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Social research can be an honest broker in our search for trust

Posted on 05 August 2011 .
Tags: social evils, democracy, inequality, Public trust

There’s been a quarrel in political and media circles in recent years about whether Britain is broken. Often that debate is linked to the idea of a ‘feral underclass’, an assertion vigorously challenged in a new book called Chavs, The Demonization of the Working Class. A book which reminds me, not for the first time recently, of the messages from often unheard voices elicited by the social evils research programme we conducted with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2008. And now just to thicken the plot we have Greg Dyke, Phillip Pullman and others arguing about the idea of a ‘feral elite’, whose members are responsible for a series of crises.

These are different viewpoints about something undeniable. Broken or not, the problem of trust in the big institutions is clear – banks, politicians and the press. It’s going to take some time to rebuild confidence in institutions and between them. So not surprisingly the conversation quickly turns to thoughts of better public engagement and policy making, referred to recently not just by Dyke, Pullman et al, but by Matthew Taylor, asking why we can’t get basic decision making right.

There’s unlikely to be one big idea that leads to a magic solution. What we need is an honest and open roots up reflection of the causes of all this. Leveson’s inquiry has a role to play here and as my colleague Penny Young has said, putting the public at the heart of that inquiry is crucial. This isn’t because, as Taylor rightly argues, the voter is always right. Rather it’s because any transition to a more confident, vibrant democracy needs public trust in institutions.

Roots up reflection is far more difficult than it sounds – because if it’s to be meaningful, it has to involve politicians putting party interests to one side (at least for some of the time), all the big institutions getting out of their glass houses, and the public – yes that’s all of us - shaking of some of its apathy and cynicism.
Dyke, Pullman et al’s call for a publicly funded public jury may well be part of the solution if it can help to create sustainable solutions. Taylor argues such solutions need to extend beyond public consultation to practical ways of redefining the relationship between citizens and decision making. He suggests, for example, that one way of doing this would be through new forms of taxation.

Why does this matter to NatCen? Well quite simply because we believe that social research has the power to make life better. We’re not political representatives and we don’t have an axe to grind in terms of policy – except that it should work which is surely a no brainer. Social research helps capture the authentic voices of the public about everything from sexual attitudes to health, travel patterns to workplace relations. So whether it’s new forms of consultation or something more profound we’d urge those involved in this debate to think about:

  • Lessons that social research can provide for public engagement;
  • The wealth of evidence already out there and how to utilise it more effectively;
  • The democratic role that research participation can play beyond collecting data from the public;
  • How we can optimise the impact of research on policy decisions.


Social research doesn’t have the answer – most probably because there isn’t a single answer anyway – but we can be a genuinely honest broker in a troubled if not broken society.

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