10 Conclusions: Being a (good) social scientist – embodying through practice

Learning Objectives for this Chapter

After reading this Chapter, you should be able to:

  • critically reflect on the practical and dispositional skills needed to ‘do’ social science in a way that pursues justice and fairness, while avoiding harm,
  • begin to think about and develop your own set of moral and ethical guidelines that you can take into your own social science praxis.

As you will have read and seen so far, the social sciences encompass a wide range of practices, theoretical positions, and debates. As social scientists we are always conscious of our positionality within the context of who and what we study – it is important to be reflective about power differentials, our cultural and social baggage, our preconceptions and beliefs. We try to bracket these as best we can, but they seep into everything we do, think, and work on. To be a (good) social scientist — and we have ‘good’ in parentheses here because that is a loaded term in terms of what it means to different people, at different points in time, and in different places — is not easy. Thus, in the conclusion we want to firstly reflect on some examples of ‘bad’ social science to direct our attention to what not to do, before we end on a hopeful note of what to do in order to embody some of the principles of good and ethical scholarship.

What not to do

The social sciences have a long history of unethical, complicit and dangerous research that has undermined the mission to better understand the world and make it a better place. As we have detailed throughout the book, the social sciences have been foundational to many of colonialism’s efforts to subdue others, classify them, and maintain power over them. Early anthropologists were often part of the efforts of colonial regimes to better understand their enemies as well as friends. They helped create sometimes persistent stereotypes of peoples, such as whether they are lazy, industrious, ‘good’, or ‘bad’. Ultimately, however, all branches of the social sciences have played a part in various colonial and post-colonial endeavours to create and maintain certain power relations that have tended to favour a white, European narrative of global history.

One example from anthropology is that of Napoleon Chagnon (1938-2019), who conducted long-term field research among the Yanomamö, an Indigenous group in the Amazon rainforest. He wrote several books and papers about the violent nature of the Yanomami. He argued that because of the social valorisation of violence, successful warriors had more offspring, making their society as a whole more violent. However, he has been accused of engaging in unethical research practices, including the exploitation of his subjects for financial gain, manipulation of data, and perpetuating harmful stereotypes about the Yanomami people. For example, several fellow anthropologists accused him of escalating violence by trading steel weapons for information and blood samples of a medical study that was financing one of his research trips. Chagnon’s pursuit of ‘his’ narrative about the Yanomami has been deeply damaging for them and anthropology.

Also working in the 1960s and 70s was sociologist Laud Humphreys (1930-1988), who published the ‘The Tearoom Trade’, a controversial book about anonymous sexual encounters between men in public restrooms, known as ‘tearooms’. The study was widely criticised for its unethical methods, including the failure to obtain informed consent and the invasion of privacy of the participants. Humphreys not only observed the public restrooms covertly but also noted down number plates of visitors to track them down for follow up interviews, even disguising himself when subsequently attending their homes to obtain further information for his study. Not only was this incredibly harmful for participants, it was also very risky; this was a time when homosexuality remained illegal across many countries including North America, where the study took place.

In a more general sense, Coburn, Moreton-Robinson, Sefa Dei and Stewart-Harawira (2013) talk about the social sciences as a colonising force, assisting colonial entities to name, categorise, and label indigenous peoples the world over as ‘inferior’ and thereby assist in colonial domination and theft. They state:

For Indigenous peoples, the sciences, including the social sciences, have been an important, even critical part of colonizing processes. Thus, Indigenous peoples historically know the social sciences as a form of violence, part of the naming and claiming of Indigenous peoples (Tuhiwai Smith, 2004, especially 80-83) and their lands and histories for the colonizers… In short, in the same processes by which Indigenous lands were renamed and reclaimed by colonizers, Indigenous ancestors and men, women and children were named and claimed as objects of science. (Coburn et al. 2013: 10, 13)

In Australia, scientific texts and theorising of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for example, often perpetuated myths of savagery and inferiority, which made way for the theft and pillaging of peoples and lands.

These examples show how studies can be undone by the unethical methods some social scientists use to get their data, tell their story, or even just make things up. Conducting research with people is a privilege that requires ethical safeguards and an ethical disposition beyond legal ethical codes. At the heart of this is — and should be — that social scientists should not be extractive in our praxis. We naturally value data in the form of participant observation or interviews, in short information for our studies. But how do we do this in a way that does not just extract information for us? How do we do our work in such a way that it supports us alongside the people we work with? How do we engage in knowledge co-production? How do we distribute power and act ethically in what are sometimes unequal relationships? Every research project is different so the three of us authors decided to give our views in more detail on these matters in the following section.

A note on who we work with and why

Many of the questions raised above pertain to situations when researchers are in a more powerful position than their interlocutors and when we work with people we want to support and actively work towards shared goals or ideals. This is not always the case. Social sciences still tend to ‘study down’, but as Laura Nader urged in the late 1960s: we need to ‘study up’. Her appeal was to some extent in reply to some of the problematic studies we outlined above but also as a critique of then still prevalent stance of social sciences as value-neutral and objective. She argued that to study poverty we need to get out of the ‘ghetto’ (her words, also to mean to get out of our silos) and study the banks, Wall street, capitalism as the structural drivers of the poverty we can see on the ground. ‘Studying up’ remains an ambition as barriers of access to the rich and powerful preclude many studies engaging them more fully.

In addition there are many social scientists who work with people they would not want to support and with whom they do not share goals or ideals. For example, anthropologists working with terrorists to find out their motivations, political scientists working with supporters of the far right, or criminologists working with child sex offenders.

What we do: author reflections on doing social science

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?

Reflection exercise

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.

Resources to support further learning

Relevant readings:

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Introduction to the Social Sciences Copyright © 2023 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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