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Making the Moral Case for Social Sciences

We are living in a neo-liberal age where the social sciences are under threat from a series of metaphorical tidal waves. First, there is the favouring of hard sciences or natural sciences in Government policies and planning, whether in education and training, or the funding of research, because such forms of hard science are supposed to be of economic benefit to society. The use of the acronym STEM (a hard-sounding word, the main core of a plant holding the rest in place) has become common beyond academic policy circles, used by politicians and journalists to identify the important knowledge-makers. Second, there is a rise in interest among the public for popular science explanations of complex issues, which often translates into a crude scientism that reduces everything social and cultural to the biological. Third, there is a sustained, low-level attack on the social sciences and their legitimacy in higher education by populist politicians and writers. This right-wing critique of the social sciences is connected to the cultural wars of American civil society, but it has become transformed in our neo-liberal universities and funding councils into the rhetoric of impact and value.

In my book Making the Moral Case for Social Sciences (Palgrave, 2015) I argue that there are three moral cases to make to defend the social sciences (related in many ways to the ten reasons why social science matters listed on this campaign’s web-site): first of all, the study of social sciences is a thing-in-itself that is worthy of study for the pleasure of doing, and finding things out; second, the study of social sciences allows us to flourish as humans and develop as happier and equal individuals; and third, the study of social sciences allows us to resist the instrumentality, injustice and inequality that make up the norms and values of our late modern society. The first moral case is based on the idea of learning for learning’s sake, the value at the heart of the modern university, and much of modern education. The social, sciences are valuable because they are one part of the portfolio of subjects we explore and study as modern humans. The second moral case is based on the Aristotelian idea that the sciences, loosely defined, are good because they help humans to flourish. The social sciences are ideally placed to meet this end as they are the source of much of the thinking and evidence around the morality and ethics of the good life. The third moral case is the most important one, and is founded on criticality. Critical sociology, critical thinking across the social sciences, is morally necessary because it reveals the truth about the abuses of power that hold the majority of the world’s population in positions of marginality. We need critical thinking to reveal the truth about the gross inequalities that are a product of modernity, instrumentality and global capitalism.

- Professor Karl Spracklen, Leeds Beckett University (UK), author of Making the Moral Case for Social Sciences, and series editor for Leisure Studies in a Global Era.