Zoe Staines (researcher and lecturer in criminology and social policy)
I work mainly with peoples who tend to be disproportionately marginalised, including First Nations peoples, people living in poverty, single mothers, and more. I am animated by a deep sense of social justice, instilled by my upbringing and experiences, and attempt to practice within a critical tradition that not only makes visible but also pushes back against diverse forms of oppression. In terms of my own social science praxis, this includes a commitment to subverting the notion of a ‘researcher expert’, and instead prioritising genuine listening, learning, and co-producing knowledge. As a white, Australian-born criminologist and social policy scholar (with Irish and English heritage on my father’s side, and unknown heritage on my adopted mother’s side), who is also a single mother and employed academic, I also strive to work in ways that are deeply reflexive and which continue to question my own complicity in the systems of power and privilege that my work seeks to resist and subvert. In doing so, I pursue methods of working both within and beyond my social scientific training, as well as the broader epistemic bounds of western modernity, knowing that liberation from these institutional constraints can also form an important part of the solution for pursuing better, fairer, and more just societies.
Gerhard Hoffstaedter (lecturer in anthropology)
I work with refugees in Southeast Asia and Australia and therefore I am always very conscious and reflexive of my positionality, power and identity (white, passport holder, employed) to situate myself in the field. I do not see myself as an advocate of ‘voiceless’ people, but as a cultural intermediary who builds bridges for a better mutual understanding and creator of interstitial spaces for inter-cultural engagement. This process is reliant on immersion and the kindness and support of the people we work with. I see their willingness and kindness towards me as a gift to me, which I always hope to return and as we know from anthropology, gift giving creates relationships and friendships within which we practice an ethics of care for each other.
Ned Binnie (undergraduate social science student)
I am an undergraduate social science and philosophy student, with a particular interest in social theory. As one of the younger generations of social scientists, I believe that a little bit of naivety is a necessary part of my work. It is important to me to foster a certain hopeful idealism in striving for a better world for all through engaging with complex ideas and making them more manageable. Not yet firmly embedded within institutions, this position provides me with the ability to think outside of the established structures and engage with the world as I would like to see it. Through the social sciences I seek to better understand the organisation of society and how it could be done differently. This ‘blue sky thinking’ is important for real social change. Without thinking beyond the already established ways of doing things, how can we bring about a better world for all?
Think about the kind of approach you might or do take as a social scientist, either in the present or future. Then write your own short reflection. You might like to consider covering the following points:
- Who or what might/do you focus on in your social scientific work, and why?
- What is your positionality in relation to this work?
- What would/does drive you, personally, to do this work?
- What kinds of moral and ethical guidelines might/do you use to shape and influence your work?
- What might be/is most important to you, as a (current or future) social scientist?
What to do
As we touched on at the start of this concluding chapter, what qualifies as a ‘good’ social scientist changes depending on who you talk to, at what point in time, and in which field/sub-field. Nevertheless, it is also possible to distil some general qualities that most would consider desirable for those working in the social sciences; something we attempt to do in this final section. We do not pretend that these are all-encompassing, nor that all social scientists would agree about their prime importance. However, we set them out here as a means of sparking further reflexive thinking about the kind of social scientist you (the reader) wish to be in either the present or future.
Firstly, we contend that ‘good’ social scientists are skilled at examining and understanding issues and phenomena from multiple perspectives, never assuming that their own perspective is the only one that exists. This requires deep, active listening, coupled with a healthy dose of humility and a strong understanding that all knowledge is partial and that there is always more to learn.
This is related to a second desirable quality — an ability to maintain a sense of reflexive practice, questioning one’s own assumptions, schemas, values, and biases, and understanding that we can never fully demarcate our social science practice from these. Instead, these deeply inform our practice: they influence what we choose to focus on, the opportunities that are presented to us, the way we are treated by others around us, how we interpret and respond to information, and much more. Thus, the objective is never to deny these, but instead to maintain a sense of reflexive curiosity about how they influence our behaviours, thinking, and more. In essence, and as Flyvbjerg’s description of ‘phronetic social science’ (discussed earlier in the book) shows us, the point of the social sciences is to embrace its value-laden nature, and to use these values to answer questions about what the ‘good life’ looks like, and how we might get there.
Thirdly, ‘good’ social scientists take a critical disposition to everything they hear and see. They scratch below the ‘surface’, questioning assumptions and beliefs that may otherwise seem ‘natural’ or ‘unquestionable’. As C. Wright Mills would say, they “make the familiar strange.” This means intentionally exposing oneself to different viewpoints and critiques on a range of topics. Reading and engaging with diverse news sources is one way to do this; another is to, as a social science researcher, intentionally step outside of one’s sub-field or area of specific expertise to engage with publications, debates, and researchers that contradict one’s own.
Fourthly, and relatedly, being a ‘good’ social scientist arguably no longer means only going ‘deep’ into one or two specific areas, as was common practice in the past. Instead, ‘generalist’ social scientists are increasingly desired in social science research and practice as a means of improving inter-disciplinarity, breaking down knowledge ‘siloes’, and gaining traction against complex ‘big’ social issues (e.g., climate change). This doesn’t mean one has no area of expertise, but instead that they also read and research more widely than this alone. Those skilled at forming ‘bridging’ (not just ‘bonding’) social capital can often excel in this area, as they are able to identify links between what might otherwise seem like unrelated areas, and then form the contacts and relationships needed to bridge divides. Often, having worked beyond the academy (e.g., in the private, non-profit, and/or public sectors) is a good means of building the skills and contacts needed to succeed at this.
Fifth, ‘good’ social scientists are also strong written and verbal communicators. It is one thing to discover new knowledge about the social world, but if this is locked away in impossible-to-access texts or unable to be articulated in ways that are intelligible to those who would directly benefit from this new knowledge, then there is a big piece of the puzzle missing. In this sense, social scientists must be skilled at communicating their findings, often to many ‘publics’, including the general public, politicians and policymakers, service providers, practitioners, and many more. Academic institutions are increasingly understanding research ‘impact’ as the social, economic, cultural, environmental (or more) benefits or changes that result from research. This stands in contrast to simplistic easily-quantifiable ‘citation indexes’ and similar. To be impactful, however, research must first be understood.
In sum, being a good social scientist is about more than just conducting research or analysing data. It requires a deep commitment to understanding the complexities of human behaviour and social systems, and a willingness to engage with diverse perspectives and experiences. To be a good social scientist, one must be driven by a passion for knowledge, a sense of responsibility to conduct ethical and meaningful research, and a desire to use that research to make a positive impact on the world.
The keys to success as a social scientist include developing a strong foundation in theory, methodology, and research ethics, as well as cultivating critical thinking skills, effective communication abilities, and a collaborative mindset. It is also important to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the field (as well in other fields!), to remain open to new ideas and approaches, and to seek out opportunities to engage with the broader community of social scientists.
Ultimately, being a good social scientist is both a challenging and rewarding endeavor. It requires a lifelong commitment to learning, growth, and self-reflection, and a willingness to engage with the complex and ever-changing world in which we live. We hope that reading this book has given you some strong foundations to build upon when embarking on your journey into the social sciences — wherever it may lead you. And we hope that you will continue reflecting on your own social science practice as you go.