There will continue to be universities, but they will increasingly share space and funding with other kinds of institutions. In other words, we will move from uni-versity to pluri-versity ~ Krishnan Srinivasan
Whatever be the weaknesses of the distinctions in major social science disciplines as knowledge categories, they are organizationally strong, and scholars have considerable personal investment in these organizational categories. If they are in departmental structures, they control placements in the university and the curricula. There are major journals associated with each discipline, there are national associations of scholars in a particular discipline, and there are international associations and institutes bearing the names of these disciplines.
Therefore these disciplines largely control entry, award prestige, and govern advancement in the scholarly hierarchy, with the ability to enact and enforce protectionist regulations. In other words, while they may on occasion refer to the virtues of inter-disciplinarity or multi-disciplinarity, they are apt at the same time to caution about the limits of the validity of such enterprises.
In addition, the existing disciplines are cultures, in the sense that they share biases and premises in the choice of research topics and the style of scholarly enquiry. They have their heroes and traditions, and conduct actions that revalidate the cultures. All but a few social scientists identify themselves with a particular discipline, and assert the superiority of that discipline over competitors in the social sciences. It is, therefore, a field marked by cultural loyalty in an estate of dissonance.
Nevertheless, there are two major forces at play that tend to undermine the capacity of existing disciplines to reproduce themselves. The first is the actual practice of the scholars, and the second are the priorities of the controllers of the financial resources, such as university administrators, governments and public and private foundations. The scholars constantly seek to create working communities of those who share their interests. This practice has been enormously expanded by the growth of air travel, the expansion of the use of English as a lingua franca, and above all by the use of the Internet. There are small groups of actual collaborators on specific research projects, and somewhat larger communities of scholars working on similar research who may number in the hundreds. Instances of such groupings cover brain studies to cognitive studies to rational choice to international politics and economy to world history.
On examination of these research communities and networks, we find the number has been growing, and the members of such networks are often drawn without respect to disciplinary boundaries. Only a few of them have provenance exclusively from a single category. On the contrary, many of the networks show a marked dispersion in disciplinary labels.
One observation about the intellectual stance of such groupings is that they typically find little utility in the divides that provided the historical rationale for the separation of the disciplines. Their scholarly work is not reproducing or consolidating these categories. However, it is also to be noted that those who participate in the multiple networks usually maintain their organizational affiliation because, at least for the moment, there is no benefit, and possibly some risk, in renouncing it.
When these scholars find that disciplinary categories are an obstacle to their research projects, and particularly when it threatens their access to funding, they seek to persuade the controllers of financial resources to give priority to their ‘blue-sky’ conceptual formulations in preference to the traditional concerns of the social science disciplines. They do this by the establishment of institutes or other specialized structures within the universities or in extra-university autonomous entities of prestige like academies or institutes of advanced study.
The influence of the donors of financial resources has been affecting the overall picture. Since 1945, there has been a sea-change in universal education. Primary education is now a norm, and secondary education a requirement in all countries with a median or high per capita GNP. In 1945, tertiary education was reserved to a miniscule percentage of the age cohort, but it has expanded inexorably, reaching over 50 per cent in the developed countries and growing significantly even among the poorest. As long as the world economy was expanding, this posed no problem and the necessary funding was available. But now the universities have been caught in the vice of a constantly expanding student-base because of population growth and/or expectations about the extent of education an individual should have, and tightening financial resources imposed by governments embroiled in financial crises.
There have been multiple consequences arising from these developments. One is the pressing demand of governmental and administrative authorities that lecturers teach more frequently and to larger classes. Another is the flight of scholars to positions outside the university system, and who are likely thereby to find themselves in institutions which ignore disciplinary boundaries. Yet another is the dilemma of education ministries and university officials who confront declining resources when the breakdown of disciplinary boundaries leads to increasing demands to create costly new special departments and institutes.
And another development is the question whether higher educational methods are relevant or affordable in our IT-driven, monetarist, post-modern age, when the students, whose attention-span is decidedly shorter, want online, demand-driven learning but with face-to-face mentoring. This has led American universities to invest hugely in distance learning, raising issues of how we receive, process and remember information today.
In the newly independent former colonies, the social science tradition has grown more slowly. The developing continents have each had to evolve their own particular engagement with social science disciplines that originated elsewhere, often in the teeth of nationalist mutterings about imperial mindsets and orientalism, before development economics and some eminent individuals and world-class institutions came to the rescue by providing a local context.
Most Third World universities face serious problems and the best brains in social science research often prefer to work outside the university system. Despite or because of this, sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, legal and policy studies are flourishing in some developing countries and the very robust local publishing industry provides the solid basis for valuable international interactions. From the periphery, some developing countries have moved to a prominent position centre-stage. Nevertheless, it would be accurate to say that in the Third World by and large, fields like sociology and economics provide less seeding for government policy than in Europe or the United States. We shall have to reassess the university as the virtually sole locus of the production and reproduction of knowledge. There will continue to be universities, but they will increasingly share space and funding with other kinds of institutions. In other words, we will move from uni-versity to pluri-versity.
All knowledge is social-rooted, so the understanding, interpretation and engineering of society will require the deployment of sociology and other social sciences in the quest for the true and the good, not neglecting the cultural variables. Trans-national and cross-generational studies will be needed, because the ‘Big Questions’ in social sciences will not be the same for India, Britain, China, or the United States.
The time-honoured question of the ‘two cultures’ will be reopened, but its resolution will depend at least in part on developments in the larger social world beyond the realm of scholarship. If any new consensus is reached, it will call into question the existing trimodal structure of higher education into natural science, social science, and the humanities. If and when that comes about, what will replace it? Possibly a unified faculty of knowledge? Or a re-positioning of activity in professional schools such as medicine in health services, economics in business administration, and so on? Even a unified faculty will have to take into account countless other divides; gender, the individual self, the social self, the collective identity, the micro and macro.
A safe prediction is that social science in the 21st century will be intellectually exciting, socially important, increasingly relevant for public policy initiatives, and permanently and properly contentious.