By Susan Hickman

Over the past half-century, society has increasingly turned to the social sciences and humanities to make a better world, suggests the president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Chad Gaffield, guest speaker at a panel discussion on Friday, March 21 that focused on the obligation of social scientists to address society’s problems, believes that studying history can help create a healthier future.

“In the 1960s,” said Gaffield, “there was a sense we needed a made-in-Canada voice. The next aspect, in the 1970s, was trying to understand our social issues.”

The 1980s brought changing patterns of work, family and gender identities and the 1990s increasing expectations for all aspects of health, he explained.

“This past decade has seen an emphasis on the economy, and thinking about the economy in a very different way. It’s about coming to grips with people. Our focus on human thought and behaviour is at the heart of everywhere you look across society.”

Suggesting we live in “a profound period of change,” Gaffield went on to say we still have much to learn about human thought and behaviour and it’s essential that researchers collaborate and inter-relate across multiple disciplines as well as globally.

According to William Walters, a professor in the Department of Political Science, the social scientist has an obligation to pay attention to the politics of problem definition.

“I don’t think society’s problems are solved by social scientists, certainly not acting in isolation. We have an obligation to challenge the way politics and policies define the problems in the first place.”

Walters was one of four guest panelists, along with Susan Braedley, assistant professor at the School of Social Work; James Milner, associate professor in the Department of Political Science; and Ummni Khan, associate professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies, who attended the event as part of the Faculty of Public Affairs’ Research Month.

Braedley echoed Walters’ comments: “We have to get clear as to what counts as problems and solutions. I think social science researchers and universities have an important role to play in generating solutions with clearly articulated values.”

Braedley also suggested social scientists must ask “who” the solutions are for, considering that at various times in history, certain societal groups have been considered “social problems.”

Similarly, Khan, who studies sex work, added: “It may be that the problem with prostitution is that society thinks it’s a problem.”

Social science, she said, has an obligation to contribute to an understanding of sex work, but it “isn’t just about producing new knowledge. It’s also about encouraging engaged citizens to examine what is distorted or biased.”

Milner said when he reflects on his own work with refugees and forced migrants, he feels obligated “to consider the societal importance of my research and how I disseminate my research findings, considering other forms of output beyond the peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals that are required in our positions as academics.

“Social science research has a central role to play as part of an open dialogue.”

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