New Blog – You do pose hypotheses don’t you?

Dr David Rose is an Environmental Geographer interested in the interactions between science, technology, policy, and practice. He is particularly interested in sustainable agriculture and nature conservation. He is due to start a Lectureship in Human Geography at UEA in September 2017.

Reporting on an inter-disciplinary workshop about the role of the social sciences in Sustainable Intensification research

On May 31st 2017, a diverse group of twenty researchers interested in agriculture met at Rothamsted Research to discuss the role of the social sciences in Sustainable Intensification (SI) research. The purpose of the workshop was to explore the ways in which the social sciences might contribute to research into SI, including on matters relating to food production, environmental stewardship, and agricultural society. Crucially, we brought together researchers from both the natural and the social sciences to foster collaboration (see workshop programme and list of participants here).

The day was split into the following sessions:

1.      What are the social sciences?


Carol Morris from the University of Nottingham opened the workshop with an introduction to the social sciences and the contributions they make within multidisciplinary research fields that are often led, if not dominated, by the natural / physical sciences. She outlined the plurality of methods, objectives, styles of reasoning, values, and scales of interest, associated with the many social science disciplines. She argued that there is often a deficit of social science in programmes of multidisciplinary research, a situation that also appears to be evident within SI research. One of the reasons for this could be that the social sciences are either partially or completely misunderstood, and thus the presentation was a useful guide for those not familiar with such approaches.

An interesting misunderstanding occurred in the subsequent discussion. When discussing the different methods used in the natural and social sciences, there was some confusion about whether all researchers used hypotheses. A natural scientist assumed that hypotheses were also used in the social sciences, which is not always true. Social scientists always pose research questions, and may sometimes have pre-conceived notions of what they might find (which could involve testing a hypothesis). This exchange suggested that more dialogue is needed in inter-disciplinary research projects to understand better the potential contribution of each discipline and their distinctive approaches to producing knowledge.



A cartoon depicting hypothesis confusion!


2.      What role can the social sciences play in SI research?David

A pre-workshop survey was filled in by 17 delegates on the potential contribution of the social sciences to SI research. David Rose from University College London (moving to the University of East Anglia) fed the results back to the group and reflected on his social science contribution to Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform (mainly on decision support tools). This survey was added to through further group discussion in the afternoon. Delegates suggested the following roles for the social sciences:

(a)    ‘End of pipe’ research translation – a common role for the social sciences in inter-disciplinary research projects. Social scientists are often perceived to understand stakeholders better and therefore they can help to remove the barriers to the adoption of SI innovations.

(b)   Drive participatory agenda and encourage user-centred methods – in addition to their use of user-centred methods (e.g. interviews, surveys, ethnography), social scientists often drive participatory research agendas. It is important to include farmers (and advisers) at the conception phase of SI projects to ensure that their needs are not overshadowed by the aims of scientists.

(c)    ‘Beginning of pipe’ role to critique assumptions of projects – the social sciences may have a role in critiquing concepts, such as SI. The term sustainable intensification has many negative connotations, and some researchers do not relate to it. For example, social scientists can ask questions of the assumption underpinning much SI thinking that we need to grow more food. There are parts of the world where lack of food security is not caused by lack of food per se, but rather as a result of lack of access, poor governance, and corruption.

(d)   Ask forgotten questions and address unintended consequences of interventions – many innovations are being suggested for SI, including the greater use of technology. Social scientists can explore the unintended consequences (e.g. on agricultural society) of using technology to increase food production.

(e)   Link SI to other research agendas – social scientists can help to draw in other relevant research strands, including work on sustainable eating and how this might be realized in practice.

3. What are the funding opportunities for SI social science research?

Thus, there are lots of potential roles for the social sciences in SI beyond a mere ‘end of pipe’ translation role. This is the most commonly assumed role for the social sciences in research collaborations, but the many disciplines under this umbrella have much more to offer.




Standing right to left: Kerry Firth (BBSRC, Sophie Payne-Gifford (NERC) and Sophie Martin (ESRC)

Other presentations at the workshop were given by research council funders (BBSRC, NERC, ESRC) and by two representatives from current sustainable agriculture projects (BBSRC and NERC funded Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems (ASSIST) programme,  BBSRC funded Soil to Nutrition programme and Defra funded Sustainable Intensification Platform). The research councils discussed the challenges of inter-disciplinary research bids, but predicted a better future for this type of research with the emergence of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).  Group discussion focused on identifying potential opportunities to fund social science SI research, including whether some projects would be best left to social (and natural) science alone, rather than every bid having to be inter-disciplinary. Key opportunities for the social sciences included:

(a)    Understanding the implications on Brexit on UK agriculture, including on SI

(b)   Thinking about the winners and losers of SI, also exploring unintended consequences of innovation. Question underlying assumptions and influence of power.

(c)    Understanding the role of the social sciences and humanities in causing transformative change in agricultural systems

(d)   Creating meaningful social indicators of SI

(e)   Understanding diets and how to influence behavior across the supply chain (e.g. business, consumers)

(f)     Exploring the relative role of food distribution versus food production and its consequences for SI

(g)    Understand motivations, and remove barriers, to the adoption of SI practices

group total 2

Key take-home messages from the workshop included:

  • An understanding of the diversity within the social sciences
  • A recognition that the social sciences could play a variety of different roles in SI research – not just ‘end of pipe’ translation, but also many other roles
  • The need for a better mutual understanding of methods and approaches used in different disciplines (including whether hypotheses are posed!)
  • A better understanding of the funding environment
  • An awareness of the key questions for which the social sciences can help in the context of SI

And finally, Michael Winter from University of Exeter and part of SIRN Leadership team, stressed the need to think about the social sciences (plural) rather than just social science.

21st June 2017