Collaborative Social Science for Extraordinary Times
By Jan Kubik Professor Jan Kubik is a Collaborative Social Science Steering Group Member and Director of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Professor of Slavonic and East European Studies.
UCL’s extraordinary commitment to cross-disciplinarity has been buttressed by the formation of several research domains that allow researchers and practitioners from a diverse set of the University’s units and partner organizations to work together in order to maximize innovation, productivity, and impact.
Time has come to create another research domain, ‘collaborative social science’.. UCL's social scientists, working in various disciplines and departments, will benefit from an institutional platform that will allow them to inspire each other, share information and ideas, fashion collaborative research ventures across social and non-social science borders, and amplify the potential for creating impactful projects.
Even a cursory look at the world around us is enough to realize that the formation of such a domain is urgent. Very few observers would deny that the world is in a state of crisis. The Middle East is facing a frightening humanitarian catastrophe. The waves of desperate refugees knock on the doors of Europe, only to encounter indifference and often hostility. People in many countries, fed up with the politics as usual and increasingly alienated from political elites, turn to populists mavericks who promise solutions that have failed before or had catastrophic consequences. Some observers are beginning to look for parallels in the Europe of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the years when the calamitous trajectory leading up to WWII and the Holocaust commenced.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” ventured the Stanford economist Paul Romer in 2004. This bon mot, not entirely original, pithily summarises the essence of the intellectual ferment that led to the founding of modern social sciences. Reflecting on the dramatically changing world at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries, the likes of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Polanyi, and Malinowski fashioned the foundations of today’s sociology, anthropology, political science, and many strands of economics. We do not pretend to be equal to these giants, but we are driven by a similar sense of urgency. The world needs not only technological breakthroughs but also a better, deeper, wiser approach to the mounting societal problems, caused by growing economic inequality, breakdowns of inter-cultural communication, and the politics that alienate more than they solve. The early promises of globalization are beginning to sound shallow, as the growing numbers of people find themselves trapped in stagnating economies, torn by the intensifying inequalities of wealth. The collapse of traditional political parties, the rise of populism, illiberalism and anti-constitutionalism that undermine the rule of law and cultures of legality, threaten to destabilize never perfect yet time-tested mechanisms of accountability in modern democracies.
At UCL whose intellectual foundation was laid by Jeremy Bentham, who believed that in our search for solutions we need to be driven by the rule of delivering “the greatest good to the greatest number of people,” we would like to combine our efforts and work together on addressing the mounting problems of our age. Driven by this pervasive sense of crisis, and the opportunity for disruptive and creative thinking this can engender, we want to build on the considerable existing strengths, thus far scattered around the large institution. We want to find new ways of collaborating with each other, as we are acutely aware that the task’s size makes individual efforts less effective, if not futile.
In this work we plan to be guided by several principles that are at the core of UCL’s vision. We believe in disciplinary excellence and want to build on it, while seeking the most effective and innovative ways of conceiving and implementing cross-disciplinary collaborations. We want to look for ways of forming multi-disciplinary teams working across the social sciences. But we also want to build more and stronger bridges between arts and humanities and the “hard” sciences. The problems generated by aging populations, growing economic disparities, or mass migrations can be solved more effectively when scientists from various disciplines pool their approaches together. It is not an easy task, as researchers representing various theoretical and methodological perspectives often find it difficult to fashion a common theoretical and methodological ground. But building on many examples of good practice and the commitment to the goal of exploring the frontiers of cross-disciplinarity, we are excited to accept the challenge.