The World Social Sciences Report 2013 calls for social sciences that are ‘bolder, better, bigger and different’. Bolder in asserting our importance to environmental change research and policy. Better at contributing to real world problem solving. Bigger through the enrolment of more social scientists to the cause. And different in the ways we theorise and approach inter-related social and environmental challenges as core social science concerns.

As a career environmental sociologist I can hardly disagree! But my experience tells me that in mobilising the social sciences to inform social and environmental transformation the most important of these is the call for boldness. Why?

To begin with, it is easy to underestimate just how influential environmental concerns already are within the social sciences. We need to be careful about reading too much into publication trends evident in databases, such as the Thompson Reuters Web of Science, which provide only partial insights into the work social scientists do as researchers, teachers and citizens – most especially work that is applied, multidisciplinary, highly experimental and/or undertaken in the global south.

We also need to take accusations from politicians and policymakers and from our colleagues in the natural sciences – that we don’t offer sufficiently practical and constructive inputs – with a grain of salt. At times these accusations are justified but often they are simply a convenient way to avoid allocating or sharing resources. At other times they are a more insidious way of avoiding the attention social scientists draw to power, inequality and injustice.

So the task of mobilisation is not simply one of involving more social scientists in global environmental change research, or encouraging them to do it in ways that are more open to multidisciplinary collaborations and policy experimentation. As important as these are, mobilisation is as much, if not more, a matter of making existing contributions more visible. And visibility, in turn, demands boldness. Again, why?

  • First, climate change politics are polarised and vitriolic. What passes for debate in the public domain is dominated by categorisation of people as either ‘believers’ or ‘deniers’; not by open and critical dialogue over the best policies and programmes to address climate change. The fear that critical views on climate policy will be misappropriated by ‘climate skeptics’ discourages social scientists from engaging in serious public-policy debate and from initiating research agendas that critically examine the effectiveness of climate policies. The urgency of dealing with climate change also plays a role here. However, not only is global environmental change far too serious not to examine carefully the assumptions and consequences of major policy options, doing so, I suggest, might actually help reorient public discourse away from the inane pseudo-debate promoted by climate skeptics.
  • Second, engaging in critical and transformational research can involve personal and professional risks. Drawing attention to injustice is fundamental to sound practice in the social sciences but it can also raise the ire of political and economic elites. This will expose some researchers to personal security threats but the more immediate risk for most is indifference or resistance from funding and management agencies. Often, research funding is provided by governments and companies who are themselves ‘part of the problem’. Working directly with influential stakeholders can be highly productive, but we should not be naïve about the potential for these stakeholders to shape research agendas in ways that leave critical questions unasked and relevant research ignored.
  • Third, as mentioned above, mainstream publication processes systematically discriminate against research that is boldly innovative, especially when that research is undertaken by academics in the global south. We can exhort researchers to do things differently but conventional publication outlets don’t really do ‘different’. A critical step in fostering experimentation with new models is to ensure they are disseminated and debated. As reviewers, editors and readers we need to take responsibility. We cannot blame citation databases and the metrics they produce for summarising our own peer review and citation practices.

There are numerous examples of social scientists doing work that does address real world environmental and social problems in practical and innovative ways as represented in the World Social Science Report. But if social scientists are to scale up our collective reach and influence – to really drive positive and transformational change – we need to accept the possibility that our efforts will be ignored, misrepresented or misappropriated and (boldly) get on with it.

Image: Hikingartistcom via Flickr

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