RECENT comments from members of academia in the natural and physical sciences about the social sciences reminds me of W.S. Bainbridge (circa 2003), who wrote:
This neither the best nor the worst of times for the social sciences, marked neither by great optimism nor great pessimism.
If current conditions continue, the social science of the next few decades will have a modest presence on college campuses and the halls of government, but it will have relatively little influence over society at large.
The last sentence I find unpalatable, given the looming escalation of abysmal and unspeakable crimes against humanity in many parts of the world, creating waves of inconceivable anguish and misery of global significance.
Never mind the other daily incursions that also continually test our academic, moral and ethical compass from rape, incest, murder, gender inequality, HIV and AIDS to a growing plague of clashes of civilisations and issues of quality, transparency and integrity in governance.
If indeed the raison d’être of the social sciences is to describe, identify and explain the increasingly defiant landscape of human behaviour and cultures, then social scientists have never been in such dire need.
Just imagine a goal-oriented, multi-disciplinary team of experts from sociology, anthropology, political science, linguistics, education, economics, geography, history, religion, law, journalism, business, communication and psychology working beyond borders and contributing to a host of pragmatic and realistic solutions that would have a prolonged positive impact on society.
Then in tandem, envisage the rekindling of hybrid fields in the social sciences such as social psychology, social anthropology, inter-cultural communication, sociolinguistics, educational psychology, social policy and anthropological linguistics.
All these fields and emerging disciplines should be a powerhouse to be reckoned with in the quest for objective evidence over biased opinion, or convenient typecasting of peoples and society.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a perception locally that the social sciences are in decline. Few opinions abound with the foremost in academia being firstly, that many research endeavours seem rather limited to small populations, hampering efforts of policy and decision-makers to boldly argue that the research findings will be representative of large populations.
During such instances, the social sciences are said to be further censured by perceptions of dismal predictive power coupled by ineffectual analysis and documentation to confront some of the challenges wrought by social science research.
The latter is said to include the emergence of contradictory findings despite similar postulations made and an equivalent sample being surveyed in the same domain.
In some cases, starkly different findings present themselves when the same study is replicated on an identical sample a few months or years down the road. Yet, far from being a weakness in approach and methodology, the ability of social scientists to capture constant variations upon a theme should be seen as strength of their unique disciplines.
Human society and interaction are after all constantly in flux and the unpredictability and volatility of societies and cultures and the complexity of living corpus are evidence of such dynamism.
The social sciences must further strategise to reclaim and demand public respect lest the toil of the social scientists meet the same fate as Rapunzel; arousing and vibrant, but imprisoned in an exclusive tower far from prying eyes.
Such a scenario would be unfortunate as despite the seeming drought of the impact of social science research outside the campus, a steady hum of research and publication activities is sustained within university walls.
Here, the fascinating flux of divergent polemics, conflicting values, attitudes, personal biases and political leanings are documented.
We must also remind ourselves that our journey on roads less-travelled is still in progress.
Consider, for example, an enhanced synergy among scientists and social scientists.
Such collaborative possibilities can be relentless in the inter-disciplinary field of nanotechnology, for example, where the engagement of social scientists in real time can help alleviate moral, social, legal, ethical, cultural and environmental concerns beyond the prima facie to boost public awareness and confidence with regard to inter alia advances in genetic engineering, microelectronics and pharmaceuticals.
Suffice to say, when the bough breaks from these emerging nanotechnologies, the breathtaking promise of a longer lifespan and improved standard of living due to the impact of nanotechnology innovations will transform the cradle of what life used to be forever.
Similar such cases in the scientific world will abound eventually, and the involvement of social scientists will then become even more crucial in the formulation of continuous modes of engagement with policymakers and society at large to reduce any public controversy, particularly those of an ethical or moral nature.
Yet, even if knowledge generated by both the social scientists and scientists is crucial, the ignorance of their usefulness to the human dimension is not bliss. For us in the social sciences, we must now identify and confront the cumbersome quirks that have stood in our path to prominence.
All roads taken must be reevaluated, torn to shreds if necessary and reincarnated into forward-looking strategies that will make all the difference in the building of our beloved nation.
Dr Hafriza Burhanudeen is an Associate Professor of Sociolinguistics at the Centre for Languages and Malaysian Studies at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (Unirazak)