Social Sciences and the Real World

Social Scientists and the Real World

Since the origins of the social sciences, scholars have been picking up the loose threads left behind by others and collecting clues in order to discover not only the answers but also the questions. We rely on our colleagues’ criticism to improve our research and we depend on collaborations with non-academic informants to gather the data we need. Collectively, we produce knowledge about society, with the aim of addressing some of its problems. But what role do our ideas actually play in the real world? And how do we engage in the public discussions in which our findings interact with other social actors and their agendas?

To address these questions, Imran Chowdhury, Isabelle Ferreras, Gerhard Schnyder and Anna K. Skarpelis organized a special event at the 2019 SASE conference. In a packed room in New York City, two sessions kicked off this ambitious initiative: “The Digitalization and Automatization of Work and Its Implications for Working People” and “The Rise of Populism and Authoritarianism and Its Impact on Freedom.” For the organizers, the size of the audience revealed “a real concern among colleagues about the status of our disciplines in the public eye.”

The organizers describe two criteria for their selection of topics: “firstly, whether it is a topic that has societal relevance beyond its academic interest and thus may attract interest from a non-academic local audience. Secondly, whether members of SASE have expertise in these areas and can contribute to a stimulating debate about how social sciences can help us address some of the issues the world is facing.”

The Plan for Amsterdam 2020 

The two panels planned for the “live” SASE annual meeting surely met these criteria. “Repurposing the Corporation to Save Capitalism from Itself?” and “Global Cities in the 21st Century: Population Loss and Shrinking Centres”. Organizer Gerhard Schnyder articulated the core interest of the panels.

The question of the reform of the corporate form is one that has gotten a lot of attention recently and has been one area in which—it seemed to us—social scientists have been particularly proactive and successful in having their voices heard beyond the academic community. The British Academy, for instance, sponsored a large project on the “future of the corporation” and, a few years ago, the law firm Frank Bold launched the Purpose of the Corporation project, which seeks to stimulate debate around the notion of shareholder value and alternative purposes corporations may pursue for more socially desirable and sustainable outcomes. So, there is a lot of interest—and indeed some urgency—in discussing the role of corporations in the modern economy. At SASE we are lucky enough to have colleagues who are involved in the “The Purpose of the Corporation” project, as well as academic experts on corporate governance reforms, which made us think it would be the perfect topic for the SS4RW sessions this year. It is a topic that both policy makers and “ordinary citizens” care enough about to generate interest and hopefully stimulating debates.

The second topic was to be “Global Cities in the 21st Century: Population Loss and Shrinking Centers.” This topic is both of academic interest and important to local audiences and communities. Given that the meeting was meant to be held in Amsterdam—a city, like many others, facing these issues—it felt like an appropriate theme. Moreover, the local organizing committee for the SASE meeting offered to introduce us to interesting people working for the municipality of Amsterdam with vast practitioner expertise on these questions. This seemed like too good of an opportunity to miss.

The COVID-19 Crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has transformed many more aspects of life than we could have imagined. As plans fell to pieces before our eyes, we just had a few days to figure out how to keep teaching, learning, reading, writing, and even doing “fieldwork” from home. Moreover, the crisis has created an opportunity to rethink fundamentals characteristics of the objects we study: goods, services, monies, markets, corporations, work, finances, economies—all of which went into crisis too. COVID-19 has revived the relevance of facts, giving scientific knowledge an unexpected opportunity for rematch against the governments and non-governmental organizations that have tried to delegitimize it in recent years.

We asked the organizers how the selected topics dialogue with this scenario. According to them:

In terms of the topics, they clearly remain as relevant as before the crisis. Indeed, many people argue that COVID-19 demonstrates the need for urgent change in the way in which we organize our societies and economies. Both topics for our panels clearly are at the heart of the rethinking that needs to take place after the crisis is over. For example, how does the definition of “essential” workers and tasks alter corporations’ ethical and shareholder mandates? To what extent does the virus alter existing business cycles and the temporalities of corporations? Cities in turn have become hotspots for virus transmission. How should we think about populations and cities from an epidemiological standpoint? How are city governments thinking positively about how to manage population loss and shrinking city centers as social distancing becomes important? We are sure that such Covid-related questions will be an important topic of discussion.

More fundamentally, the need for policymakers to listen to social and natural scientists has been underscored by the crisis and its handling by governments. This may provide some reason for hope, regarding the standing of academic investigation in the world, but of course a crisis of this extent will impact universities and hence our work for years to come.

World Wide Web 2020

Under the current circumstances, only one of the panels remains on the final program. “Repurposing the Corporation to Save Capitalism from Itself?” will feature a debate among corporate governance specialists Isabelle Ferrares (UCL) and Blanche Segrestin (Paris Mines), along with Rosl Veltmeijer-Smits and Erik Breen, consultants from Triodos Bank NV and the International Integrating Reporting Council (IIRC) respectively, and Jeroen Veldman (Nyenrode), who leads the “The Modern Corporation Project.” Discussion will be moderated by Imran Chowdhury (Wheaton College) and Anna Skarpelis (Harvard University).

One of the biggest challenges ahead identified by the organizers is to increase non-academic participation, not only among speakers but also in the audience. In their words, it “will be a long-term process that we have only just started working on. SASE members have a great network, and many are very engaged not only as academics but also as citizens (…) There’s still a lot of exciting work to be done in that area, but the NYC meeting was an excellent start on that path.” The COVID-19 crisis and its imperatives for social distancing might represent an opportunity in this regard: “The silver lining may be that an online event does not limit us to a local audience, but actually allows us to attract participants from around the world. That may allow more practitioners to attend, who might otherwise have been cooped up at their physical offices.”

The local inspiration for the selection of the topics and the speakers is also an attractive feature of “Social Sciences for the Real World,” which allows the participants to learn more about the place where the meeting is taking place while enriching the dialogue with possible alternatives from their own experience. As all of us had already learned this semester, the virtual modality faces limitations for interactions and informal exchange,[1] but it certainly helps to overcome the economic and physical restrictions of travel. Beyond the expansion of diffusion brought by this unfortunate parenthesis, the question remains as to how the “local” aspect of the SASE meeting sites (historically located in Europe or the USA) appeals to an audience living under very different conditions. For instance, “Repurposing the Corporation” probably has another resonance in Latin America, Africa, or Asia than it does in Europe, given the relationships between the state, civil society, and national and multinational firms in these regions. Anyway, and as the Coronavirus crisis has shown, the relationships between “universal” knowledge and local developments are always complex and learning concrete cases not only exercises our scientific imagination but also, hopefully, incites us to discuss our own ways of scientific local engagement.

The panel “Repurposing the Corporation to Save Capitalism from Itself?” will take place on Monday 20 July 2020 from 11am-12pm EST (5pm-6pm CET).

If you are not  registered for the conference, you can still access this panel if you sign up beforehand.

[1] As Akos Rona-Tas said here about the SASE/RISE IV.

Article by Florencia Labiano

This article is taken from the SASE Summer Newsletter 2020. Click here to go back to the contents.