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Worlds Apart

One Planet - Worlds Apart?

I was invited by SSHRC to contribute to a panel on Digitizing the Humanities and Social Sciences at the first World Social Science Forum meeting in Bergen.

Note: These notes are being written as the event unfolds so they are rough and incomplete.

The opening session was one of the best I have heard. Usually the opening remarks are elaborate thanks and hot air. The welcoming speakers at the WSSF all took the opportunity to try to provide perspective.

Gudmund Hernes, President, ISSC

Hernes, President of the International Social Science Council (ISSC) gave the first talk. The ISSC was founded in 1952 and is supported by UNESCO. He pointed out that there are more economists than polar bears. Social scientists have been involved in the design of systems and markets that have proven problematic. Now we have one planet, stressed, in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. We have pandemics, water problems, poverty increasing, and global warming.

Hernes talked about "multichronism" - the mixing of different epochs in the same time as in a skyscraper next to the cathedral. He also asked if there is there one social science or many? Waiting for the great theoretical synthesis is like waiting for Godot. Do the social sciences have to engage with the humanities and natural sciences? Hernes argued for integrated research rather than interdisciplinary.

Tora Aasland, Minister of Higher Education and Research for Norway

Aasland, a government minister who is a social scientist asked if the relationship between social science research and authority can be too close. She compared the relationship to a happy and tempestuous marriage.

Arvid Hallén, Director General Research Council of Norway

Hallén talked about the need to improve how social scientists and humanists are included into broad research and action.

Pierre Sané, Assistant Director of UNESCO

Sané gave a very funny and biting talk about social science and crises. He pointed out that usually when the social scientists gather their theme is a crisis for which they provide solutions. Naturally they have a "lingering angst that they will be once again remain unheard."

Sané also talked about the "West and the Rest" and that we have a epochal change in that relationship. The whole world is free of foreign occupation, this is not the end of history, it is a moment of epochal transformation; the question is wheather it can it be achieved without conflict, which brings in the UN organizations like UNESCO. Will governments be wise enough to use these organizations. Alas for the recent economic crisis the only organization that the West is investing in is the IMF due to view that if you invest in economies all else will follow. Sané suggested this is more of the econocentric thinking that got us into the mess in the first place. Perhaps we need education and cultural development.

Helga Nowotny, "Moving Out of Science, Out of Sync"

Nowotny, of the European Research Council talked about moving out of the certainty of science into the messy realities of the world. She suggested that in 17th, 18th centuries science had to be protected from other discourses - now society expects much of science - there are different types of accountability between the political and the scientific. There are different timelines (as in the political moves quickly while science moves slowly) and different expectations.

She asked repeatedly, what is new now? Now we have mixed phenomenon that are both natural and social. Climate change is one. She asked whether we are running out of scientific knowledge? Is there just-in-time production of knowledge? Now there is a growing complexity to the problems we face - is the knowledge available able to be fitted to these new contexts?

She argued that science is fragile (it can be poked by disciplinary knives) and strong. She argued that there are new types of data and new voices - like the voices of the south that are actually the vast majority of voices.

She pointed out that knowledge has to be not only reliable, but also socially acceptable - it has to be tested. We have to move to socially robust knowledge that includes meaning, experiences, and multiple perspectives. We have to take into account globality with its new time and space.

She feels we should not be overwhelmed by rhetoric of innovation - the social innovations are the most important and that we should become good at social innovation. This seemed a theme running through the conference - that social scientists have to be willing to experiment and innovate with the social.

Amartya Sen, Challenges for the Social Sciences in the New Century

Sen started by talking about criticism of the Social Sciences. He quoted from Auden's A Reactionary Tract for the Times,

Thou shalt not sit/ With statisticians nor commit/ A social science.

Sen look back at Condorcet and Adam Smith. In the case of Condorcet he pointed out how Condorcet did not use much math in social science despite being a mathematician. Sen argued that at the time most applied math had been adapted for mechanics and physics. It wasn't until the mid-twentieth century that maths were adapted to the social science with von Neumann's game theory and Nash.

Sen quoted himself to the effect that "It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong" - Sen nonetheless believes that it is important to be exact where one can. One has to avoid the temptation to avoid math in social science or to overindulge in quantification.

Sen mentioned that Condorcet preceeded Malthus in drawing attention to population growth as an issue. He, unlike Malthus, felt that education, especially of women, would be a solution.

The issue for the social sciences is to deploy the tools of the enlightenment, education, communication, and dialogue, to the problems that face us.

Sen then turned to Adam Smith and tried to recover how he was skeptical of the wisdom of the market economy. For Smith humans are not only guided by gain. There are important motivations other than self-interest. Smith believed in prudence and trust, for example, that we could learn from.

Sen feels that we can learn from overlooked past theory like Condorcet and Smith as we address the new challenges.

Much of the discussion at the Forum seemed to circle around "what happened?" and "what next?" For Sen one should start from ground realities not from one's convictions.

Sen felt that the role of the individual within a society has been undervalued in large social science systems.

It seemed to me that most of Sen's talk was not about challenges to social science, but about reinterpreting Smith and Condorcet. Perhaps that's the challenge - returning to early social scientists and understanding the complexity of what they had to say rather than using them (especially Smith) to justify failed economic models.

Social Structure and Development

I attended a session on the social and development with speakers Paul Collier, Professor of Economics, Oxford University, who talked about "How can the international community help fragile states?"; Kalle Moene, Professor of Economics, University of Oslo who spoke on "Egalitarian development – the Scandinavian way"; and David Apter, Henry J. Heinz II Professor Emeritus of Comparative Political and Social Development Yale University, who talked about "Modernization Reconfigured."

Collier managed to irritate a number of people talking about failed states in Africa. Moene presented a mathematical analysis of why the compression of salary ranges in the Scandinavian states along with social welfare worked. Apter gave a very interesting talk about how the market system made work the defining good and then put large numbers of people out of work. He talked about how the unemployed turn to other forms of identity, often forming organizations that use violence.



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