ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Social Sciences in Neo-liberal Times

The ‘Relevance’ Question

The Social Sciences in a Global Age: Decoding Knowledge Politics by Dipankar Sinha, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2022; pp xxiv + 173, `695.

The relevance of social sciences in the wider world of action, one bey­ond the academy and its sphere of knowledge production, has been the subject of long-standing debates among social scientists. Dipankar Sinha’s new book revisits these extensive debates that have taken place in the last few decades, and does so with the purpose of locating social sciences within the context of neo-liberalism and its configuration of academia, knowledge production and expression. In addition, the book seeks to delineate some of the lineages of the global North’s hegemony in knowledge production in institutional academic settings in the non-West as well as the “elusive” search for alternate “templates” in these parts.

The book’s foremost contribution is in bringing together a wide range of writing and thinking about the development and career of social sciences in institutional academia and the field’s relationship to the wider world. In fact, the bibliography gathered together here can ­offer an excellent starting point for those interested in thinking and reading critical literature on social sciences as a field.

A Neo-liberal Academia?

The author takes great pains throughout the book to point out that neo-liberalism operates in ways that curb dissent and critical thinking. He argues that neo-liberalism does so by generating public discourse that terms social sciences irrelevant as well as by making funding and jobs in institutional academia scarce. It also turns the university into yet “another entity in the marketplace” rather than being “an institution in society” and what is expected is a production of “experts rather than scholars, entrepreneurs rather than citizens” (p 49).

While neo-liberalism is largely presented as an external force shaping academia in that it acts as a restrictive force, it is the phenomenon of depoliticisation under neo-liberalism that the author introduces, which opens up productive channels to think about neo-liberalism as an intimate phenomenon that shapes how one exists, in this case in the academia; the author terms this “concertive control.” Some of the modalities the ­author delineates are as follows: with criticality and resistance to dominant power structures penalised under the regime of neo-liberal academia, the aut­hor argues that academics have retreated into producing “ivory tower scholarship” because it is safe. Further, with time accelerated and ideas commodified in the neo-liberal regime, the pressure is on academics to be competitive and perform in ways that can be measured, and is yet another way to remain “apolitical.” Finally, the insecurity of one’s tenure in institutional academia—a product of neo-liberalism’s ways to hold individuals as permanently temporary in their work—sustains hierarchies between tenured and non-tenured scholars, forcing the latter into patterns of loyalty and even servitude of senior scholars.

It is in these ways and more that the author uses both his scholarly interests and his status as an insider to foreground the insidious workings of neo-liberal academia. Having said that, while the author engages with a great deal of scholarship on the workings
of neo-liberalism broadly, it would have been worthwhile if some of the connections between neo-liberalism and
academia had been explored succinctly and directly.

Relevance of Social Sciences

On the question of relevance—a key concern in the book—the author is convinced that “relevance is the lifeblood of academic streams and disciplinary pursuits.” This, he claims, was further highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic when social scientists were “relegated” to “a secondary position.” Social sciences now face, he argues, a “mixed dose of indifference, suspicion and contempt about its value” and the “foundation of social sciences is being shaken like never ­before.” Whether this is as new a phenomenon as the author suggests (but does not elaborate on) may be debatable but the question of relevance can be reliably said to have haunted
social science academics for decades.

By looking at the social sciences through the prism of neo-liberalism, the author offers useful insights into the current state of academia, particularly social scientists’ withdrawal from the hustle-bustle of the world. One particular way in which academics perpetuate their irrelevance, according to the aut­hor, is their preoccupation with methodology at the cost of being responsive to the concerns of the world. Citing the deb­ates around the evolution and current state of political science in the United States, the author suggests that the methodological wars, such as over quantitative versus qualitative methods, have rendered the discipline invisible and irrelevant.

Another mode of this perpetuation of irrelevance, the author argues, has been the hierarchy between research and tea­ching, with the latter being considered “routinised and pedestrian” as compa­red to the possibilities of “professional mobi­lity, dynamism and challenge” that accrues to the former (p 83). These hierarchies have also meant that the latest rese­arch in disciplines does not always find their way into teaching. These divisions have led to a “divorce” between teaching and research, which, the author laments, means that “the ‘discipline’ will have fewer researchers to serve its cause in the future” (p 87).

Yet, the framing of social sciences as “relevant” or “irrelevant” could itself have been subject to more rigorous scrutiny, given that such a framing subscribes to neo-liberalism’s imperatives. For instance, while the author argues that neo-liberalism demands that academia produce experts rather than critical thinkers, a dominant strand of neo-liberal discourse also arg­ues that being experts is the only way for social scientists to remain “relevant.”

While the author rightly points to the university as yet another entity in the marketplace within a neo-liberal regime, he fails to take into account the simultaneous, if not related, entry of historically marginalised communities into social science academia and their forceful arti­culation of academia as exclusionary in terms of gender, caste, class, and race. Paying attention to these articulations as ways in which the status-quoist social science academia is forced to confront its irrelevance and elitism could open up possibilities of thinking of the question of relevance, as one not dictated solely by neo-liberal imperatives but also by ideas of social justice and equality. Even more so, the relationship between entry of members from marginalised communities and the neo-liberalism of academia could have been fruitfully explored through the question of relevance.

The book operates on the assumption that the category of “social sciences” is self-evident and requires no elaboration. While the term may have salience in the wider public discourse, a look at the internal division of social science academia into disciplines raises the question of whether “social sciences” exists in practice as a category or if there exists only disciplines whose boundaries of inqui­ries are policed by their disciplinary practitioners. Such questions of the internal organisation of social sciences are imp­ortant for they call into question whether academics who self-identify only as hist­orians, geo­graphers, economists, among others can come together to document, analyse, and critique the question of the relevance of “social sciences” as a whole.

While the author divides social sciences into “core disciplines” (economics, political sciences, sociology, anthropo­logy, history, geography, and psycho­logy) and “sub-disciplines” (cultural stu­dies, human rights studies, peace and conflict studies, gender studies, development studies, media and communication studies), it is not clear why the latter are termed sub-disciplines (as if they are subsets of, or maybe ranked lower than core disciplines?) It is also not clear what is “core” about core disciplines given the various interdisciplinary influences regarding methodologies and subjects of inquiries that each of these disciplines have been subject to over the last few decades.

Finally, tracing the rise of interdisciplinarity in the social sciences would have been useful particularly to the que­stions of neo-liberalism’s configuration of academia and the relevance of social sciences that the book is concerned with. Interdisciplinarity is touted as making social sciences relevant to dealing with the burning questions of the world but is also conferred some radical potential as working against the parcelling of knowledge into disciplinary silos. Given the larger context of neo-liberalism, some engagement with discourses that celebrate, disparage, or remain agnostic to interdisciplinarity could have further nuanced the story of relevance that the book has tried to chart.

Is There a Global Social Sciences?

The scope of the book is vast in that it casts its net wide to look at social sciences across the world. There are two chapters towards the end which talk about social sciences in the non-Western countries/regions and India. The brief overview of social sciences in these chapters does little justice to the ways in which social scientists in these regions may or may not have participated in the politics of their regions or challenged the Western hegemony. The final chapter titled “Sampling India” offers very useful summaries of the ­Indian state’s engagement with higher education and the (lack of) attention it has accorded the social sciences.

The author remains beholden to categories of developed and developing countries but the relevance of such categorisation in a discussion of social sciences remains unremarked upon. If the premise is that developing and developed countries are differentially incorporated or are at different stages in their incorporation into the neo-liberal project, then an elaboration of the relationship between development of a country and incorporation of its academia into neo-liberalism would have served to ­clarify matters.

Similarly, “global age” and “global times” are also used interchangeably but the author does not elaborate upon what is “global” about the age or times that he refers to and their relevance to a discussion on the social sciences. Particularly since he steadfastly holds onto the distinction between developing and developing countries and argues that the Western hegemonic control of knowledge production continues unchallenged; whether “global times” brings to play a flattening/overturning/perpetuation of existing power relations could have helped to think through the specificity of this age that seems important to the conceptualisations attempted in the book.




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Updated On : 26th Jul, 2022
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