This IS ‘proper’ research: Taking on the social science vs. science debate

By: Rosie Smith 

“So why is your research necessary?”

“How do you get funding for research like this?”

These are just two of the many questions that I was asked recently whilst taking part in a competition for PhD researchers at my university. The competition was interdisciplinary and was aimed at showcasing doctoral research at the institution, whilst also providing early career researchers, like myself, a gateway into public engagement. Needless to say the competition was one of the many uncomfortable things I intend to do this year as part of my resolution to be a ‘yes’ woman and challenge myself more.

Finalists were made up of three researchers per faculty (social science, science, arts and humanities), and as a criminologist I quickly found myself gravitating towards the social sciences camp. It was a full day event in which we were judged on a multitude of criteria ranging from originality, impact, accessibility, interdisciplinary scope, and importance. I use the word ‘importance’ hesitantly, as it’s a term that causes particular anxiety when I consider my own research. My work explores the concept of ‘spectacular justice’ and the way the mass media makes the criminal justice system visible and public. I explore this concept by analysing how high profile criminal cases are represented in media archives from the 1800s to 2016.



And whilst I thoroughly enjoy my research, I still often find it difficult to have confidence that my work is ‘important’, and necessary. In part this is because I am self-funding my research, and at times I find it difficult to have confidence in my work when understandings of ‘good’ research are so closely bound to notions of impact and attracting funding. But it is also in part because of situations like these, when I am forced to contemplate the debate around what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

When I was posed these questions, I admit, I was initially shocked and somewhat taken aback by the abruptness with which they were posed. But at the same time these questions draw on some of the existing anxieties I have as I begin the journey into academia. To me, these questions in some way breach the social conventions on conversation etiquette, not to mention conventions on what is and is not okay to ask a frazzled and distressed PhD student.

To the first, I was honest, and launched into the toils of juggling several part-time jobs alongside trying to develop the aura of a rounded and successful academic.

But it was the question “Why is your research necessary?” that caused me more concern. Looking around the room at the other contestants I began to question whether this question had been asked of the other finalists, in particular the natural, computer, and the physical scientists.

I was transported back to the long debates I had as an undergraduate with my ‘proper’ scientist friends. In these debates I would spend hours defending the position that social science is important and necessary, and that the two disciplines can exist in parallel.

I would passionately defend the position that the relationship between the two does not need to be one of comparison. Admittedly, my efforts to convert them were largely fruitless. And I was often left being endearingly mocked, only to be told that “but it’s not a real science though is it?” And unfortunately this is still a plight I am fighting as I embark through my PhD.

It is as if this debate is a matter of either or. You are either a social scientist or a scientist, with very little scope to dabble somewhere in the middle. This was only confirmed as the day progressed. I overheard the finalist next to me ask a gentleman, “Are you going to go to Rosie’s stand next?” To which the gentleman replied, “I don’t think so, I don’t like social science, I’m a more of a scientist”.


Needless to say I tried my best to convince him of the merits of the dark underbelly of the social sciences, but was left wondering why I had to.

I cannot escape the importance of gender to this debate. Despite being interdisciplinary, the competition finalists were overwhelmingly female, with male colleagues only being represented by the science faculty.

Needless to say there are a large number of male social scientists who contribute greatly to the field, but historically the social sciences have been regarded as a ‘feminine’ discipline.

This is supported by statistics on the relationship between gender and higher education degree choices: in 2016, 17,075 men accepted university offers to study a social science subject in the UK, which amounts to just over half the figure for women which totalled at 30,860 (UCAS, 2016). And so I interpreted the questions “why is your research necessary?” and “how do you get funding for research like this?” not only as a judgment on the value of my research, but a value judgment more generally about the credibility of the social sciences as a predominantly female discipline. I couldn’t ignore the feeling that the feminization of the social sciences served as a double mechanism to justify the position of the sciences as superior.

At times I worry that as a social scientist, the rivalry that exists with science, whilst often only in jest or antics, has a direct impact on understandings of what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

And I question the appropriateness of using one set of criteria to judge and compare the value and ‘necessity’ of the two disciplines. In my opinion they are complimentary rather than contradictory fields. And we should be striving to broaden our understanding of what constitutes ‘proper’ research. Because although my research does not find a solution to world hunger or fight disease, it does have value- just in its own way.

At the end of the day the judges seemed to recognise some of that value too. When the scores came in, I won! It was one of the proudest moments of my Phd so far, as a social scientist, as an early career researcher, and as a woman. This experience has taught me many lessons, but the most important is to take the victories, whether big or small, when they come around. Equally I aim to worry a little less about how much impact my research has, or how much funding I attract (or not) and concentrate on enjoying my PhD and remembering that whilst not earth-shattering, my research is still necessary. All research is proper research.






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