Open Eye: A saturation of social scientists

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The Independent Online
What kind of social sciences do we need for the next century? Can the discipline maintain its popularity in the face of competition from rising stars such as IT, which are viewed as more vocationally-oriented? As the OU prepares to launch the successor to its flagship social sciences foundation course in 2000, Yvonne Cook talks to David Goldblatt, BBC2 open.saturday presenter and co-chair of the new course, Understanding Social Change

If social science as a subject is less high-profile than in the past, it's probably because, paradoxically, it's more mainstream.

Says David Goldblatt: "We live in a society which is absolutely saturated with language of the social sciences - pick up any tabloid newspaper and see. Everybody's a social scientist these days. Everybody knows the statistics on divorce. Who collated them? Social scientists. Everybody is talking about risk and uncertainty, about BSE and nuclear power. Who formulated the arguments? Social scientists."

After 30 years of expansion social sciences nationally experienced a decline in student intake last year. David is keen to assert their relevance to the new Millennium.

"Social scientists need to be a lot more bold and aggressive about the relevance of what they do. In the past we have undersold the vocational opportunities," he says.

"Across a wide range of professions a knowledge of the social sciences is incredibly useful - media, a whole range of social work professions, local government, central government, civil service.

"And if you go on to something like a graduate training programme with BP or Shell or the financial institutions, a social science degree not only gets your foot in the door, but helps you prosper once you're on the inside."

The OU's current Level One (foundation) social science course, Society and Social Science, still popular with around six thousand students, ends this year. Its replacement is so different, David and colleagues are arguing for them to be considered as completely separate courses, allowing students to count both towards their degree. The University has still to decide on this.

"The world is a radically different place from when Society and Social Science was framed ten or eleven years ago," David says. "The most important thing that has happened is the end of the Cold War. While you cannot reduce the entire history of the twentieth century to one thing, when historians look back they are going to say that this was an era defined by deep ideological and military confrontations between socialism/Marxism and capitalist/liberalism.

"Since the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991, everyone - apart from a few diehards - has had to admit that the existing socialist project is not feasible. So for two hundred years people have been saying 'there is an alternative to capitalism', then all of a sudden it's 'well, on paper there isn't. What now?'..."

Society is now more sceptical, more cynical, less inclined to put its faith in any one belief system or in 'the experts', says David.

"As an example, my partner is going to Wales this weekend with our daughter, and there is a meningitis outbreak in Wales. Is it safe to take her? All the advice is that it's safe, it's fine, but we're sitting there going 'is it fine?' Do we buy that?"

The environment gets much more attention in Understanding Social Change than in its predecessors, as do genetics and biotechnology. Says David: "Genetic engineering is just not going to go away. There is too much money invested in it."

Social sciences is generally used as a collective name for a number of distinct subjects - sociology, economics, psychology, geography, politics. But Understanding Social Change - which David co-chairs with Kath Woodward - has adopted a different approach: "We don't have a separate 'sociology block', or an 'economics block'," David explains.

"This is unheard of in the social sciences. No one in UK higher education has, as far as I understand, attempted an explicitly interdisciplinary foundation course. But if, for example, you want to understand the origins of environmental degradation, economics will tell you why people find it cheaper to drive than to take a train - but it won't tell you why people love their motor car. You have to go to sociology for that.

"Nor will it necessarily tell you about the geography of car use, or the internal politics of transport policy. But you will still get enough skills and knowledge of the different disciplines to go on and follow one that interests you at a higher level."

David Goldblatt's natural exuberance and Medusa hairstyle made him a memorable presenter on the OU's Saturday morning magazine programme, open.saturday. His CV includes stints as a stand-up comic in pubs and clubs, and he began his undergraduate career as a medical student, but switched to politics.

Currently he is an OU lecturer, having also been a tutor and worked on the Democracy and Pacific Studies courses. He describes himself as a realistic Green, as opposed to the "weave your own yoghurt" deep Greens. "I'm an environmentalist who does not really like animals."

His TV career continues this summer with a series of four five-minute programmes. Says David: "It's a short Green history of Britain from the Black Death to the present. That's less than three minutes a century."