Goodbye to All That

12 March 2019

Professor David Canter FAcSS reflects on his role as editor of the AcSS’s flagship journal Contemporary Social Science as he steps down after six years.

Rather like the EU, bringing together many different cultures, languages and histories into one coherent entity is an act of faith. It has to be guided by a common belief that all the parties concerned share compatible values and wish to work together. The Academy of Social Science is such an entity. The need to provide an articulate account, bringing together the diverse social science disciplines, was based on a belief shared by the founders of the Academy of Social Sciences– that the social sciences are cognate. That they do relate to each other. What is more, they will actually benefit from an interchange of approaches, ideas and methods.

Of course, any self-respecting Academy requires a journal that will characterise the contributions of its discipline. A ‘flagship’ journal that needs a clear identity and a distinct purpose. Therefore, when I was asked to edit this emerging journal it seemed to me there was only one way to enable it to thrive and receive quality submissions. That was to build each issue around a topic that was inherently multidisciplinary. I believed that experts who usually published in their own journals would be more likely to want to reach out to a wider audience by contributing to a common theme. I later discovered that there was some scepticism about the possibility of doing this, and to be fair to those sceptics, it was a slow start. I had to call in some favours and edit a couple of issues myself to get the ball rolling. A crucial aspect of it was also to appoint guest editors, because the range of topics that the social sciences cover is so great that no-one person, or even small group, could be aware of possible reviewers or evaluate everything that might be on offer. Encouragingly, within three years it was no longer necessary to seek out potential guest editors, which was always an uphill struggle. Unsolicited offers of themes for issues picked up steadily, so that now there are enough issues in the pipeline for the next couple of years.

What has been a real education from watching the journal’s contributions grow has been the remarkable range and variety of topics that have and are being covered. There is a message in these for the AcSS’s determination to ‘make the case’ for the social sciences. Public opinion polls, market research, national statistics, and many other topics and processes that are found in the mass media on a daily basis, all provide testimony to the significance of a wide range of social sciences. But these have not been the topics that have generated themed issues.

Many topics have come out of the blue, being areas of study that I had no inkling of. The one of social death, or the upcoming issue on social science aspects of relationship to animals in cities, come to mind. The recognition that there is an area of research exploring grandparents, or even ‘civic engagement’ such as not turning up for doctor’s appointments or not voting, was also a revelation.  Happily, there have also been issues that provide a social science perspective on matters of public policy and concern, climate change, alcohol, the legacy of the Olympics and, inevitably, an issue this year on Brexit.

All these themed issues demonstrate the great value in bringing together different social science perspectives on any given topic. Who would have thought, for example, how much our understanding of the self is enriched by drawing on sociological, cross-national as well as the more obvious psychological perspectives? In general, the overlap between different areas of social science revealed in each themed issue is the greatest demonstration that the belief in the coherence of the social sciences, which holds the AcSS together, is valid.

The international nature of the submissions, and guest editors, has been even more surprising than the range of topics. We’ve not had a proposal from Antarctica yet (there must be some fascinating social science issues there) but all the other continents have been well represented. This can create challenges because of different academic cultures. One example was the abuse of allowing authors to propose reviewers. The publisher has since disallowed that for all their journals. But in general, the vibrancy of social science around the world has been powerfully illustrated by the diverse contributions.

The most encouraging aspect of all this has been the quality of contributions from younger social scientists. PhD students have guest edited what, to my mind, have been some of the best issues. The valuable work being done by emerging social scientists in emerging economies, often under challenging conditions, has been well illustrated in many issues. All this bodes well for a vibrant future for the journal, social science and the AcSS. The new editors, Professor Jacqueline Barnes and Dr John Connelly complement each other’s wide-ranging expertise and have already improved the effectiveness and value of the journal. They will doubtless face challenges, not least in battling the online journal management systems. I am delighted to be able to hand over to such competent successors and devote some more of my time to composing music.

(Professor David Canter FAcSS will be stepping down as editor on 30 June 2019. He will be succeeded by Dr John Connolly and Professor Jacqueline Barnes CPsychol, FBPsS, FAcSS, FHEA)