Who defines social science concepts for the general public?

by Rony Armon

At the beginning of the year, I think we should look into some neglected corners of the public engagement of science and its study. A recent post published by Edge.org seems to highlight a significant gap around the public communication of the social sciences.

The edge
Around the start of the year Edge.org provided responses to an annual survey of the most important scientific concepts. Alongside detailed explanation of some basic concepts, such as the physical principles of complementarity and spontaneous symmetry breaking that have been popularized with recent discoveries in particle physics, contributors explain general processes (Evolve), historical ideas (The Copernican Principle) or the nature of science more broadly (Scientific Realism). Though comprehensive there seems an interesting, if not worrying, gap around the social sciences that seem to be represented in a rather skewed manner.

Though many contributors come from psychology departments, Prof. Elizabeth Wrigley-Field is the only sociologist on the list yet even she discusses a methodical (Length-Biased Sampling) rather than conceptual issue. The sociological concept of Confirmation Bias is explained (in three lines) by the artist and composer Brian Eno rather than professional sociologists and others seem to be explained by psychologists, biologists, journalists and general authors. The term affordances has become a crucial explanatory concept for our understanding of social media engagement and use, including by the way, in science communication. Yet the concept of Affordance explored in the list is the cognitive concept introduced by psychologist James J. Gibson in the seventies. Social concepts are explained mainly from cognitive and biological angles or from a popular rather than a sociologist perspective.

This picture chimes with observations made by Angela Cassidy on the public engagement of the social sciences. Though social scientists are increasingly sourced as news commentators sociology is not frequently covered in science sections. Cassidy suggests that traditional hierarchies between physics and mathematics and soft or ‘subjective’ subjects such as sociology and anthropology resonate in scientific institutions and popular culture, forming institutional barriers to public communication in these fields. The higher prominence for psychology, as seen from that list, may reflect its borderline status between the natural and social sciences and psychologists’ efforts to promote the public image of their discipline.

Indeed, the list of authors responding to TheEdge seem to be indicative of what @edge editor John Brockman identified as The Third Culture. According to Brockman “The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” This group once dominated by the likes of Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Steven J Gould is certainly growing and diversifying but its membership includes only occasional members from sociology. Sociologists write plenty of popular books on politics, economics and history for educated readers and lay audiences. But if this list is an indication, they have little public voice in defining the social and in communicating sociological concepts to the general public.

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Rony Armon is a Research Assistant  at the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College London. He studies science and health communication in broadcast media interviews with scientific experts. You’re warmly welcome to connect, have a look at his research output and follow his science-in-the-media tweets.