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Can There be Reflexivity in Times of Crisis?

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As members of the social scientific community, we would like to problematise the approach of our own fraternity, with regard to the changing structures of pedagogy, wherein online classes have become the new normal. We have been perplexed to witness how the rigour of the social sciences has come to be reduced to a one-dimensional, increasingly calculative and utilitarian exercise. Is it possible that the theories that have been instituted as tools to identify the multitude of social realities have become apathetic to the very “human experience” they seek to unpack?

This transformation in the social sciences is not instant and the context within which this change operates is a market-driven, competitive society, where time is considered to be of utmost importance and our work cultures are oriented to fit in this perfectly “rational” system of operation. But the irony runs deep to see an arena like social sciences—which, through their critical engagement with the market, claim to work towards unravelling the growing inequalities and discrimination caused by it—stepping into these very shoes. Have we, the practitioners, been evading this seemingly paradoxical reality, which the social sciences have got themselves entangled in? Or are we blinded by our quest to be in a rat race as “skilled” and “qualified” that we have stopped asking some pertinent questions about our disciplines and our practice?

In the modern period, science has been placed on a pedestal because it can supposedly deliver “practical results” that are exact and precise and not imaginary. Replacing theology and philosophy, it led the world to achieve the unachievable, showing immense promise to humankind to be able to acquire mastery and control over everything. But amidst this overenthusiasm to know the infinite, the world was going through upheavals, first brought about by the French Revolution and later enhanced by the industrial revolution. The report of the Gulbenkian Commission (1996) implied that one of the reasons for the emergence of social sciences was to make sense of the social realities that underwent a number of remarkable changes due to the rapid industrialisation process in Western Europe.

A need was felt to develop a branch of disciplines to fill in the gaps in the production and organisation of knowledge to reflect on the social and political transformations taking place in the world. This led to the emergence and institutionalisation of social science that was deemed as a form of knowledge embedded in the social realities and not distant from people’s lives. Notwithstanding its methodologies (the constant tussle between objectivity and subjectivity), the primary goal of social sciences is to systematically examine the veracity of different social realities and not to invent or intuit. This is the beauty of social science, and its pertinence in each society is that it teaches individuals to be more humane and gives hope for a better society.

But today, with this whole obsession with online education, has social science become absolutely distant from the multiple social realities in which people are ensconced? Borrowing from Émile Durkheim who argued that each society is intrinsically marked by both normality and pathology, we would like to argue that, as social scientists, acknowledging and engaging with both norm and deviance is our responsibility as it brings us closer to the social realities. However, instead of using this moment to analyse and understand how society continues to evolve through the dialectics of “normal” and “pathological,” social scientists seemed to be more interested to contribute in the “neo-normalisation” process that began as an aftermath to the pandemic.

The feeling of guilt and fear of losing out have become more evident as soon as work shifts to the realm of the domestic, since it is stereotyped as an “unproductive” realm in the capitalist world. Does it mean that we are falling into the same trap of the technocrats and corporates; becoming highly calculative, competitive, very one-dimensional, growth-driven and producing “solutions to technical problems”? Instead of asking questions that address the root causes of the problems that academics and the education system in particular are experiencing due to the pandemic, social scientists seem to be making a beeline to be a part of the new normal.

Failing to recognise that individuals are caught up in different and Byzantine circumstances due to the pandemic and creating a spectacle out of social science through the virtual media is a tragedy of our times. In George Ritzer’s famous phrase, it is nothing but “irrationality of rationality.”

One may then ask, how should we pursue our studies, research and other academic engagements? Asking this question in this manner puts an end to any critical and creative solution that might have been possible in a situation of this kind. Instead, we could reframe the question to ask: Whose education and future are we talking about? Can Zoom/Skype presentations, webinars, and Google Meet classes be regarded as the only way forward when it puts a number of students’ education/academic lives at stake? When framed in this manner, it showcases the gross injustices not only to those who are unable to access the new platforms but also the injustice caused to the discipline and rigour of the social sciences.

Of everything else that we have learned from the legacy of the social sciences, a fact that stands true is that a majority of the discourses we know of, have emerged in times of crisis or have emerged as critiques to periods of crisis in history. Having said that, we have to be aware of the responsibility we are placed with as a community—we have to keep churning debates, discussions and work towards fostering criticality. Hence, a practical concern that might be directed to us at this point would be that for critiques to be generated, intellectual activities must be carried on, and it must be done on the platforms made available to us through the active tinkering of technology.

However, a question that haunts us is whether cultivating reflexivity in social science would be considered a serious intellectual exercise? The tradition of reflexivity is not a novel endeavour; it has been simmering within various intellectual circles and among many others. It was notably discussed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant.

Finally, going back to the question we began with: Can we afford to become non-reflexive scholars and academics who have become disjointed from the realities we are living in? If we fail to introspect at this important juncture of history, then, in no time, social science would breed its own tradition of indifference and passivity.

Dhriti Sonowal

New Delhi

Chandreyee Goswami

Mumbai

 

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