Articles Why social research isn’t changing society (yet)

Why social research isn’t changing society (yet)


Social research should be making society better. Chief Executive of NatCen Social Research, Penny Young, explores why this isn’t happening enough and what we can learn from other research disciplines.  

Reflecting on the contribution of social research to human progress and happiness, compared with that of the natural sciences, medicine and technology is for many reasons an unfair comparison.

But, that doesn’t mean we should not attempt it, after all, it is often how those outside of our discipline judge our work. And, asked to speak to the Market Research Society Conference this week, gave me cause to consider how we stack up against these other disciplines. The conclusion I drew is not as well as we should.

  • Think about the incredible improvements in the treatment for cancer and cardiovascular disease with the failure to shift unhealthy lifestyles, which is a behavioural problem.
  • Compare the technology involved in tracking and detecting offenders with the contested nature of how to treat them.
  • And compare the cars investment bankers drive, the buildings they work in, the mathematical models that underpin their decisions, with the fact that regulatory models still don’t really know how best to motivate bankers in ways that are acceptable to society.

What unites these examples is a lack of embedded, accepted understanding and theory about some of the fundamentals driving human behaviour, and how we can change it. This is despite the fact that we’re an industry employing 60,000 people, adding £3 billion of gross added value, according to the recent Market Research Society report on the Business of Evidence.

So how can the sum of what we do in social research add up to more?

First. Applied social research is still too piecemeal. The RAND Corporation, an American research and policy institution argues that: “A high-quality study cannot be done in intellectual isolation: It necessarily builds on and contributes to a body of research and analysis. Failure to demonstrate an understanding of previous research lowers the perceived quality of a study, despite any other good characteristics it may possess”.   Too much of the social research we are commissioned to do fails this test: there’s not enough synthesis, or setting in context. In contrast, the natural sciences are incremental, and knowledge builds on previous knowledge.

Secondly, there isn’t enough hypothesis testing. Too much social research starts off as descriptive and then searches for the meaning. There’s not enough spent on policy evaluation relative to the amount spent on interventions.

In both these regards, the social policy What Works centres, announced a couple of weeks ago, are a great step forward, but it remains unclear if the pull factors are in place that can make them a success (I wrote a blog at the time of their announcement looking at this issue in more detail here).

Third, while academics in higher education are good at building subject specialisms, many applied social researchers specialise in methods at the expense of growing a deep subject expertise.

Finally, there is too big a gap between the Academy and applied research. Academics are very good at synthesis and setting their work in context – but they work to slower timetables and with notable exceptions, perhaps aren’t as keen on impact as we are. When C.P. Snow famously said over 50 years ago that there were two cultures, arts and sciences, I now worry that the two cultures in our world are between applied and academic research.

We are right to be wary of comparing ourselves with the natural sciences, but it is a useful exercise that can help identify opportunities for social research to do even better.  Not least, the gap between the Academy and applied research, our lack of synthesis and specialisation and our failure to be rigorous about hypothesis testing risks commoditising our research.

So, while individual projects deliver a great deal of value to clients, perhaps we do not develop the widely accepted theories of human behaviour that might support an ethical banking sector or healthier lifestyles. The What Works centres may be a jumping off point for this, but we must start by first acknowledging where our failings are.


Penny Young
Penny is Chief Executive of NatCen Social Research. NatCen is a not-for-profit organisation, dedicated to making an impact on society and advancing the role of social research in the UK. Before joining NatCen, Penny was Head of Audiences at the BBC Trust and prior to that she was the Research Director of Which?.is director of History & Policy, and lectures in history at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London.  She has worked on domestic serviceshipwrecks, and gender history, and is committed to the development of historically informed debates in public life.

(The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence)