Governments need to end a culture of underinvestment in social science research into inequality.

UNIVERSITIES, like governments, have to grapple with a multitude of problems and issues. Inequality has, in recent decades, been the dominating theme. Cognisant and re-emphasising inequality as integral to the global political agenda in the second decade of the 21st century, the 2016 World Social Science Report (WSSR 2016) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) concludes that unchecked inequality could jeopardise the sustainability of economies, societies and communities.

WSSR 2016 argues that inequality — and the links between economic inequality and other forms of inequality, such as education, health and gender — needs to be better understood to create fairer societies. It identifies data gaps in social science research into inequality. It argues that we need to invest in and develop meaningful social science research into inequality to develop meaningful policies to reduce inequality. In short, too many countries are investing too little in researching the long-term impact of inequality on the sustainability of their economies, societies and communities.

The report covers seven dimensions of inequality and studies their configurations in different contexts:

ECONOMIC inequality: differences between levels of incomes, assets, wealth and capital, living standards and employment;

SOCIALinequality: differences between the social status of different population groups and imbalances in the functioning of education, health, justice and social protection systems;

CULTURAL inequality: discriminations based on gender, ethnicity and race, religion, disability and other group identities;

POLITICAL inequality: the differentiated capacity for individuals and groups to influence political decision-making processes and to benefit from those decisions, and to enter into political action;

SPATIAL inequality: spatial and regional disparities between centres and peripheries, urban and rural areas, and regions with more or less diverse resources;

ENVIRONMENTAL inequality: unevenness in access to natural resources and benefits from their exploitation; exposure to pollution and risks; and differences in the agency needed to adapt to such threats; and,

KNOWLEDGE-based inequality: differences in access and contribution to (and by) different sources and types of knowledge, as well as the consequences of these.

While cognisant that universities would have to address all the dimensions in the report, this comment emphasises on the last dimension. Knowledge production and its consequences certainly would impact on the previous six dimensions — conceptually and empirically. The knowledge factor — specifically the science that studies society — is not equal. The “social science” powers in the likes of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan also determine the various inequalities for the rest of the world by dominating the world’s resources in intellectual and scientific production.

Some years ago, a number of scholars made comments on the WSSR 2010, which calls for global scholarship and action. In the preface to the report, the president of the International Social Science Council writes: “To a great extent, the social science grew out of the 17th-century European Enlightenment, when new ideas about religion, reason, humanity and society were merged into a fairly coherent world view that stressed human rights, individualism and constitutionalism… Studies of alien societies were used as contrast when analysing a country’s institutions and customs.”

WSSR 2010 comprises 80 individual papers with 14 authors from the Asia-Pacific region. Almost all the papers, with a few exceptions that argue for a counter-Eurocentric discourse, project a European post-enlightenment trajectory of the social sciences. And this can be seen in the geography and political economy of the production and circulation of social science textbooks, handbooks and papers. Their circulation of ideas within new nation states in southeast, south and northeast Asia, the Arab world and the African continent reinforces knowledge dependency.

One such example of a social science idea is modernisation theories. And, the bigger question was why we need new modernisation theories? The question, in the manner it was asked, is structural to the social science discourse.

It is significant to note that this has not surfaced from a non-Western scholar, but from the core, metropolitan divide.

David E. Apter, in the chapter “Marginalisation, violence, and why we need new modernisation theories”, proposes a refigured modernisation theory to provide with analytical tools to confront what he called “negative pluralism”.

Part 2 tomorrow

Datuk Dr A. Murad Merican is a professor with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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