ISSJ - N° 177 - Social Science Futures

September 2003

Lay doubts about what social science is “for” are mirrored by professional uncertainties as to how one would recognize “good” social science and how one would know whether it “mattered”. Indeed, the position of the social sciences within public debate sometimes suggests that no one understands their questions, and no one cares about the answers. While one might simply embrace this condition, it is difficult to do so while retaining any kind of commitment to the possibility of progressive social transformation. Fortunately, there are good reasons in principle to be sceptical about the existence of a trade-off between the quality and usefulness of social science. Good social science can help human beings make sense of the social world; and by putting the ideas, fears, interests, values and relationships of human beings at the heart of the social processes that they reflect and shape, it is inherently participatory and democratic. Conversely, inadequate attention to social science contributes to making human problems seem beyond human reach. Good social science, in other words, is both social and scientific.

Building on an international conference on Social Science and Social Policy in the 21st Century organized by the International Social Science Council in Vienna, in December 2002, this issue proposes to foster debate on what is at stake in promoting a more social and more scientific social science. Taking particular account of the fact that social science, for better and for worse, involves a certain kind of gaze, embedded in material techniques for registering, recording, filing and transmitting images of human activity and social existence, the issue considers questions of data and of programming, and also addresses some of the disciplinary dynamics brought into play by new topics and modified priorities.

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