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

A+| A| A-

Whither the Social Sciences?

The social sciences have all too often been seen as the poorer "country cousins" of the more richly endowed natural sciences. But as this brief trajectory of social science evolution reveals, the continued development of the arts and humanities is essential to achieve a wider understanding of social systems, the interlinkages these have with other systems and the role of the individual embedded in it.

Whither the Social Sciences?

The social sciences have all too often been seen as the poorer “country cousins” of the more richly endowed natural sciences. But as this brief trajectory of social science evolution reveals, the continued development of the arts and humanities is essential to achieve a wider understanding of social systems, the interlinkages these have with other systems and the role of the individual

embedded in it.


ocial scientists have always been seen as the poorer, less glamorous and more crisis-ridden “country cousins” of the urbane natural scientists. The offices of natural scientists in our country are aflush with sophisticated equipment and air conditioners. On the other hand, social scientists would be lucky if their workplaces have functional fans and operational computers. Sometimes we find that the annual recurrent expenses (on equipment and maintenance) for prestigious labs in our science institutions is 10 times more than the total budget for regular colleges teaching the liberal arts.

Of bureaucratic interference in social science there is no dearth either. To illustrate, a bureaucrat, with multiple duties, has officiated as director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library for over two years – even after a regular incumbent has been selected. The merit of our research output is stymied by the aforementioned problems and other methodological/ideological nuisances. All this when our please-all prime minister, Manmohan Singh, himself is a distinguished social scientist. So, we wonder, who should be complaining – social scientists or natural scientists? And who will speak up for the social sciences?

Enlightenment aspired to produce knowledge for social betterment. The mission of the social sciences, from its beginning, was to produce “useful” knowledge. The social sciences were born with the hope that they would enlighten public opinion and inform public policy. The social sciences produce ideas on the basis of logic or facts gathered to test hypotheses, like the natural sciences. Only the ignorant would treat this activity as peripheral and inessential. John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), in his The General Theory of Employment and Money (1936) said ideas of political philosophers and economists, not vested interests, were dangerous and they encroached gradually. He added, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”. In this article we narrate a brief history of the social sciences, its current state and its uncertain future. We paint this picture with a broad brush which might disappoint those seeking a detailed enquiry into their chosen disciplines or minute specialisations.

Brief Global History

The social sciences emerged from unity, distributed their talents into different disciplines, progressed into needle-point specialisation and now, again seem to be destined to unite in research on specific problems. In the 18th century, social thinkers were concerned with general theory or the philosophy of society. So, it is impossible to call Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) or Voltaire’s Essay on Manners (1756) to be sociological treatises only. Just as it is a travesty of truth to say that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) and Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) were meant only to help the discipline of Economics grow.

Social sciences grew in the 19th century for the acquisition of empirical knowledge about society. After science and technology had triumphed in making the Industrial Revolution, it was inevitable for the knowledge generation enterprise to acquire the scientific method. Like every scientific thing, knowledge generation was coded and compartmentalised into disciplines. All disciplines of social sciences in the 19th century expended their youthful energies in studying problems like “needle point” specialists. They were little concerned about what neighbouring disciplines were doing and how they were doing it. No wonder Fernand Braudel called the relationship between history and sociology to be a “dialogue of the deaf” [Fernand Braudel 1980].

Around 1850, social science disciplines were living in “splendid isolation” from one another with somewhat dubious results. Social science produced “racescience” in mid-19th century, before the civil war in US (1860). Samuel George Morton measured skulls and declared that nature had made superior and inferior races. In 1849, Morton reported that Caucasians were blessed with the most capacious skulls followed by Mongolian, Malay and Native American while Negroes had the smallest skulls. Morton’s race theory has

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006 since been exposed to be flawed because it had self-selected samples and classification errors and it incorporated dubious statistical treatment [Stephen Jay Gould 1981].

Social science acquired a semblance of professionalism later in the 19th century. In the US, for instance, economics formed a professional association first in 1885, followed by psychology in 1892, with anthropology in 1902, political science in 1903, and sociology in 1905. Positivism was on the ascendant in the natural sciences and the social sciences also tried to model themselves on this principle. Social science focused its efforts on research for which academics developed a commitment to systematic observation and statistical fact. The institutional legacy of this social empiricism was that census and labour bureaus improved [Kenneth Prewitt 2005: 18-20].

The initial acquaintance of one discipline with another was forced upon them by social problems which arose in the 20th century. The Great Depression of 1920s made it difficult for problems to be pigeonholed. The depression was more than just economic, social or political discomfort. Thanks to the Annales school (whose journal by the same name was born in 1929), history became a pioneer in establishing some kind of a contact with sister disciplines in the social sciences in France. This lead towards a dialogue between disciplines was followed elsewhere as well, though after the second world war. Hence, in the west, there came up Past and Present and Comparative Studies in Society and History. Even, in India, we found The Economic Weekly turn into Economic and Political Weekly and the appearance of a new journal called Indian Economic and Social History Review.

This acquaintance between disciplines was converted into a relationship of interdisciplinary exchange again more out of necessity than out of choice. For instance, how can one study the rise of Fascism in the first half of the 20th century without simultaneously exploring this ideology and movement in the context of: (a) the antagonism between growing industrial monopolisation and the democratic system (as Herbert Marcuse did); (b) the development of the “authoritarian personality” (consisting of sadistic and masochistic characteristics) among the lower middle class suffering alienation, self-hatred and loss of security after the first world war (as Theodor Adorno did); (c) moral decay and cultural despair (as R G Collingwood did); (d) masses becoming rootless and isolated by a monolithic single party which tried to obliterate the difference between state and society, established complete control over the state structure and the economy, dominated mass communication, etc, (as Karl Popper did); and (e) after the Nazi experience, political scientists coined terms like total war, totalitarianism and holocaust.

All this sharing between different disciplines made it necessary for one discipline to borrow insights from the problems studied, methods used and sources explored by the other social sciences in the 20th century. Now, all scholarly disciplines are expected to answer questions relating to the human condition and to do so heterogeneously. They use different methods (experimental or analytical, quantitative or qualitative), at different levels (micro or macro), about different processes (structural determinism, constrained probabilities, chance and wilful effort), regarding different goals (science for itself or to improve the human condition), in different spheres (public or private) and using different epistemologies (realist or postmodern) [Robert W Pearson and Lawrence W Sherman 2005: 6-13].

The Indian Present

In practice, the social sciences have pursued a dual project, viz, a science project and a national political project. Indian social science has a science project which means social scientists want a deeper understanding of human behaviour, relationships, institutions, etc, and also seek approval and recognition for their theoretical output from their peers spread the world over. Social scientists also have a national political project, viz, to improve the human condition, protect the homeland, grow the economy, strengthen democracy, etc, and for this, they seek recognition for their policy inputs from administrators and they court public appreciation through popular writing/broadcasting.

Paul Brass remarks, uncharitably, that Indian social scientists lack a sense of the present. India, its institutions and ideas have no present, only a past and a future, he sneers. Most educated Indians live in a glorified image of the past. As compared to them Americans live primarily in the present and the future. In America, the past


Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

is dead, the present is real, and the future is always full of the promise of new technological wonders. In India, the mythological past, however constructed and imagined, is as real and living as the present. For Indians the problems of the present are the consequences of the actions of others when they had no agency. Even social scientists feel that when Indians were masters of their fate, they created wonders, says Brass. The fact that they did so promises greatness in the future, but the burdens from the foreign-dominated past are so great that it will take time [Paul Brass 1998:25].

Knowledge gathering in Indian social science began in the colonial period. The whole enterprise had a distinct colonial imprint. In 18th and 19th centuries India, colonial modernity consisted of colonial organisation of polity and the establishment of universities, research institutions and government institutions for data collection, translation and production of texts. “Cultural technologies to rule” aided the military organisation, political power and economic muscle of the colonialists. The “cultural technologies to rule” in turn were helped by colonial historiography, travelogues, surveillance, surveys, enumerative censuses, museum making and other investigations [Bernard S Cohn 1997:3-15].

After the second world war, social science research has been “undertaken under the sign of the nation” and under the inspiration of western area study programmes. Social scientists in India have a “decisive influence over area study programmes in North American universities”. The area study programmes were initiated to serve strategic geopolitical interests. Hence, the agenda of research at these post-colonial institutions was set by a complex interaction between geopolitical interests, national aspirations and intellectual traditions [Veena Das 2003:1-2].

Far away from the theoretical debates of the diasporic academia, problems of a more mundane kind struck the Indian social science establishment. In the 1950s there came up the Delhi School of Economics, modelled after the London School of Economics. It was a place for both teaching and research. Following the Soviet and east European model, Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) was created in 1969 and it has come to support 27 or 28 institutes exclusively devoted to social science research all over the country. From the very beginning these institutes were not seen as places for teaching. Hence, though these institutes were devoted exclusively to research, yet, the output from these institutes plays only a marginal role in the world of ideas. Therefore, donor agencies have not looked up to these institutes with much expectation and the entire paraphernalia of ICSSR has become dependent on government largesse.

ICSSR was created as a body registered under the Societies Registration Act of 1860. In fact it was warned, in its formative years, by Shonefield and Cherns to “avoid being seen as an exclusive servant of the centre” and also to avoid doing “surveillance over all social science activity”. It was not necessary for ICSSR to follow the government rules word for word. But this is precisely what ICSSR did. Consequently, a member of the ICSSR staff cannot operate as an independent academic. S/he cannot write in press, attend seminars, travel abroad, etc, without prior permission from the controlling authority. The ICSSR journal appears but only with fits and starts.

ICSSR also lowered its prestige by showing loyalty to the hand that fed it. In some recent years the council put itself to the service of the government almost sycophantically. No Indian prime minister has yet committed the blunder of calling her/himself the “state” but his admirers in ICSSR had put the contemporary incumbents on the way to being perceived as such. When money was scarce to make ends meet of the existing infrastructure, the creation of a new institute was announced at Manali (the last PM, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s favourite holiday resort) and so were Vajpayee-Musharraf fellowships proposed. Not only this Bangaru Laxman, Sahib Singh Verma and Om Prakash Chautala were invited to deliver lectures and this was balanced by inviting opposition leaders like Salman Khurshid as also Karnataka’s Congress CM, S M Krishna [Harsh Sethi 2001:3113-14].

Uncertain Future

The world around us has changed quite dramatically in the past two decades or so. The best days of (not just socialism but) liberalism are also over. The reformist agendas of socialism are being widely reconsidered and national liberation movements have given way to national chauvinisms of the most homicidal type. Marketfriendly political managers have put even the Keynesian model of western statesponsored welfare in cold storage the world over. The struggle for a “good society” seems to be a continuing one, but the path to it is full of uncertainties now. These uncertainties, however, are no cause for worry, say some world-system theorists [Immanuel Wallerstein 1999].

Certainties and well-charted courses may have been reassuring to the lazy and the no-changers with vested interests in the status quo. But to the pro-changers, the marginalised and the forgotten citizens, certainties symbolised moral death and the beaten tracks of development were both


Redesigning Affirmative Action: Castes and Benefits in Higher Education Satish Deshpande, Yogendra Yadav

Democracy, Disagreement and Merit Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Case for Caste-based Quotas in Higher Education Jayati Ghosh
Paying the Social Debt Sukhadeo Thorat
Assumptions and Arithmetic of Caste-Based Reservations Rohini Somanathan
Exclusive Inequalities: Merit, Caste and Discrimination
in Indian Higher Education Today Satish Deshpande
The Eternal Debate Ashwini Deshpande
Merit of Reservations Kancha Ilaiah
For Copies write to
Circulation Manager
Economic and Political Weekly

Hitkari House, 284 Shahid Bhagatsingh Road, Mumbai 400 001 email:

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006 blinding and crippling. Hence, to vast sections of people (of the third world at least), disillusioned with their cock-sure rulers, uncertainty poses two challenges. One of these challenges is to their tolerance of the polarisation of our iniquitous world system. It seems unlikely that people will submit to affronts to their dignity tamely. V S Naipaul’s “million mutinies” are here to stay and confront the state with multiple crises.

The second challenge of the prevailing uncertainty is to the creativity of people; it is for them to dream a blueprint of the future and then choose the path to realise those wishes. The opportunity to decide the future will, of course, not be gifted to the marginalised and the forgotten. It shall have to be taken by them. But the argument is that in a worldwide atmosphere of uncertainty about the future, it is more likely for fresh ideas to be entertained and new voices to be heard.

Uncertainty confronts not just the capitalist world but is also seen operating in the domain of knowledge generation and utilisation. There have been some assertions of the old kind to infuse the social sciences with the spirit of social transformation. Felix Wilfred is reported to have regretted that social science was meant to represent reality but it seems caught in the “domain of representation”, arguably an irresistible postmodern fad. Felix wanted social science to be re-rooted in everyday life. Not only this, Wilfred also desired that the scientific method has to be blended with an element of hope and moral sensitivity [Natraj et al 2001:3128-33].

The social sciences are in for great times. Mundane subjects like education are getting a novel thrust and new issues like romance and family are getting the attention of prestigious scholars. The driving force behind educational reforms in different countries across the world has changed. Previously, the driving force of educational reform used to be limited to enhancing the learning capacities of students or empowering teachers. But through the 1990s and even now, the driving force of educational change (for quantitative/ horizontal expansion and also for qualitative/vertical growth) includes: concerns about economic competitiveness, preparing global citizens for the future and improving inclusiveness and equity [Jan ven den Akker 1998:433].

People are significantly influenced not only by broader, impersonal forces like migration, urban poverty, nationality, imperialism, state institutions and the “Great War”. They are also significantly impressed by personal relationships and by the interpersonal nature of community and identity at the local level. Individual efforts to construct and maintain personal relationships constitute the bulk of our social lives – at work, at home and in the community. It is through cultural practices in an individual’s various roles and relationships that we attribute, create and find meaning in our own lives. There is a symbolic dimension to interpersonal relationships as well – we represent to others and back to ourselves that what we would like to think we are. Thus, the constructions of family, friends, rivals and community are fundamentally a question of personal identification. The social scientists continue to see the process of group-formation but now, they also feel it is anthropologically important to account for the symbols, meanings and behaviour of people [Richard Ivan Jobs and Patrick McDevitt 2005:311]. The continued success of the new social sciences depends on its being free from four afflictions, viz, bureaucratic control, fund constraints, sycophancy towards self-serving political leaders and blind aping of western social science.




Akker, Jan ven den (1998): ‘The Science Curriculum: Between Ideals and Outcomes’ in Barry J Fraser and Kenneth and G Tobin (eds),

International Handbook of Science Education,

Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dodrecht/ Boston/London.

Brass, Paul (1998): ‘Political Scientists’ Images of India’, South Asia, Vol XXI, No 1.

Braudel, Fernand (1980): On History, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

Cohn, Bernard S (1997):Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Das, Veena (2003): ‘Social Sciences and the Publics’ in Veena Das (ed), The Oxford Companion to Sociology and Social Anthropology, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Gould, Stephen Jay (1981): The Mismeasure of Man, Norton, New York.

Jobs, Richard Ivan and Patrick McDevitt (2005): ‘Introduction: Where the Hell Are the People?’ Journal of Social History, Vol 39, No 2.

Natraj, V K et al (2001): ‘Social Science: Dialogue for Revival’, Economic and Political Weekly, XXXVI, No 33, August 18, pp 3128-33.

Pearson, Robert W and Lawrence W Sherman (2005): ‘Preface: The Achievements, Frustrations, and Promise of the Social Sciences’ in special issue on The Use and Usefulness of the Social Sciences: Achievements, Disappointments, and Promise in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 600, July, pp 6-13.

Prewitt, Kenneth (2005): ‘Political Ideas and a Political Science for Policy’ in special issue on The Use and Usefulness of the Social Sciences: Achievements, Disappointments, and Promise in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 600, July.

Sethi, Harsh (2001): ‘Social Science Research: The Real Challenge’, Economic and Political Weekly, XXXVI, No 33, August 18, pp 3113-14.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1999): End o the World as We Know It: Social Science for the 21st Century, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


EPW seeks the help of contributors for quicker processing of articles submitted for publication.

Soft/Hard Copies

Contributions of less than 4,000 words for the Commentary/Discussion sections can be sent by email to. There is no need to send hard copies of short articles. Articles longer than 4,000 words for Perspectives/Special Article sections, however, must be sent in hard and soft copy formats. Soft copies can be sent by email or on a CD/floppy. Please note that EPW will not be able to process articles longer than 4,000 words unless both soft and hard copies have been received.

Revision of Articles

Authors are requested to send us articles that are complete and up to date in all respects. They are requested not to send us revised versions – by email or post – unless there are major developments that require changes to the article first submitted. Since revisions pose difficulties in managing submissions and processing the correct version, EPW requests authors to send in articles that have been finalised and are complete in all respects. Revised versions will not be processed other than in exceptional circumstances.

(Please also see Notes to Contributors for additional details)

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top