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Reinventing Social Science & Universities for Social Transformation

‘Transformation of science and research’ is what Julia February 19th called for, because of various problems and challenges. She notes lack of consensus about what the problem is. Simone and Nora March 12th posit as problem lack of connection between academia and society and lack of societal impact of academia. My suggestion is that behind that problem lies a deeper problem with the status of science. Science as locus of authority hampers creativity where it is needed: in practice, among those who are now conditioned to think of themselves as ‘users’ of knowledge produced by more knowledgeable others.

Everyday understanding of science and research is based on a positivist understanding of science, with the natural sciences as model. It assumes an ‘objective reality’ that is independent from people. ‘Reality’ is ‘researched’ to produce ‘knowledge’ which can be applied to change (or maintain) reality. Knowledge reflects and is independent from reality. Its value is its ‘truth’ or ‘verisimilitude’. That representational quality can be tested or even measured by comparing ‘knowledge’ and ‘reality’. Scientists and researchers derive their social status from being professionally trained in that testing. Technology and know-how-to-change both physical and social reality are viewed as based on and thus having a lower status than scientific knowledge, because it is only derivative.

Philosophers of science like Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend deconstructed that model of science even for the natural sciences. For the social sciences, in the realm of changing society, it is even less valid. “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”, according to the Thomas theorem in sociology. Even if that doesn’t imply that there is no social reality outside socially constructed reality, it means that a far larger part of social reality depends on human definition and social science paradigms than for physical and biological reality. Transforming society may primarily require transforming social science rather than the physical and biological basis of society, even for transforming society towards something like ecological sustainability. For instance defining society as requiring economic growth to enable us to reduce poverty and handle inequality (cf Milanovic 2017) has as consequence that we not only don’t see other options for organising society without economic growth but also don’t have other options if that definition is sufficiently widely shared (which it is).

Re-inventing the societal role of universities

Changing social reality requires a concerted effort by academics, educators, and professionals if the left-hand figure is defined as real. Science changes social reality via education and highly educated professionals rather than reflecting it. Academic education has a pivotal role in society with concomitant responsibility. The understanding of ‘knowledge’ directly influences that societal role.

I understand knowledge ‘of’ and ‘in’ social reality as ‘domain dependent sense-making’, as depicted in this Cynefin figure from “Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-awareness”. (Snowden, 2003) That challenges the orthodoxy understanding of scientific management as managing knowledge separate from reality. Knowledge relevant in the unordered domains on the left where social change is initiated and becomes visible cannot be taught, but only learned, in every shifting situation anew.

Universities may have to re-identify themselves as producers of pragmatic truth in practice, of knowledge that changes reality by making sense of a need for change and by impelling it, rather than as discoverers of truth. Educating may have become facilitating change rather than teaching knowledge abstracted from practice.

Dealing with complexity and transience

Now,15 years later, Snowden has further developed the Cynefin sensemaking framework to include not only complexity but also transience (or liminality): the potential for and the process of change. The complicated domain of social reality, where professional logic is safeguarded, can be extended by building more expertise or even new professions. Inspiring people with vision and aspiration can extend complex adaptive social systems and facilitate social networking and emerging forms of organizations. Formal knowledge can also colonize domains where it does not belong, where it degenerates into clichés and platitudes. As explained by Snowden in his recent blog posts of January 12th, 14th, 15th, and 16th. My position is that science and universities can facilitate social transformation by understanding themselves as an adaptive social network and as facilitators of knowledge brokering rather than as knowledge producers and educational institutions. They should curb their own tendency to become bureaucracies that maintain, extend and teach a repository of cumulative formal knowledge. Science should not be seen as a profession that is ruled by scientific standards and objectives but as the embodiment of a changing society’s aspirations and visions.