The Gulbenkian prognosis

Print edition : October 27, 2001

The forces that shaped the beginnings and growth of the social sciences were the subject of study of the Gulbenkian Commission. Its report also offers valuable lessons to India on the development of the social sciences.

THE Gulbenkian Commission was formed as part of the project Portugal 2000 sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a Lisbon-based institution created by a provision in the will of Calouste Sarkis Gublenkian. This commission comprised 10 eminent people who came together to deliberate on the nature and the future trends of the social sciences. Reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of this work, six of them were drawn from the social sciences, two from the natural sciences and two from the humanities.

The commission, chaired by distinguished Sociologist Prof. Immanuel Wallerstein, met three times, once in 1994 and twice in 1995, and wrote a short but incisive report titled Open the Social Sciences (Stanford University Press, 1996). The report deals with the historical growth of the disciplines of the social sciences from the early 19th century. More than being a document of history, this report is a thoughtful discussion on the nature of the social sciences and the forces that shaped their beginnings and growth.

This report needs to be carefully considered for many reasons, some of which are especially relevant to the Indian context. The development of the various disciplines of the social sciences was not an arbitrary one. The idea of the social sciences arose out of an attempt to make the study of society similar to the study of nature by the natural scientists.

The impact of the natural sciences, both in the academia and the larger society, catalysed an attempt to introduce scientific methodologies in those disciplines that were concerned with humans and society. Along with this, a conscious process of institutionalisation made possible the establishment of the various disciplines of social sciences. Thus the evolution of these disciplines and their formal institutionalisation has been a dynamic and continuous process, which has been in constant dialogue and debate with various other factors.

While the influence of the natural sciences has been significant in the growth of these disciplines, it is also the case that a critique of the natural sciences has been best offered by these same disciplines. In the Indian context, the appropriation of some of these disciplines in a disjointed manner has led to, among other things, haphazard programmes, lack of professionalism and inability to sustain quality teaching and research.

One of the defining aspects of the Enlightenment in the West was the priority given to the natural sciences. Scientific 'reason', which involved some of the central tenets of the scientific method such as observation, experimentation, prediction and explanation, was seen as the ideal form of reason. The origins of the social sciences lie in the attempt to describe and explain society in a manner similar to the ways in which the natural sciences described and explained the world.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the report notes, the struggle was not over who would control nature, both for its exploitation and knowledge about it, but about who would control knowledge about the human world. It was in this context that there was a revival of the university system in the West; theology, till then prominent, was shunted aside as a minor discipline. At that time, state patronage was already extended to the natural sciences. For those who were not in these disciplines, it became important to find ways to get money, resources and patronage.

The way to do this was to institutionalise these interests within a larger university system. As the report notes, the "intellectual history of the nineteenth century is marked above all by this disciplinarisation and professionalisation of knowledge" (page 7). This was achieved by creating permanent institutional structures which would support such academic pursuits. In order to get state support to the universities which dealt with the non-science disciplines, natural scientists were also drawn into the universities. The tension between the arts and the sciences began in the universities and continues to remain so.

Auguste Comte revived the term 'social physics', suggesting thereby that society was best studied along the model of physics. Thus, to study society, one had to be scientific in the sense that the study should be confined "to the study of real facts without seeking to know their first causes or final purpose" (page 12).

In the period 1850-1914, clear divisions emerged between the disciplines belonging to the social sciences. There were five main places where these disciplines were institutionalised: "Great Britain, France, the Germanies, the Italies and the United States." Five disciplines were accepted as belonging to social sciences. These were history, economics, sociology, political science and anthropology. A tradition of history was already present in some form and it became the first discipline among these five to attain a degree of autonomy.

History also offered a striking parallel with the natural sciences. Just as natural sciences attempted to explain the world as it 'really' is, history was entrusted with the task of finding out what 'really' happened through empirical methods. Needless to add, this task is one that history finds difficult to sustain under various interest groups. Moreover, there is the added question as to what extent such a project (that is, objective knowledge about what 'really' happened as against interpretative accounts) is at all objectively feasible.

Around this time, a new discipline was formed and a new name for it was coined, by Comte, called sociology. He thought that sociology would be the queen of the social sciences (perhaps like mathematics was seen as the queen of the natural sciences). The discipline of sociology itself was formed through a conscious institutionalisation in the second half of the 19th century. Initially, the people involved in it were those who were associated with social reform groups. This was similar to what happened in anthropology. As is well known, early anthropology was largely done by explorers, traders and officials of colonial regimes. The institutionalisation of this discipline occurred when they were absorbed into the university system.

In the period 1850-1945 - the latter year marking the end of the Second World War - these five disciplines had become established and were seen to constitute the 'social sciences'. The institutionalisation of these disciplines was made possible by instituting chairs, creating departments, offering degrees and so on. Research was also institutionalised by creating specialised journals, forming associations of scholars and even through library collections that began to be catalogued by disciplines. Even as these five disciplines were established with some measure of autonomy, the issue of what distinguished these disciplines from one another also became significant.

After 1945, rapid changes occurred. The report identifies three main reasons for the change in the structure of the social sciences. One was the rising power of the U.S. which gained enormous economic strength after the War. The political world was now being defined by two aspects: one, the Cold War with the USSR, and the other, the self-assertion by the non-European people. The second reason was that for 25 years following the War, population as well as the productive capacity underwent the largest expansion in the history of humanity. Thirdly, the university system expanded to all parts of the world.

These reasons led to many changes in the culture of the social sciences. The subjects became increasingly specialised, academics found niche fields to work in and it also spurred the growth of interdisciplinary fields. The report identifies "area studies" as the first example of a multidisciplinary programme. It is instructive to consider how this discipline developed. As the U.S. gained a global role after the War, it sought to establish its presence by undertaking a study of different societies and cultures. It was believed that a larger perspective on the other societies of the world would help the U.S. formulate its policies towards them.

The knowledge about the other societies was to be gathered from specialists belonging to various disciplines - political science, anthropology, sociology and so on. Thus, area studies, which was the study of various specific regions such as the USSR and West Asia, brought together people from different disciplines within an institutional setting. This had two consequences which are worthy of notice. One was that the study of the non-Western world became prominent in the sense that prior to this history was largely concerned with the European civilisation. Also, the coming together of people from different disciplines led to a realisation that perhaps the division between the various disciplines of the social sciences was artificial.

This claim to the autonomous division of the five disciplines of the social sciences was further complicated when disciplines such as economics, political science and sociology started drawing upon mathematical models and techniques. This diluted the distinction further and also catalysed the formation of new interdisciplinary fields such as communication studies. Thus, while the period 1850-1945 brought about a clear distinction and the autonomous establishment of the five disciplines, the period after 1945 saw the reversal of this attempt to downsize the number of disciplines.

In the name of interdisiplinary studies, there has been a proliferation of new disciplines, all of which try and institutionalise themselves in various ways such as forming new departments, organising specialised seminars, creating new publication series and so on.

During this period, the natural sciences, in particular physics, underwent radical changes. The quantum and relativity theories suggested radically new ways of understanding the world. The emphasis on probability and uncertainty as central principles in quantum theories, for example, was seen to be more in resonance with the ways in which society could be understood. Later developments in physics like the study of nonlinear systems and chaos inspired social scientists to look upon these images as being central to the study of societies.

There were also other changes that developed in response to the growth of many new interdisciplinary disciplines. The struggle for resources and money, always a problem in academics, intensified as more groups fought for money at a time when state support to academics was beginning to decline. This also led to the privileging of research at the expense of teaching. As a consequence, institutes were started where research was to be the main component with minimal or no teaching.

The report ends with a short commentary on the future of the social sciences. The members believe that multidisciplinary work has come to stay, even as they recognise that due to the problem of resources there will be a constant tension between new disciplines being formed and the consolidation of the established disciplines. Also, they strongly feel that multidisciplinary work must be institutionalised in various ways, like offering appointments to faculty in more than one department and having students attached to different departments. This formal movement from one discipline to another constitutes an important marker of liberal education.

It must be noted that very similar developments have occurred in the natural sciences. More and more interdisciplinary areas develop as the community of scientists increases. Even a discipline like physics is interdisciplinary in the sense that it draws upon mathematics and 'physics'. Biophysics, an autonomous discipline by now, draws upon biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. The problems mentioned above in the context of social sciences also occur when more multidisciplinary fields are begun in the natural sciences. But there is also a significant difference since the resource allocation for the natural sciences is substantially more than that for the social sciences, and the institutionalisation mechanisms for the natural sciences, even in India, are much stronger as compared to the social sciences.

Many of the issues addressed in this report are of seminal importance in the Indian context. First, it is clear that in general we appropriate the already established disciplines in the West without having the necessary historical and cultural inputs into the growth of a discipline. Given the lack of the requisite institutional structures, even in the case of new multidisciplinary disciplines we only seem to follow already established ones. The Gulbenkian Report clearly illustrates the importance of institutionalisation in establishing disciplines and in promoting teaching and research in these disciplines.

Clearly, in India, we seem to de-emphasise the importance of establishing institutional structures before we establish institutes. The paucity of quality research journals published in India and the limited number of publishers in the social sciences and humanities in the country contribute to the continued appropriation of research methodologies as well as 'theories' from the West.

Also, the university system is not liberalised sufficiently. With very few exceptions, Indian universities still depend extensively on clearly demarcated departme-nts with strong terit-orial instincts. Neither the faculty nor the students are allowed free movement across departments; degrees are not offered across departments nor do professors hold joint positions in different departments. Even the hiring policy, in general, insists on formal degrees in certain disciplines although the research work of a person may be in some related fields which 'officially' belong to a different department. Most important, adequate library facilities, essential to a research or teaching institution, are woefully lacking in most of the universities and institutes in the social sciences and humanities. This has to be contrasted with the comparatively well-endowed libraries for the natural sciences in many institutes across the country.

India is also home to certain unique problems, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. The sense of autonomy necessary for creative research is significantly less in these areas; the natural sciences are better off in this respect. Our power centres are excessively individual-driven, rather than being programme-driven. While we find symptoms of this in academic institutes across the world, we seem to have institutionalised this character most effectively! Since the power centres are individual-driven, we are burdened with unnecessary ideologies and agendas. The persisting debate involving the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) and the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), for example, must be seen in this light.

The lack of professionalism in the Indian academic world in these fields is also corrosive. What could be potentially important journals for Indian academicians are more often the playfield of the editors. Basic norms of publishing etiquette, including getting submissions properly reviewed, communication with the author and so on are often not followed. Given the paucity of journals in India, this leads to publication by a coterie, well-connected to the editors, both in the personal and ideological sense.

There is yet another central issue that arises in India. The resurgence of national identity, in its various guises, generates the tension between the modern and the ancient. And quite often what stands as an exemplar of the modern is the scientific enterprise in all its diversity. When a state or a community wants to project itself as modern, it is to the scientific model that it turns to (as with Jawaharlal Nehru). This leads to two possibilities for the social sciences and humanities: either model themselves along the scientific path or run the risk of being dubbed anti-modern or some such equivalent term. In both cases, these disciplines lose out in that they cannot be faithful to the issues they address.

The social sciences are caught between the articulations of the modern and tradition. We are repeatedly told that our people will have to develop a 'scientific temper' even as we are asked to acknowledge the past achievements of ancient India. The idea of tradition plays an important role in the articulation of this tension.

The value of tradition is often the value accorded to the old. When this is literally taken to mean old people, we have the situation that academic merit is very often confused with the age of the person! Our students and teachers confuse respect in the academic world to mean respect to age. Our students, in general, refuse to disagree with the teachers, even when they may hold opposing views. This is the academic tradition that we inherit and which we also continue to propagate. It is not an accident that our dominant academic centres in social science and humanities are run by very senior people, with almost no development of second-level leadership of younger people.

Both natural and social sciences exhibit a tendency to move towards multidisciplinary studies. This is a reflection not only of social reality but also of the nature of knowledge gathering when there is a surplus of academicians. People choose to work in multidisciplinary areas both for creative and for competitive reasons. As the Gulbenkian Report points out, this is a movement that should be strengthened. In the Indian context, what suffers above all are such areas of multidisciplinary research. First of all, our tendency to appropriate already established disciplines in the West means that we are not responding to the needs and call of our own society and the unique set of issues that it generates.

Secondly, the lack of institutional structure, coupled with the politics of the individual, generates a fertile breeding ground for incompetency and charlatanism. Thirdly, this leads to lack of professional approach to the multidisciplinary areas of research. These areas of research are intrinsically problematical in that ideas and language of different disciplines are brought together. For example, philosophy of science demands a critical understanding of science and philosophy. But both the communities of scientists and philosophers are far apart in the understanding each has of the other. This quite often leads to inane observations by either camp.

In India, the situation is aggravated because of the privilege given to individual stature. In the name of interdisciplinarity, we find that seminars in India increasingly are filled with speakers who mistake belief for scholarship and opinion for rigorous argumentation. This coupled with the most dangerous interference of political leaders in the academic field only means that the future of social science and the humanities in India is perilously balanced. The burden for safeguarding these disciplines lies in the hands of the younger professionals who will have to work with some senior academicians to make sure that in the name of science or tradition, social sciences and the humanities are not irreparably harmed in our country.

Sundar Sarukkai is a Fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore and works in Philosophy.

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