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The Public Value of the Social Sciences–and the Sociology of Religion–Prof John Brewer to speak at Belfast Conference, 3-5 September 2014

brewerpublicvalueIn September (3rd-5th), Belfast will host the bi-annual meeting of the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network, the theme of which is ‘Religion in the Public Domain.’

Among the keynote speakers is Prof John D. Brewer, Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, whose address will deal with ‘The Public Value of the Sociology of Religion.’

Other keynote speakers are Prof Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University) on ‘How Public Religion has changed now that ‘Church and State’ isn’t the Only Game in Town’ and Dr Erin Wilson (Groningen) on ‘Global Justice in a Postsecular Public Domain: Challenges and Possibilities.’

Brewer has published extensively on religion in Northern Ireland and the sociology of peace processes, among other topics. As a former President of the British Sociological Association, and in his recent positions at both Queen’s and the University of Aberdeen, Brewer has been an advocate of a ‘public sociology’ that makes a difference outside the walls of the academy.

One of Brewer’s latest books is The Public Value of the Social Sciences: An Interpretative Essay (Bloomsbury 2013). I expect Brewer’s thinking in this volume will inform his address later in the year in Belfast.

So a review of The Public Value of the Social Sciences is timely, to begin pondering some of the issues raised in order to whet appetites for further discussion in Belfast.

The Public Value of the Social Sciences takes a broad and general approach. It is not overly preoccupied with the research areas of peace processes and religion for which Brewer is well-known.

This breadth and depth is, of course, a strength, because the book’s insights are relevant to scholars working across a range of social science disciplines. Throughout Brewer argues that today’s complex social and political problems require a ‘post-disciplinary’ approach in which academics emerge from their ‘silos’ to address common problems, and to be informed and enriched by the wisdom of those working from different perspectives.

The book is very much rooted in the British universities context, with its increasing pressure on academics to show the ‘public impact’ of their research.

Brewer acknowledges that academics have chafed under this yoke as public support for universities is reduced and universities are increasingly expected to compete for students like firms in a market. He analyses this British context and offers international comparisons, suggesting that a shift in emphasis from ‘public impact’ to ‘public value’ would benefit not just academics working in the universities, but also policy makers and the civil society activists who are engaged with them.

(Click here to read a short paper by Brewer on ‘Viewpoint: From Public Impact to Public Value’)

Particularly for readers within the British context, chapters on ‘What is the Scale and Standing of British Social Science?’ and ‘What is the Threat Faced by the Social Sciences?’ make for fascinating reading. Brewer argues that by a variety of international quality measures, British social science ranks second in the world only to the United States. He also points out that social scientists can in some ways demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research more readily than those working in the natural sciences or humanities.

But Brewer is critical of the impact agenda and other changes in higher education policy that have come with it, such as an ‘audit culture’ that counts ‘the countable because the countable can be easily counted’ (p. 90-91). At the same time, he notes the challenges that can come with publicly-funded research:

‘Publicly funded research agendas are under pressure to reflect government policy initiatives – not so much evidence-based policy, as John Holmwood … puts it, but policy-based evidence’ (p. 84).

This makes for a sobering analysis:

‘… Britain is witnessing the end of centuries-old traditions with the demise of the public university; traditions which made British universities among the best in the world, gave the country renown and respect, contributed to its civic culture and, it has to be said, also its economic and scientific expansion’ (p. 115).

In the final two chapters of the book, ‘What is the Public Value of Social Science?’ and ‘What is the New Public Social Science?’, Brewer lays out his vision for how those working in the social sciences can challenge prevailing trends and make this a moment of ‘opportunity’ for ‘the social sciences by re-envisioning their public value for the twenty-first century’ (p. 116).

The relevance of these chapters expands beyond the British context and can feed into similar debates in Europe and further afield.

Interestingly, neither the EU nor the European Research Council uses the language of ‘impact,’ rather favouring ‘value’ (p. 133).

For Brewer, it follows that scholars can pursue a ‘new public social science’ which is post-disciplinary (i.e. problem-orientated rather than discipline-orientated, p. 169) and self-consciously rejects a posture of detached objectivity.

Brewer defines the new public social science this way (p. 168-169):

The new public social science studies the social nature of society – the way in which society is produced and reproduced in culture, the market and the state, generating information about society, the market and the state – which informs society about itself and the big issues that shape the future of humankind. This form of study simultaneously promotes moral sentiments and a sympathetic imagination by garnering a body of citizens educated to social awareness and appreciative of the distant, marginalized and strange other. This means that social science teaching and learning has civilizing, humanizing and cultural effects in addition to whatever use and price value the new public social science might have.

Brewer sees the new public social science as an urgent, although not entirely new, task. He points out that his approach is influenced by eighteenth century Scottish political and moral philosophers, as well as Victorian approaches to social science which saw it as a tool for addressing social ills. In these ways it is an approach that returns social science to its historical roots.

Following from that, Brewer explores what the new public social science might look like in research, teaching, civic engagement, and scientific agendas. He includes a variety of ‘vignettes’ where he describes examples of the new public social science in practice, such as his own taught module on the sociology of peace processes, or University College London’s reconfiguration of its research strategies around ‘multidisciplinary challenges.’

As a social scientist who is sympathetic to the new public social science Brewer describes, I was heartened reading the book and reflecting on the possibilities that he raised. Of course, not all will agree that social scientists are obliged, or even particularly well-equipped, to contribute in the ethical or moral ways that Brewer identifies.

But the concerns of the new public social science are especially pressing for sociologists of religion, particularly at a time when religion – at least in Europe – is often regarded as a divisive and violent social force.

Or as a section of the Call for Papers for the Belfast conference puts it:

This return of religion in the public domain is also a socially, politically, legally and morally contested issue. In a ‘post-secular’ society, Jurgen Habermas argued, religious groups, organizations and individuals should be included within the public sphere in the civic debate about the problems of modernity, i.e., individualism, excessive consumption and the loss of moral values. Claims like these – made in academia, politics or culture – activate secular groups like the ‘new atheists’ to revitalize ‘rationalist’ values of the Enlightenment and take on a fundamentalist position on the subject. Social conflicts are increasingly religious conflicts (e.g., Calhoun). Theoretically, developments such as these invoke substantial doubt about modern distinctions between the public and the private, the secular and religious and the profane and the sacred. They invite research on the (historical) formation of such categories – in the social sciences and modern cultures alike – and its relation to social conflict and cultural power (e.g., Assad).

So sociologists of religion (as well as social scientists!), can ask:

  • What public value does our study of religion bring?
  • Does if further our understanding of the religious or ethnic ‘Other’?
  • Does it help us understand how religion can be used as a resource for violence, and conversely as a resource for peace?
  • Does it help us see how fundamentalisms develop?
  • Does it offer any moral or ethical insights?

We look forward to continuing the questioning in Belfast.