How research can create social change.

Recently I’ve found myself reading some of Bent Flyvbjerg’s earlier works. In particular, his book called – Making Social Science Matter.

Ever since our first-born arrived in this world, I’ve been spending late nights working on my PhD and using that time to reflect on my research and mull over some ideas that I’ve been struggling with for some time now.

I know that my interest lies in insurgent and radical planning, and I’m focused on the proposal to redevelop Preston Market as my case study, but I still feel unsettled… What does it all mean? How can my research make a difference? And to who?

In order to reconnect with academia, I’ve needed to come to terms with how research can have a positive impact on this world. This search for meaning has led to a newfound solidarity with other like minded researchers and academics.

During these late nights, I’ve fallen down a number of rabbit holes, and one that I’m still tumbling through began with the Perestroika Movement.

In October of 2000 an anonymous letter was sent to the Journal of American Political Science Review calling for greater methodological pluralism within the discipline. The author (Mr Perestroika) argued that political science was becoming irrelevant, and that gatekeepers at the journal chose to ignore the intellectual progress made by young political scientists. With the desire to legitimise other ways of thinking, this piece called into question the dominance of old white men within the increasingly diverse discipline of political science.

This call for methodological pluralism within the political sciences was inspired by the science wars of the 1990’s.

A conflict between social scientists, the science wars questioned how we understand society. Following the approach of the natural sciences such as physics, geology, and chemistry, social scientists believed that by studying society through an objective and scientific approach they could explain social phenomena and use that knowledge to make predictions about the future of society.

For example, Marx theorised that the internal contradictions of capitalism would lead to its eventual collapse as workers would unite against their exploitative working conditions and take over the means of production. This social logic – containing a hypothesis – is no different from the logic which predicts how molecules react to different external influences under various conditions.

Yet despite the attempt by social scientists to explain and predict social phenomena, such predictions have failed to come true.

Recognising this failure to make predictions about society, some social scientists realised that the study of people, communities, and society was always grounded in the historical context of their subjects. Such subjectivity meant that there was limited possibility for prediction and generalisation. This new way of thinking fundamentally challenged the social sciences and threw an existential spanner in the works.

If social science could not explain and predict, then what was its purpose?

I too was suffering from this existential crisis. What was the purpose of my research if it was not to create theories to explain and predict social phenomena? If social science could only serve to describe a situation, then how was that useful for social progress? What is the value of understanding, rather than explaining?

These are some of the questions that Flyvbjerg answers in Making Social Science Matter.

At its core, Making Social Science Matter argues that it is impossible (and incorrect) for the social sciences to model itself after the natural sciences. Drawing from Aristotle’s three intellectual virtues of phronesis, techne, and episteme, Flyvbjerg states that the natural sciences or episteme excells at conducting decontextualized experiments to understand abstract and generalizable law-like relationships” (p.2). Whereas the social sciences or phronesis conducts “contextualized studies involving field research that produces intimate knowledge of localized understandings of subjective human relationships, and especially in relationship to the values and interests that drive human relationships” (p.2)

This idea of social science research – as a form of practical wisdom – sits well with me. It gives me confidence that the research I am doing with my PhD is valuable and can contribute to positive change within society. It also gives me a way to respond to the ever-present tendencies for social researchers to model themselves after the natural sciences. My research does not end at a publication to a journal, it is a narrative and story which will be told to others who also seek to create social change.

I think this is the purpose of social research. Through participation in the political process, social researchers use their skills to describe, understand, reflect, and analyse the complicated series of relationships over time which depicts fully the web of social phenomena. These depictions become stories, myths, and fables which construct a collective understanding of society and how it functions. However, these learnings and experiences do not exist in a vacuum, they are shared with others who also seek to better understand the processes of social change. Which, depending on the project (mine being social justice) helps to inform future action and further progress.

As a final point, I leave this quote:

Making Social Science Matter concluded that the social sciences are better equipped to produce a different kind of knowledge – phronesis, practical wisdom – that grows out of intimate familiarity with practice in contextualized settings. Local knowledges, even tacit knowledges, cannot be taught a priori and are grown from the bottom up. They emerge out of practice, forgoing the hubris of seeking claims to a decontextualized universal rationality stated in abstract terms of false precision. Add a sense of praxis, seeking the ability to push for change, leaven it with an appreciation of the presence of power, and this phronetic social science can help people involved in ongoing political struggle question the relationships of knowledge and power and thereby work to change things in ways they might find more agreeable and even satisfying” (p.17)

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