Big Ideas in Social Science

Melvyn Julian DSouza (Athabasca University, Toronto, Canada)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Article publication date: 12 June 2017



DSouza, M.J. (2017), "Big Ideas in Social Science", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 170-172.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

Big Ideas in Social Science is a 174-page book, covering 18 chapters divided into four sections and it is full of insights. Podcasts from Social Science Bites form the basis of each chapter’s interview, with the interviewees typically being renowned intellectuals. The two interviewers, who are the book editors, started the popular Philosophy Bites podcasts, so we have high-quality content from both interviewer and interviewee.

Negative aspects of the book are tiny print, and a lack of referencing for factual points, which is understandable given the interview format while positive aspects include the additional reading cited as well as the intrinsic motivation to further explore big ideas, which may be found at: Interviewees are often asked if they see themselves as social scientists and the responses are thought provoking. A focus is also on how the research may be used to make a difference in the world. Many chapters provide predictions on productive intersection of fields for future research such as behavioural economics and neuro-economics.

Given the past wars between the social and physical sciences, it is gratifying to see in “Space” chapter, a section on geography being a social science and also a discipline employing natural scientists, thus a field where social and natural scientists can work more closely together. In the chapter of “Moral Psychology”, the distinctions between social and physical scientists are clarified through noting that the subjects of social scientists have properties of consciousness and intentionality resulting in the use of different tools and thinking. The chapter on “Violence” marries history and social science.

The “Fields of enquiry” section discusses: social science, cultural studies, criminology, moral psychology, and behavioural economics. Good sociology is distinguished from bad in that not recognizing it as part of your life or the lives of others means it is unlikely to be convincing. Cultural studies is the understanding of everyday life and how art works to help explain the intersection of the physical and social sciences. Criminology clarifies insights gained from experimental criminology, for example, arrest doubles the risk of repeat offending in high unemployment areas though arrest is an effective deterrent in high employment areas. Moral psychology notes that most people have moral intuitions, like reciprocity, group loyalty, and respect for authority, that conflict with utilitarianism yet can be explained from an evolutionary perspective. Behavioural economics shows that psychology’s contribution to economics has been significant as we do not always behave in our own best interest. The insight that in physics, a prediction could not make a result happen but in economics conceivably it could, with the example of the great depression where people stopped spending, help distinguish the social and physical sciences.

Section 2 on “Births, deaths and human population” addresses: the sociology of reproductive technology, women’s experience of childbirth, population challenges, and violence. Given the evolution of reproductive technologies, the focus is on the intersection of ethics and reproductive technology brought into focus from a societal perspective through questions like what does it mean to have a designer baby. The segue into women’s experience of childbirth, especially how the social and medical treatment aspects of childbirth affect women after childbirth will be of interest to both women and men. The chapter on population challenges highlights the trend towards urbanization and the dynamics of falling fertility, increasing longevity, and migration resulting in a population that soon will have as many old people as young likely resulting in provision of pensions at an older age. The chapter on “Violence” shows that even given daily bad news, the world is actually becoming more peaceful due to growth of government, trade, commerce, cosmopolitanism, rationality, and literacy.

The third section eyes social science through the lenses of: surnames and social mobility, Dunbar numbers and relationships, the sociology of football, craft, and the supernatural. That surnames predict generational social mobility is interesting but to realize that social mobility rates are unchanged between medieval and modern England and that the current Communist party leadership over represents the elites under the Qing emperors leaves you with a sense that the more things change the more they stay the same. Dunbar numbers, which relate to the number of people with which you can have a meaningful relationship, are shown to have implications for both individuals and organizations. Football (soccer) matches are shown to be a useful social laboratory for studying crowd behaviour and racism. Craft explores the complexity of knowledge in handiwork and raises its status in the public eye. Supernatural takes on magical thinking by discussing religion and common, though likely pernicious beliefs, that eating certain animal parts allows some of the power stored therein to be absorbed or that sex with a virgin cures AIDS, while sensitively treating the non-natural thinking inherent in these topics.

Section 4 on “Politics and Social Science” neatly ties together chapters on protest movements, inequality, and the case for equality. Social scientists interest in protest movements is due to the role they play in instigating social change. Growing inequalities in income are shown to trigger inequalities in wealth then in education and health. The insight that great inequality harms our society is elaborated to show that all levels of society delude themselves if they think inequality is irrelevant. The “Case for equality” shows that how you feel in relation to others affects your physiology and broadly, which social inequality damages social fabric with consequent political implications. Inequality appears to be a thematic cause of problems across different societies in terms of imprisonment rates, teenage birth rates, and mental illness.

This useful book is packed with insights which will excite the curiosity of the general public, academics, and new researchers. While it may be a challenge to reference factual points, each chapter and the additional readings therein will undoubtedly energize readers interested in the subject of the chapter. The book provides multiple perspectives in showing how social science helps us understand how society operates and information to influence politicians to address societal issues.

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