Social science is facing a rapidly changing world…

This is my first blog as Director of WISERD and I’m fortunate to have joined just at a time when we are celebrating a number of research successes across a wide range of WISERD activities.  Not least among these is our success in securing funding in excess of £7 millionfrom the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a Large Centre (WISERD/Civil Society).  I hope to be able to say more about the new centre in future blogs but in this first outing I just want to reflect on how WISERD came about and my hopes for the future.  WISERD has been producing high quality multidisciplinary research since it was set up in 2008 and the continued support it receives from the five Universities that make up the St David’s Day Group, reflect how WISERD has become a national and internationally recognised centre of excellence. This is due in no small part to the vision of Huw Beynon, the first Director, and the commitment to that vision from Gareth Rees, his successor.  It’s been a tough couple of acts to follow.  But, WISERD’s success has also been due to the talented people based in all the WISERD Universities coming together to share ideas and collaborate. So, I am confident that we can build on our recent successes and the legacy of the last five years to undertake challenging new research projects, develop our research talent in Wales and bring on new researchers for the future.

This is also a time when the social sciences, in general, are facing a rapidly changing world that is characterised by volatility and contingency. But it is also a world where there are continuities in the economic, political and ideological dimensions of power, a world where inequalities are growing along with the ability of vested interests to construct narratives that help them to legitimate those inequalities. Today, the use of factoids to deflect protest and stifle debate is depressingly all too common.  In such a context, social scientists need to speak truth to power and play a role in developing public spaces for discussion and debate.  This also means that we have to confront the challenge of how social science can best describe, explain and evaluate key features of the social world.  Rather difficult questions follow from this.  Do we hold on to the tried and tested concepts and methods?  Do we construct new sociologies of time and space?  Do we tackle new and unfamiliar data sources?  These are huge issues that I cannot even begin to address here.  All I can do is suggest that we should adopt an approach that is methodologically pluralist.  What do I mean by that?  Well, it means being open to a wide range of theory and methods and adopting those approaches and methods, or combination of methods that help us to best address our research questions. There is a broad space between George Luis Borges’s cartographers who created maps of empires, that were the same size as those empires, and his researcher who learned things about other cultures that he could not express. WISERD researchers have such a diversity of skills, techniques and disciplines and such an enthusiasm for working together that I am confident that we can fill a large part of that space.

One of the other exciting things about WISERD is that it is based in Wales and aims to undertake research in Wales in collaboration with its people and communities.  If, as Gwyn Alf Williams said, Welsh people are “nothing but a naked people under an acid rain” then in recent years that rain has been falling harder and harder.  Compared to other parts of the UK and Europe, Wales has relatively high rates of mortality, poor health, lower household incomes, and high rates of unemployment and under employment.  It also has high levels of ‘in work’ poverty.  But, curiously, recent research suggests people in work in Wales are happier than their counterparts elsewhere in Britain, despite being lower paid. Wales is also experiencing declining trends in religious belief and in use of the Welsh language and these trends vary geographically; suggesting dramatic cultural and demographic changes. In political terms Wales is very different to England and the policies of the Welsh Government are diverging in many respects from those of Westminster. These are just a few examples but such trends, comparisons and contrasts both raise social science questions and help answer them.  Sidney Tarrow once said he became interested in comparative research when he travelled from northern Italy to southern Italy and found, after speaking to a state policeman, that ‘in Naples they did things differently’.  This set him on the path of asking the big comparative how and why questions. I am convinced that WISERD can also pose such questions and undertake research in ways that make a difference to Wales and has relevance for the rest of the world. That is what makes working here so interesting.