Social science and family policies

ISER’s John Ermisch, a leading expert in research relating to the family, has contributed to a new British Academy report that examines the role of values in political debate, shows why policy makers need good social science and offers advice on the complex relationship between political values and policy making.

Social Science and Family Policies explores the significance of social science research in issues such as family break-up and reconstitution; non-parental care; abuse and deprivation; drug use; and the role of communities in child well-being. Moreover, it illustrates how social science can help to shed light on various important policy questions, including why individuals’ responses to environmental hazards vary so much; how we cope with ‘life stressors’ such as illness or divorce; and the success of preventive interventions, such as Sure Start.

The report argues that values are at the centre of all political issues, and it is the duty of government, not social scientists, to decide both the values it wishes to espouse and their relative importance. Science can, however, provide evidence on the likely efficacy of proposed remedies, on unintended consequences of remedies, and on how well policies are being implemented. Social scientists and politicians, therefore, have different but complementary roles.

A central question for the report is: Why is good social science needed by policymakers? The authors show how good social science can:

  • check the validity of observations to see if they are representative
  • reveal the ways in which different individuals respond to similar causes
  • indicate which associations are likely to reflect causation
  • reject the fallacy that it is possible to find a single cause for complex situations or conditions measure whether policies are getting to grips with problems that have been identified

Sir Michael Rutter, Fellow of the British Academy and lead author of the report said:

“Social scientists and politicians have distinct, but equally important roles. This new report sets out what those are and examines how these two professions can work together to create successful policies for families and young people.”

Social Science and Family Policies does not seek to make recommendations about specific family policies, but rather to encourage support for the high quality social science research needed to address the complicated family issues of the 21st century. It is hoped that policymakers will use the report as a tool to develop greater and more beneficial interaction with social scientists on an issue that all parties see as fundamental.

The report, downloadable from the British Academy website, was formally launched and discussed at an event chaired by Polly Toynbee at the British Academy.


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