This week I went along to two seminars / discussions that both, in one way or another, were revolved around engaging the social sciences and their impact. Occurring on consecutive weeknight evenings, I was tempted to give one a miss assuming similar ground would be covered. In the end I attended both events and I’m glad I did. It was striking, concerning and exciting that, actually, the discussion were poles apart with very little mutual ground being trod. This was quite the quandary and something I wish to reflect on briefly – how two conversations about the same topic could be quite so different.
Social Science and the Politics and Public Engagement
Social Science and the Politics and Public Engagement was a discussion organised by Mark Carrigan (University of Warwick) and Nick Mahony (Open University) at the Open University’s Camden Campus. A smaller event of around 30 people gathered to explore novel forms of research practice, new opportunities for collaboration and to discuss questions such as those outlined below.
Three excellent speakers shared their experiences of and research within public engagement. Shamser Sinha (University Campus Suffolk) kicked off the evening with advocating the importance of listening to participants in research, treating them as citizens rather than subjects to be mined for data. Within his discussion of his work with Les Back, he explained that he felt that this listening began with the questions themselves, suggesting that researcher-initiated questions was akin to surveillance and to really give voice to participants they must be active in setting the research agenda. This continued by giving authorial recognition to their participants, in turn giving the work much greater power and the potential to be related to and understood more widely. Secondly, Keri Facer (University of Bristol) positioned the question of public engagement in wider debates about the future of the university system, arguing that the universities of tomorrow will have to draw upon relational knowledges of academics, communities, industry and others in addressing problems of concern to larger society and the local communities they have such influence within. The future of the university was going to rebuilt from the notion of public engagement upwards. The last speaker Lisa Mackenzie (LSE) told the very impassioned and almost-rallying story of her journey into academia, from single mum as a mature student on an access course to an Early Years Leverhulme Research Fellow at LSE. For Lisa, this all began with a desire to understand and change things in the community that she lived. Since then she has continued to work on poverty related research with a growing distaste to the apathy for actually making a difference within sociology. She has since founded the Activism in Sociology Forum with the distinct aim of not just researching but changing communities/lives/things for the better, arguing that the work we do as social scientists is incredibly important and has the potential to be life-changing, we just need to be bothered to apply it.
In general then, the discussion revolved around bottom up approaches to public engagement, changing people’s lives and affecting change for the better. Questions were asked about what knowledge is for and who is it for? How can we cultivate a critical pedagogy as well of the practicalities of actually engaging with those to whom the research can have purchase and importance?
The stream of tweets using the hashtag #ppeou can be seen here in this storify.
Engaged Social Science: Impacts and Use of Research in the UK
Engaged Social Science: Impact and the Use of Research in the UK was an event organised at the LSE to celebrate the launch of a landmark study and book about the impact and use of social science research by Simon Bastow, Patrick Dunleavy and Jane Tinkler titled The Impact of Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research make a Difference. The event began with a brief introduction to the book and then a discussion with a very impressive panel including Professor Lord Stern (President, British Academy), Mark Easton (BBC News Home Editor), Penny Lawrence (International Programmes Director, Oxfam), Aileen Murphie (Director, Local Government VFM, National Audit Office) and Jeff Patmore (former Head of Strategic University Research & Collaboration, British Telecom). The focus of this event was much more aimed towards how social scientists can engage with and influence the media, government policy, industry and charities. The event was extremely well attended (about 300-400 people) and well supported/financed by SAGE among others that all in all made a really fantastic event.
A preview of the book and its data visualisations have been made available over at the LSE Impact Blog or viewable below.
The different focus of the event in comparison to the previous days discussion was stark. As hinted above and visible in the document, the discussion was about the ‘big’ impact and top down engagement that the social sciences can have in terms of economics, policy, business, media and the voluntary sector. Again, the event was very optimistic and encouraging of the importance and essential role that social sciences have in solving larger societal issues. The Q and A was in a similar vein, probing the ways that social scientists can have these impacts and create research collaborations. Interestingly though, the role of teaching also came up – perhaps one of the few commonalities. Many useful tips were shared about engaging with organisation and making your research have ‘impact’.
Many of the tips were tweeted and are available in the storify of the event.
What Impact? What Engagement?
So what to make of this. Two very different events with very different discourses about what impact the social sciences should have and how/who they should engage. One a bottom-up arguably deep but narrow engagement, the other top-down broad but shallow engagement. I do not think there is any correct way to engage or the best type of impact to have, this all boils down to the personal preferences and beliefs of the researcher. Rather than being perplexed by this dichotomy, I am enthused and excited by viewing it as a spectrum. It is possible to aim towards having impact across the whole spectrum with your research and one I hope to achieve with my work. But similarly, if your disposition is against top down or bottom up impact, then that is absolutely fine. The research we do is important and the changing nature of academia is allowing for and rewarding public engagement / impact in big ways. There has never been a better time to engage and be impactful!