Democratising social science

Scholar-Elect Cristian Larroulet Philippi aims to forge a new more socially engaged framework for social sciences.

My goal is to develop rigorous philosophical analyses of the theoretical and normative aspects of science, with a special focus on the social sciences.

Cristian Larroulet Philippi

Cristian Larroulet Philippi [2019] is interested in broadening the reach of the social sciences and ensuring they engage with the society around them rather than with scientific abstractions. That approach, he believes, will lead to both better science and better policy.

From the moment he started his undergraduate degree in economics Cristian felt that certain subjects are too narrow and require a more cross-disciplinary, socially engaged approach that means that they get closer to what actually happens on the ground. So he deepened his studies, moving through multiple disciplines until finally arriving at philosophy.

This autumn he begins his PhD at the University of Cambridge studying the philosophy of science and hopes to develop an approach which will be useful across the social sciences.

He states: “My goal is to develop rigorous philosophical analyses of the theoretical and normative aspects of science, with a special focus on the social sciences. I expect this research to inform not only internal debates in philosophy of science, but also in economics, and in the interdisciplinary debates that surround public policy disputes.”

He adds: “All scientific theories can fail not only if the data does not back up the theory but if they leave out important parts of the story.” Cristian says this is why it is important for scientists to be more aware of the scientific process and of the need to include others in that process, from how they go about framing their studies onwards. “What makes good and bad science cannot be determined only internally by the scientific community,” he says. “The public should participate. We need to assess different ways of involving the public in scientific studies.  Scientists need to engage with the different sectors of society.” 

Childhood and university

Cristian was born and raised in Santiago, Chile, the fourth of seven children. “I had a very curious mind, which was instilled in me by my family,” he says. His mother was a plant researcher and his father has taught economics and worked on think tanks and in the government. “As a family we travelled a lot in Chile through deserts and forests as well as more broadly in Latin America and Europe and we all used to read up on the places we would visit.”

Influenced by his father’s work in economics and public policy, Cristian opted to study economics at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile after leaving school. However, he soon found the way economics was taught was too narrow so he started taking courses in anthropology, sociology, theology and eventually philosophy. “I was interested in a richer, wider picture than what economics offered, particularly with regard to human behaviour,” he says.

Travelling helped to broaden his mind during his degree course, which was extended because of all the different courses he took. He lived in South Africa for three months and India for a year as well as going to Nottingham University on exchange for six months. He chose Nottingham specifically because it brought together philosophy and economics and because he wanted to improve his English.

At university Cristian also worked with young people from disadvantaged areas to help them prepare to take university entrance tests. It was a desire to break out of the university bubble and do something practical that also led him to opt for a semester in a township in South Africa, working for a local NGO with people affected by HIV, in particular young children who were in danger of dropping out of school because they were caring for HIV-infected parents. 

From economics to philosophy

That experience left him more dissatisfied with economics when he returned. “I felt frustrated by how dry economics was. It seemed somewhat fictional compared to the kind of disadvantaged place I had been working in where people faced so many barriers,” says Cristian.

In addition to teaching philosophy of science and economics at university, Cristian started working as a research assistant for a professor who was working with the J-PAL researchers network at MIT. The network specialises in social programme evaluation, testing the impact of social programmes on the ground. 

Cristian continued to work with J-PAL while he was doing his undergraduate degree and master’s and beyond. In Chile he worked with Chilean researchers investigating how to support parents to help their children to learn. He also worked on an oral health project, looking at the impact of oral health and other socio-economic factors on access to work. That research resulted in a published paper and another that is currently in progress.

After he completed his master’s Cristian and his wife went to India for a year. Cristian spent six months working with J-PAL India on education programmes and six months travelling. He worked with the government of Chennai in Tamil Nadu and with the NGO Pratham in Uttar Pradesh, investigating the impact of rearranging classes based on the level students are at rather than their age. Cristian and his wife also spent six months living in spiritual centres and ashrams learning about the country’s spiritual traditions. 

As a result he decided, in 2015, to do a master’s in philosophy of the social sciences  at the London School of Economics in order to make his transition from economics to studying philosophy more formal. “That year was very important in shaping my academic life and confirming my move into philosophy,” he says. “I realised that what I was really interested in were philosophical questions.”

Societal engagement

After his course, Cristian moved to Boulder, Colorado, as his wife, who is a therapist, was looking for a programme on transpersonal psychology which brought together a western and eastern approach to mental health. While she was doing that, Cristian began a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder which gives him a general background in the subject. 

However, given he has always been interested in the practical implications of academic research and societal engagement, he was keen to do a PhD that would focus on something less abstract. 

That was the spur to applying to the University of Cambridge to do a PhD in the philosophy of science. He hopes that by studying some of the practical and ethical issues linked to science he can forge a new framework that ensures that social sciences research is relevant to those who will be most affected by it.