This is not a rhetorical question. Everyone who dedicates their time to social sciences should ask themselves why they are important. For me, the purpose of social sciences is to change society. Not to participate in politics, not to serve government’s need for information, and not to prepare reports in support of decisions, but to bring about the societal change that occurs through information and analysis.
It is not only a question of decision-making based on information. It simply means that political decisions really have an impact on the intended matters in the intended manner. Social sciences, as well as humanities and art, have a much broader task. The aim is to develop ways to observe the world, to increase our understanding of humans and the contrivances they build – religions, societies, cultures.
The idea would be to use this understanding as a foundation for improving society. However, there is no consensus about what constitutes a “better” society, so this is at best a complex process. Jumping too directly from social theory to legislative changes often skews reality and makes mincemeat of people on the way. However, social reform based on science has some fairly large feathers in its cap. The Finnish welfare state was built upon scientific research carried out over a long time – and because of scientific research.
Indeed, one of the most important tasks of a social researcher is to share the understanding gained through research. Data does not speak for itself, but needs a messenger. Sometimes, this means delving into and explaining research, lobbying laws, contributing to the letters to the editor section, or sometimes simply writing bold blogs and tirelessly presenting your research results.
However, one person’s research results are not always enough. One tricky thing about the world is that it has its own set of rules. Strange things happen that nobody really understands. When the going gets tough, the journalists start calling.
Therefore, social researchers must be prepared to tread on thin ice: to comment on and explain those events that might be less familiar. This takes courage and confidence in one’s own analysis skills, and a firm belief that the years spent understanding society and people have not gone to waste.
In December 2013, I commented on the Kiakkovieraat protest in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and on Yle broadcasts. The protest, which was held in Tampere in conjunction with the Finnish independence day celebrations, turned out to be fairly violent. In my day job, I study politics and participation, so I wasn’t too surprised when I was invited to share my views. Although I have never focused specifically on anarchism or even protests, I didn’t hesitate. Social scientists must have the guts to comment on the basis of common knowledge.
Heikki Hiilamo, professor of social policy, and junior researcher Samu Lindstrom, who studied the Kuokkavieraat protests and who is the leading expert on the matter, also expressed their views on the matter. The three of us provided a fairly wide range of background information and interpretations, and background information on the degree of violence, which was unusual for Finland, to various media. In my comments, I did not condemn or moralise, nor did I glorify the protest. I started with the assumption that an openly political protest actually constitutes a political act that aims to send a message.
This analysis was apparently annoying enough to prompt a completely disproportionate counter reaction. Maybe it was because of my background in left-wing student politics or my supposed involvement in the bus transportation arranged for the protest, or perhaps it was the atrocity of the attack against the sacredness of the presidential institution. Whatever the reason, the journal of a certain political party started creating a scandal around my role as a social commentator, and was quite successful in doing so. After a few turbulent days in the media, the Iltalehti tabloid even wrote an article about the backgrounds to the differing social analyses of two researchers.
For two days, I sat at home and at the office, waiting by the phone. Waiting anxiously to find out which media outlet would be the next to ask me questions about my background and about my non-existent relationship with the protest. I waited, wondering if the next caller would be friendly or hostile, as the media were not all out with good intentions by any means. Supposedly incriminating tweets were picked out of my twitter stream for circulation around the internet. My sense of self-preservation prevented me from reading the comment sections of newspapers and blog entries.
The worst were the media that did not bother to call, opting instead to spread opinions or snippets of information taken from previous stories that either were or weren’t true. However, most of the journalists with whom I was actually in verbal contact were absolutely professional and unbiased.
Social media phenomena and media storms last a certain amount of time, after which they fade away. Something else of interest happens, and the handling of the matter moves on. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have time to participate in the shout fest that was the A-talk current affairs program that was broadcast on the subject. There was a new wave of vexation, and the focus shifted away from me.
I managed to withstand the storm and the abuse because I was able to stand behind my original comments. I made the analysis on the basis of my knowledge of Finnish societal movements and protest dynamics. I didn’t have any further background knowledge than what was openly available on the internet, or any personal contact with the organisers of the protest. Since I had nothing to hide, I could face the full brunt of the storm relatively unafraid.
Although the series of events was rather unpleasant, I would certainly do it again. It is all in a day’s work for social scientists: we study the world in order to be able to analyse and interpret its events. And the work isn’t worth anything unless other people know about it, too.
Veikko Eranti is a blogger, sociologist and essayist.