Discussion Paper | 28.09.2021

The Case For Exploratory Social Sciences

By Sir Geoff Mulgan

Should the social sciences only analyse the past and present? Or should they also try to help design the future? THE NEW INSTITUTE aims to support faster and closer connections between social science and the vital changes needed in our society as we respond to climate change, ageing, inequality and a world flooded with powerful new technologies. It is needed in part because our existing academies are not generating an adequate supply of options and designs for the future.

Here I make the case for a new way of organising social science both in universities and beyond through creating sub-disciplines of ‘exploratory social science’ that would help to fill this gap. In the paper I show:

  • how in the 18th and 19th centuries social sciences attempted to fuse interpretation and change
  • how a series of trends – including quantification and abstraction – delivered advances but also squeezed out this capacity for radical design
  • how these also encouraged some blind alleys for social science, including what I call ‘unrealistic realism’ and the futile search for eternal laws

I show some of the more useful counter trends, including evolutionary thinking, systems models and complexity that create a more valid space for conscious design. I argue that now, at a time when we badly need better designs and strategies for the future, we face a paradoxical situation where the people with the deepest knowledge of fields are discouraged from systematic and creative exploration of the future, while those with the appetite and freedom to explore often lack the necessary knowledge.

In the core of the paper I suggest an answer, describing the potential for growing ‘exploratory social sciences’ that combine disciplinary depth with systematic use of methods that make the most of creative imagination. I suggest what these social sciences could look like, how they might determine quality, and some possible steps to making this happen. And I show how exploratory social sciences could have helped us avoid some of the pathologies of the Internet, and how these methods could be applied to the challenges of creating a net zero economy and society.



Sir Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London (UCL) and a Senior Advisor at THE NEW INSTITUTE.


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