Social Science-- listening and analysis


A London life



My mother says that when I was young I would refuse to do anything unless I understood why I had to do it. This need for understanding has stayed with me into my adult life and I suspect that it was this that drew me to the social sciences. The social sciences seek to explore and understand how we live together as human beings, and this is something that I find endlessly fascinating. Is it possible for us to find a way of living together with less of the suspicion, aggression and recklessness which so often seems to characterize human society?

My community work, which I explore elsewhere, is my practical engagement with this question but here I focus on that intellectual curiosity to understand which characterized my childhood. Here rather than asking the why question which I understand as being the root of theology, I ask the how question. I think one of the more unpleasant aspects of modern life is that this how question is often answered in a way which reduces and diminishes the fullness of the human experience. In particular we see this in the desire to reduce human behavior to something that can be expressed in numbers. This is the root of the present obsession with targets and outcomes.

Sometimes it is important to focus on the numbers. The present financial crisis caused by subprime mortgages would perhaps have been avoided if people had focused on the impossible arithmetic of lending to people who couldn't afford it, rather than the stories being told of continuous growth. Although maths has never been my strong point I have come to appreciate the value of numbers, particularly in making use of census data. I have found that this provides a grid which keeps my thinking and storytelling honest, but numbers never tell the whole story. Only when we listen carefully to the stories that people tell and seek to construct our own two week begins to approach the fullness of the human quest for truth. My childhood demand for understanding now sees that it can only be achieved when we find the right balance between the numbers and the stories. Only in this way can our attempt to analyze human society be accurate, humane and useful.

Complexity theory has been a key discovery for me. I find myself drawn to the work of people like David Byrne and Dave Snowden who in very different ways use it to understand human life. Simply put I understand complexity theory to be the attempt to discern a middle way between the over determinative optimism of positivism and the chaotic skepticism of postmodernism. It believes that patterns can be discerned in the complexity of human behavior which enable us to understand and intervene in effective ways. A second paper goes into some key concepts in more detail.

Living in Hackney sparked my interest in complexity theory, because it just seemed such a chaotic place! I began to explore chaos theory and quickly found myself drawn into this new way of thinking.

Listening and storytelling are closely connected in my mind. I believe being a good storyteller means listening carefully to other people's stories. Too often we don't listen to each other, or listen only in order to hear what we want to hear. In this paper I explore how listening and our other senses give us a key to understand how to do good research.

I have always enjoyed maps and in this paper used three different maps of London -- the Ordnance Survey map, the A to Z and the London Underground map to explore different ways of reading and understanding the city