Persisting Economic Crises and the Fate of Social Sciences

20 September 2015 06:38 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


There were media reports about a week ago revealing that the Japanese authorities have ordered the closing down of Social Science Faculties at The Universities in Japan. This is incredible but one can understand the frustration of political leaders who are forced to deal with persisting economic crises largely arising out of a global system of production and exchange relations based on a new-liberalism. National governments naturally have no control over global forces but these same forces continue to shape the lives of people as well as their economic, social and even cultural relations to varying degrees depending on how national governments manage domestic affairs. But, the shutting down of social science programs in the universities amounts to nothing less than “the throwing away the baby with the bath water”. This of course does not mean that educational policies, including social science education should be revisited from time to time.

 Many European countries did well in terms of economic and social development, political inclusion and cultural renaissance until increasing global  competition in more recent decades made life difficult for both the political leaders as well as the masses there. The loss of industrial employment due to de -industrialization  caused by capital flight and in-coming cheap industrial goods and the inability of governments to maintain long standing welfare states naturally resulted in social and political unrest, often resulting in the overthrow of social democratic regimes in Europe and elsewhere. The incoming neo-liberal regimes or reformed social democratic parties like the British Labour Party under Tony Blair tended to perceive the authoritarian regimes elsewhere as the biggest threat to the liberal global order rather than the increasingly unregulated global economic and financial relations. It was in fact increasing global inequalities that continued to fuel social and political unrest in many countries around the globe, persuading people to move in large numbers. Mass labour migration from Asian countries over the last few decades had less to do with the nature of political regimes than the economic pressures exerted on them by changing economic and social circumstances.

 As is well known, labour and technology have been two key drivers of economic growth in many countries in recent decades. The countries that had well developed systems of social protection for workers such as those in Western Europe in general and in Scandinavian countries in particular came under severe pressure when their industrial products could no longer compete with cheaper industrial products coming from elsewhere. Yet, many countries could use their technological capabilities to move into technology intensive products in order to remain competitive in export markets. This has not always been easy for all such countries, particularly when new competitors came into the scene, as is particularly the case in Asia. As is well known, countries like South Korea,Taiwan, Singapore, China and Malaysia have moved into technology intensive products and services, making life difficult for many conventional industrial countries like Japan. It is common knowledge that a country like Japan cannot do much about domestic wages so the only way forward is to develop new products or improve on existing ones. But, there are obvious limits. The result is endemic economic crises. The challenge for any regime  faced with such a situation is to find ways and means to manage the social and political fall out of such crises and would naturally expect the social scientists to come to their rescue.

 It is quite clear that conventional Economics does not show a way out of contemporary economic crises. The same is true for many of the other social sciences. These disciplines operating within the framework of what has been widely referred to as methodological nationalism cannot often take into account the new global realities  under neo-liberalism that shape not only the working of diverse institutions but also the behaviour of individuals and groups. The rules, regulations and values that societies gave expression to through their political and civic associations at a national level such as the State, trade unions, scientific bodies and political parties in the past could not be ignored by diverse actors. Social sciences in general were concerned with  such societal level phenomena and did not often go beyond them. There were of course exceptions to this general pattern such as historical sociology, world system theory, etc. But much of the economic and social analysis in recent years has disintegrated under the influence of post-modernism. This has happened at a time when the need of the hour is more inter-disciplinary integration of social science theory.


"State interventions inspired by social science insights helped many  European and other countries around the world to deal with many  existential issues in a more humane and effective way, be it illness,  poverty, homelessness and inter-personal violence"

 Social sciences provided the empirical and conceptual basis of much of public policy in post war Europe. State interventions inspired by social science insights helped many European and other countries around the world to deal with many existential issues in a more humane and effective way, be it illness, poverty, homelessness and inter-personal violence. But, this was not the general pattern across societies. Many governments even in the west left much to be shaped by unregulated markets. When neo-liberal reforms enabled capital, technology and labour to move across national boundaries, many thought material interests were an adequate guide to policy making. Many liberal politicians did not see the need for ideas and values to guide decision making. It is against this background that we need to comprehend the reported incredible decision of Japanese authorities to discourage social science teaching in local universities. It is only hoped that not many politicians would follow their example. For the result would be the dawn of an increasingly more irrational global environment.

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