A helping hand or a servant discipline? - Interpreting non-academic perspectives on the roles of social science in participatory policy-making

Kevin Burchell


In the UK, a diverse network of actors has emerged around the delivery of government-sponsored processes of public participation in science and technology. Although this network includes social scientists, the relationship between social science and participatory policy-making remains an ambiguous one. My objective in this paper is to reflect in an exploratory manner on non-academic perspectives of the roles of social science in public participation. In particular, I draw attention to the contrasting conceptions of the policy relevant roles of social science that appear to prevail among academic social scientists (a discipline in which the analysis and critique of modes of thought and action are valued highly) and the non-academic actors (a discipline that is valued for its instrumental, problem-oriented potential). Further, I explore the ways in which the non-academic conception of social science as an instrumental discipline might be interpreted; for example, as merely providing a helping hand or, more pointedly, as a servant discipline to the objectives and interests of others. I conclude with an exploratory discussion of the challenges and opportunities that this contrast presents for social scientists. Further, I make the case that social scientists should clearly advocate the policy relevance and value of analysis and critique.

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