The case for exploratory social science
Updated: Nov 19
Should the social sciences only analyse the past and present? Or should they also try to help design the future?
The recently created New Institute in Hamburg aims to support faster and closer connections between social science and the vital changes needed in our society as we respond to climate change, ageing, inequality and a world flooded with powerful new technologies.
Here, in this draft paper (also linked at the bottom of this page), written for the New Institute, I make the case for new ways of organising social science, both in universities and beyond, through programmes of ‘exploratory social science’ that would generate more options for addressing the big challenges that lie ahead. In the paper I discuss:
· how 18th and 19th centuries social sciences often fused interpretation and prescription, including radical design;
· how a series of trends – including quantification and abstraction – delivered big advances but also squeezed out this capacity for radical design;
· how these same trends also encouraged some blind alleys for social science, including what I call ‘unrealistic realism’ and the futile search for eternal laws.
· how counter trends, including rising awareness of evolutionary dynamics, systems models and complexity, have created new spaces for thinking about design
· how broader conceptions of design that address structural conditions and how they can be changed, relate to narrower, more incremental social science that takes existing structural conditions as given.
I argue that now, at a time when we badly need better designs and strategies for the future, we face a paradoxical situation where the people with the deepest knowledge of fields are discouraged from systematic and creative exploration of the future, while those with the appetite and freedom to explore often lack the necessary knowledge. This is reflected in some striking patterns of conformism in mainstream book publishing and public intellectual life.
In the core of the paper I look at the potential for growing ‘exploratory social sciences’ that combine disciplinary depth with systematic use of methods that make the most of creative imagination. I suggest what these social sciences could look like, how they might determine quality, their relationship to experimentation, social R&D and politics, and options for making them happen.
Finally, I show how exploratory social sciences could have helped avoid some of the pathologies of the Internet, and how these methods could be applied to the challenges of creating a net zero economy and society.
The paper complements one I published two years ago on how social science could evolve, using data, computational methods and collective intelligence.