In the bed or at the table? A comment

Tereza Stöckelová

The Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

December 2013

Being a sociologist of science – the Vilnius conference was a fascinating experience for me. I would like to share a couple of observations relevant for the possible effects of the conference for social sciences and humanities in Europe.

In the bed or at the table?

After attending the conference, my prediction is that Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) will be, though partially integrated into Horizon 2020. The key issue is of course HOW will they be integrated? My impression from the plenary, as well as from the parallel session I participated in, is that SSHs would be welcome by politicians and policymakers and most of the STEM scientists in three roles. First, as a tool to achieve already settled goals, which means SSHs are not invited to re- or co-define such goals as in the Societal Challenge pillar themselves. Second, SSHs are treated as representatives of society. They are expected to help in pacifying society along with the goals. Third, as a source of socioeconomic expertise, which is an understanding that will keep them at safe distance from other types of expertise. SSHs are not invited to question how e.g. bioscience knowledge or technological solutions are constituted at the first place but help them to spread more effectively in society.

How do I come to these conclusions? Well, here are some characteristic quotes on the foreseen changes I noted down during the first plenary session at the conference: “completely different way of doing business”, “understand their customer”, “we need to understand why there is the resistance”, “to get the acceptance once the things is developed”, “global challenges that are out there”. And here is a quote from the EC representative presentation in the parallel session: “The natural science have (sic!) a dominant position in the analysis of the processes and causes of global climate change”, “need to draw on a broad range of SSH research – including sociology, anthropology, history, literature and cultural studies – in order to grasp the impact that climate change has on the articulation of values, norms and cultures”.

It seems to me this is what the popular phrase “embedding SSH across all societal challenges” in fact means and I can only agree with Michel Wieviorka who said in the final plenary session that “embedding” is a dangerous word.

I expect some SSH researchers will be happy to take on these roles, and I even think this might be legitimate in some cases unless it is the primary and only contribution allowed from SSHs. If processes are only open for instrumental, but not for reflexive SSHs knowledges and perspectives we will only repeat the tragicomic fairy-tale of a ready-made bright future, which not only cannot be fulfilled but apparently doesn’t work as a political myth mobilizing European citizens any more.

Unity in diversity or partisan battles?

My other comment is concerned with the „social sciences and humanities“ field. Let us start with the abbreviation “SSH”. When we talk about “social sciences and humanities” we are explicit about the disciplinary plurality, difference and potential reductionism and conflicts. The abbreviation makes them sound singular and coherent. I noticed the abbreviation being used very often at the conference (I of course did it myself!). There are understandable pragmatic reasons for that but nevertheless I think it gave an unrealistic impression of unity, shared realities and interests without a “due process” of lengthy and at times perhaps painful negotiations between various stakeholders in the field. My second observation in this context is that disciplinary participation was rather uneven at the conference. I noticed for example very few economists and those speaking identified as “critical economists”. But economy is the most powerful social science today, both in academic and societal terms, and we have to ask where are the economists (in relation to Horizon 2020) when they are not at the conference? Do they have their own channels to speak to the EC and lobby for their interests? Third, apart from disciplinary plurality and potential conflicts, there is one more, probably strengthening, cleavage in European SSHs which flashed on several occasions at the conference. It is related to national and regional differences. I don’t speak primarily about the different “traditions” of e.g. national sociologies but current precarities that researchers face in different countries. It was obvious that cuts and austerity measures in (national) public funding for research in general and SSHs in particular create very different situations for researchers with implications for EU funding as well. It seemed from some of the contributions in the plenary that, e.g., not only any co-funding is now available in many places in Southern Europe but institutions are not able to offer even basic working conditions for EU funded researchers.

This all is meant as a critical reflection of the usage of the abbreviation of SSH and the “unity” of SSH, not a critique of the conference. I share the concern of the organisers regarding the common voice of SSH vis-à-vis the EC and other European policy bodies. The conference was a substantial contribution to the process of its articulation. But the positioning of the conference was indeed difficult in this respect as it was at the same time a place to locate SSH to/with politicians and policymakers (i.e. with the “outside” of SSHs) and with each other (i.e. within the SSHs). These are apparently very different tasks – while we need much more open and explicit exchange within the communities, there is not much point in confronting each other before the eyes of the policy publics.

What happens to society?

To conclude, I would like to emphasise one danger I noted earlier, which is that SSHs would play the role of expert spokespersons of society in Horizon 2020 and related political processes. As was clear from the quotes above, the expectations from the politicians and policymakers as well as the STEM scientists in the parallel session were in terms of instrumental expertise. In the parallel session on climate change the call clearly was for social scientists to help implement the readymade natural science and technological solutions, taken up poorly by society so far. SSHs should not only play the role of expert delivering socioeconomic expertise and potentially tools for changing individual and collective behaviour but also – and I think mainly – to play the diplomatic role of re-connecting issues and agendas, empowering side-lined actors to articulate their presents and futures.

The Vilnius Declaration “Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities” is on the other hand explicitly rejecting this approach and calling for “innovative participatory approaches empowering European citizens in diverse arenas“, which I appreciate. I am however doubtful that specifically on this point the Declaration speaks for the whole field of SSHs. As much as it will be about challenging and persuading the policymakers and STEM researchers about this mission, it will be, I suppose, about challenging many of our SSH fellows.

About Tereza Stöckelova:

Tereza works in the field of studies of science and technology. She is interested in contemporary changes of academic and HE institutions, the role of expertise in environmental issues and the reflexive travel of knowledge between science and society. Her research draws on qualitative poststructuralist branches of social sciences (sociology, social anthropology, science and technology studies). Since 2008 she collaborates with a NGO Green Circle on a research and advocacy project developing new modes of collaboration between NGOs, the public and the academic sector.

The Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences