How can the social sciences keep up with socio-technical change?

At a recent symposium I saw Ben Williamson give an excellent lecture about the rapidly developing field of educational data science and how it is reshaping educational practice. Some of the material is summarised here for those interested. It was a really broad overview of these developments and the theoretical challenges we face in trying to make sense of them. However what his lecture left me pondering most was the practical challenge of keeping track of these developments. There is so much happening, at such a rapid pace, it becomes hard to see how the critical social sciences can keep up with these developments.

Someone like Ben is doing it successfully within one field but this demands specialisation in a way that sits in tension with theorisation and contextualisation. To put it bluntly: how does collaboration happen when most of your colleagues know much less about these developments than you do? How do you engage with important philosophical, ethical and political questions posed by these developments when you have to spend at least half an hour describing to an audience what is actually happening? How do you have conversations with those working in comparable fields, drawing out connections and identifying similarities and differences between what you are studying?

My point is not that it is impossible. Far from it. Or even that it is new, as it’s clearly a particular manifestation of the broader epistemic challenge of specialisation. Only that it is hard. Furthermore, it is this difficulty which compounds the specialisation dynamic because the people you inevitably find yourself working with face the same practical challenge in relation to the broader disciplinary community, increasing your epistemic reliance upon one another to develop your research in a collaborative way.

One obvious impediment to addressing this problem is the journal system. If it takes six months to write a journal article, another year to get it published and another two years before responses to what you’re written begin to appear (if indeed they ever do) then subsequent developments might well have rendered what you’ve written partially redundant. Factor in the bias towards length within journals that publish critical social science, as well as the low status accorded to descriptive or review pieces, to discover a publication infrastructure that systematically undermines our capacity to cope with the pace of socio-technical change. The fact it’s one most, if not all, find themselves bound into through the logic of career development entrenches the problem only further.

It won’t surprise anyone that I think research blogging can be a partial solution to this problem. It can accelerate scholarly dialogue in a way that mitigates, without overcoming, the decelerative effects of the journal system. So too could more attention to information-searching and information-storage practices within the critical social sciences. But perhaps we need to think more broadly than this. My developing conviction is that we need to create systems for networked horizon scanning in a way that complement, rather than seek to replace, the existing journal system:

Horizon scanning is a technique for detecting early signs of potentially important developments through a systematic examination of potential threats and opportunities, with emphasis on new technology and its effects on the issue at hand. The method calls for determining what is constant, what changes, and what constantly changes. It explores novel and unexpected issues as well as persistent problems and trends, including matters at the margins of current thinking that challenge past assumptions.

Horizon scanning is often based on desk research, helping to develop the big picture behind the issues to be examined. Desk research involves a wide variety of sources, such as the Internet, government ministries and agencies, non-governmental organisations, international organisations and companies, research communities, and on-line and off-line databases and journals. Horizon scanning can also be undertaken by small groups of experts who are at the forefront in the area of concern: They share their perspectives and knowledge with each other so as to ‘scan’ how new phenomena might influence the future.

A solid ‘scan of the horizon’ can provide the background to develop strategies for anticipating future developments and thereby gain lead time. It can also be a way to assess trends to feed into a scenario development process.

It’s important to recognise that these changes aren’t simply a matter of technical developments. There are a vast array of actors with a vested interest in pursuing these developments, encompassing policy makers, think tanks, foundations, entrepreneurs, data scientists and corporations. They proceed through a dizzying array of projects, intervening in every facet of each sector of social life. Such actors enjoy an obvious epistemic priority over those who seek to (critically) study them, inhabiting a rich web of assumptions, meanings and relations which those from the outside must come to inhabit while retaining distance. They also enjoy a temporal privilege, working in collectives towards these ends, creating a challenge for those who seek to track and analyse their endeavors either individually or within small teams, often while juggling a whole array of other demands.

The challenges we face in researching such developments are continuing to grow while we remain locked into individualising and decelerative modes of working that are wholly inadequate to them.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Digital Sociology, Higher Education, Social Theory

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