Challenges for social scientists

Challenges for social scientists

September 1, 2004

The cliché has it that History is the past moving through the present into the future. An unbroken line. Like personal memories, historical memories resurface. It is not about the past repeating itself. Nor is it about the laying out of fact pointing us in a direction. These memories blend into what we call—but should not call—facts, particularly in our social sciences. The social sciences matter not because they drag around some false rationality or a collection of theoretical statistical formulas, like albatrosses, but because they help us to search out the shapes of our society.

The other cliché has it that you can't study the specifics, particularly of the present, or even try to understand those specifics, unless you have some sense of the broader story. The annoying, boring thing about clichés is that they tend to be true. And so the social sciences of Canada must mean inserting your research—however narrow—into a broad sense of our people, culture, structures, history, and values; indeed into the Canadian sense of citizenship and individual responsibility. Out of that it is also possible to find the shapes of economic methodology, management structures, and self-interest—in other words, the opportunities and the limitations of modern utilitarianism.

Each time I think about this place, I force myself to reformulate the basics. From the very beginning, Canada was a civilization of immigrants and minorities; one where the civilizing role of the First Nations was central over the first two to three centuries to helping the immigrants break their European patterns of behavior. And that central aboriginal characteristic of Canadian civilization remains the great unidentified aspect of our society. Here is an urgent task for the social sciences. The result of this First Nations, francophone, anglophone, and other immigrant mix was a non-monolithic society, where tension was in fact central to ensuring peace and was a key factor in its progressive social evolution; a poor, northern, marginal society, which has intellectually constructed its prosperity through an idea of inclusive egalitarianism. A civilization the very essence of which is its complexity. I believe that these broad concepts are essential to framing research properly.

This sort of approach applies as much to pure science as it does to social sciences. Engaging in pure scientific research without considering the society in which it takes place is like giving a concert with no idea of what the audience's interests are or what the audience is capable of hearing or, if you wish to shock the audience, without knowing how to ensure that your affront is properly registered.

The best pure Science is usually done by those who understand the world outside their specialized field. John Polanyi devours philosophy, poetry, and is deeply engaged in the politics of armaments and peace. Herzberg Medal winners regularly quote literature, poetry, and philosophy when they receive the award.

If this is true for pure science, then it is doubly so for Social Sciences.

The greatest economists may or may not be fantastic with numbers. Their particular strength usually lies in their capacity to examine human reality. They understand where we live, what we do, who we are. Harold Innis said, "Economics must derive its laws from the history of the place rather than deriving the place from a set of all-purpose laws formulated elsewhere."

As they struggle to produce meaningful research, social scientists face two unexpected challenges: utilitarianism and over-specialization. Neither need lead to a commercialization of university research, however the widespread commercialization of our society over the last two decades could not help but infect our universities and their research.

It would be naïve to pretend or even to hope that there are no commercial outcomes from research of every kind. But that is not the purpose of research. And the invasion of utilitarianism into the heart of evermore research nearly diverts us from broad and long-term work. And it is that long-term work that creates sustained wealth. Focusing too rapidly on the short term—dare I say shallow—is more likely to produce short-term benefits and long-term problems. Universities are not meant to be cheap replacements for consultants. The idealized purpose of university research has been repeatedly laid out. Principal George Grant of Queen's University in 1900: "Education is important, not because of its money value, but because it develops the spirit in man, the spirit which values literature, science, art, in a word all truth, for its own sake." Neither scientists nor social scientists are vestal virgins, but the reality of service to society must come first. It is an illusion of some mid-level public-sector managers that tax money can be saved through equating university research with utilitarianism. This is the alchemy of our day. All it does is cost society the loss of the value of the social in the science.

Over-specialization is the other problem. Professors are among the first to complain about it, but it is almost impossible to advance in a university career unless you agree to a narrow approach towards research and teaching. If you move outside your area of specialization, you are trodding on the feet of a colleague. We can't be forced to believe that everything has become so complicated that each of us can only know about very narrow areas. None of us will ever be able to finish a sentence that somehow deals with broader issues. You could describe this silo view of specializations as a form of fear.

The compartmentalization of knowledge is not only a problem for rigorous academic research; it also harms us all as citizens. To be a functional, responsible citizen requires a broad, integrated base of knowledge. So you see, I come back to where I began. Social sciences have to concentrate on the relationships between people and issues. Democratic civilization requires solid linkages between various areas of knowledge.

Researchers in social sciences must find a way to work around their niches. Too often in Canada, individuals and institutions remain isolated, disciplines are disparate. Collaboration is not only interesting in terms of sharing costs, it is critical to generating new ideas. Broad ideas. Society cannot advance in an ethical manner if our intellectual work does not concentrate on knitting together our detailed work. Without that spirit of synthesis at the core of the social sciences, the details will leave us open to careening fashions and the exploitation of self-interest. Partnering with a researcher in a completely different field opens areas of exploration perhaps not even conceived of previously.

One fascinating example of mixing disciplines is Edward Doolittle's work at the First Nations University of Canada, where he uses aboriginal legends and storytelling to advance a curriculum in mathematics. This type of truly innovative and pluridisciplinary research could not be done if you stayed only in your specific area of knowledge.

All of this is to say that the study and teaching of Canada absolutely needs the details that can be produced by high specialization; but those details will only make sense if they can be brought together into broader, inclusive arguments. If you look at Canada in a single, watertight, specialized manner, you actually miss the tensions that make this country so fascinating—the tensions between races and languages and religions, between people and place; the impossibility of taming the land, the absence of one predominant model of the "true" Canadian.

Particularly interesting in terms of breaking out of the various niches is the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure. Several institutions and disciplines have come together to study Canada in a way that has never been done before. The data produced from the study of historical census records will allow us to deepen our understanding of our country's evolution.

But of course data requires interpretation. The contextual work around this initiative is crucial to its success. Understanding the society of the time is critical because social sciences will only work if they remain in the humanist tradition. They simply cannot be free of values—human values.

Finally, an argument that extends beyond the laboratories and the academic setting. As much as possible, social scientists should be involved outside universities as active citizens. They often have unique and profound knowledge of our society that can feed our debates. I would say they have an obligation to engage in civic life. And the reality of other people's lives will act as a rudder to their work. The more they engage in civic life, the more they will understand our society. And the better they will be as researchers, professors, and engaged citizens.

One of the key factors to "being an intellectual" is the ability to facilitate understanding. Understanding does not necessarily lead to happiness—yours or society's. Often it leads to disagreement, but at least it is conscious, civilized, and informed disagreement. This creating of debate is one of the fundamental obligations of any intellectual. I encourage you all—professors, researchers, students—to think not only in the habitual vertical context and terms of your specialization, but also in horizontal terms. Your in-depth research will have meaning if you take the necessary risk of thinking about it in a larger context where you may know less. But because you are both a human and a citizen, you live in the broader context and so this riskier approach will help you to understand your work and will help others to understand you. Your presence is needed in the public debate.

Visit John Ralston Saul's website.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.