Social science under pressure
Wandering from session to session at the Planet Under Pressure conference, which is taking place in London (UK) from 27 to 29 March, one thing quickly becomes clear. Hardly anyone denies that the social sciences have a vital role to play in understanding planetary pressures and in establishing the basis for sustainable development.
Planetary systems are social and human systems. They cannot be understood, still less shaped, by physical and biological methods alone.
But does that mean the argument is over? No, far from it.
Two key challenges are emerging
First, the new connections that are starting to emerge within the sciences still contain some misunderstandings. The most important is that, for many natural scientists, the call to the social sciences to join integrated science is less about understanding complex socio-ecosystems than about getting the message across.
An important theme, running through the conference, is frustration. Frustration that well-established scientific knowledge is insufficiently recognized – or even dismissed – in public debate. Frustration that the necessary political and social changes cannot be effectively engineered. Frustration that the majority of ordinary people still do not “get” just how under pressure the planet is.
Very often, the social sciences are pressed into service to deal with this frustration, by enabling scientists to understand better how to overcome resistance to science and to drive radical change. Increasingly, the humanities too are dragged into the same debate, as if the work of imagination the humanities can promote would have no effect on the knowledge to which it relates.
To put it simply, thinking about the planet under pressure is still framed mainly in terms of problem-solving. The idea that sustainable development is not a set of problems to be solved, but an enduring condition to be lived with, is still insufficiently recognized. If any topical reminder was needed, it comes with the publication, coinciding with the London conference, of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which urges the world to build on the full knowledge base to address the proved risks of climate change and increase resilience for those exposed to extreme events.
The social sciences therefore need to shape the agenda for integrated science – and not just to participate in it.
Secondly, even once the necessary role of the social science has been clarified, it is not clear whether they are really equipped to respond. Systemic approaches are not very fashionable in social science these days. Neither – except in economics and psychology – are mathematical techniques, numerical simulations and controlled experiments. Yet, these methods are probably among those integrated science will be demanding – because participants will need a common language, and because what will need study are, precisely, systems.
In order to join the party, will the social sciences need to leave behind in the cloakroom everything that makes them distinctive?
Participating fully in integrated science means answering this question convincingly – and saying “no”. This puts pressure on the social sciences, which will need to organize themselves to respond. But there is no lack of ideas on how to do it – and the planet under pressure deserves no less.
By John Crowley, UNESCO