A while back, Le Monde published an interview with Michel Wieviorka on the relevance of social sciences despite being fairly consistently under attack by politicians, especially of conservative persuasion. As a result, research teams in the social sciences tend to be underfunded. And add to that the fact that finding straight paths to the job market tends to be difficult and fuzzy (one does not open a practice of sociology… or not very often). So, should students be dissuaded from engaging in these studies?
Not so says Wiervioka. Certainly if the only prospects are research, then, that path is very narrow. But the social scientific perspective is needed in many sectors of the labor market: labor unions (they still matter in Europe!), the non-profit sector, voluntary organizations and associations, social work, the social welfare sector, the military, media, marketing and advertising, and others. As Wieviorka tells his students, pick the studies you are interested in because no one knows what the labor market will be like in five or ten years. The labor market is notorious flexible and unpredictable, so, it makes sense to choose one’s studies by taste and interest. Societies now expect less a fixed set of competencies rather than a capacity to think, especially in a precarized context where individuals will change jobs many times.
Businesses also should have an interest in the social sciences. Wieviorka takes the example of France Télécom and its suicide problem. Researchers would have been able to help understand the tensions and issues related to its functioning and organizing structure. I would add that there aren’t that many careers that do not involve collecting, processing and analyzing data. To have a solid background in a variety of research methods is something that can be operationalized in a lot of careers.
Another strength of the social sciences (although that is often counted against them) is the critical dimension of the knowledge it produces. That is a feature, not a bug. Social systems are through and through systems of power and privileges. To not expose these systems would be failing to produce any valuable form of knowledge and preclude any potential for change for greater social justice.
Agnese Vardanega is less generous in her assessment of the failures of the social sciences to address the social questions of the day and to connect with the general public.
This seems to get us back to the eternal dilemma of public sociology, as seen here on the future of Contexts and the difficulties of translating sociological research for the general public considering the dominated status of sociology as a social science.