Cheers! Here's to changing the world

January 19, 2007

Georgi Derluguian salutes the social scientists rediscovering the spirit of intellectual revolution and attacking frontiers of knowledge.

This toast is to the revolution in social science. May it continue into 2007!

Are you puzzled? Between the economistic orthodoxy on one flank, the postmodern maze of doubts on the other and the drudgery of the low-pay, high-effort academic existence in the middle, where is there any hint of a revolution? But curb the cynicism, it is bad for your health. Bring out the analytical tools of our trade. The historical trajectories that lead to the present situation in the field can help map our future possibilities.

Social analysis is a very modern occupation. It was made possible by the two key realisations of the Enlightenment: that our universe was rationally knowable and that it has been changing. Ergo, the universe had to be rationally changeable. Support was provided by the bureaucratisation of states and economic enterprise, which during the 19th century came to rely on professors to train personnel and provide expert advice. This is the story of liberalism as a political ideology, which proudly claims to manage public affairs scientifically. Ever since Marx, science has also been the hallmark of socialist movements as the basis of insurgent politics and educating the followers. Moreover, the tension between liberal claims to regulate the present and socialist plans for a better future generated a tremendous charge of emotional energy that animated intellectual production across disciplines from the humanities to economics. Social scientists felt that they could make a difference in the world - as well as making their names and advancing their careers in the expanding institutions of knowledge.

The best of times arrived after 1945. The joint forces of liberalism and socialism eliminated fascism and proceeded to fortify their states against the recurrence of economic and social disasters. The prestige of science and government funding hit an all-time high. New research centres and universities were opening on an unprecedented scale to accommodate the upwardly mobile children of factory workers, coal miners and (in my case) Armenian cobblers and Cossack peasants. Soon, national universities were appearing across the Third World, from Algeria to Uzbekistan. The epoch's spirit of grandiose sociopolitical transformation found expression in modernisation theories and their Soviet equivalent, scientific communism.

Cold War motivation notwithstanding, the sheer expansion of research opportunities and academic training brought an unprecedented crop of new empirical knowledge in social sciences.

By the mid-1960s, the process ran out of control in both ideological camps when the new generation emerged to demand intellectual autonomy and to revise the agenda on its own terms. Amid the turmoil, a series of theoretical breakthroughs emerged that amounted to paradigm shift. Instead of pursuing timeless essences, social science began moving towards the non-linear evolutionary topology where adequate description involved mapping over the changing landscapes. Abandoned with essences were the ideological end-points where all history was presumably to converge.

The crop of new formulations arrived in the 1970s, giving us a very different understanding of state formation, revolutions and democratisation (Charles Tilly and Theda Skocpol), nationalism (Benedict Anderson and Michael Mann), world capitalism (Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein), archaic societies (Marshall Sahlins and Timothy Earle), and the political economy of symbolic production (Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins).

But with the 1980s came the "long drought". Many would blame the thinning of funding as governments went into economising mode, although prior to 1945 the funding of science was far worse. Still, there have never been as many full-time scholars as there are today. And that could be a problem.

More scholars does not necessarily mean more original research. It means the formation of more scholarly guilds protecting smaller areas via institutional thresholds, technical requirements and personal networks. As a result, interdisciplinarity is rendered an ever-elusive goal. As long as the communities of researchers remain the consumers of their own production, unusually big or theoretically daring topics seem too risky for one's professional status and employment.

Which leads me to the ultimate condition of creativity: emotional energy.

The twin movers of intellectual enterprise - audacity and inventiveness - have been down not just in social science but across the arts, where we also find dwarfing and adherence to group canon. The tonic is provided by the inspiring realisation that one's work could make a difference. That's what my toast is about.

We are emerging from the period when business schools dominated the universities. Their smugly utilitarian kind of knowledge looks tenable only at times when all other choices facing humanity are declared solved.

Evidently this proposition is getting overstretched.

So it is time to resume the movement that began in the 1970s. Much internal work has been done, even if during the drought it rarely broke the surface.

The end of socialism removed one ideological pole of modernity and exposed its opposite. The time has come to learn how the theoretical breakthroughs of previous generations can be combined at the new level of synthesis and used to explain the routes that humanity has taken and may yet take. The goal is grand, the possibility exists and what we need is mutual encouragement.

To this I raise my toast.

Georgi Derluguian is an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University in the US.

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