“Physics is the only science – the rest is just social work” – James D Watson

As I work on bringing all of my analytical and interpretive work together, slowly assembling the thesis – like a painful building project that must be seen through despite its highs and lows – this particular quote struck me in my reading.

Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson, Chancellor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. These images are freely available and may be used without special permission.

I think I should be particularly affected by such an outright dismissal of any concerted research-driven endeavour to understand the human condition (in my case the experiences of men with eating disorders) as being social work. This is not how I feel about it, however. For starters, social work is an enormously worthwhile undertaking – at its best it can help people transform their lives for the better. In that respect it could be seen as a compliment (albeit a slightly backhanded one?)  There are two items of consideration when reflecting on the meaning of Watson’s statement.

Firstly, it preys upon an often unspoken terror within the social research community – that what scholars are devoting their lives to is not science. Therefore, it prompts (depending on which tradition the scholar belongs to) a vociferous defence of the scientific methods that underpin sociology and its findings. The debates of post-modernity have rumbled along for a long time now, with both the carefully constructed social-life-as-scientifically-studiable (let’s call this broadly positivist, though I’m oversimplifying) and the all-the-social-world-is-but-a-social-construct (let’s call this broadly interpretivist) enjoying a gruelling but creative back and forth. Back in the 1980s Giddens proposed 9 theses about the future of sociology. Some of these do seem to be occurring around us. Others, however, only add weight to Watson’s statement.

With all the text books and research articles I’ve read recently, thesis 5 (that “pre-existing disciplinary divisions within the social sciences will become progressively less sharply-defined than at present”) seems less likely to happen than ever before. the study of sociology is being thoroughly decimated by successive UK governments, in favour of applied social science in the form of social policy formation and, yes, quite literally, social work. If ‘it’ can’t be directly, instantly applied to social care and welfare reform then the message seems to be it’s not worth studying.

Now here’s the fatal paradox I spy in all of this. If social research is, over the next 30 years, marshalled even further down the road of serving social ‘work’ then no amount of scientifying of the research will save it from becoming little more than non-socially scientific social work. Pre-existing disciplinary differences will not lessen in how clearly defined they are because there will simply be a cull of research that cannot be taught on an undergrad social work course the next day. I suspect I’m completely wrong but it has certainly got me thinking.

Secondly, the answer to all of this (for me at least) leads me back to the opening paragraph here. The future of most social research needs to take its lead from the extensive advances in counselling and psychotherapy research that has been building for some time and with definite pace in the last two decades. Maybe what social research needs to is to stop desperately trying to elevate itself to the imagined status of natural science with its internal validity and carefully controlled environment. Perhaps, social research should, with a good heart, embrace the value of itself – its aim is to improve the human condition through understanding our societies better.  Scientific method has a place here but the pretence at objectivity when studying human beings as human beings is so outdated that it is holding social research back. Objective, observational, measurable, replicable studies are massively needed in natural sciences. How else can cancer cells be isolated, explored and manipulated? How else could we have proven physical laws ranging from, I don’t know…, gravity to the correct composition of metals for shipbuilding?

But in examining the experiences of human beings with cancerous cells getting through treatment or the fortunes from families near the area where I grew up succumbing to the change away from heavy industry in the latter part of the 20th century, trying to claim a controllable, verifiable objectivity becomes a much more contested task. It is at this point that subjectivity enters the debate. And it is the question of subjectivity that I want to journal about next time.

James Watson is welcome to science –  it’s necessary and wholly appropriate that physics claims its status as ‘science’ (one wonders whether Dr Watson would excel at social work, anyway – no disrespect intended but knowing many social workers there’s no such thing as “just‘ social work”). And I’ll stick with the ‘social’ element of social work and let go all such pretensions of science. I study human experience through texts individuals produce – this study is thorough, systematic, rigorous and carefully decision-trail audited but it’s not a science and I’m not going to pretend it is out of fear that it will be perceived as unscientific.