South African Young Academy of Science

A Social Scientist’s Lab

A Social Scientist’s Lab
May 27, 2016 Odi

When I think of a laboratory, it conjures images of pipettes and burners with complex mathematical equations written on a board. My laboratory, however, as a political scientist, has little to do with Bunsen burners and more do with measuring political heat. Very few people, outside the social sciences, understand how social science research is conducted and often liken it to tea leaf reading.

Research in the social science, particularly in politics and international relations, is really dynamic. There is an adage that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. A political leader can move from a hero to a villain and back again within a few days. Because of this dynamism, the work of the social scientist is important because their job is not only to analyse current state of affairs but also pick up on issues that could be arising soon. The social scientist should be able to direct policymakers to areas that that need attention and draw in the expertise other disciplines to meet the societal need.

Conducting social sciences is further complicated by the plethora of techniques and approaches to draw from. A number of analysts prefer more traditional quantitative approaches that they ‘borrow’ from the natural sciences. Alternatively, they may decide to use more qualitative approaches. I fall in the school of thought that purely scientific approaches are not always appropriate to examine social issues. For instance, research into political psychology would require a more experimental approach to political science but examining government decision-making needs a more holistic view. If you think about it, statistics presents a state of affairs but can’t help you predict how a leader, or government would respond to that state of affairs. There are so many  structural and relational power dynamics that affect decision making that statistics can only be a part of the overall picture. The only way to fully understand, and to an extent predict, possible future scenarios, is to understand the internal and external environment that  guide governmental and political decision-making. This exploration has to make use of international legal instruments, historical decisions making and being able to read shifts in the social environment.

The political scientist also has to draw on important skills that can’t be taught in a lecture hall, such as relationship building and listening skills. Listening goes beyond hearing what is said but includes being able to pick up to what the speaker is truly trying to convey. Many times, as it is with politicians and bureaucrats. The words that they use often have dual meaning or are a signal of something larger. A gruesome example is from the 1994 Rwanda genocide, there was a lot of rhetoric in the media about cockroaches needing to be exterminated. Tapping into relationship networks and listening carefully helps social scientists do their jobs better which can help, in some instances, save lives.

So what does my dream political science and international relations ‘laboratory’ look like? Aesthetically, it would be a cross between Olivia Pope’s apartment and office on the hit TV Show Scandal; basically it would be the love-child of comfort and function. The bookshelves would contain archive material, policy documents, newspapers and transcripts of interviews with experts in my field as well as others related to my subject matter. The living room would have a smart TV that would allow me to access the Internet as well as be linked to news sites around the world. The beauty of a smart TV is that is also does away with the need for a phone because communication is possible via Internet call applications such as Skype. There would also be a blue-tooth enabled keyboard so that I can type from the comfort of my couch when I need to. The only non-negotiable item that I would like is a feature wall with a magnetic glass white board. I prefer glass to regular white boards because they are easier to keep clean and, importantly, they are difficult to photograph. I often use paper or a white board to sketch my ideas or plot out concept relationships so having a stylish whiteboard would be great. Though, I must mention that I recently discovered new mind-mapping software that actually helps with mapping out key ideas (I plan on writing a review once I have fully mastered the program).

Ultimately, I don’t believe that your best social, or political, analysis comes from solely from facts and figures but also requires a good amount of intuition … and a comfy chair to sit on whilst you write.

Tagged: academic, blogging, higherEd, international relations, PhD, political science