Who Does Social Inquiry in the UK?

Colin Talbot

16 Nov 2016

A lot of public policymaking is based on at least some form of social inquiry – how do Governments know what is going on in their societies and what do they want to do about it?

With academics and research Councils – especially the Economic and Social Research Council – focussed at the moment on the ‘impact’ of our research, its engagement with public policy and government has become a central issue.

Recent national controversies like the “Brexit” debate have – as a side issue – also focussed on the role of “experts”.

Social Inquirers?

In some senses everyone living in Britain is a social inquirer – we all to greater or lesser degrees observe and analyse what’s going on around us. Humans are natural social scientists.

So we all possess what Lindblom and Cohen called “ordinary social knowledge“. This is important because this “ordinary social knowledge” is a fundamental source of what we know about what goes on in society. A host of surveys – from the Census through the British Crime Survey, British Social Attitudes, political opinion polling, market research, sociological studies and a host of other forms of social inquiry rely on ‘self-report’ by citizens of what they and others do and think. So there’s about 55m of us Brits who we could call ordinary social inquirers (if we exclude the under 10s).

At the other end of the spectrum are us academics – the University based social scientists – who do what we can call ‘academic social inquiry‘ for a living. According to our colleagues at the LSE, there are about 35,000 academic social inquirers in the UK. The same study suggests there are about 10,000 of us in the ‘core’ social science disciplines (anthropology, economics, politics, sociology, social psychology) and about another 25,000 in a range of mixed and applied disciplines (such as business, human geography, social policy, etc).

Research or Expertise?

One very important issue that needs to be addressed arises from the so-called “impact agenda” being promoted by the ESRC, Universities and academic social science disciplines. This focuses on the impact of academic “research” which is fairly narrowly defined, and measured largely in terms of academic journal outputs.

When we asked in our survey of Senior Civil Servants in 2014 what they valued most from academics – expertise or research – the voted roughly 50/50. (See our report in the “sources” section of this site). In other words they value academics not just as researchers but also as experts or “curators” (to use a fashionable phrase) of all academic knowledge about issues.

This fits with my own personal experience. I have given expert evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees – in both Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly – more than two dozen times. Not once have I been there primarily to discuss my own research, but always as an expert curator of what we know about a particular issue.

Universities and academics – by focussing on the impact of their specific research – are underselling the value of their accumulated knowledge capital. Expertise may be a dirty word for some politicians these days, but expertise, above all esle, is what Universities possess in abundance.

Professional Social Inquiry – a lot bigger than we realise?

The LSE study also showed that British Universities produce about 650,000 social science graduates a year. Where do they all go? Well, they don’t all go into Universities – that’s for certain. And some don’t stay in the UK. Many will go into jobs where they may use their social science knowledge but not do any sort of formal ‘social inquiry’ as such.

There are however a surprisingly large number who will put their social science training to use with at least some formal social inquiry activity. At a very rough ‘guesstimate’ – based on the LSEs study and our own work – we think there could be between 350,000 and half-a-million people in the UK for whom ‘professional social inquiry’ forms a substantial part of their work.

Who are all these people? They work in a wide variety of settings where ‘useful social knowledge’ gets generated and used:

  • Government (all levels)
  • Public service agencies
  • Businesses
  • Voluntary & community orgs
  • Campaigning orgs
  • Trades Unions
  • Political parties
  • Think Tanks
  • Consultancies
  • Marketing research & PR agencies
  • Opinion Pollsters
  • Media orgs
  • Professional orgs

Take Government as an example. There are 17,000 Civil Servants who are members of the “Policy Profession”. Not all, or perhaps most, will be generators of ‘social knowledge’ but a lot will either commission or produce it themselves. There are bodies like the Office for National Statistics (ONS) wholly devoted to such activities (800) but they are only a fraction of staff across the Civil Service who gather and analyse social data. And Government – the civil service – is only about 10% of all public servants in the UK, so there are many more professional social inquirers in health, education, criminal justice and many other fields.

Business relies on huge amounts of social data about consumers, markets, attitudes and behaviour. A lot is generated by themselves from their own customers (who hasn’t received a customer feedback request lately?). But they also commission a lot of research – hence the existence of the market research industry – a sector which generates £3bn a year in ‘gross value added’ and employs 60,000 people.

Creating an Ecology of Social Knowledge?

All these different forms of social knowledge generation have both strengths and weaknesses.

Ordinary Social Knowledge has the advantage of coverage and being “real”, but it can also suffer from misreporting, partiality, and subjectivity.

Professional Social Inquiry has the advantage (for policymakers and others) that it is often problem-oriented and empirically rigorous. It can also suffer from secrecy, uneven standards of expertise and method, and being too ‘utilitarian’.

Academic Social Inquiry has the advantage of intensive expertise, academic standards and peer-review, links to theoretical and conceptual rigour and (in theory at least) opens of its results. But is can also suffer from disciplinary ‘silos’ (which have been reinforced by things like the REF), a detachment from real-world problems, unnecessarily obscurantist language and a disdain for the other forms of social knowledge.

To create an ‘ecology of useful social knowledge‘ – for policymakers, business and society generally – a few of things that might help:

  • The ESRC could shift its focus from just academia to being more of a ‘social knowledge bank’ – acting as both facilitator and curator of social knowledge from multiple sources.
  • Universities could establish Schools of Public Policy that – like other ‘applied’ Schools in Business, Medicine, etc – could bring social scientists together in more problem-oriented, cross-dicplinary, groups. The UK is uniquely, and strangely, under-supplied with such applied Public Policy academies amongst the major democracies.
  • Businesses could use their access to ‘big data’ in much more socially useful ways. For example real-time data supermarket sales of cold and flu remedies could help public health services respond to incipient outbreaks?
  • Government could foster much better networking and collaboration across public, private, academic and civil society generators of useful social knowledge.

It is often claimed we now live in an “Information Age” or “Information Society” – if we do maybe we should start learning how to live in it better?



  1. I wonder if the ecology of social knowledge should be based on specific social eco-systems. Different businesses, industries and other social entities are located at different niches in the ecosystems. Any kinds of knowledge are context-dependant. All the entities have their own viewpoints related to their contexts. New public policies, as a kind of new knowledge, mean a view for the whole which covers all the contexts, and relevant instruments. So the formation of the new policies could be a process of cognition, a process of design, and a process integrating different viewpoints and measures from different entities. The processes need support of organizational mechanism, new technologies ,such as “big data”,etc..
    Wish this feedback could help.



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