Whither Social Sciences?

  • Abhinav Sinha


As social scientists (researcher or teachers of social sciences), perhaps all of us are aware of a sense of unease, a kind of foreboding and a feeling of impending catastrophe prevalent in the corridors of departments of social sciences in the universities and colleges. It would be unrealistic to argue that this feeling of a hovering crisis is misplaced or unfounded. Social scientists across the country have been experiencing this anxiety since the mid-1990s itself for a variety of reasons. One of the most discernible reasons is the economic, namely, the increasing fund-cuts for universities and most alarmingly in the budget allocated for social science education, including research and teaching. Another cause is the state’s increasing political intervention in the institutions of higher education in general and institutions of social sciences in particular. This has been particularly evident from the attempts on the part of the present government to curb the autonomy of these institutions as well as attack the intellectual freedom of practitioners of what we call ‘liberal arts’, social sciences and humanities. I would start with a recent event of attack on the social scientists who raised their voice against rising intolerance (though this binary of tolerance and intolerance itself is an incorrigibly liberal one and highly problematic as it performs a liberal displacement of the fundamental political and ideological debate/struggle; in the words of Gilles Deleuze, it is a ‘dysjunctive synthesis’) in the country since the rise of Modi-led NDA to power.

  1. Introduction

In November, 2015 a group of academicians issued a statement against social scientists in general and historians in particular accusing them of being partial, reductionist, adopting a ‘blinkered’ vision and seeing the Indian society ‘through the prism of caste’! Needless to say, these were academicians who were concerned with defending the present government’s attack on intellectual liberties, civil and democratic rights. The sin of the historians and social scientists on the target of this statement was simply that they had been pursuing their discipline with a critical and rigorous approach. Everyone who believes in a critical social theory was declared to be a ‘Marxist’ or ‘leftist’ and a summary trial was carried out by the statement issued by sympathizers of Modi government. Any social scientist critical of the Modi government was declared to be anti-national, psuedo-secular, westernized intellectual who did not pay heed to the peculiarities and greatness of Indian culture and civilization. In fact, anybody following a theoretical approach was declared as an enemy. What irritates the self-proclaimed defenders of nationalism the most is history. History has remained the most stubborn enemy and the nemesis of the fascists around the world because the entire edifice of fascist politics and ideology is based on establishing myths as ‘common sense’. That is the reason why every critical social scientist has been on the radar of the present regime because critical social science is umblically linked with critical theory which enables the social scientists to cut through the phenomena and unravel the essence, to make heard the unheard, the make visible the invisible. The neoliberal fascism cannot tolerate a critical social theory because it lays bare the dynamics of present social formation, it exposes the exploitation and oppression of the masses, it does not shy away from talking about caste and it critiques the present socio-economic and political system; it debunks the claims and fantasies of a glorious ancient Indian past and argues for a dialectical understanding of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in the ancient Indian society and any society for that matter. Such an endeavor clearly undermines the fascist propaganda and fantastic constructions. These are some of the reasons of the current political attack on social sciences in particular, and science in general (how can one forget the paper presentations about air-planes and atomic weapons in the Vedic era during the science congress in Mumbai University?) A state-sponsored attack on social sciences is not surprising because critical social sciences buttress the critical faculties of students and youth in particular and of masses in general. Critical social science politicizes sentiments whereas fascist narratives masquerading as social science sentimentalizes politics, which is essential for fascist politics to create a regressive romantic upsurge of the petite-bourgeois. A genuine social scientist is not content with recording of facts and narrating it; she moves from recording of facts to the explanation of facts and critical analysis of sources, which in turn leads her to propose an understanding of the problems of present. While the fantastic constructions of a mythical past makes people uncritically proud of everything that was their past, a critical social science makes them critical of past, educates them about problems of exploitation, oppression and injustice. The former creates an apolitical community, whereas the latter creates a political community which longs for and struggles for emancipation. Prof. Rajan Gurukkal has written an excellent rebuttal to the statement issued by the Right-wing academicians against liberal democratic and left social scientists, which ought to be read by all social scientists. My basic point here is that we need to understand the reason behind the present political onslaught on critical social sciences. This also brings me to my next point: the need of the social sciences.

  1. Why do we need Social Sciences?

As Saad-Filho and Johnson had commented not too long ago, “we live in the age of neoliberalism.” In the age of neoliberal globalization, every human being is embedded in a common context. Human lives are essentially implicated with one another. Steel workers of Delhi are ruined and pushed to streets by a slightest wavering in the markets of China, which in turn is heavily dependent on the health of US economy, which again, is contingent on the political and economic upheavals in the Middle-East and so on. Wealth of a few becomes the death of others! Of course, human lives have remained interconnected across great distances right since the Graeco-Roman antiquity through ties of trade, commerce, colonialism, war, industry, etc. However, the forms of intertwining of human lives, social systems and economies in the age of Globalization is not aggregative in nature, but extremely organic. It has novel qualities of temporality and spatiality. In such a world, dominated by the neoliberal logic of market and rational choice theory (which in contrast to the era of liberalism has permeated not only economic domain but each and every aspect of human existence, which we will discuss later), it becomes imperative for social scientists to convince not only the new recruits to the discipline, but also themselves about the rationale of social sciences. Why do we need social sciences today when the establishment has fetishized vocational and technical courses, the courses with the so-called ‘signaling effect’? Why should not a young student go to business studies, management, accounting, commercial law? Why should she choose history, anthropology, sociology or political science (I have intentionally not included economics in this contingent list, the reasons for which will become clear in the course of this presentation)? The world has become more uncertain than ever; from parents to students, everyone will ask this question and we as practitioners of social sciences should be able to give a rational and convincing answer.

I would like to suggest that we must argue that choosing social sciences is the most rational choice (to borrow the infamous neoliberal shibboleth!) today. In today’s world our discipline has become more important than ever. The reason for this is that in a world ravaged by predatory imperialist wars for profit, menacing ecological destruction and unprecedented class exploitation articulated with caste as well as gender oppression, the task of social criticism has become much more pertinent. Critical social science must play the role of the critic of society; it must become the conscience of society. As social scientists, we can ask the questions that no one is asking, we can say things that no one is saying. We are the ones who critique the prevalent bourgeois ‘common sense’, which is neither ‘common’ nor ‘sensical’ and show that ‘common sense’ is actually used to silence every kind of dissent and oppositional opinion.

We as social scientists are not satisfied with 30 second video bites broadcasted on television screens; we refuse to understand today’s struggles and conflicts as ‘clash of civilizations’, which continues to inspire the neocon czars of the US and Europe in their quest for unhindered expansion of profits at the cost of lives of hundreds and thousands of common masses around the world. This entire ideology is totally ignorant of history and reduces everything to a contrast between good and evil and obscures the destruction caused by the neoliberal policies. We are able to demonstrate that the hegemonic globalization thesis of people like Thomas Friedman is hollow, factually incorrect and weak, which argues that being rich or poor is just a matter of personal choice. As critical social scientists we contend that the world is much more complicated than it appears phenomenally. We demonstrate that economic crisis is not caused by lazy workers and greedy masses who do not save. We argue that there is nothing natural or inevitable about neoliberal capitalism. Capitalism is not the end of history, rather capitalism has a history. We as social scientists contend that gender and caste oppression too have a history and there is nothing natural about them; we as social scientists insist that class exploitation is not a divine or natural rule but came into existence at a particular point of time in the history of human society. We also show against the pundits of neoliberal ideology, that economic crisis is not a state of exception for capitalism; it has not only become normative condition of capitalism but also a permanent normative condition especially since the 1970s. Consequently, in challenging these neoliberal axioms, we social scientists oppose the fetishization of the market rationality in the neoliberal era. And in doing so we have to swim against the tide, more often than never because in this entire process we also have to question the ways in which our own discipline itself is being practised and transformed in the neoliberal era. It also leads us to question the privatization of universities, fund cuts, downsizing and increasing corporatizaion of research institutes, the measurement of academic success in terms of money that researchers obtain, the intervention of NGOs and funding agencies and rising trend of privately-funded research projects which often have no academic value, the gradual decline of the possibility that a social scientist can conduct research on a topic about which she is passionate and excited. This also shows us how the present neoliberal economic crisis seriously transforms the process of knowledge creation in social sciences as well as sciences. As social scientists we can see that we are living in an era where the neoliberal capitalist state on the one hand argues for lay-offs, disinvestment, deregulation of markets, flexible labour markets, and foster the belief that every person is totally responsible herself for her destiny, and on the other hand behind this facade of “stepping back of state”, “non-interventionism”, the state has become even more interventionist than ever, but with a clear-cut partisanship with the corporate houses and finance capital. It not only intervenes when private banks, corporate plunderers and speculators like Vijay Mallya are ruined and go bankrupt and bails them out at our expense, but it intervenes by attempting to regulate the lives and bodies of citizens by prescribing what to wear, what not to wear, what to eat, what not to eat. And the state also intervenes in the intellectual autonomy of social scientists, the kind of research that we do and even what we write and think about. From here I can embark upon a discussion of liberalism and neoliberalism.

  1. Neoliberalism: Whatever that means and whatever it does to Liberalism.

Thatcher’s famous statement “there is no such thing as society” can be regarded as the defining statement of neoliberalism which actually means that individuals and families should be held completely responsible for their well-being. The phenomenal beginning of the neoliberalism can be traced to the repudiation of the Keynesian welfare economics by Chicago School of political economy and the Ordo-liberal school of Germany in the mid-twentieth century. This refutation of Keynesianism was based on arguments for a radically free market, maximum competition through economic deregulation, elimination of tariffs, minimal state intervention and so on. However, all of this was already there in the classical liberal political economy. So how do we distinguish between liberalism and neoliberalism?

For this it is imperative to understand the political connotations and economic register of neoliberalism. As far as economic neoliberalism is concerned it is only quantitatively different from the classical liberal political economy. Politically, neoliberalism entails a powerful erosion of liberal democratic institutions and practices. Economically, neoliberalism just like liberalism, clings to the logic of profit and accumulation as the hegemonic principle. However, in the era of decadent, parasitic and moribund late capitalism, political liberalism cannot be the political modus vivendi of capitalism. It demands a politically neoliberal state which extends the market fundamentalism from the sphere of economy to every domain of human and social existence. We need to dwell on this issue for a little while.

Economically, liberalism emerged as a critique of mercantilism with the emergence of the hegemony of industrial bourgeoisie. It supported free trade and maximum competition, that was to be achieved by least political interference by the government. Politically, liberalism believed in the free-trade capitalist’s slogan of individual liberty. The state must ensure this personal liberty on a legal-formal egalitarian basis. Politically, liberalism may harbour a Keynesian welfarist economic policy. So the liberal political state might be inclined towards maximizing social equality through state’s redistributive functions (the politically liberal tilt of the liberal state) or towards fetishizing of individual liberty (the conservative tilt of the liberal state). Notwithstanding this difference, political liberalism remains committed to political democracy, individual freedom, intellectual liberty, etc. at least formally. There is a gap between the political and the economic in the liberal era of capitalism, or the free-trade era of capitalism. We will come to this point in a little while.

As far as Neoliberalism is concerned, first of all we should understand that ‘liberal’ in ‘neoliberal’ means the economic liberalism which restores or repeats certain pre-Keynesian notions about creation of wealth and also its distribution, especially, the notion that market is a self-balancing mechanism and state intervention in market must be done away with. It has nothing to do with political liberalism, which was political-ideological modus-vivendi of laissez faire capitalism. Now let us turn to the ‘neo’ in ‘neoliberalism’. The ‘neo’ in neoliberalism establishes the principles of economic liberalism on a significantly different basis than the likes of Adam Smith. It must be understood that neoliberalism is not simply a set of economic policies, in which case it would be difficult to differentiate between classical liberalism and neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a politics that reaches the realms of culture, education, social policy, morality and ethics. To borrow from Foucault, it is a particular mode of governmentality. It involves not only profit maximization for monopolies but also extending the idea of market fundamentalism to all institutions and social action. As a result political as well as social spheres of life are increasingly hegemonized by the rational choice theory. Every domain of human existence must obey the principle of market rationality. Every human action is recast as rational entrepreneurial action based on a calculus of utility, benefit, etc. Neoliberalism differs from liberalism in this crucial aspect that unlike liberalism it does not simply assume that market logic is the natural human logic. It believes in the constructivist project of imposing market rationality through institutional, political practices and cultural practices as well as law, as the theorists of Ordo-liberal school of Germany as well as the Chicago School of the US argued. The experience of the era of liberalism has made it clear to the bourgeoisie that free market and bourgeois rational choice making is not human nature and for a system of private capital accumulation, state intervention is actually needed. Thus social norms, media, morality, social science, natural science, art and all other aspects of social life have to be reconstructed to create a favorable context for the market and bourgeois rational choice making. It does not mean that the state controls the market. On the contrary it means that state acts in accordance with the needs of the market and without a crisis of legitimation, as Nicos Poulantzas had argued. Now the basis of legitimation itself has become the state’s ability to sustain and support the market. Thus, capitalist logic of continued and unhindered accumulation ultimately creates a theory of state that negates the original bourgeois theories of state (viz. social contract theories) which is based on a form of sovereignty limited to guaranteeing profit-making economic activity. Besides, the neoliberal state not only sustains and supports the market but itself inculcates the market rationality. The state itself begins to act on cost-benefit logic. So the state not only supports market but starts behaving as a market actor, even in its function of law. The extension of bourgeois economic rationality to hitherto non-economic domains ultimately reaches the sphere of individual conduct and starts prescribing and producing the neoliberal subject. This neoliberal subject clearly is a depolitcized citizen who sees herself only as an entrepreneurial actor and feels herself to be solely responsible for her destiny. The society as a collective disintegrates in the neoliberal discourse and is replaced by individual or at most, the family. That is the reason why the discourse in the US elections has remained and continued to remain addressed to consumers and entrepreneurs. The same thing is slowly happening in the bourgeois political discourse in our country, albeit in a quite different way, the post-colonial (not postcolonial!) capitalist way. The neoliberal subject is produced and reproduced by the proactive policy actions of the neoliberal state. This neoliberal subject is calculating rather than driven by some democratic principle and rule-abiding; she is actually a Benthamite utilitarian rather a Hobbesian contractarian. In such a fashion, the state strives to control the masses without being responsible for their decisions, calculations, etc. As Modi recently said, traders are even braver than soldiers fighting on the border. So the subject is actually controlled through her freedom. This holds particularly true for the middle classes. Proletariat and poor peasants, poor dalit population as well as tribals always act as a systemic anomaly and kind of a short circuit for such techniques of neoliberal governmentality. Obviously, the neoliberal state does not always succeed in producing such a subject, as there are laws of capitalist accumulation, proletarization and pauperization of masses, increasing unemployment and inflation which impose themselves like forces of nature in the strivings of the neoliberal state. This is where the Foucauldian theory as applied by the likes of Kalyan Sanyal and Partha Chatterji miserably fails. While providing insights into the techniques of neoliberal governmentality, they fail to see that under capitalist system the exploited masses can never be completely governed. Anyhow, the neoliberal state suffuses every sphere of social life with the economic rational choice theory. Even social policy becomes completely dependent on profitability tests.

This transition from liberalism to neoliberalism is actually a more intensive rather than fundamentally new form of saturation of social and political realms by capital. As Marx had once said capital “creates a world after its own image”; capital penetrates and transforms every aspect of life, remaking everything after its own image and reduces every human value or social activity to its cold calculations and market rationale. This transition from liberalism to neoliberalism shows that the only thing that seems to be added is the open submission of individuals, state, religion, education, media, etc to this rationale. This hegemony of rational choice theory has also been attempted in the sphere of social sciences which can make it an axiomatic truth rather than the expression of era of dominance of monopoly capital.

It is clear that contradictions of liberal democracy have finally led to neoliberalism. The logic of unhindered accumulation (‘pursuit of happiness’) is inherently incompatible with the logic of individual freedom and liberty. Neoliberalism has actually presented an authoritarian, often fascistic, solution to this anomaly by doing away with the gap between bourgeois economy and polity. So the transition from liberalism to neoliberalism is not a simple negation, but a negation of negation, where the latter sublates the former. They signify two different stages of development of capitalism: from laissez faire capitalism to monopoly capitalism. There are liberal democrats in every corner of the world who lament the ascendency of neoliberalism, without critiquing the liberal phase of capitalism. They attempt a criticism of neoliberalism without at the same time critiquing capitalism. And ironically a capitalist critique of capitalism is frought with irresoluble contradictions. Therefore, while it is necessary to understand the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism, especially to understand what neoliberalism does to liberal sciences and liberal arts, at the same time we also need to understand that neoliberalism is the logical culmination of the liberal project (with all its varieties like classical liberalism, modern liberalism and bourgeois libertarianism). It could not have been otherwise. With this background of liberalism and neoliberalism, we can move on to our next issue.

  1. The Idea of Social Science

Generically speaking, social science can be defined as the science of society, just like natural science can be defined as the science of nature; science of nature explores the laws of motion of nature and the science of society explores the laws of motion of society. If there are no laws of motion, or no generalizations about the social phenomena is possible then there can be no social science. Society is but the extension of Nature. However, the laws of motion of society do not stand in direct correspondence with the laws of motion of nature. The material reality has many structural levels. Every structural level has its own set of objective laws which may or may not directly correspond to each other. Since the subject-matter of study of every structural level changes, the objective laws and generalizations about them also changes. Therefore, social sciences do not follow the same path as that of the natural sciences. However, this much is certain that social phenomena is open to generalizations and theory-construction, as evident from the history of human kind. So in my opinion, those who are allergic to any talk about laws of motion of society should also keep quiet about social science.

Social science is expected to increase and enhance our understanding of society, its functioning and its changes; broadly speaking, social science research can guide social policy formation of the state for development and socio-economic management and it can also guide a radical project of human emancipation and liberation from exploitation and oppression, as critical social theory exponents like Horkheimer argued. Social sciences study the social relations of production and reproduction, which is the basis of society; it also studies the political structure, social system, culture and morality of the society which produces, reproduces and safeguards the substructure of society; at the same time, social sciences also study the myriad patterns of human behaviour, inner psychological world and social psyche on the basis of analysis of social structure, political system, cultural superstructure and economic substructure. This analysis is not only recording of facts and creating excel sheets of quantitative case studies. This is a critical analysis of all these aspects of society that contributes to the efforts of the human beings to understand their entire existence, the problems of this existence, and the possible ways of solving these problems. In this sense, social science can not just be a quantitative or even hermeneutic exercise, but a critical and subversive exercise. Any other idea of social science will definitely lose its claim on the status of science. Consequentially, any critical social science cannot just be based on explanation or interpretation of social phenomena, precisely because, any scientific knowledge is crucially based on social practice. Social science, as a form of knowledge, like any other form of knowledge originates from social practice. Therefore, a genuine social scientist cannot be an ‘unengaged’ social scientist, to borrow terminologically from Sartre, who talked about ‘engaged artist’. If we look at history, we find that almost every great sociologist (even the positivists who argued about ‘pure objective knowledge’), historian, economist, anthropologist was a committed person. As Eric Hobsbawm has argued, the development of every discipline was closely related with some kind of political and social commitment and some of the branches of knowledge could not even have come into existence without this commitment. Some people believe that social scientist is a simple researcher of the pure academic truth, irrespective of the fact whether he/she is interested in that truth or not. This belief came into existence and got strengthened particularly after the institutionalization of different branches of science or knowledge into academic disciplines and the academic division of labour became congealed. Eric Hobsbawm has argued that this academic division of labour and institutionalization has led to an alienation between science and their scholarship. This alienation has also increased due to the peculiar social status of the academicians and a mystical aura attached with it. When there were no professional economists then it was meaningless to claim that Adam Smith (university teacher), Ricardo (an investor) or Malthus (a clergyman) were not committed. So, social commitment segregated from social science when social science became one of the specialized bourgeois profession and in effect, the social scientist ceased to be social scientist and rather became a clerk of social science, a techno-bureaucrat of social science. If one is able to transcend this tragic, rather ironic scenario, then only an engaged scholar can be a genuine social scientist.

There is another reason for the baseless claim that a true social scientist can be the one who is not committed politically and socially. Such a claim wants us to believe that any knowledge of social science is aimless and bereft of any politics. This makes any knowledge of social science as the absolute and eternal truth and thus helps to maintain the status quo. The proponent of this idea also claim that this eternal truth has been discovered without any particular aim in mind by a specialized class of people who only wanted to discover the truth and who used to work in institutions that were completely impartial and authoritative. When the class of intellectuals becomes institutionalized, a part of a social stratum, and ideologues of a particular class then it is always beneficial to claim that such intellectuals are above struggling classes. One can easily guage the unscientific nature of such a claim.

Science in general and social science in particular have always, irrespective of the will or wish of the genuine social scientists, remained inalienably linked with political and social commitment. Such a commitment or partisanship can be legitimized only when it can prove that through such a commitment, the science has moved forward. In such a scenario, it is essential that social sciences base themselves on a critical and confrontational social theory, instead of conformism and status quo-ism. I am even prompted to say that without a critical social theory, there can be no social science and without a critical social theory it would be difficult to differentiate social science from travelogues, memoirs or stale records of municipality.

The present crisis of social sciences stems from the fact that the critical social theory has been pushed into oblivion. Besides the economic and institutional crises forced on the world of social sciences by the neoliberal state, the most important facet of the crisis is the ideological and philosophical crisis in the social sciences. In my opinion, this philosophical crisis in social sciences demands much more serious attention from us, social scientists than the economic and institutional crisis. For a discussion on this crisis we need to have brief look at the different contending philosophical schools in the arena of social sciences.

  1. Philosophies of Social Sciences

Philosophy of social sciences is a much more recent thing as compared to the philosophy of mind or even philosophy of science. The question of a philosophy for social sciences was raised when social sciences were coming into existence (separate from philosophy in general) in the late-18th century and the early-19th century. Before that philosophers used to ask the questions that now the social scientists ask, though these question were articulated in a different way. But at that time, the philosophers did not make any particular attempt to explore the questions of approach and method in the realm of social sciences. When social science began to be institutionalized in university departments, the question of a philosophy of social science came to the fore. Now, there was a widespread concern for questions like ‘can there be such a thing like social science?’, ‘what should be the legitimate scientific methodology of social science?’, ‘Is social science going to follow the same method as so-called ‘pure’ sciences?’ The philosophers as well as social scientists were becoming increasingly interested in these theoretical questions. From the very beginning the questions raised by social scientists had a philosophical character. For instance, Durkheim in his ‘Rules of Sociological Method’ not only proposes a method of sociological research but also asks questions about the notion of causality in social phenomena and its explanation. Max Weber also talks about theoretical constructions useful for sociological research like counterfactuals and ideal types. There is no consensus about methodological questions in any branch of the social science. Since there is a sharp debate on these questions, every practitioner of social science embarks upon a philosophical discourse to legitimize his/her methodological position.

It would not be useless here to discuss some of the philosophical trends in the social sciences. One of the most influential philosophical trend in social sciences is Positivism. It acquired pejorative connotations especially after the 1950s. It can be defined as a mixture of scientism (which believes that method of pure sciences is the only source of true knowledge), naturalism (that believes that across nature and society there is only one unified method of scientific research), direct causality (if x gives rise to y regularly then it is necessary and sufficient to talk about causality), quantitativism (which gives place of pride to statistical, quantitative and factual analysis and makes a clear and rigid distinction between value and fact), empiricism. This is only a broad definition and different trends within positivist school may or may not agree to every feature. Positivism believes in the sense-perception as the ultimate parameter of scientific truth. There are three major phases of positivism. The first phase referred to the nineteenth century positivism of Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte; the second phase of positivism was the phase of logical positivism as developed by the Vienna Circle and Berlin Circle but also in Cambridge during the early years of the twentieth century. The third phase was dominated by the nomological and deductivist positivism of Carl Hempel and Ernest Nagel in the mid-twentieth century. The first phase coincided with the emergence of sociology as a discipline. These positivists believed that a non-speculative, anti-metaphysical and scientific explanation of society will help make it more just and balanced. The second phase shared the concern of freeing philosophy from metaphysics, but it learnt a lot from Russel’s mathematical logicism, Mach’s phenomenalism and employed logical method in a much more rigorous way. It believed that no scientific knowledge can be based on anything unobservable by sense-perception. This phase of positivism was less linked to sociology than the positivism of the first phase. The third phase of positivism led by Hempel and Nagel had much more profound impact on social sciences. Their nomological and deductivist method attempted to provide neat models of direct deductivist causality for social as well as natural sciences. All of these phases share some of the assumptions that we have mentioned in the beginning, like empiricism, scientism, naturalism, etc.

Another method of social science enquiry was proposed by Karl Popper which was closely linked with Positivism but also transcended it. It has been called falsificationism. Popper made clear distinction between science and non-science (like religion and ideology). He argued that science could give a hypothesis which is falsifiable. Popper bitterly attacked Marx and Freud because, according to Popper, they produced hypotheses that are irrefutable. Obviously, this is what Popper thought. Popper argued for critical rationalism according to which science can only progress by producing refutable hypotheses, where they are tested empirically and if found wanting, they are replaced with another superior hypothesis. Thomas Kuhn’s work ‘Structure of Scientific Revolution’ led to sharp criticisms of pragmatic scientism and deductivism of Popper. Kuhn showed that scientists often did not refute their original paradigm even when empirical data refuted it. Some people like Imre Lakotas proposed some correctives for Popper’s model but their corrective remained in the same paradigm of pragmatic scientism and deductivism. Popper’s deductivism is in fact the true predecessor of the methodological individualism and rational choice theories that argued that human action is rational if the actors are driven by rational belief. This theory is organically linked with the neoliberalism.

Against the atomism and phenomenalism of logical positivists Claude Levi Strauss proposed a two-level worldview. He contended that reality has two levels: the structural level of phenomena and the “real” structural level. The task of science is to reach to this “real” structural level which is not visible directly. This structuralism inspired the structuralist Marxism of the 1970s and this in turn led to the earlier versions of Critical Realism. The most important in these was the version of Roy Bhasker (A Realist Theory of Science, 1997). Bhaskar talks about three levels of reality: actual, empirical and deep. Actual level is the level of events that actually take place; empirical is the level of perception of these events by the observer and deep level is the level of underlying structures or factors that cause the events. Bhaskar argues that these levels are not necessarily synchronous. The task of the critical realist in particular is to understand this lack of synchrony and reach the level of deep. Bhaskar argues that in open systems like human society regular occurance of an observation does not necessarily lead to causal or conceptual generalization. In open systems, causality must be traced at the level of mechanisms, structures or powers that are situated at the deep level. Thus critical realists and structuralist Marxist presented a potent critique of the positivist and empiricist orthodoxy, though their theory construction itself remained incomplete because if there is a rigid gap between the actual, empirical and deep, how can a critical realist test his theories empirically?

Another philosophical trend in social sciences was hermeneutics. Schleiemacher applied the ancient science of exegesis of sacred texts and modernized it. He inspired Wilhelm Dilthey who argued that there is science of nature and there is science of mind. The former explains the sensory experience while the latter is about understanding the inner experience. Another hermeneutic author Heinich Rickert argued that since every explanation in social science is prisoner of a subjective value system or view point, its objectivity is always under suspicion. Max Weber borrowed heavily from Rickert and this argument inspired his work on protestant ethics. Evidently, this stand was idealist because it does not historicize or contextualize the system of values. Every system of values has a historicity and it cannot be taken as given in social scientific analysis. This view takes the dominance of value system as a handicap in understanding society. Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that values are not constraints on understanding but in fact enable the observer to interpret and understand any phenomenon. It is pointless to search for a method that eradicates value and gives “pure” understanding. Instead, it is desirable for social scientists to understand different value systems to reconcile different understandings through a dialog between the observer and the observed.

Ludwig Wittgenstein also proposed a general method that argued that production of meaning is not dependent or does not follow any logic or method. Instead, production of meaning is totally contingent on language-game. To make sense of an utterance we do not need to rely on any logic, but look at the way the utterance was made. Wittgenstein’s arguments actually propose an ahistorical view of language. They attack positivism from a standpoint of linguistic contingency. It is not surprising that Wittgensteinian philosophy become one of the sources of inspiration for postmodernist theories of Lyotard as well as constructivist theories.

Probably the most influential philosophy of social sciences has remained to be the critical social theory. It formally started with the thinkers like Max Horkheimer, Karl Korsch and Georgy Lukacs and the famous Frankfurt School because the name ‘critical theory’ was used as a code word for the left sympathies of the Frankfurt School theoreticians in Germany as well as when the School moved to the US. However, one can trace the origins of critical social theory in Marx. The basic premise of the critical social theory following Marx’s Eleven Theses, argues that the task of social science in not only critique but emancipation. Critical theory criticized the positivist school for its fetish of facts and data, empirical knowledge and its total disregard for other modes of knowledge as well as the need for analysis, theorization and scientific generalization. Critical social theory also shows how positivist fetish of value-neutrality actually leads it to an implicit agreement with the status quo. The Frankfurt School argued for a supradisciplinary approach (not an interdisciplinary approach where scholars from different disciplines gather together to have a dialog) and criticizes the traditional academic division of labour because the complex interconnected phenomena of the world cannot be understood in toto with this division. According to Horkheimer the project of critical social theory is the elucidation of the fate of human beings as a collective and the social life which includes their material and spiritual culture. Critical social theory is actually a synthesis of social science and philosophy. The Frankfurt School opposed the economic determinist and class reductionist readings of Marx. While the Frankfurt School retained the original Marxist formulation that the real social relations of production and reproduction form the economic base of the society and on this base the political, cultural, legal and juridical superstructure is erected and there is a symbiotic and dialectical relation between the economic substructure and the superstructure, the Frankfurt School also developed the Marxist theory of relative autonomy of the cultural and political superstructure.

Structuralist Marxism of Althusser made an important contribution to Marxist social theory. Althusser’s theory of overdetermination claimed to free Marxism from the dominant economistic reading. According to this theory, social changes are not results of one grand contradiction between relations of production and forces of production but many contradictions that exist on many structural levels of society. Marx’s theory of contradiction according Althusser is inherently linked with the concept of complex structured social whole. Multiple contradictions at different structural levels over-determine the process of social change. To prove his theory he takes the analysis of Lenin of the revolutionary events of 1917 in Russia. Similarly Althusser borrowing from Lacan’s theory of ‘mirror stage’ also proposed his theory of ideological state apparatus which shows how the dominant ideological practices create the bourgeois subject. Althusser inspired an entire generation of political scientists, sociologists and historians like Nicos Poulantzas, whose work on the relative autonomy of political superstructure in the context of his theory of Fascism is illuminating. Though, Althusserian school is formally not seen as an example of critical theory, a term which has become synonymous with the Frankfurt School, I believe that the Althusserian structuralist Marxism is actually a part of critical social theory as it remained committed to social change. The Frankfurt School in its second phase of domination by Habermasian theory of communicative action tilted towards pragmatism and non-realism. Habermas argued in the beginning that knowledge is situated in the natural history of human species. The knowledge-constitutive interests shape the logical and methodological rules of knowledge formation and on this basis we can identify three modes of knowledge: first, the empirical-analytical knowledge related to the realm of work and aim at nomological knowledge with predictive power; second, historical-hermeneutic knowledge aimed at the interpretation of history by focusing on the realm of language and understanding and third, the critically-oriented knowledge that is intertwined with the world of power and ultimately directed towards human emancipation. He talks about psychoanalysis as an example of such knowledge. Later, Habermas attempted to correct his overemphasis on individual and constructed the theory of communicative action which argued that truth is the consensus opinion arrived at in an open debate characterized with ideal speech situation. Thus, truth loses its relation to objective reality and becomes something to be created by dialog! Clearly, Habermas’s theory has actually moved away from critical social theory and nearer to neo-pragmatism of Richard Rorty.

Neo-pragmatists like Rorty have moved increasingly closer to the European postmodernit theories. In fact, Rorty argued that Dewey has a lot to share with Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. These postmodernist and poststructuralist philosophers questioned the very notion of objetive knowledge. Foucault argued that since knowledge is always embedded in the power structure, one should remain skeptic about it. Foucault actually followed Nietsche in arguing that the all historical entities are variable rather than fixed and their meaning is produced by the contemporary contingencies and power struggle. Foucault’s theory led to a general skepticism about knowledge itself and paved the way for standpoint theory of the feminists and relativists. However, Pierre Bourdieu showed that though there is no final foundation for our knowledge, it does not imply that we are bound to be prisoners of relativism and subjectivism. Bourdieu contends that it is possible to avoid relativization by becoming aware of the social and historical conditions under which our knowledge is produced. Becoming aware of the historicity of knowledge is the essential thing.

These are only few examples of the contending philosophies of social science to show the continued political struggle in the field of social science. In a society that is characterized by constant class struggle it is natural that this class struggle will get expressed in every domain of social and intellectual life including the arena of knowledge creation. In the domain of social science also there is a constant conflict between the progressive and regressive ideologies and philosophies. As Istvan Meszaros has opined, every social theory is ideologically embedded in the contemporary socio-economic and political structure. Meszaros writes, “Thus, social theory is not external to the idological determinants of socio-historical conditioning and institutional feedback but integral to it.” Thus there is no such thing as “value-free social science”. The claim of a critical social science can be upheld only if it can contribute to a radical, subversive and critical understanding of present society. In a society based on exploitation and oppression, what else can be the role of critical social science?

The first co-ordinate of the crisis of social science today is constituted by the stagnation in the development of critical social theory universally. The neoliberal onslaught on social sciences has not only taken the form of institutional and economic offensive, but also the ideological offensive in the form of postmodernist and poststructuralist theories. Especially in the western academia but also in Indian premier universities, the culturalization of social science research, the marginalization of research in political economy, history as well as the determination of research agenda by imperialist funding agencies and NGOs especially in the disciplines of sociology, economics and anthropology has led to a real decline in the quality of social science research. As a result, unlike the 1970s, 1980s or even the early-1990s, when almost every year witnessed publication of some social science research work that led to a new radical and subversive critical understanding of social change and contributed to progressive paradigm shifts, we seldom see such research work in the late-1990s or the first decade of the new millenium. It is true that since the outbreak of most structural economic crisis in the history of capitalism since 2007, there has been a partial revival of the critical social theory. However, a lot still needs to be done for methodological innovations in the critical social theory so that social science can emerge from the present philosophical crisis.

  1. Social Science in India: Past and Present

There has been a talk of crisis in Indian social sciences since the beginning of the new millenium. In 2002 there were a number of contributions to an issue of EPW that talked about a crisis of social science in India. People like Partha Chatterji, the late MSS Pandian, Gopal Guru and TS Papola wrote on this issue in various journals and papers. To understand the present crisis in social science research and teaching in India, it is imperative to have a glance at the history of social sciences in India.

Social science research and teaching started in India with the establishment of modern university education system in the late-19th century. Social science research began with the dissemination of the ideas and concepts prevalent in Europe and particularly Britain. The university system was established to fulfill the needs of the British colonial state. Its educational structure was constructed according to the British liberal traditions. With the emergence of national movement and particularly economic nationalism of Naoroji, Gokhale and RC Dutt, a significant trend developed in the university academia that challenged the European and British ideas, but soon they were suppressed. By 1930s and 1940s, with the visions of the Independence becoming more and more realistic, a positivistic trend emerged that began to visualize new paths of socio-economic rejuvenation of Indian society. These visualizations were influenced by many factors including the Bolshevik Revolution and the planned development in revolutionary Russia, Gandhi’s political thought regarding the principle of Gram Swarajya and Trusteeship as well as the theories of economic nationalism.

After the Independence, research as well as teaching in social sciences saw phenomenal growth. The pattern of social science teaching and research during this period was directed by the needs of the particular path of capitalist development adopted by the bourgeois state. During this period the Indian bourgeoisie lacked the primitive accumulation to embark upon a process of rapid industrial development. The state-directed capitalist development was the need of the hour for the bourgeoisie. State was required to create social overhead capital (infrastructure) as well as pool the national savings. As a result, path of public sector state capitalist development was adopted. Policies of import subsitution, protectionist tariff regime and policies of nationalization of banks, postal and telegraph services and railways were adopted. All of this can be seen from the documents of the Bombay Plan. This plan also clearly stipulates that as soon as the Indian industrial capitalist class stands on its own feet, the policies of private capitalism could be increased. So the inauguration of neoliberal policies of privatization and liberalization in 1991 and the recent dissolution of Planning Commission are lamented and mourned as a dangerous abberation only by the incorrible patients of bourgeois liberalism. Its not an abberation; instead it was the plan! Anyhow, the policies of public sector capitalism in the garb of mixed economy (whatever that means!) and Nehruvian socialism (whatever that means!) became the guiding principle of policies in social science and natural science research. For planned capitalist development experts were needed not only in the arena of natural science and technology but also in the disciplines of social science, especially Economics.

Empirical research by the social scientists put the western concepts and ideas in the dock. However Indian social scientists fell short of providing alternative theoretical systems and concepts. One of the reasons for this was the increasing impact of American positivist and pragmatist traditions. In fact, the impact of pragmatism and American liberal traditions had started to take roots even before the Independence. B.R. Ambedkar himself was under immense impact of American pragmatism of the Deweyan variety and most of his political thoughts and social program are guided by the American liberal pragmatist thought. The positivist-pragmatist emphasis on quantitative research produced meticulous statistical studies particularly in Economics and Sociology. But Indian social sciences paid a heavy price for this method-fetishism characteristic of pragmatism and positivism. As TS Papola comments, “Technique virtually triumphed over theory…but emphasis on quantification led to the neglect of non-quantifiable, structural and institutional variables, which have a vital role in economic and social processes in India.” Yet the sheer increase in the volume of quantitaive research obviously contributed to the formulation of policies. At the same time the massive surveys like the National Sample Survey Organization surveys buttressed this process.

The decades of 1970s and 1980s saw phenomenal increase in the number of social scientists with the expansion of university education and social science departments in higher eduction. This also led to further increase in the trend of quantitative research because publications of research played a pivotal role in selection and promotion of teachers. But all of this was done at the cost of historical approach. Contemporaneity and ahistoricism ruled where as contextualization, historial analysis and theory-building were marginalized.

At the same time some contradictions were emerging due to the above trend. It was becoming increasingly clear that quantitative research were not always helpful in policy formulation. Also, many researchers were choosing topics that were not relevant for policy formulation. A gap was developing between research subjects and policy relevance. Despite these contraditions through out the 1970s and 1980s, there was a continuous increase in the volume of research. One of the reasons for this was that in the 1970s and 1980s when land reforms were gathering speed, nationalization of banks was being done, industrial development was becoming consolidated, gigantic social and economic changes were happening in the society which raised many new research questions. The government also continued to give support to new research in history, sociology as well as economics. This was the period when ICSSR was established as a body which was autonomous, run by pioneer social scientists and getting funds from the government. This can be called the period of modern liberalism in the polity of Indian bourgeois state, albeit of a post-colonial capitalist variety.

In the meanwhile, there developed a gap between research and teaching in social science practice due to a dichotomy between universities and research institutions. When ICSSR was established a number of debates followed right since the beginning. According to Rajni Kothari, the principal aim of ICSSR was to solve the problem of academic researches not getting funding. Most the research that got government funding were actually the ones that directly assisted in policy formulation. This had been affecting the process of theory building as well as the research that had general long term importance for the discipline. ICSSR was visualized as a body run by academicians so that this problem is solved. JP Naik, the first chairman of ICSSR contributed phenomenally. He argued for formulation of a ‘National Social Science Policy’ that should be centred on promoting research that has value for theory building and methodological innovations as well as solving social problems. He argued that ICSSR cannot just be content with some vague notion of ‘academic quality’. Naik also contended that ICSSR must promote ideological difference and should provide equal funding for theoretical and applied research. This again shows the liberal democratic tilt of the state as well as institutions like ICSSR. As Partha Chatterji has shown, in the early years of ICSSR, funding was not a problem, but a dearth of good research proposals was. One of the reasons for this was the gap between teaching and research that we talked about. It was due to the fact that pragmatism was prevalent in social science academia. The other reason was the priority given to research institutes in research projects. In the early-1980s PC Joshi argued that universities were being left behind in good researches and teaching is paying price for that. At the level of research supervision, a teacher is required who is involved in research herself. CT Kurien at the same time argued that the task of research should be left for research institutions whose objective is to push the frontiers of the discipline, whereas teaching is the core function of universities. The research topics selected by these research institutes were often the positivistic quantitative researches. This logic led to a different kind of academic division that in turn led to widening cleavage between teaching and research. So this new academic division as well as the pragmatic fetish with quantitative research, both contributed to increasing gap between teaching and research.

This much is pretty certain that at least till the end of 1980s, the state regime in the academic sphere can be characterized by a typical kind of Indian bourgeois liberalism. It was imprinted with the formal ideals of Indian national movement like democracy, secularism (a peculiar kind of Indian “secularism” which was not the complete separation of religion from state and social life, but equality of all religions, sarva dharma samabhaav) and formal legal equality. It is clear that Indian bourgeois modernity was a shame-faced apologetic modernity which hesitated in making a radical rupture from pre-modern ideologies and culture. The reason for this lies in the way in which Indian Independence was achieved and the way in which Indian capitalism developed. So we see a peculiar kind of capitalist modernity at play after Independence like the emphasis on industrialization, public sector capitalism, nationalization, etc. But at the same time choosing the path of gradual land reforms, the Prussian Path in the words of Lenin, betrayed the Indian state’s claim to classical bourgeois modernity. So we must comprehend the peculiar nature of post-colonial modernity and post-colonial capitalism in India. Despite these peculiarities, the liberal regime in academia, may be with the exception of the period of the Emergency, allowed the space for dissenting voices, criticism of state policies, and academic freedom.

The one discipline that was most afflicted with positivistic and pragmatist approach was perhaps Economics. It can partially explained by the economic determinism of the Indian state also which had chosen a path of economic development that required quantitative research and surveys. At the same time other disciplines suffered due to this over-emphasis on Economics at least till the late-1970s because the larger share of visibility and funds was absorbed by Economics. However, this balance has slowly been changing in favour of Sociology and History as Partha Chatterjee has shown. Secondly, within the discipline of Economics various trends and tendencies co-existed and the state promoted this coexistence.

However, things have been changing under the influence of neoliberalism since the early-1990s. In 1950-51 there were 27 universities, 578 colleges. By 2005-6 their respective number has gone up to 350 and 16,982 respectively. There are 450 university-level institutions. But due to privatization, technicization and “professionalization”, the balance has shifted against social science courses. Social science research is probably getting worst hit by this neoliberal shift towards vocationalization and “professionalization” of higher education.

One of the factors that contributed to increase in social science research was state planning exercises. However, as the neoliberal shift away from economic planning is increasing, the need for social science research for this purpose is diminishing. Development planning is becoming a thing of the past as evident from the demise of the Planning Commission. It is clearly visible what impact neoliberal market fundamentalism is having on social sciences.The belief that GDP growth can solve all problems leaves little to research from social science perspective. This belief is least bothered about the structural relationships or the growth being pro-poor. The new discourse is about growth being “inclusive”, i.e. a condescending voice saying, “oh! let the poor also gain from growth!” This approach is bound to have a disastrous impact on social science. It seems that Economics will best survive the ongoing attack on social sciences. However, even in Economics we are not sure how many critical voices will survive. Already, a shift towards conformist Economics is becoming visible. The critical voices in social sciences are on decline. As a result there is a shift from structural and historical factors to quantitative short-term analysis.

Another development that is noteworthy is the increasing privatization and commercialization of higher education and social science research. Studies by MSS Pandian, Partha Chatterjee, TS Papola has shown that in the neoliberal era state funds for social science research is declining. Pandian’s survey of a few South Indian social science research institutes has shown how funds cut and downsizing is affecting these premier institutions at every level: staff, library, research funds, computer lab and faculty. Chatterjee also has shown how private funding has penetrated social science research in a big way. These studies have demonstrated beyond doubt that research funded by funding agencies and NGOs often do not have academic value, nor are they published. As a result, the research findings do not become socialized in the academic community. At the same time, research projects funded by private funding agencies do not give the researchers the freedom to choose research topic and methodology. Though, researchers in such research projects get access to some new types of sources, however these sources are not completely out of reach for other researchers.

The neoliberal agenda has become clear also from the increasing political intervention from the state in academic bodies like ICHR and ICSSR. This negatively shows the threat that critical social science research poses to the neoliberal regime. The autonomy of these institutions is being destroyed. This will further destroy whatever remains of good quality critical social science research. A new crop of social scientists is being cultivated which is bereft of any social concern who are more like clerks of social science hired by the government.

  1. Conclusion

As far as my analysis suggests, there are three co-ordinates of the crisis in social sciences in the neoliberal era: first is the ideological and philosophical crisis as a result of the decline of critical social theory in the neoliberal era, as we have discussed and portrayal of social sciences as a non-utility; second is the most evident co-ordinate, i.e., the economic co-ordinate expressing itself as fund-cuts, downsizing, lack of research funds, etc; and the third co-ordinate is the institutional crisis. The institutions are not only plagued by financial crunch, but also from the attack on their autonomy. In fact, the principal factor that constitutes institutional crisis is the political attack of the neoliberal state on the intellectual and politcal autonomy of institutions.

These three facets of crisis are demanding a proper response from the community of social scientists. In my opinion, only those social scientists can rise to the occasion who believe in a critical, radical and subversive social science. Genuine social scientists with social concern must work for making the social science community as outward-looking and extrovert. Good social science research needs to be popularized (not intellectually) and their reach should be extended. It needs to reach the people. The question of institution-building is very important. On the one hand we need to fight for saving the autonomy of ICSSR, ICHR, etc and against the fund-cuts, and on the other, we need to think about autonomous institution-building. It has been attempted and done by social scientists around the world. The Frankfurt School is one example, the Aligarh Historians Society is another example. We need such institutions which are not under the yoke of government, neither financially nor politically. These efforts are essential for the survival of critical social science.

(Presented at JP Naik Institute in Pune in March 2016)


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