Communicating the social sciences and humanities: Challenges and insights for research communication

Angela Cassidy


Science connminication — in research, professional practice, and indeed in much of this volume — can be strangely unreflective about what exactly this ‘science’ is that we should be communicating. By default, the field tends to refer to the communication of physical, chemical and biological sciences, plus disciplines such as medicine, mathematics and engineering. Therefore, relatively little attention has been paid in public communication of science and technology (PCST) to how disciplines across the broader research landscape — including the social sciences, arts and humanities — are communicated (Schafer 2012). In this chapter, I will overview scholarship addressing public communication of the humanities and social sciences (PCHSS), which remains scattered across many disciplinary areas, and as we will explore, does not always think in terms of ‘communication’ in the first place. I will consider whether PCHSS poses a ‘special case’ of PCST and will argue that the differences observed provide crucial insights into broader questions of how knowledge circulates and how expertise is constituted in the changing public sphere of the 21st century.1

In the United Kingdom, the impetus for research into science communication and the public understanding of science arose from specific concerns about the public position of the natural sciences (Bodmer et al. 1985). The field has greatly diversified since that time but this limited remit has persisted. While the lack of attention to humanities and social sciences (HSS) in related fields such as science and technology studies may also contribute to the problem (Camic et al. 2011; Hallett et al. 2019), this cannot fully account for the continuing low profile of PCHSS as a research topic. Traditional media formats (e.g., newspapers, television and radio) have continued to converge with each other and with newer online platforms over the past decade.

Media continue to produce specialist ‘science’ outputs and popular science as a genre is thriving. Science journalism faces serious challenges in this changing media environment, but continues as an established journalistic specialism, providing content for both specialist and generalist media outputs (Schafer 2017). As we will explore here, most of this coverage tends to be of natural sciences disciplines; quantitatively oriented disciplines such as psychology and archaeology tend to receive more attention among other branches of knowledge. However, there is little or no corresponding journalistic specialisation for social sciences or humanities, suggesting that the tendency of PCST research to focus on science, medical and environmental specialists may also be a factor.

Paradoxically, those studies which have taken the time to explore PCHSS suggest that research, expertise and ideas arising from these disciplines can be covered widely across the broader, non-specialist media and provide major contributions to the content of specialist areas such as political, economic and lifestyle journalism. Crime statistics, historical analysis, demographic data, opinion polls, archaeological findings, educational research, economic analysis, political theory' and literary analysis are all examples of HSS research which appear routinely in both news and broader media coverage. HSS researchers and scholars provide policy, personal and lifestyle advice and analysis in multiple media domains and across the wider public sphere. The idea of the public intellectual originated in the humanities (e.g. Said 1994) and until the mid-1990s the popular science boom was primarily occupied by social sciences and humanities scholars (Fahy 2015). Social research contributes to the core activity of many think-tanks — active by definition ‘in public’ (Gregory and Miller 1998) — and of policymakers and politicians in and beyond government. Social scientists and humanities scholars themselves conduct most PCST research, generating classic critiques of deficit approaches to science communication, precipitating a widespread change in communication policies and practices across the board. Despite (or perhaps because of) the seemingly obvious societal significance of their work, HSS scholars, including those researching PCST, have paid relatively little attention to how their own branch of knowledge comes to be communicated in public.

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