Social sciences: truthful or useful?

Presentation by Pieter J.D.Drenth
Hon. President,
All European Academies (ALLEA), The Netherlands.

Abstract
In view of the vast variety of disciplines and sub-disciplines within the social and behavioural sciences, it is virtually impossible to present a comprehensive ‘state of the art’ of these sciences that does justice to their rich diversity. Therefore the paper will focus on a central theme that distinguishes the social and behavioural sciences from natural and life sciences: Not only do they analyse and study causes and conditions of peoples’s behaviour and social environment, by their very study they also influence and change this behavioural and social reality. Consequently, the social and behavioural sciences are sometimes seen as or even claim to be applied sciences. This view has been opposed by others, who stress their fundamental character and defend a great reservation with respect to policy-orientation and applicability.

The issue of the primacy of ‘truthfulness’ or ‘usefulness’ will be discussed by describing the variouis modifications on the spectrum from pure, science-driven research on the one hand to auxiliary research that is meant to be supportive in respect of policy and decision making on the other. It will be shown that social and behavioural sciences have a legitimate place on all different points of this spectrum, and that in this respect they do not differ from other sciences.

At the same time it can and should not be denied, that much of the relevance of these sciences is derived from their unique contribution to societal development and policy making. Economic development, the advancement of a knowledge based society, growth through innovation (European Lisbon objective) just as much as the promotion of peace, social cohesion, and a scientific and educational culture in a society cannot be achieved optimally without the application of scientific knowledge in this area. Given this important contribution it is striking that in everyday practice and decision making the results of social and behavioural scientific research are all too often neglected. The paper will conclude with an analysis of this under-utilisation of social and behavioural scientific knowledge, and some recommendations for a change for the better.

At the same time it can and should not be denied, that much of the relevance of these sciences is derived from their unique contribution to societal development and policy making. Economic development, the advancement of a knowledge based society, growth through innovation (European Lisbon objective) just as much as the promotion of peace, social cohesion, and a scientific and educational culture in a society cannot be achieved optimally without the application of scientific knowledge in this area. Given this important contribution it is striking that in everyday practice and decision making the results of social and behavioural scientific research are all too often neglected. The paper will conclude with an analysis of this under-utilisation of social and behavioural scientific knowledge, and some recommendations for a change for the better.

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Speaker’s profile
Pieter J.D.Drenth (1935) studied psychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and the New York University, New York, USA. (PhD in 1960). He has been a Reader in statistics and testtheory from 1962-1967 and Professor of psychology from 1967- 2006 at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. He has published widely on research methods, intelligence theory, test theory, organizational psychology and cross cultural psychology, and lately on science theory, science policy and science and ethics. He was visiting professor at Washington University, St Louis (1966) and at the University of Washington, Seattle (1977). He was first supervisor of 40 PhD theses, five of which in Indonesia. Since 2006 he is Professor Emeritus at the VU.

He holds honorary doctors degrees from the University of Gent, Belgium (1980), and the Université René Descartes de Paris (1996).

From 1982 –1987 he served as Rector Magnificus of the Vrije Universiteit.

From 1990-1996 he was President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and from 1998 – 2000 Chairman of the Dutch Social Science Research Council.

From 2000 till 2006 he was President (and since 2006 Honorary President) of All European Academies (ALLEA).

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