Eric Cantor’s recent call to shift funding from the social sciences to the hard sciences (“Funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases”) reflects a profound misunderstanding of the complementary role these two epistemological arenas play. John Sides has covered a range of reasons why the social sciences should not be seen as superfluous to needs, all centering on the fact that social phenomena are central to human well-being and happiness. As he notes:
My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on. That’s simply not true. Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.
Even more compelling is Mark Slouka’s 2009 article in Harpers, which offers one of the clearest defenses of the humanities I have ever read: simply put, without the humanities it is very difficult to be a functional citizen in a democracy (but in their absence it is very easy to produce a docile population of workers).
Let me take Slouka’s argument past what really read like something of an either/or tradeoff between the humanities and what he called “mathandscience” and toward a point of complementarity here: simply put, science is a way of seeing the world that enables particular understandings of that world. Science has facilitated spectacular changes in the way we live, from household technologies to medical advances. But science is but one way of seeing the world, one that does not tell us what we should do, or what else we should do. Those questions are the province of ethics, justice, and empathy. Science is poorly equipped to address any of these.
This is why science and technology require the social sciences and humanities. They help us separate what is possible in the world from what should be done in the world. Remember, history is littered with examples of highly rational, scientific projects that killed huge numbers of people in the name of a greater good or a logical goal (anyone remember the Soviet collectivization of agriculture under Stalin? How about the far less brutal, but still problematic ujamaa collectivization in Tanzania?). Without the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we are left with a tool (science) and no guidance about how to use it. Further, the growing field of science and technology studies shows that the capacities of particular technologies, in and of themselves, tell us little about who will adopt them and why. Trevor Birkenholtz’s work in India, for example, demonstrates that farmers continue to use tubewells, even though they know that this practice contributes to groundwater depletion, because the use of tubewells is closely bound up in one’s identity as a good and prosperous farmer. Without such insights, how can we work with farmers in this region to identify locally-appropriate alternative water-supply technologies?
Cantor, and those like him, live in an odd world where technologies and commodities are social goods unto themselves with universal and obvious value. Existing social scientific work already demonstrates this to be untrue. Defunding such work will not make his beliefs more true, it will just make it harder to make the world a better place with the scientific tools we have and will develop in the future.
Mike Hulme has an article in the July issue of Nature Climate Change titled “Meet the humanities,”[paywalled] in which he argues that “An introduction needs to be made between the rich cultural knowledge of social studies and the natural sciences.” Overall, I like this article – Hulme understands the social science side of things, not least through his own research and his work as editor of Global Environmental Change, one of the most influential journals on the human dimensions of global change*. Critically, he lays out how, even under current efforts to include a wider range of disciplines in major climate assessments, the conversation has been dominated for so long by the biophysical sciences and economics that it is difficult for other voices to break in:
policy discussions have become “improving climate predictions” and “creating new economic policy instruments”; not “learning from the myths of indigenous cultures” or “re-thinking the value of consumption.”
Hulme is not arguing that we are wrong to be trying to improve climate predictions or develop new economic policy instruments – instead, he is subtly asking if these are the right tools for the job of addressing climate change and its impacts. My entire research agenda is one of unearthing a greater understanding of why people do what they do to make a living, how they decide what to do when their circumstances change, and what the outcomes of those decisions are for their long-term well being. Like Hulme, I am persistently surprised at the relative dearth of work on this subject – especially because the longer I work on issues of adaptation and livelihoods, the more impressed I am with the capacity of communities to adjust to new circumstances, and the less impressed I am with anyone’s ability to predictably (and productively) intervene in these adjustments.
This point gets me to my motivation for this post. Hulme could not cover everything in his short commentary, but I felt it important to identify where a qualitative social science perspective can make an immediate impact on how we think about adaptation (which really is about how we think about development, I think). I remain amazed that so many working in development fail to grasp that there is no such things as a completely apolitical, purely technical intervention. For example, in development we all too often assume that a well is just a well – that it is a technical intervention that delivers water to people. However, a well is highly political – it reshapes some people’s lives, alters labor regimes, could empower women (or be used as an excuse to extract more of their labor on farms, etc.) – all of this is contextual, and has everything to do with social relations and social power. So, we can introduce the technology of a well . . . but the idea and meaning of a well cannot be introduced in the same manner – these are produced locally, through local lenses. It is this basic failure of understanding that lies at the heart of so many failed development projects that passed technical review and various compliance reviews: they were envisioned as neutral and technical, and were probably very well designed in those arenas. However, these project designers gave little concern to the contextual, local social processes that would shape the use and outcomes of the intervention, and the result was lots of “surprise” outcomes.
When we start to approach these issues from a qualitative social scientific standpoint, or even a humanities standpoint (Hulme conflates these in his piece, I have no idea why. They are not the same), the inherent politics of development become inescapable. This was the point behind my article “The place of stories in development: creating spaces for participation through narrative analysis.” In that article, I introduce the story I used to open Delivering Development to illustrate how our lived experience of development often plays out in ways best understood as narratives, “efforts to present information as a sequence of connected events with some sort of structural coherence, transforming ‘the real into an object of desire through a formal coherence and a moral order that the real.” These narratives emerge in the stories we are told and that we overhear in the course of our fieldwork, but rarely make it into our articles or reports (though they do show up on a few fantastic aid blogs, like Shotgun Shack and Tales from the Hood). They become local color to personal stories, not sources of information that reveal the politics of our development efforts (though read the two aforementioned blogs for serious counterpoints).
In my article, I demonstrated how using the concept of narrative, drawn from the humanities, has allowed me to identify moments in which I am placed into a plot, a story of development and experience not of my making:
In this narrative [“the white man is so clever,” a phrase I heard a lot during fieldwork], I was cast as the expert, one who had knowledge and resources that could improve their lives if only I would share it with them. [The community] cast themselves in the role of recipients of this knowledge, but not participants in its formation. This narrative has been noted time and again in development studies (and post-colonial studies), and in the era of participation we are all trained to subvert it when we see it emerge in the work of development agencies, governments, and NGOs. However, we are less trained to look for its construction by those living in the Global South. In short, we are not trained to look for the ways in which others emplot us.
The idea of narrative is useful not only for identifying when weird neocolonial moments crop up, but also for destabilizing those narratives – what I call co-authoring. For example, when I returned to the site of my dissertation fieldwork a few years later, I found that my new position as a (very junior) professor created a new set of problems:
This new identity greatly hindered my first efforts at fieldwork after taking this job, as several farmers openly expected me to tell them what to plant and how to plant it. I was able to decentre this narrative when, after one farmer suggested that I should be telling him what to plant instead of asking him about his practices, I asked him ‘Do I look like a farmer?’ He paused, admitted that I did not, and then started laughing. This intervention did not completely deconstruct his narrative of white/developed and black/developing, or my emplotment in that narrative. I was still an expert, just not about farming. This created a space for him to speak freely to me about agriculture in the community, while still maintaining a belief in me as the expert.
Certainly, this is not a perfect outcome. But this is a lot better than the relationship that would have developed without an awareness of this emerging narrative, and my efforts to co-author that narrative. Long and short, the humanities have a lot to offer both studies of climate change impacts and development – if we can bring ourselves to start taking things like stories seriously as sources of data. As Hulme notes, this is not going to be an easy thing to do – there is a lot of inertia in both development and climate change studies. But changes are coming, and I for one plan to leverage them to improve our understandings of what is happening in the world as a result of our development efforts, climate change, global markets, and any number of other factors that impact life along globalization’s shoreline – and to help co-author different, and hopefully better, outcomes than what has come before.
*full disclosure: I’ve published in Global Environmental Change, and Hulme was one of the editors in charge of my article.