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Jesper Christiansen

Social sciences in action

By March 11th 2014

Debate writing between Sarah Schulman, Anna Lochard and Jesper Christiansen

This past Friday Sarah Schulman, InWithForward, Anna Lochard, La 27 Region, and I explored some of the current challenges of public design. We convened in Copenhagen, amongst other things, to develop and test out a new approach to answering questions. We have called our approach Debate Writing, and these are the questions we will be answering.

1. How do we put social sciences into action? And not just design thinking?

2. What is the role of every day people in our work?

3. How do we spread and scale processes, not just products?

We are pretty good at posing questions. As the ‘social scientists’ on our teams, we are often in critical thinking mode. But sometimes we can get caught in rounds and rounds of conversation, where we talk about what we already think. Rather than actually challenge and advance our collective thinking.

So we decided to put our pens to paper. Well, our fingers to the keyboard, and force ourselves to actually debate the questions we set out. Of course, what we came up with was not definitive or polished. But it did open up some new arguments and ways of conceptualizing issues we each face in our day-to-day practice.

JesperUSA-beskåret

Here is how it worked:

•  We brainstormed three prompts relevant to our everyday work.

•  Each of us took one prompt, and wrote an opening statement for 45 minutes.

•  When the alarm buzzed, we turned over our writing to the person sitting on our right. Who responded for 45 minutes.

•  We repeated the process once more. Until we had compiled three perspectives on each prompt.

•  We printed out our drafts, and looked for the thread. Where did the argument end up?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll publish all three of our written debates. And we would love to hear what you think. Here is our response to the first prompt. This prompt comes from a feeling that while design thinking is often lauded as the ‘new’ addition to public sector redesign, social science thinking is not well understood. It is assumed to already exist within the public sector. We challenge that notion here.

Prompt #1: Social sciences in action

Jesper’s Opening Statement:

Public organizations cannot merely adopt a strategy of survival by adapting to their environment. The fundamental consequence of being legitimized by a democratic system and run by political leadership is that, as a public servant, your purpose is to actually shape the environment. Not through politics or political ideas, but through applying a political epistemology that take the nature of the problem seriously. Political epistemology has to do with the nature and scope of knowledge and processes in which the state (or other relevant institutions of power) is rediscovering the public and its problems in order to make interventions in the everyday lives of citizens.

The social sciences has a critical role to play in this respect by influencing (and perhaps changing) how to understand public problems. The common role for social sciences is explore, frame, theorize and illustrate how social reality can be grasped and dealt with. In relation to public policy and reform, social science mostly serve as cultural and historical critique. It is yet to reveal a significant productive forward-oriented value.

This is where the very concept of design enters. Design and design-thinking seemingly takes ownership of both the reflexive approach of social science while combining it with forward-oriented processes of making the future accessible through experimentation and iteration. Often, practices of policymaking still assumes linear models where knowledge, actions and outputs have to be represented as in direct connection and where the plan for change has to be specified in advance. Design emerges as a challenge to this often inefficient way of dealing with social change in public sector contexts. But is it promising too much? And is design just a way of talking about social sciences in action?

The challenge of putting social sciences in to action in a context of public decision-making is quite immediate in a current MindLab project that aims to rethink the practice of policy development in the Danish Ministry of Employment. This project has the purpose of improving the capacity of the ministry to create politically intended outcomes. It aims to ensure successful implementation through the establishment of a practice policymaking that allows for a more dynamic relationship between policy and practice in the implementation of central labour market reforms. But what this project might really be about is embedding approaches of social sciences in order to enable the ministry in better ways to continuously rediscover and understand the consequences and outcomes of its interventions and reforms.

As the ministry is working towards developing a new ‘implementation strategy’, they are trying to reinvent their current culture of decision-making as well as their theory of knowledge acquisition in the processes of realizing political intentions. It is perhaps not ‘social sciences in action’ per se, but this process is drawing on principles from social sciences to transform the processes of envisioning and formalizing social reality in order to enable a more open, responsive and adaptive approach to public policy and reform. They are attempting to recognize the changing conditions and unpredictable developments of social reality while at the same time working in a bureaucratic context idealizing pre-composed scripts and plans.

This paradoxical premise, I think, makes the concept of design appealing because it promises both a better understanding of the problems and processes of public development while maintaining the ideal that we are able to design solutions, processes, services, and even systems. The ever-looming risk is that design, as many other ‘instruments of government’ before, becomes another instrumental way to deliver ‘the product’. The failure of design-thinking in government would be to not challenge existing ideal of coming up with perfect ‘solutions’ that ‘solve’ the public problem rather than fuelling the processes of re-discovering and addressing it.

This is why the tendency to squeeze social sciences under the umbrella of design is a risky one. My contention is that the value of social sciences in action, with the multitude of different approaches to the understanding of human behaviour, motivation and culture, can be seen in relation to not only their ability to rediscover and nuance the problem at hand. Social sciences also offer perspectives that illuminate how public problems, as multi-sited, multi-faceted and dynamic entities, can be addressed in various different ways. The goals of public organizations are complex, ambiguous and even contradictory at times. In this light, it is risky when design (human-centred or other kinds) promises innovative solutions as an automatic outcome of designing.

The role of social sciences in action is at least to remind us that often what is possible when dealing with the employment systems or other complex service systems is not the creation of consensus or one ‘best practice’. Instead, renewed knowledge about the social world often sparks more contradicting perspectives and complexity where the main outcome is a new debate about what characterize the problem and what would be a good way of dealing with it.

This debate should also be about what is useful to know about the public, how this knowledge can be acquired, how it is established as legitimate in formalized systems of justification and what kind of outcomes that would create public value in which contexts. Social sciences in action thus have a role to play in establishing a useful political epistemology and ensure that politics remains an actual and legitimate part of public development.

Anna’s response to social sciences in action:

What can appear as contradictory in the sentence “social sciences in action” would be that this action is usually not explicit when it is happening. Usually, the chronology is the following: a social scientist participates in a project, and we discover new conceptual concepts, framing and formalisation of this project once an article is published, that is to say way after the time of the project.

We have the feeling that social sciences are a way to document and share things that already happened, but it is difficult to understand how it could help us to enlighten things that are about to happen. The social scientist, usually specialist in only one field, seems to use his academic background as general culture and personal intelligence to adapt to different situations of a project, but is usually quiet in difficulty to explicit the theoretical frames he is using without even knowing it.

However, social sciences have a rich and broad history of documenting and explaining changes in human organisations. Every discipline such as sociology, philosophy, management sciences, anthropology… present various theoretical frames – sometimes contradictory – that could become tools along the way of a project to understand what is happening, describe situations and drive the changes that we hope for. How to discover and understand those various theoretical frames without having to be an expert in every field? How to choose the most appropriate one for a precise subject? And finally, how to popularise and use them without making them meaningless because they are over-simplified?

Social sciences are embedded for a long time in administrations, agencies, services etc. and have documented their changes, their evolutions or their cultures. Who could remember that in the 80’s the French government began to speak about “experimentations”, “users”, “self-determined objectives” or “incremental modernisation” if there were no social scientists to documented those changes? In many ways, social sciences play the role of memories of our administrations, tracing new worlds, new theories, new philosophies of how to reform and make them work better… That could also be a great tool for designers or professionals that have to work in this context.

In one of our projects, a designer asked civil servants in the room, on the first day of the project, what was the meaning of those three letters “D.G.S.” – that is, a General Director of Service. This simple question reveals how some professional circles lack an understanding of the magical world of public administration, which is radically different from the private sector and cannot be treated in the same way. We have to change the way public managers and civil servants are treating citizens and are creating new policies, that’s for sure… but those who help this change happening should be careful to understand the history of those beautiful institutions.

Sarah’s response to social sciences in action:

“What are the social sciences?”

It was in the second semester of my second year of university that I was finally asked the obvious question. Here I was a budding ‘social scientist’ and I didn’t really have a good definition of the discipline I was on the precipice of entering.
Luckily, I had a book. Roger Trigg’s Understanding Social Science. And on page 1, he answers that very question, writing:

What is social science? This is a characteristically philosophical question, examining the assumptions and presuppositions of an area of human activity. It seems easy to give a list of would-be social sciences. Sociology and social anthropology would inevitably be on it, as would such subjects as politics and economics. History has a claim there to be there too… It certainly studies the interactions of humans in society.

The main difference between it and the others is that it confines itself to the past. Psychology, even social psychology, should probably not be there as it concentrates on the individual rather than on his or her place in the wider group…. It is already obvious that the notion of social science is not as clear-cut as might be first imagined.

It’s precisely the lack of boundaries that I’d contend gives social science such power in our work re-imagining and re-making social systems with and for every day people. Because it enables us to look at those every day people (and ourselves) in the round, in context, and over time.
Anna and Jesper both give persuasive accounts of the value-add of the social sciences in social innovation and public sector redesign. They note that the social sciences help us to:

- Understand human behavior, motivations, and culture

- Project the consequences – intended and unintended – of a line of action

- Remember the past

It’s hard to disagree. But how do we extract this value and put it into a live, quick moving design process? And how do we build our capacity to actually unearth and examine the assumptions and presuppositions of our activities? All the while forming new assumptions and presuppositions to test? In other words how do we become creative & critical thinkers & doers? All at once?

Design tends to make creative thinking & doing pretty accessible. There are games, materials, post-it notes, markers, crayons, clay. That serve to externalize our thoughts. Social sciences tend to make critical thinking & doing pretty darn intellectual. There aren’t so many gimmicky tools. Just a lot of journal articles, books, and maybe a neon green highlighter, if you’re lucky.

There’s also this belief that civil servants, social workers, and other professionals working in the social space are already adept at social science. That design is the thing that’s new. In our work, I find that rarely to be the case. Because so many social workers and professionals have been trained in a vocational way – learning applied theory without first gaining the liberal arts foundation – the philosophy, the history, the humanities that helps you form an opinion of what’s a good theory.

Let me try and get super practical. In the work I co-led in Australia, that eventually led to Family by Family, it was diving into philosophy, history, and empirical psychosocial studies that gave us a fresh way of making sense of the ethnographic field work. A re-read of Aristotle’s work on human flourishing as juxtaposed with the all too common psychosocial literature on resilience helped me to realize these two concepts were not the same. Where resilience was about bouncing back, thriving or flourishing was all about being present, looking back, and moving forwards.

With this ‘critical lens’ I was able to take the stories from families and from professionals and see something I hadn’t seen when I was in the field.
Anna smartly asks: how do we discover and use these different theoretical frames without having to be an expert in the field? How do we choose the most appropriate one? And how do we popularize them without making them meaningless?

Here, I can only point to my own experience. I wasn’t an expert in family systems, or in eudaimonic ethics (that’s Aristotle), but I was able to take these frameworks and test them against our on-the-ground data. I believe it’s less about choosing the appropriate framework. And more about prototyping frameworks in our on-the-ground contexts. It’s this capability set I’d like to learn how to build in my teams going forward.

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