Social sciences and social imagination

Essay by Geoff Mulgan: “Crises – whether wars or pandemics – can sometimes, though not always, fuel social imagination.  New arrangements have to be created at breakneck speed and old norms have to be discarded.  The deeper the crisis the more likely it is that people ask not for a return to normal but for a jump to something different and better.

So it is now.  Across the world countries are beginning to think about how life after COVID-19 might be different: could we use the crisis to solve the problems of carbon, low status for care-workers, or welfare states ill-suited to new forms of precariousness?  As this debate gathers speed, it’s opening up questions about the role of the social sciences. They’re playing a vital role in helping countries to manage the crisis, and to plan for recovery.  But how much are they there to understand the past and present – and how much should they help us to shape the future?

A century ago the answers were perhaps more obvious than today.  HG Wells early in the last century described sociology as ‘the description of the Ideal Society and its relation to existing societies’.  The founders of UCL in the mid-19th century and of LSE at the end of the 19th century, saw them as vehicles to change the world not just to interpret it.  It was taken for granted that social science should help map out possible futures – new rights, new forms of social policy, new ways of running economies.

Unfortunately, these traditions have largely atrophied.  Within academia you are far more likely to make a successful career analysing past patterns, or critiquing the present, than offering designs for the future.  That is partly the result of very healthy trends – in particular, more attention being paid to evidence and data.  But it’s left a gap since, by definition, there isn’t any hard evidence about a future that hasn’t yet happened.  There are a few small pockets of more speculative, future-oriented work in universities.  But they’re seen as quite marginal, and a fair proportion of this work is inward looking – feeding into academic journals and very small audiences – rather than feeding into political programmes and public imagination as happened in the past.  Meanwhile one of the less attractive legacies of several decades of post-structuralism and post-modernism is that many academics believe they have much more of a duty to critique than to propose or create.

Outside the academy the traditions of social imagination have also atrophied.  Political parties have largely closed down the research departments that once helped them think.  Thinktanks have become ever more locked into news cycles rather than long range thinking.

In the late 20th century the progressive movements of the left lost confidence in a forward march of history, and the green movements that have partly replaced them have proven more effective at persuading people of the likelihood of future ecological disaster than promoting positive alternatives (though the green visions of future arrangements for food, circular economies are a partial exception to the picture I’m describing here).  As a result much of the role of future imagination has been left to fiction.

One symptom is that many fewer people today can articulate a plausible and desirable better society than was the case 50 or 100 years ago.  Majorities in countries like the UK now expect their children to be worse off than they are….(More)”.