NI Festival of Social Science: From the Lecture Theatre to the Black Box

I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.” It was perhaps one of the most memorable – and controversial – lines from recent political discourse. Agree or disagree with this particular view of the former Justice Secretary, one thing cannot be ignored: quite a few people agree with him.

Perhaps the word ‘expert’ is an unhelpful one. Perhaps it conjures up a sense of intellectual arrogance and elitism. Perhaps it is associated with academics sitting around in an ivory tower, detached from what is actually happening in the real world.

We, as passionate researchers, don’t profess to be ‘experts’. However, we do believe that our work can make an important contribution to society, and that part of our job is to explain why.

November 5th sees the Festival of Social Science kick off in Northern Ireland. The chances are that this is the first you’ve heard of it. Sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, this is an opportunity for academic researchers like ourselves to look beyond the university campus and engage with policy-makers, community activists and just about anyone else who happens to be interested. It’s an opportunity for the public to hear what (publicly funded) researchers are doing.

As part of the Festival, we will be hosting an event, ‘How can social science help community relations in Northern Ireland?’ We care a great deal about this broad topic. Indeed, it’s a question that has helped to drive us to become social science researchers in the first place.

In medicine, engineering, and other fields, the benefit of scientific research is obvious. It might go towards improving treatments of different types of cancer, it might improve the quality of life with someone suffering from a chronic condition, or it might lead to the discovery of new technologies that reduce the impact of climate change.

We believe that social science has an important contribution to make as well, not least somewhere like Northern Ireland that is characterised by our divided past and present. So, how can social scientists like us help community relations in a place like Northern Ireland? At our event at Black Box on 5th November, we invite you to join us as we address a range of questions related to our work.

  • What exactly is the significance of the emerging Northern Irish identity? New national identities are very rare.  So too are identities that members of both communities in this region can feel a part of, making critical attention towards this identity even more important.  Kevin McNicholl will explain how the theories and methods of social psychology can inform us of its potential as a cross-community identity.
  • Could ordinary citizens do a better job than politicians at making difficult decisions? In Northern Ireland, it can be difficult for politicians from all communities to reach agreement on contentious issues. When they don’t, it can lead to gridlock and instability. Jamie Pow examines how a Citizens’ Assembly might help elected politicians at a time of crisis, and how it could enhance the overall quality of democracy here.
  • How does trust influence cross-community relations in Northern Ireland? Trust is recognised as a key factor behind reconciliation and positive intergroup relations. However, in social psychology, intergroup trust has not always been studied in its own right. Thia Sagherian-Dickey will discuss some of the key underlying processes of intergroup trust and how they have different implications for whether and how people are willing to trust members of another group.
  • How does group membership affect people’s responses to police decisions? In her talk, Karolina Urbanska will explain the key psychological theories underlying police legitimacy and why they struggle to explain communities’ behaviour in Northern Ireland. Using data from her own research, she highlights that how someone perceives their own community, as well as the other community, is vital to our understanding of their response to authority decisions.

We will be joined at our event by two eminent scholars: Professor Orla Muldoon, who has completed extensive research into the psychological mechanisms underpinning intergroup relations and identity in Ireland, and Dr Paul Nolan, who will chair a roundtable discussion with representatives from the Community Relations Council.

If you’d like to hear more about how social science can help community relations in Northern Ireland, be sure to come along to our event. It promises to be a great night. All are very welcome.

Date: Saturday 5th November 2016

Time: 7-9pm

Venue: The Black Box, 18-22 Hill Street, Belfast

Admission: FREE

Social Media: #NISocSci @ESRCFestivalNI

For more information: Contact Kevin McNicholl – [email protected]

Kevin McNicholl and Jamie Pow are doctoral researchers in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast; Thia Sagherian-Dickey and Karolina Urbanska are PhD candidates in the Queen’s School of Psychology.

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