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Are the Social Sciences and Humanities Capable of Social Innovation?

At a recent European conference on social innovation I was astounded to observe that university-based social science and humanities professors expressed the need for reform of governments, but none saw a need to reform the social sciences and humanities. There was a strong consensus that the SSHs are not getting a proper share of innovation research funding because of the short-sightedness of granting agencies rather than, say, some limiting characteristics of the SSHs. This note is a reflection of a senior bureaucrat (although now officially retired) on the need for reform of the SSHs if they are to play an influential part in inventing a new and much-needed society.

The SSHs have not acknowledged the importance of social technology in developing our society over the years and, hence, the potential that social inventions have for the further improvement of society. For instance, they might acknowledge that schools, courts, legislatures, and other institutions were social inventions that resulted in great social progress, but they lack the methodology to invent new institutions of similar value to overcome present ailments and achieve further social progress.  Social innovation typically requires a combination of three elements: new policies, organizations and methods that work in harmony and a recognition of the perhaps unintended consequences of such changes. The design of these components need to be tested experimentally before they should be adopted.

The SSHs methodology is analytical and descriptive and has no place for experimentation to prove or disprove their ideas. The idea of experimental sociology, for example, appears to be lacking in the courses offered by universities. Without experimental development we have no real knowledge.  Professional publications in the SSHs typically end with a description of the limitations of the study and the need for further research. This is not an adequate basis for changing policies of programs. The SSHs must have laboratories to test ideas and invent solutions and this is the great need for funding.
The great advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were based upon the development of procedures for technical invention - what we know as the scientific method.  The social sciences have adopted the scientific method to evaluate practices, not to develop new social technologies.

If the SSHs are to prompt improvements in society they need to: (a) acknowledge that there are social inventions and that they can be made, (b) develop a technology for making social inventions, (c) acquire the resources to invent and experiment with new social institutions as well as new procedures, (d) be prepared to work in social invention centres with many other social scientists, and (e) extol the virtues of experimenting with people.

Stuart Conger, Ottawa, Canada,