Social Science Inc

The neoliberal approach to higher education is turning social science academics into brand managers and commercial researchers.

John Holmwood
23 March 2015

Flickr/JonathanCohen. Some rights reserved.

The ‘politics of austerity’ in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010 produced drastic cuts to public spending. It has involved the re-assertion of neo-liberal policies whose application to the financial sector had created the crisis in the first place. One consequence is the dismantling of public higher education in England, with the removal of all direct funding of undergraduate degree programmes in arts, humanities and the social sciences and the creation of a supposed ‘level-playing field’ to allow for-profit providers to compete for students.

This has led to the dramatic attenuation of the democratic functions of universities and consolidated the growth of a neo-liberal knowledge regime marked by increased managerialism, the growth of an ‘audit culture’ and performance management of teaching and research. In a new competitive environment, the university is seen by its managers as a ’brand’ to be promoted and protected. For the most part, attention has been on the consequences for teaching – the transformation of students into consumers – and the external assessment of research: game-playing in the REF and the displacement of the substance of research into the maximisation of scores on performance indicators of ‘excellence’ and ‘impact’. 

But something else is now emerging as part of this neo-liberal knowledge regime, namely, the ‘brand management’ and incorporation of social science itself. This is evident in a recent report, The Business of People, produced by the Campaign for Social Sciences. The Campaign was initiated by the Academy of Social Sciences, which is made up of 1000 fellows and 47 member learned societies (part of what the report calls the “soft power” of Britain), in turn encompassing 90,000 social scientists. Just how does it represent the social sciences and whose values does it promote?

The report is overwhelmingly instrumental and designed to appeal to the “Treasury, ministers, MPs and policy makers” (Foreword). Its focus on policymakers and practitioners is unremitting: “Advancing and applying science depends on profits, policies, markets, organisations and attitudes” (Executive summary). The attitudes of the public, on the other hand, are presented as potential obstacles to policy objectives. For example, it argues that “study of public values and attitudes is vital, too, especially when innovation prompts uncertainties and concerns, as with genetically modified crops or shale gas extraction” (page 6). And it warns that “without a better grasp of people, technological advances may be frustrated, or blocked, and fail to realise their potential” (page 5).

The report emphasises interdisciplinary approaches and returns frequently to this topic. In a separate comment in response to criticisms of the report, the Director of the Campaign has stated that the report does not specify particular modes of interdisciplinarity, but that they could include “critical sociologists working with anthropologists, philosophers working with synthetic biologists, educationalist working with neuroscientists, or historians working with political scientists.” In nearly all instances, however, what is emphasised is links across the social sciences, natural sciences and engineering, or across bio-sciences and social sciences. Indeed, its call for a 10% increase in funding in real terms is specifically attached to interdisciplinary research in social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. Only one reference is made to the humanities, but, once again, it is the indispensability of cross-disciplinary, problem-focussed research (page 7) that is stressed, as it is in all cases. Towards the end of the report it seems to belie this dominant emphasis by defining the social sciences as “disciplined curiosity”, but immediately this is qualified as “applied curiosity”.

The language of the report is a particularly narrow version of the ‘impact agenda’ where all publicly-funded research is to have users in mind, with commercial beneficiaries, policy-makers and practitioners foremost. Researchers are recommended to engage with potential users at the earliest stages of research, including that of its design and seek to maximise its subsequent impact with them. This is what makes research problem-focussed, where just what constitutes a problem should be co-defined with users.

This undermines both the critical functions of research and its independence. Research councils like the ESRC are increasingly setting research priorities determined by the Department for Business, Innovation and Science that provides its block grant of funding – for example, on ‘big data’ or the application of neuroscience to social problems. This is also evident in steered calls for grant applications and also specific co-funding of projects like the ‘What Works Centres’. ‘Independence’ has become narrowed to mean simply that research bids are peer-reviewed only from the perspective of their ‘academic excellence’. However, the latter includes review of their ‘pathways to impact’ and, for ‘large grants’ and ‘centres’ bids, this will include user representatives. Where government is a user, this may involve a representative from the Department for Business, Innovation and Science on the evaluation panel, as in the case of the recent call for research on the future of higher education, among other steers.

At the same time, under the dictates of audit culture and its performance indicators, individual universities are increasingly matching these research priorities to their own research strategies. The pursuit of knowledge is replaced by the pursuit of grants. With individual academics and departments evaluated according to their grant capture, this has increased the number of applications made for funding, thereby creating various measures of demand management. Research is shaped and managed by universities and research councils, alike, and all are converging on the same problems and topics as the ESRC steers. This is so notwithstanding the ESRC’s continuing commitment to ‘responsive mode’ funding – university research strategies constrain the responses of their staff within their own similar research priorities. This bureaucratisation of research is accompanied by the language of ‘innovation’, ‘transformation’ and ‘disruption’ - familiar tropes of neo-liberal discourse - but rather belied by the nature of how research agendas are set. What is preferred is research directed at behaviours, rather than at social structures.

What is striking about the report is that it comes in the wake of the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century documenting the rise in inequality in Western countries over the last decades. This found its way into the mainstream media, as well as in reports by agencies such as OECD. Yet structured social inequality is not mentioned at all in the report, nor is race and ethnicity, or any other research on social structure. These profoundly affect the circumstances of people’s lives, yet all the report has to say about them are their derived consequences in terms of people’s attitudes and behaviours and how those may be a problem for policy makers and practitioners in attaining their objectives.

Sometimes the report refers to social divisions and social structures by coded references to the ‘context’ of policy and practice. They are also implied by the report’s concern that investments in social science data, such as the birth cohort study and longitudinal studies, should be maintained. These are an important source of information about social structures and the report also seeks increased investment in big data and administrative data, including the recommendation of a “statutory presumption in sharing de-identified public (administrative) data for research processes”.

Yet while the commercial significance of big data is stressed throughout the report, it is silent about the fact that commercial interest in such data includes the evaluation of policy and performance (including that of academics themselves through academic analytics and the possible metricisation of the REF), where the ‘mixed data sets’ and ‘algorithms’ associated with commercial applied data science become proprietary products and, therefore, not themselves available for critical scrutiny. The report says nothing about the critical functions of social science at the same time as it opens the door to the privatisation and commercialisation of those critical functions.

Occasionally in the report, the façade cracks and the real substance of what is at issue in this and any election can be glimpsed. Thus, it remarks that, “growth is not given or necessarily consensual” and goes on to say that “choices must be made, about the balance of public and private, taxation and spending, freedom and constraint and about where and to whose benefit. Social science supplies context and helps us locate ourselves” (page 8). Precious little, however, is said about how social science addresses context, or how sustained research on context could be consistent with the impact agenda or the report’s own problem-focussed orientation. Nor does the report locate its own plea for funding in the “balance of public and private, taxation and spending.”

Within sociology, this raises a familiar question asked by Becker back in the 1960s: ‘whose side are we on?’ His was not an argument for partisan social science, but rather involved the observation that any social science that took seriously the circumstances and attitudes of the disadvantaged would be seen as partisan, simply by virtue of accounting for their views. As Becker observed, a social science that addressed the interests of those in subordinate positions would also appear unrespectable and partisan, while that which addressed the powerful would appear respectable and cloaked in ‘objectivity’. However, it was an ‘objectivity’ that derived simply from the naturalisation of power relations, not from being outside them.

In this context, both the report and the associated Campaign for the Social Sciences are not simply naïve; they are also calculating and hierarchical. The report presents itself as the protector of social science and the promoter of its interests at the same time as it presents a partial picture of them and displaces the commitments of those it enjoins to show solidarity. Critics like myself are accused of risking the future funding of the social sciences by our ‘divisiveness’ and, thereby, also risking the futures of early career researchers. This pressure is similar to managerial pressure within the university not to disrupt the ‘brand’. Suppose the government does not accept the claim for extra funding, it is likely, nonetheless, to accept the steer toward interdisciplinary research across the social sciences, natural sciences and engineering, and the emphasis on behavioural change. And this will have consequences for the careers of social scientists that do not share these orientations.

Were the situation not so serious, it might be thought of as a version of Fawlty Towers, where, in the run up to an election, social scientists are told: ‘don’t mention the politics’. But, if there are ‘choices’ about the public and the private, and about taxation and spending, to be made, we should remember that ‘choices’ can arise without them necessarily being put to the electorate. Indeed, this is, for elites, the preferred way to proceed.  So, after the last election, direct public funding of undergraduate degree programmes was removed and replaced by fees, despite not being put to the electorate. An 82% cut in public spending was achieved at the same time as greater revenue for universities was raised from student indebtedness. Yet, successive British Social Attitudes reports have showed the public both to be opposed to student debt (at levels lower than was subsequently introduced) and to believe that university education is about far more than instrumental purposes. The only decline in support for publicly-funded higher education is among those with graduate-level qualifications (themselves the beneficiaries of the previous system).

Just as university leaders have been willing to compromise the values of higher education in return for money from student fees, so the authors of The Business of People are willing to compromise the values of social science for money. Should we be surprised that the transformation of the university under neo-liberal policies of marketisation should also have their impact on the configuration of its disciplines? We shouldn’t be: funding comes at a price. Nevertheless in the pursuit of public money, shouldn’t there be more critical attention devoted in social science research to those issues that plague our societies rather than those which have been mobilised to accommodate the interests of elites?


This article is part of the Education strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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