TASA President’s Letter. Beyond the Engagement and Impact Agenda – Social Sciences Week, Australia, 2018

Dan Woodman, University of Melbourne:

We’re already through three months of 2018 and TASA members are busy teaching, researching and otherwise using their sociological imagination. At my university, we are under growing pressure to demonstrate that our work is having an ‘impact’, and that we are ‘engaging’ outside the academy. This is the same across the sector.

Wright Mills persuasively told us that the purpose of the sociological imagination is to link personal troubles to public issues and this call continues to animate much sociological work and the push for public sociology. For applied sociologists inside or outside universities, engagement is part of the job. For others, this new pressure can seem like an additional burden on top of workloads that already feel like they are stretching us to breaking point, largely because the push for engagement is often not on our terms.

Engagement can improve the quality of our teaching, and conversations with partners and broader audiences can improve our research. Giving university administrators the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume these are some of the reasons we are being told to do more engagement; the university is a public institution after all. However, the engagement agenda is also driven by the need to diversify income streams and to respond to a political agenda that pushes the university sector continually to justify its public support.

The latest push to engagement is driven in part by the Australian Research Council’s new Engagement and Impact Assessment. The aim, in the words of the Minister, Simon Birmingham, is to develop ‘measures [that] will give us a clearer view of what Australian researchers are achieving but will also help focus some of our brightest minds on how to help families and businesses’. Metrics, and families and businesses for that matter, may have their place, but many sociologists would push for broader and more critical ways of thinking about engagement.

The British political scientist Matthew Flinders calls this narrow measurement of, and the instrumental market-based thinking behind, engagement the ‘tyranny’ of the impact agenda. However, he argues that a more capacious understanding of impact can be created if social scientists get better at ‘translating’ their work for a broader audience and engage actively with politicians and policy-makers to shape the unfolding external agenda. Flinders is probably, on the one hand, more pessimistic and, on the other, more optimistic than me, partly because he sees the response to the impact agenda in relatively individualistic terms. I think Australian sociologists are already doing well at ‘translation’. A quick glance at the TASA Members’ newsletter that Executive Officer Sally Daly compiles and circulates each week shows that Australian sociologists are already regularly featured in the media, talking and working with multiple publics and this seems to make little dent on the discourse, at least from the politicians, that social scientists are disengaged or our knowledge is esoteric. In other words, it is harder than Flinders thinks to push back against a ‘tyrannical’ impact agenda and success in doing so will take collective effort.

In advocating for the public value of the social sciences, there is an opportunity and need to work together with our sibling associations. In late October last year, I met with the presidents of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology (ANZSOC), Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) and the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA). This was the first face-to-face meeting of a nascent network I had been building over the year. Our first major collaboration is a public event called Social Sciences Week (SSW), running September 10–16 this year, to showcase the impact of the Social Sciences. We have also signed up the Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DASSH), Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA) and Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) as partners. Each of these associations will be running events, as are many universities and hopefully other workplaces where social scientists are based. TASA and the TASA Thematic Groups are planning six events across the country. Keep your eyes out for more details coming soon.

Any event that fits broadly with the aims of SSW can be part of the program. SSW aims to:

  • Encourage, support and create the opportunity for social science researchers (from early career to senior scholars) to engage with non-academic audiences
  • Showcase the diversity and relevance of social science research
  • Further the reach of cutting-edge social science research
  • Promote and increase awareness of social sciences research and the contribution they make to the wellbeing, cohesion and success of society.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks contacting all the Heads of Social Science Schools in Australia about supporting SSW. So now is the time to start hassling your boss about running an event (or if you are the boss, time to get behind it). I am hoping that after a successful first outing, SSW sticks, becoming a recurring way of collectively advocating for the social sciences and their value beyond ‘businesses and families’, as a critical tool for the ongoing work of living together. The greatest impact of the social sciences is probably not through concrete interventions or findings, or policy suggestions, but the value of giving people new ways to think about and discuss the structures and inequalities that shape our lives. At least that’s what I think C.Wright would have said.

Dan Woodman

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