Get out from under the streetlamp

In his recent column in Helsingin Sanomat (17.4.2014), Saska Saarikoski painted a picture of the social sciences. It is, he says, a field that would like to tell us about the way things are in society but doesn’t really succeed.

It does not have the kind of authority that is enjoyed by the natural sciences, and it has badly floundered in its scientific endeavours. Now, though, it can be seen that attempts are being made to construct a scientific basis for the social sciences, which is a good thing, but making this field into a science does have its limits as “people are harder to study than atoms”.

And finally he says that researchers study the areas which offer the path of least resistance:

“Empirical social research is actually slightly reminiscent of a man looking for a key under a streetlamp.

‘Is that where you lost your key?’ asks a passer-by.

‘No, but I can see better here,’ the researcher replies.”

My understanding is that Saarikoski is saying that social research should, in spite of the challenges, be turned into a science similar to the natural sciences and that it should also examine more important and difficult problems “in understanding the human world” than it currently does.

I agree with the latter statement, but I do not agree with the fact that this could be achieved by going down the route suggested in the previous statement (even though including the evolutionary perspective in research is very fruitful). The torches that are needed to light up the darkness outside the beam of the empirical “streetlamp” are interpretation and criticism, but these two processes do not really promote a move towards the natural sciences.

The interpretation and the criticism should be linked to fact-collecting “empirical social research” in order to be able to create an effective analysis of society. We can collect facts, for example lots of statistical data, in an irrefutable way. But the facts do not speak for themselves. Every person who has ever carried out research knows that facts can be immensely pliable.

In other words, it is not possible to gather empirical data without interpretation. We need interpretation if we want to get away from plain facts and “understand the human world”. We need concepts or theories; we need ideas regarding the relationships and connections between social phenomena and processes, and so on.

Third, the social sciences do have the potential to carry out social criticism, to the degree that they are able to go outside the area illuminated by the streetlamp, that is, are able to illuminate, with facts gathered and interpretations made, such aspects of our world that are beyond the obvious and self-evident everyday knowledge. They could participate in disclosing hidden mechanisms and effects, and power relationships in particular.

The distinction between facts, interpretation and criticism (which is loosely based on Jürgen Habermas’s idea of three domains of knowledge) is useful when considering the problem of the authority of the social sciences or the value given to it that was highlighted by Saarikoski. It provides a perspective of the key areas or challenges that are involved when the social sciences message is taken to a wider audience. We need research on substantive issues, but we also need ways to convey to people the contribution made by this research that goes beyond common sense or standard media publicity. This is important because it is exactly this contribution that provides justification for the social sciences.

Sometimes this challenge can be met easily. This may be the case if the researcher occupies the middle ground between research and journalism and the subject can be discussed easily in the form of a narrative. In this case the theory or theoretical perspective appears, as it were, between the lines, irrespective of whether the author is a scholar or not. For example, the theoretically well-informed researcher John Womack’s Zapata and the Mexican Revolution(1968) tells the story of the Mexican revolution without a single reference to revolution theories, but the most appro priate of these theories are verified by the way the description is constructed. David Remnick’s King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero (1998) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s analysis of American society set at the time when civil rights were being fought for. Muhammad Ali’s story, with the white man’s black boxer Floyd Patterson and the Mafia’s own black boxer Sonny Liston as the opponents, produces a fitting analysis of the American society.

A topic which is more tricky and challenging, but just as interesting is the theme selected for Kone Foundation’s “Is Finland Becoming Polarized? Researchers, journalists and social inequality” seminar and networking event to be held on 16-17 May 2014.

The goal is to launch projects in which researchers and journalists cooperate in the research and publicisation of this important subject. Social inequality is a crucial subject on a global scale and within developed countries, and it manifests itself in dramatic and less dramatic ways. An example of the former are the riots that raged in London and other English cities in 2011. After the riots, a research team at the London School of Economics and journalists from the Guardian carried out a joint project with research and reporting that was more in-depth than the post-riot news and commentaries could be. This Reading the Riots project is one source of inspiration for the Kone Foundation seminar, but the challenge is to find ways in which the customary cooperation between researchers and journalists could be deepened in the study of such manifestations of social inequality that are not quite as dramatic as the riots in England.

Among the most important of the apparently everyday manifestations of social inequality is the variation in the health of different groups of people. This can also be very dramatic in its own special way. Or what should be said about the following research results (Helsingin Sanomat 22.4.2014)? “A middle-aged man in the lowest fifth of the income distribution scale can expect to live to an average age of 69, while a Finnish man in the top fifth will live to an average age of over 80. (…) The difference in the life expectancy of an employed and an unemployed man is about six years. (…) The highly educated retain their health and functional status on average for about 13 years longer than the less educated.”

They are harsh facts. Delving into the reasons for these facts could be precisely the type of analysis that goes further than common sense, which would expose the mechanisms of and relationships between income, participation in working life and education, and ultimately the reasons for the success or failure of the Finnish welfare state. Publicising these interpretations and criticisms to the general public requires cooperation between researchers and journalists.

An excellent example of an analysis that could provide a basis for publicisation of the interpretation and criticism of social inequality is Göran Therborn’s The Killing Fields of Inequality (2013). One of its starting points is health and mortality, or the lethal effects as the most dramatic manifestation of inequality: inequality kills. The book churns out a massive amount of information on health, morbidity and mortality all over the world, and the differences are often spectacular. Even though they are not among the most massive differences in Finland (but the most dramatic in Western Europe according to the level of education), many of them have increased rather than decreased over previous decades. In the eyes of death we are indeed not equal. But the most important thing is that Therborn does not end his journey in the killing fields of inequality here. He also analyses the unequal distribution of human dignity and resources and the mechanisms of inequality in creating distances between winners and losers, ranging from humiliation to pure exploitation. He discusses the Nordic welfare state’s failure to even out variation in mortality rates.

Interpretation and criticism both take his analysis further than common sense. They provide good meeting points for cooperation between researchers and journalists and they are moving out from under the streetlamp.


Risto Alapuro