meantime I have undertaken independent consultancies on Sure Start and local authority Youth Services, helping to realign public service provision; I’m working with Muslim colleagues on a mosque project to engage disaffected young people, and to establish a Foundation for the inspiring black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I’ve spent three fascinating years as Lay Member of the Defra Science Advisory Council (actually working in the corridors of power of which C.P. Snow wrote so compellingly, not long before I went to Salford all those years ago).
I’m currently teaching practitioners about sustainable communities online for the Homes and Communities Agency Academy; I’ve addressed conferences on my take on regional science and the new knowledge economy (‘Knowledge is like water – it flows where it can…’). I write and am a referee for regeneration journals; I have a very active website; plus I suspect I’m about to become the author of a book on communicating to achieve grounded sustainability.
The personal and the professional
So many hours on trains with the laptop, so much still to do; and now delightful Grandma duties too. My personal life trajectory has always and indelibly framed the professional one, but how else could it have been?
Free-lancing as a social scientist isn’t an easy way to earn a living, but I don’t think that’s the point. Knowledge may be like water, but sociological analysis is pure crystal. It sharpens perceptions and illuminates the social world. That’s invaluable in innumerable ways, not least as a consultant-practitioner and enabler of progressive social change.
This article was first published in the British Sociological Association‘s newsletter for its Sociologists Outside Academia group: Sociology for All, Issue No. 7 (Summer 2009).
Read more articles about Pre-History / HerStory (1950-), Social Science and Gender & Women, and see Hilary’s Publications, Lectures & Talks.
Sustainable development is a challenge for us all. If we don’t engage everyone, future generations will soon begin to pay for our neglect. For this reason, there are in the UK Sustainable Development bodies with national, regional and more local focuses. But what should these groups actually do? Here are some of the ideas which I as one individual have thought about as a member of a sustainable development group with a regional remit.
Sustainability As If People Mattered
What are the regional Sustainable Development (SD) bodies in the UK for? Is their role to provide ‘advice’ to politicians and state-employed policy-makers at the regional level? Is it to lead by example and implement programmes of work? Is it to be a talking shop between people representing different ‘stakeholding’ interests in SD? Is it something else altogether? Or is it all of these things?
Meaning and leadership in regional Sustainable Development
My personal view is that good regional approaches to SD are all these things.
Regions in the UK are all of a size (between 5 and 10 million people) where well-crafted action for sustainable development can have meaningful impacts. Regional SD groups should therefore:
* work together, with each other and with others, on the basis of mutual confidence and shared understandings – both of the factors shaping the region’s physical and socio-economic contexts, and of the perspectives of all partners;
* recognise that everyone is a stakeholder in this difficult challenge, not just those who are formally represented at the regional level;
* understand that SD is different from almost all other processes in that what happens now and in the near future cannot be revisited on the same basis and revised at some point later on: SD is globally shaped and uni-dimensional in respect of time;
* also understand that ‘good enough’ and actually deliverable has some chance of success, whilst ‘beyond any scientific doubt’ but not yet actionable is of very limited value in this period of rapid eco- and socio-economic change;
* offer visible and clear thought leadership to ‘people on the street’, as well as more formal and conventional strategic advice to those who formulate regional policy;
* recognise that this is real life; our current insights into the challenges of SD are far from perfect. Nurturing an ethos of shared responsibility in all who live and work in a region is however critical, right now.
Supporting regional approaches to sustainable development
The UK government has been working with the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), Defra and others to promote regional SD. To this end, there does now seem to be a modest level of financial support.
It is nonetheless puzzling that these national bodies apparently imagine that each regional SD group can identify without further effort what the specific or even unique challenges for their region are. Yet, whilst this can be done for matters such as flood risk, the issues are far less obvious in many other respects. Not many policy makers and politicians at the local level, for instance, are even aware of what the risks might be.
Much work still needs to be done to bring together the relevant social, economic and environmental profiles for each region of the UK, and to encourage regional SD protagonists to share pro-actively their assessments and responses to these profiles. Just as UK regional strategies in science remain weak, so do those for SD.
Hearts and minds
There is a compelling case for regional SD bodies to recognise that ‘advice’ alone is not enough – especially in a time of flux for overall regional development policies, even before we come to the ultimately much more pressing matters of global warming, diminishing bio-diversity, economic difficulties (domestic and global) and the general well-being of current and future citizens.
Regional SD approaches are about leading from the front (no-one else has that specific focus and remit…). They must recognise the stakeholding of every person in their region, and find ways to reach them all. This is about encouraging dialogue, sharing good practice, aligning policy and developing the ideas which will help us all to face the future.
To achieve this requires not only analysis of the current regional state of play, but also commitment to help change the cultural climate as well as the environmental one.
Here is one challenge which a rational-legal or scientific approach alone simply cannot resolve.
Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered.
C.P. Snow introduced the idea of the Two Cultures in the annual Rede Lecture in Cambridge of 7 May 1959. Himself both an eminent scientist and contemporary historian of science, and a novelist, in that lecture he lamented the gulf between scientists and ‘literary intellectuals’, arguing that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. Now fifty years later (as on the fortieth anniversary) a range of commentators continues to debate this claim.
Science & Technology.
Some of us may feel that the great contribution to British culture of Charles Percy Snow (1905 – 1980) was in fact to write novels and commentaries about science which are still remembered for the light they shed on how science works in modern society.
For me that’s certainly true: the dozen novels of the Strangers and Brothers saga (1949 – 1970) and his non-fiction (if not undisputed) accounts of how science ‘works’ – especially Science and Government (The Godkin Lectures at Harvard University) (1961), The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1963) and The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World (1982, republished 2008) – have helped to bridge that science – humanities chasm.
Focus on the Corridors of Power
These were the books which, as a post-grad student of the sociology of science, opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t even previously known existed: the world of high level science and policy, the world as Snow himself styled it, of The Corridors of Power.
But this focus has been largely lost in the debate about the Two Cultures and the heavyweight attack which the literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895 – 1978) made on C.P. Snow’s thesis a couple of years after the Rede Lecture, suggesting that Snow was a dreadful novelist and rejecting the validity of his concerns that the literary elite was not scientifically literate.
Not always incompatible
Isn’t it interesting in this context that quite a lot of excellent musicians are also good at maths and science; and probably just as many very good scientists are also decent musicians?
There remains as ever a cultural gap between the humanities and ‘science’, but they are both very complex enterprises, and it does not follow that all those in the arts are unaware of science, any more than the converse must always be true.
The nature of evidence
What is more worrying is that sometimes people don’t seem to understand the nature of evidence (not ‘science’) … that whenever possible it needs to be good enough to rely on, before conclusions are drawn.
Of course all evidence in the end is relative, but we have to start somewhere…. the important thing in a democratic society, is that the basis on which we as individuals, and those with influence, choose to decide actions and positions is open to scrutiny.
Moving towards rationality
Slowly, modern western society is becoming more rational and moving out of the mists of myth and cultural comfort zones. There is without doubt a limit to how much this can or should happen, but I think we’re nearer to a balance on this than we were even a few decades ago. Many scientific terms are commonplace in everyday debate.
When C.P. Snow wrote his Two Cultures lecture we as a society ‘knew’ less than we do now. It’s difficult to accept the claim that education for most people is ‘worse’ than it was in the 1950s and 60s – and I say that as the product of an inner-city grammar school of that era. Then we just didn’t perceive the awfulness of the education which most children received; this was still the post-war era when anything was better than nothing.
For most people, cultural memory is it seems very short. We can surely now, despite all the naysayers, learn more, quickly, about anything, than ever before.
The longer view
It’s said that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are here on this planet now. Possibly the same applies to artists, for what it’s worth. But what I’m sure of is that C.P. Snow has excited a lot of people – including me – over several decades, with the debate he sparked.
Snow’s perspective is of course now dated; but those who currently deny that things have got better have (potentially) the benefit of hindsight ,and they need to think quite carefully about whether they are using that very valuable vantage point properly. More people now know something about science and the arts, than ever before.
You don’t need to be able to describe the double helix and the works of great poets in detail to share some mutual understanding about our complex cultural underpinnings.
Evidence and ideas for sustainability
What you do need to be able to do is draw threads together to make sense of where you find yourself in the world… and never has that been more true than now, with the ‘one planet living’ challenges we all face.
Indeed, Lord Snow argued himself that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.
Bridging the gap
I’m not therefore sure that the most important debate around education can continue now be an arid discussion of so-called ‘standards’; surely it has to be about searching for common understandings? And in that debate C.P. Snow and those who followed have helped a lot.
If the musicians and their counterparts can sometimes bridge the gap, then maybe the rest of us should start to be more positive, and have a go too.
Read more about Science & Technology.
For more commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Two Cultures’ Rede Lecture, see e.g. here and here.
The University of Liverpool has one Graduate School for all disciplines. The School’s annual Poster Day (27 March, in 2009) enables all these fields to be showcased together. I had the happy task with a few other ‘external’ judges of selecting the first-ever prizewinner for the new ‘North West Hub’ award, to emphasise links between academia and the wider world.
Education & Life-Long Learning and Knowledge Economy.
The exemplary aims of Poster Day are to offer graduate students practice in the skills required to communicate to a degree educated public, and to provide an opportunity for them to learn more about research being undertaken in other parts of the University.
The University of Liverpool Graduate School Poster Day exhibition was fascinating; the cross-faculty range of work under one roof would surely have taken months to get fully to grips with, but we had just a couple of hours. I used the time to talk to some very interesting people, all passionate about their work and the reasons they were doing it.
The involvement of ‘external’ visitors was a new step introduced this year. Here we see some of the Graduate School Team, including Dr Richard Hinchcliffe (Director of Postgraduate Training) with my fellow judges:
But in the end we had to make a decision, spoilt for choice though we certainly were.
The general criteria for the North West Hub overall prize included visual impact, organisation of the material, the accessibility of and rationale for the research, and, last but not least, the enthusiasm and clarity of the researcher him or herself. It seems very fitting that the award was after much discussion made to Andrew Lee-Mortimer for his engineering research project around Design for Sustainability.
Read more articles about Education & Life-Long Learning and about the Knowledge Economy.
There are compelling reasons for a regional science policy for the UK; but they are often dismissed as incompatible with the Haldane Principle of 1904 and 1917/18, that government must not ‘interfere’ with scientific research. Science then was vastly less expensive and impacted far less on the economy and ordinary people’s lives. In the 21st century, the potential for regional development through science is huge – and it can only be done through intentional government direction.
The ‘arm’s length’ principle, that government should not intervene in how to determine what scientific research is done, was developed about a century ago, by Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), who chaired UK Government commissions and committees on this subject in 1904 and 1917/18.
The 1918 Haldane Report recommended that only specifically required research should be commissioned and supervised by particular governmental departments. All other research, said Haldane, should be under autonomous Research Councils (of which the Medical Research Council was to become the first), free from political and administrative pressures and able to develop as was deemed fit by the Research Councils themselves.
Noble and fictional?
Noble as the pursuit of knowledge simply for its own sake may be, it’s impossible in our age of huge expenditure on Big Science that this recommendation, now almost a century old, can remain unexamined as the way forward.
The possibly apocryphal story is told (sadly, I can’t remember by whom) of one of the extraordinarily talented Huxley family having, many years ago, a laboratory at home in which he explored scientific questions; and of his son asking innocently of their young neighbour, what his father did in his (home) laboratory…. It’s not like that any more.
And in most cases it probably wasn’t like that then either. Not many people in any age have been able to pursue science just as a self-financed hobby.
As recent House of Commons debates have illustrated, there is growing concern that the UK Government’s huge investment in science should have the best possible return, on what is in the end tax payers’ money.
But no investment returns in our complex world can be measured in only one way. There are impacts of many kinds – on jobs and the economy, on infrastructure, on the environment, on people’s future life expectations, as well as on the state of knowledge itself.
Who does what evaluation?
Few of these impacts are easily measured, and even fewer carefully monitored from when a line of research is first proposed. This is at least in part because of the Haldane Principle and its continuing influence on government.
Politicians continue be nervous of any accusation that Haldane has been breached, an accusation easily made by scientists keen to pursue their work unhindered. So, little is made of the positive or negative impacts that scientific research of itself (as opposed to later ‘applied’ through technology and industrial developments) may have on, for instance, the locations in which they may be placed.
Single criterion decisions
‘The science’, it is proclaimed, must speak for itself, unhindered by base considerations of how it might benefit (or otherwise) non-scientific developments such as urban regeneration.
One result of this position is that decisions about large-scale and fundamental scientific research are made only by scientists, with scant if any regard to the measurable impacts which the process – as opposed simply to the possible eventual outcomes – of undertaking the research might have on the people (tax payers) who provided the wherewithal.
Surely even a hundred years ago this was not Haldane’s intention? He was in fact advising the government of the day on how best to benefit from science at a time of war.
Imaginations and applications
There is a strong case for supporting fundamental or ‘pure’ science, in the sense that it allows the very best scientists to take their disciplines forward in exciting and truly astonishing ways. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a core activity in science, and, properly handled, can be an enormous catalyst for progress.
Haldane can be very properly invoked to ensure that there is no interference in the way fundamental science is actually done. We can understand that fundamental research requires scrupulous peer review, but never political meddling.
This is however very different from the idea that politicians have a positive duty to ensure all the ‘added-value’ they can squeeze for the wider community which they represent, when the government funds big research investments.
Regionalism and regeneration
In Haldane’s time the very concept of regeneration as we now know it didn’t exist.
It was only later that observers such as J.D. Bernal (in 1939) argued that the overarching consideration be social good rather than freedom of research; this being followed in 1971 by Sir Solly Zuckerman‘s critique of the artificial separation of applied and basic science – a critique in part accommodated by the Rothschild Report of the same year, which saw some funding and decision-making being handed back to government. (This thinking was also followed elsewhere, e.g. in 1972, when an article in the respected journal Nature called for an ‘End to the Haldane Principle in Canada‘.)
That was respectively 80 or 35 years ago; and despite continuing debate (in Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere) it seems we still fail to see where Haldane helps in the modern world, and where he doesn’t. I doubt this was a legacy the man himself intended.
Good science can also offer added value
There is little doubt that only good science is worth doing – the other sort isn’t really science at all – and good science requires genuine independence for its practitioners. Haldane continues to offer assurance that scientists can and must conduct the work they do unhindered.
We should not however confuse this guarantee of research independence ‘on the ground’ with the duty upon government to ensure its (and our) money is invested well.
Sometimes the best investment is indeed in fundamental research, expensive though this is. But the ‘non-science’ dividends of placing that research, whether fundamental or applied, in one location rather than another, may be compelling.
Regional science policy
Now that science involves such enormous funding, the case for investing that money also as part of regeneration strategies in the UK ‘regions’ is persuasive.
Some scientists on Research Councils, divorced from the realities of wider public policy, may want to cite Haldane as they resist the idea of looking at regional investment impacts ensuing from the development of research proposals. They are wrong to do so.
The time has come for regional science policies to become part of the equation, acknowledging the impact that Big Science research based away from the Golden Triangle would have on areas of the UK which require regeneration. This is hardly an ask too far.
And it is certainly not a threat to the integrity or operational independence of science, Haldane Principle or not.
Science & Politics
Natural Vs. Physical Science Research Points Up Regeneration Added-Value
Big Science, Technology And The New Localism
Today is World Population Day. On this day in 1968, world leaders proclaimed that individuals have a basic human right to determine the number and timing of their children. Forty years later, population issues remain a real challenge even in Britain, where greater cohesion is still needed for policy in action.
Inevitably much of the focus since then has been on women, and especially maternal health and education.
There can be no doubt at all that a failure of health care during pregnancy and birth takes a terrible toll on lives, both maternal and infant. Multiple unplanned pregnancies are a leading cause of premature death and tragic disability for many women and their children, especially in very poor countries.
Access to family planning
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, says active use of family planning in developing countries has increased from 10-12% in the 1960s to over 60% today. But despite these improvements, a World Bank report just released says that 35 countries – 31 of them in sub-Saharan Africa – still have very high fertility rates and grim mortality rates from unsafe deliveries or abortions.
According to this World Bank report, women in developing countries experience 51 million unintended pregnancies each year because of lack of access to effective contraception That is a great deal of heartache, even apart from the enormous issues it raises for global ecosystems.
Not just a a ‘Third World’ issue
But this is not a problem only for people in the poorest developing countries.
Most of us are aware that people in the ‘developed’ countries use hugely more energy and other resources than do those in poor countries. Even with our much lower fertility rates we are currently much more of a threat to global sustainability than are people in Africa.
Blighted lives in the Western world too
“Promoting girls’ and women’s education is just as important in reducing birth rates in the long run as promoting contraception and family planning,” says Sadia Chowdhury, a co-author of the World Bank report.
That is also true even in places such as today’s Britain. Teenage pregnancy – and unintended pregnancy overall – remains a serious issue for many families in the U.K. even now.
There is an essential synergy between prospects for women in education and employment, and elective motherhood. Each benefits from the other. And each also brings benefit for the children who are born, including better prospects even for their very survival.
IMR inequalities relate to social class
Currently differences in infant UK infant death rates can be huge, and can often be attributed to occupational and class differentials. In 2002-4 a baby born in Birmingham was eight times more likely to die before its first birthday than one in Surrey, with rates of 12.4 and 2.2 infant deaths per thousand live births respectively. (Bradford is another very high-risk area, and set up its own enquiry to see how to improve.)
This is not an easy matter to discuss politically, but it could not be more important, even in Britain, one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Improving family health
One main health objectives of the British Government is to improve infant mortality rates (IMR: the number of babies who die before their first birthday, against each one thousand born), so that the infants of poorer parents have better outcomes, like those of more advantaged parents.
The target for England is a 10% reduction in the relative gap (i.e. percentage difference) in infant mortality rates between “routine and manual” socio-economic groups and England as a whole from the baseline year of 1998 (the average of 1997-99) to the target year 2010 (the average of 2009-2011).
Life outcomes and expectation
To focus this up: for each baby in the UK who dies before his or her first birthday, there will be about ten who survive with enduring disability, and often with diminished life expectancy.
At present, often through lack of knowledge, or sometimes difficulties in accessing appropriate care, this distressing outcome is much more likely to affect families where women are poorly educated, than those where women have a good education and good jobs or careers.
It does not have to be like this.
The Government is absolutely right to tackle this difficult matter, but effective action requires co-ordinated delivery by all who provide care and support for parents and children. There must be no room for professional maternity care in-fighting, such as is reported by Sir Ian Kennedy, chair of the Healthcare Commission to exist between obstetricians and midwives.
Children’s Centres as a way forward?
The national transition from Sure Start to the encompassing provision of Children’s Centres, underpinned by the fundamental philosophy of the Every Child Matters initiative, is now underway.
To date there has been little discussion about how family planning support needs to be built into this really important development.
This may be a tricky issue, but it’s one where the professionals could, if they chose, much help the Government to help all of us.
When are we going to hear those who provide early years and family support saying, loud and clear, that ‘every child a wanted child‘ is a basic requirement for everyone in Britain as well as elsewhere?
A not-to-be repeated opportunity?
The need for effective family planning in parts of the developing world remains desperate, and must be met.
But that doesn’t excuse skirting the issue here at home, just at a point when new and joined up services focusing directly on families and children are being created, with the aim of eradicating child poverty and increasing wellbeing for everyone.
And given the political sensitivities, surely it’s the practitioners – in health, education, welfare and the rest – who have to lead the way?
Read more articles about Public Service Provision.
The British Sociological Association, founded in 1951, promotes the work of sociologists and social scientists as practitioners and scholars, in the UK and, through links, much further afield. Sociology offers an analysis which helps surprisingly large numbers of us make sense of what happens in our ever-changing world.
I recently re-joined the British Sociological Association, of which I was an Executive Committee member when I worked in further and higher education, much earlier in my career.
It’s fascinating to see how things have evolved since that time, back in the 1980s.
Battles now won
Then we were battling to ‘save’ the Personal, Social and Health curriculum, which Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was keen to remove or at the very least side-line. History in schools was to stop at 1945, the end of the Second World War and before the arrival in 1948 of the National Health Service (NHS) and Welfare State; Section 11 legislation made it almost professional suicide to teach about HIV / AIDS; the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) had to be renamed the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) lest anyone should think that social research was scientific – in retrospect a far cry attitudinally from current demands for ‘evidence-based’ policy at the highest levels.
All this we addressed, through the Executives of the BSA and other professional associations, via FACTASS, The Forum of Academic and Teaching Associations in the Social Sciences, of which I was Convenor. Now there is no need for FACTASS. We managed to hang on in there, and it’s unlikely that any mainstream politician in any modern democratic country would want to see it otherwise; the PSHE curriculum and entitlement of children to understand their world is, along with positive resolution of the GCSEs-for-all debate, now established.
But the fundamental emphases of the BSA on social equity; on understanding the interactive social constructions which give meaning to our daily lives, continue, developed and debated by people who have now spent a lifetime exploring how human societies and communities work and are understood by the people in them.
The ‘classics’ – gender, ‘race’ and ethnicity, age and life transitions, and social class – remain (alongside matters such as health and medicine, work and employment, and so forth) the fundamental building blocks of sociological analysis, keeping us constantly aware that big and sometimes invisible forces shape our day-to-day experience, even to the extent that they often determine our actual life expectancy.
New social analysis too
And beyond that, there is a new and critical emphasis on our physical world, on sustainability and green issues and how societies and communities will find themselves responding to the challenges we all face.
It may be too soon to say that Human Geographers and Sociologists have found completely common ground, but it looks as though a convergence may slowly be developing, after a decade or more when the gathering of empirical data on population change and socio-economic impacts was sometimes perceived to be enough to take governmental programmes and political policy forward.
Contextualising for the future
There is now a recognition that ‘social research‘ must inform, e.g., environmental as well as community, health and education policies. (I was recently a co-author of the Defra Science Advisory Council report on Social Research in Defra – a fascinating and I hope very fruitful experience.)
The BSA, I note, has a growing Section (interest) Group on Sociologists Outside Academia (SOAg). I intend to sign up for it.
See more articles on Social Science , and
History Lessons Need More Than ‘Hitler And Henry’
Social Geographers Take The Lead In Social Policy
Human geographers have offered many insights into equality and the effects of socio-economic policy in recent years, but social processes require a different research perspective to understand fully what is happening. In the 1950s and 60s sociologists such as Willmott and Young told us about the dynamics of communities, for instance, in the East End of London; and this perspective is now beginning once more to illuminate these changes and their challenges. There is nonetheless still little general understanding of how difficult it is to ‘get things right’ in such complex settings.
Professor Danny Dorling is, in the words of Mary O’Hara (The Guardian, 8 February 2006), ‘the man who maps the social reality behind raw data’. His work has, we are told, demonstrated that where a person is born remains the primary determinant of their status, health and wealth in later life.
This is important work, though hardly a new finding. What marks it out is the directness of the communication of these critical facts of life, of, again in Mary O’Hara’s words, ‘publicising important findings beyond the pages of academic journals…. of humanising abstract facts’.
Processing data, explaining process
For Danny Dorling, the ‘key thing’ if we want to make the world a better place is that we ‘recognise what’s happening’. He’s been very effective in helping policy makers and politicians to do this, one way or another. And his latest project is an even bigger picture: www.worldmapper.org seeks to show what’s up across the whole of the world.
This is excellent stuff. Nobody could deny that the facts and figures are critical … and here, along with some other geographers such as those at the Local Futures Group, Professor Dorling serves us well. The relentless pursuit of empirical data by which to examine the outcomes of political and other developments is essential to learning how to do it better.
But there is another aspect to all this. We have considered before in this weblog the work of Willmott and Young, begun almost a half-century ago in the East End of London.
During the Thatcher years of the Conservative Government (1980s especially) there was little appetite for studying social process. Margaret Thatcher may or may not have actually pronounced that ‘There is no such thing as society’, but few failed to grasp the idea that looking at social issues like equality was not the thing to do. This had severe effects on social science in the UK, – one result of which, it could be argued, is that geography had to step in where sociologists then feared to tread.
The ‘facts’ can take us to the actions
There has been for some while a shortage of social statisticians in the UK, and this is recognised to be a continuing problem. Nonetheless, the analysis of social trends is, as specialists in all disciplines would readily acknowledge, an issue to be addressed from many different persepctives.
In this sense, it is especially interesting that the very same edition of The Guardian which carries the article about Professor Dorling also carries one about a current follow-up to the original Willmott and Young studies in the East End of London. Professor Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron, both Fellows of the Young Foundation, have produced a book co-authored by the late (Lord) Michael Young entitled The New East End – Kinship, Race and Conflict.
Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron discuss in their Guardian article the unanticipated consequences of ‘well intentioned welfare policy’. They suggest, for instance, that supporting newcomers (in this case, from the Bangladeshi community) who experience racial discrimination must go hand in hand with addressing the exclusion and hostility faced by poor white communities. If we do not examine how well-intentioned policies apply across the board we will, they argue with some reason, find that things don’t work out as we’d all like.
Multi-disciplinary is best
At some level it feels as though the wheel has now turned full circle. There are many social and policy researchers who strive to examine and support the extension of ‘what works’ (see e.g. the ODPM and Civil Service positions on diversity and disadvantage). The more that human geographers, social scientists, economists and others can collaborate on all this, the more hope there is that we can get it right.
But in the meantime it might be helpful just occasionally if certain parts of our society – for such it is – recognised that the aims of social cohesion, sustainability and the rest are at best challeging and at worst almost unachievable in our imperfect world.
Why can’t we think of the journey as one where inevitably mistakes will be made, and where it’s OK for policy makers and politicians to change tack when the evidence that we need to do so is compelling? Change is fundamental to progress, as much in social policy as anywhere else.
‘Permission’ for decision-makers to listen, learn and act
Giving politicians ‘permission’ to listen and learn is essential in the drive to change the circumstances of people who really need support, encouragement and new opportunities. This is positive social engineering with the very best of intentions. It must succeed, in the interests of us all – disadvantaged or not.
Flexible but determined policy making is not easily achieved when the evidence for policy change becomes instead, in the hands of the media, ‘evidence’ that politicians always get it wrong, and maybe nothing should be done at all.
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The teaching of History is a critical part of children’s early experience. As such, this curriculum must be determined by education professionals who can bridge the gap between the stories of the past and the immediate background to our contemporary lives.
The turn of the year is an interesting time to look at History, and that’s just what some reports which came out last few weeks have done.
The Labour MP Gordon Marsden, a former History teacher, argues in a Fabian Society leaflet that the ‘Hitlerisation of History’ has resulted in disconnectivity, a lack of joined-up thinking in regard to our understanding of Britishness and of our European neighbours.
And now the Guardian reports that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has suggested ways in which teachers should cover the Hitler and post-World War II years in early secondary schooling, to support a more balanced view of 20th-century Germany.
Even History has a history
‘Until now,’, says the QCA, ‘an in-depth look at late 20th-century German history has not been a common focus of study …. As a result, there are few commercially produced classroom resources for many aspects of this study…’.
As a very active member in the mid- to late-1980s of the Forum of Academic and Teaching Associations in the Social Sciences (FACTASS) this revelation holds few suprises for me. At that time the (Conservative) Government was intent on removing almost every aspect of social, cultural and contemporary experience from the school curriculum.
One part of this intent was the ‘advice’ that History teaching was to stop at the end of World War II. There was on no account to be mention of the post-war period and the introduction, for instance, of the Welfare State.
The current lack of teaching about contemporary European affairs is probably an unintentional but directly connected result of this directive; for it became a cornerstone of the introduction of the National Curriculum.
Of course there’s more to the content of History and other aspects of the modern curriculum than simply the input of unimaginative and short-sighted people who are antagonistic to parts of modern life. The QCA and Gordon Marsden are quite right to point to the need to turn History around to ensure it’s never again just meaningless lists of names and wars, of whatever era.
But in the end the only way we as citizens can obtain real insights into our modern-day lives is to know the full range of events and circumstances which lead up to the present day. That’s a task beyond any single discipline, historical or otherwise, but a complete and coherent History curriculum is a very good start.
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