Interactions between conservation and the social sciences are frequently characterized by either critique (of conservation by social scientists) or co‐optation (of social scientific methods and insights by conservationists). This article seeks to push beyond these two dominant positions by exploring how conservationists and social scientists can engage in mutually transformative dialogue. Jointly authored by conservation scientists and social scientists, it uses the global nexus of orangutan conservation as a lens onto current challenges and possibilities facing the conservation–social science relationship. We begin with a cross‐disciplinary overview of recent developments in orangutan conservation—particularly those concerned with its social, political and other human dimensions. The article then undertakes a synthetic analysis of key challenges in orangutan conservation—working across difference, juggling scales and contexts and dealing with politics and political economy—and links them to analogous concerns in the conservation–social science relationship. Finally, we identify some ways by which orangutan conservation specifically, and the conservation–social science relationship more generally, can move forward: through careful use of proxies as bridging devices, through the creation of new, shared spaces, and through a willingness to destabilize and overhaul status quos. This demands an open‐ended, unavoidably political commitment to critical reflexivity and self‐transformation on the part of both conservationists and social scientists.