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Regular version of the site

Social Science Helps Solve Problems

Regional Conference on  World Association of Public Opinion Research dedicated to Survey Research and the Study of Social and Cultural Change is taking place at HSE Moscow September 15-17, 2016 in partnership with World Values Survey. Ronald Inglehart, Academic Supervisor of HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research and the Founding President of the World Values Survey (WVS) has talked to HSE News Service about the role of sociology in the modern world and the changes in values and beliefs around the world.

Social research prevents wars

I think we’ve made noble and admirable progress in technology or ability to produce things, to fight disease, to compute, to communicate. My own project, the World Values Survey would be almost impossible without the internet and instant communication around the world and modern computation techniques that enable us to analyze the gigantic data sets. I endorse and appreciate what hard sciences and technology have done. However, in my opinion, we are reaching a point where the biggest and the most pressing problems that need to be solved are social and political problems. Social research can help solve them.

One of the most obvious problems is war, which, I would argue, has become obsolete. Actually, we have not had a war between major powers since 1945. This is the longest peace in recorded history by far. I think it partly reflects a better understanding of the problems that led to war. Social sciences contributed to this. Way back in 1909 Norman Angell published a book claiming the war was outmoded, that it made sense no longer and cannot be rational. He made a lot of impact until in 1914 WWI broke out and he looked like an idiot. I think he was not an idiot, his announces were sound, except he assumed that people would behave rationally. The leaders of major nations didn’t behave rationally; they reacted on the basis of outworn myths. I would say that the Kaiser had a world view that was medieval. In a growing society, to get rich, land is the only resource. The only way to get rich is by conquering your neighbor, exterminating or enslaving the population, and taking their land.

We are reaching a point where the biggest and the most pressing problems that need to be solved are social and political problems. Social research can help solve them

Germany and Japan launched WWII with a belief that you needed large land empires to be prosperous, and they set it out with a beautiful military technology. They invented jet airplanes, marvelous bombs and tanks, and used this impressive technology to kill 60 million people in a war that was completely unnecessary. It turns out that, stripped off their empires, after WWII both Germany and Japan became many times more prosperous than they ever had before by economic development. Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg got extremely rich very quickly without murdering anyone and without risking their lives but by inventing high technological things.

Understanding the roots of war, understanding the roots of human conflict is a complicated problem, it’s not simplistic. But sociology, political science, economics, psychology – all – are contributing to an understanding of the causes of human conflict and ways to solve them. This is a very worthwhile investment. If we avoid even one war, we will be probably paid for the total investment in social science for the last century, because wars are enormously costly. This is the role of social science.

Life expectancy and income inequality

There are other problems like rising income inequality. It’s a genuine problem. The U.S., Russia, Britain, Sweden, Germany, and so on – all have a trajectory where income inequality was declining for most of the 20th century. Then, since 1970s, it’s been rising sharply to the point where in the U.S. income inequality is even greater than it was in 1900, and to the point where in Russia income inequality is vastly greater than it was in the Soviet Union. Income inequality in Russia is in fact greater than in the United States now. Is this something that we blindly accept? Or do we try and analyze the reasons why this is happening? And try and cope with it?  If you understand the dynamics behind it, then you can propose intelligent solutions. This is actually a very dangerous problem. It’s leading to instability, to things like the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

If we avoid even one war, we will be probably paid for the total investment in social science for the last century

The white working class in the U.S. has had a declining income in the last 30 or 40 years. They are not gaining any longer, and they used to be gaining. The life expectancy for the white working class is actually shrinking because of drug abuse and alcohol and so on. One of the things you know about modernization is you get better technology, better nutrition, better public health, and life expectancy rises. Life expectancy in the U.S. has almost doubled in the last century. It’s not happening any longer with a large part of the American public. This is partly a reflection of a kind of despair, of a feeling that they are not anywhere and their future is not hopeful.

The only parallel that I know of in history is the Soviet Union. The decline of the Soviet Union had this astonishing effect. Instead of modernization bringing a rising life expectancy, which, in every country in the world, it does, more or less, in Russia, there was a malaise that led to declining life expectancy for the male population, linked with drug abuse, a feeling of declining happiness and life satisfaction.

In the West, the rise of income inequality was diminishing steadily because of redistributive programmes. There is a natural tendency for income inequality to rise, because if you start out with advantages, they snowball. If you start out being born in a rich family, you get better nutrition from the day you’re born, better medical care, and better education. Conversely, if you start out in a deprived family, you may get poor nutrition, poor health care, poor dental care, and poor education. The left parties developed social programmes that actually worked, that alleviated income inequality and resulted in a more educated, healthier working class and population in general.

The long-term problem is automation and artificial intelligence, which, eventually, will replace the working class

What is happening now is a new problem. I think it's due to a basically new factor. Initially, it’s globalization, which has put the working class in developed countries in competition with China, India and so on, with a much cheaper workforce. But that’s not the ultimate problem. The long-term problem is automation and artificial intelligence, which, eventually, will replace the working class of China and India. Left to market forces, the knowledge society has many wonderful attributes: you can communicate all over the world and learn all kinds of things. However, in the knowledge society, there is an inherent tendency for the rewards to go the very top. Bernie Sanders was on target, when he said, the conflict today is not between the working class and the middle class – it’s between the 99% and the 1%. And the 1% is winning. Inequality is rising sharply. The only solution that I see to this is state intervention. The state should reallocate resources to create jobs. They’d put people in useful functions like childcare, early education, health care, environmental protection, research and development, and so on.

This is something that social research and the World Values Survey, that I’m involved in, has studied and analyzed carefully. We have devoted a lot of analysis to why life expectancy and subjective well-being declined in the Soviet Union and up until about 1999 in Russia. It has been recovering in the recent years; it is actually coming back up. Social research tries to understand why these things are happening. I’m fascinated by developments like this in Russia and in the U.S. Social science can understand the dynamics and then begin to propose possible solutions. I don’t think we can magically come up with surefire solutions. But you can propose and experiment with solutions and measures, and some of them will work. And we can improve the human conditions.

There was no communist revolution in the U.S. or Britain, partly because Marxist and other left-oriented social scientists had analyzed the problems, criticized them, and led to social movements

Does sociology influence the life of simple people?

Of course, it does. Take social science in general. This goes back to Carl Marx, who was a social scientist. He was one of the most influential social scientists. Max Weber and many others dealt with the problem of early industrial society, which was very harsh and exploited the people very severely. Marx’s critique was very accurate, but his proposal on how to solve it didn’t work. Abolishing private property doesn’t seem to be the solution. I think that he, however, did stimulate the evolution of leftist movements. They brought about significant changes. When labour or socialist governments were elected, they brought about policies of progressive taxation of income, social welfare programmes that provided health, retirement income, education, etc – a whole range of things that improved the life of the working class. Ironically, this alleviated the pressure for the communist revolutions. There was no communist revolution in the U.S. or Britain, partly because Marxist and other left-oriented social scientists had analyzed the problems, criticized them, and led to social movements. The British labour party, for example, was heavily influenced by social thinkers. They implemented programmes that actually improved public health. The universal health coverage, for example, visibly improved the health of the British population.

Social science provides empirical data about what the problems are and encourages people to propose possible solutions, and you try them, and some of them work

Do all social programmes work? Of course, not. Social science provides empirical data about what the problems are and encourages people to propose possible solutions, and you try them, and some of them work. The thinkers are not always right, but they come up with the ideas, some of which work.

Latest trends in social science

One trend has been the development of mathematical models, which have been very useful, rigorous ways of analyzing things. A more recent trend has been the re-introduction of history, religion, culture and other non-rational factors to offset the reality. The World Values Study, for example, has for the last 40 years been studying changing human values around the world, and now, instead of treating values as a kind of ‘we vaguely think that Chinese are different from the Americans, but we don’t know exactly how’, we have actual quantitative measures of where they are different and how much they are different, and on which values. And this is useful in understanding their behaviour. With modern computers and modern mathematical models, we are making some progress. 

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