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Public Understandings of Social Science

Held: March 2012

The public face of the ‘social scientist’ is all too often that of the data gatherer. At best, social scientists are valued more for the sophistication of their methods than the penetration of their theories. Policymakers are not the only ones to take advantage of the situation. Bio-imperialists like the ‘sociobiologist’ E.O. Wilson and the ‘evolutionary psychologist’ Steven Pinker also appropriate social science data without acknowledging their theoretical (and sometimes even methodological) assumptions. But social scientists are themselves often to blame as they refuse to speak clearly to contemporary policy issues on which their knowledge might bear. Part of this may be to do with their own uncertainty about how to position themselves in terms of what are often fast-moving and politically sensitive issues. Yet, at the same time, social scientists can and have managed to represent their insights in ways that enhance and sometimes transform public debate and policy. How is this to be achieved more generally, and are the right institutional arrangements in place to make it happen?

A discussion of these issues will be led by Prof Fuller and Dr Sarah Chan, a lawyer who is Deputy Director for the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester. Dr Chan has been in the forefront of mediating new self-understandings of the human condition made possible by recent developments in the biomedical sciences. Often this takes the form of making clear to the public the competing agendas and interests involved in possible futures that simultaneously raise high hopes and fears.

Recommended Readings in preparation for the event:

The general problem of the public face of social science has been recently explored by two prominent figures in the International Sociological Association, Piotr Sztompka and Michael Burawoy. There rather contrasting views about the prospects of 'public sociology' can be found here:



Whereas Sztompka and Burawoy consider these matters in terms of debates concerning sociology's self-definition that are familiar from the discipline's history, Sarah Chan raises the spectre of 'Humanity 2.0' as opening up a set of new issues that challenge conventional understandings of what constitutes a 'human society'. Her survey of the relevant issues can be found here.


For further details please contact Professor Steve Fuller:

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