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Social science and participation
Social science and participation

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What do people need to participate?

The tradition of research that Townsend helped to develop now informs a great deal of social science investigation into poverty. Broadly speaking, this tradition informs an approach that defines poverty or deprivation in terms of the enforced lack of necessities, where the definition of these necessities is determined by surveying public opinion.

Research using this approach involves two steps. The first step requires asking a broad range of people which things they think of as ‘necessities’, that is, the sort of things everyone should be able to have access to and not do without. The second step is to establish which people do not have access to these necessities.

This approach to investigating participation as a key criterion of poverty and social exclusion depends on people participating in social science practices themselves.

In 2010, the largest ever social science project on poverty and social exclusion started: the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) project based at the University of Bristol and involving social scientists from several other UK universities.

One part of the PSE project is the ‘Necessities of Life’ survey. You might want to spend a few minutes taking part in this survey yourself by visiting the PSE website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Remember that you are being asked for your opinion – there isn’t a ‘right’ answer that you should try to identify.

Try to keep an eye on how the questions are implicitly asking you not just what resources or amenities you think people need, but also about your views on what sorts of activities people should be able to participate in as members of society.

When you have completed the survey, return to this section of the course. The PSE Necessities of Life survey, and the larger tradition of social science research on poverty of which it is one part, illustrate two important dimensions of how social science helps to enact social worlds:

  • As you have seen in the ‘Social science, poverty and participation’ film, this approach has played an important role in informing how poverty is understood as a public issue, and how it is addressed as a policy problem. This approach to defining and measuring poverty has influenced the development of official measurements of poverty and social exclusion in the UK, in the European Union and by the United Nations.
  • The survey you have just taken part in exemplifies the idea that social science can shape the social worlds it investigates. It is a simple example of a broader process by which social science methodologies, deployed by academics, by governments and by commercial organisations, have contributed to the process in which people are expected to be opinionated.