The many layers of social in our science


Those romantic days when science was seen as an objective enterprise driven solely by the strength of one’s research methods have dwindled. Undoubtedly there are still segments of society and academia which hold that illusion, but it is now broadly recognised that humans (and, yes, I include researchers in that category) are social beings who influence one another in complex ways. As a result, the extent to which we are able to connect with others will fundamentally impact on our success, notwithstanding the caricature of objectivity surrounding the world of science1 (or the stereotype of the socially awkward and somewhat autistic scientist).

Contrary to the concerns of some, I do not consider the admission that science is a social enterprise to be problematic. Nor do I see it cynically as an indication that there is a ‘game’ that needs to be ‘played’. Rather, I see the social nature of science as invaluable. It is through interactions among people that new ideas are stimulated and progress is made,2 and these interactions ensure that our ideas are challenged and refined.3 Our social interactions will influence the memorability of our findings and, as a result, the likelihood that they will be used by others. The magnitude of this influence is the reason why every course on education research or scholarship should include discussion about networking. Just as practising in isolation is a difficult hurdle for doctors to overcome,4 so too is it rare that a researcher or educator can advance his or her chosen field without the corrective mechanisms (often implicitly enacted) inherent in personal interaction.

Thinking of research in this way has led me to see the CanMEDS roles5 and their international equivalents as ranging well beyond the field of medicine to indicate general requirements for success in most intellectual domains. Although the specific competencies will differ from those of medical practice, researchers cannot rely solely on being ‘expert’ in their field. They must communicate ideas effectively, advocate on behalf of colleagues and trainees, manage teams with aplomb, and engage in the research enterprise within the boundaries of an agreed-upon professional ethic.6 Careful scholarship is expected and collaboration is generally encouraged, not only to support busy people in getting their work done, but also to maximise the quality of that work.7

In a recent reflective piece, Ron Harden offered new educators 10 lessons he had learned over the course of his impressive career.8 Five of these are directly related to social interactions and four indicate activities that are strengthened by such interactions (assuming that one accepts that working in a group is more fun than working alone). Harden’s sixth lesson was: ‘…there is always something to learn outside one’s practice.’8 That advice led me to the symposium that served as the inspiration for this fourth annual ‘State of the Science’ issue.

A year and a half ago I found myself at a conference entitled ‘Social Science Perspectives on Health Professions Education’, which had been organised by Mathieu Albert and Maria (Tina) Martimianakis.9 As a cognitive psychologist and editor, I am hardly naïve to the social sciences, but this conference brought together a particularly eclectic group of researchers from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds. Their purpose was to explore how their disciplines, each of which focused on society and human behaviour, can inform health professions education and health professions education research.

This special ‘State of the Social Science’ issue brings you examples of how theoretical perspectives and methodological practices from the social sciences can shed new light on old topics such as curricular design.10,11 You will also see a very direct indication of how approaching health professional education through the lens of the social sciences can alert the field to new or under-studied aspects of educational practice within the professions, such as the roles of silence,12 gender13 and emotion.14

As you read the articles, I encourage you to reflect on the many layers of social in the art and science of medical education. Ask yourself how the arguments and data presented in these social science papers might impact upon your practice as a health professional educator or researcher. Consider how the adoption of a particular conceptual framework derived from the social sciences added to or may have altered the efforts of the authors, either in terms of the questions they asked or in how they interpreted the findings. Contemplate how our community might use these offerings as examples of the value and difficulties inherent in incorporating ideas from diverse backgrounds as we strive to work collaboratively towards the continued maturation of the field. As always, the discussion board at offers an opportunity to engage in discussion about any of these questions with colleagues around the globe.

Our thanks, as always, are extended to the authors for populating this special issue with such a thought-provoking series of articles, and to the reviewers who demonstrated the value of social interaction by offering thoughtful and professional criticism in a manner that helped the authors to strengthen their work.