Examining the relationship between science and society, in the latter quarter of the last century, we note a significant shift from science setting the stage for society to the society setting the agenda for science. Indeed, the focus of knowledge and knowledge generation changed from the application of knowledge to the knowledge produced in the context of application. This was a significant shift from a search for causality and objectivity to an appreciation of context and subjectivity.
It was this shift from positivistic objectivity to explorative subjectivity that further stirred the human thought and allowed for a multitude of new possibilities and more creative imaginings. In fact, rather than some of the more ‘traditionally objective’ or ‘objectifying’ sciences It was the humanities and social sciences that were the driving force and the powerful engine behind this inspirational change, for, while everyone else from physicists to neuroscientists was in search of objectivity, humanities, psychotherapy, and social sciences maintained their appreciation of individual subjectivities and the lives ‘realities’ of everyday life.
However, the recent utilitarianistic shift away from humanities and social sciences towards the more application oriented disciplines based on a notion of “tangible utility” and/or “tangible productivity” where “tangibility” is equated to relatively short-term gains/outcomes and/or physical production of goods, offers much cause for concern. The advocates of this shift argue that the budgetary cuts are necessary in order to demonstrate our fiscal discipline to the markets and to invest in our continued progress towards a stronger and more enriched society. This argument, however, presents two fundamental flaws.
Firstly, the markets demand for fiscal discipline with adequate, constant and consistent political and financial resolve is a question of praxis rather than fixed numeric objectives. It is a process and a mindset rather than a given debt to GDP ratio or a fixed figure for budgetary deficit. Therefore, although the achievement of a balanced budget and greater fiscal discipline are necessary objectives, the differences are in the methodologies, priorities, and the urgency with which we must pursue such objectives. The most recent economic data show worrying signs of weakness as what seemed to be the green shoots of recovery in the first half of 2010 have been axed even before the end of the calendar year and before the full implementation of restrictive government measures.
Economists express individual and social behaviour and decision-making based on a calculative analysis and algorithmic predictability hinged on a presumed desire for productivity gains and resource maximisation. However, let us not forget that pure reliance on such calculations was one of the fundamental causes of the recent financial and banking crisis. Indeed, even economists agree that society as well as individual and social behaviour involve more than sheer numbers, and require an understanding of the ‘soft’ issues and realities of ‘everyday life’. Therefore, while realigning public finances and national objectives towards a more balanced budget we must not forget that the art of politics is best expressed as the harmonious and effective conjugation of economic objectives, national priorities and social policies within the contextual constraints of political and social realities, and based on a profound commitment to social justice and equal opportunity.
Secondly, how can we make effective public and private investments without appropriate sociological research to produce relevant evidence-based guidelines?
How can we hope to enrich and enhance our civil society without understanding its fast evolving dynamics through a continued commitment to sociological enquiry?
How can we challenge and address profound social problems such as crime, poverty, discrimination and prejudice, social conflict and discord, isolation and social exclusion and so on without an appreciation of the structural elements and social dynamics that are at the root of these phenomena?
How can we hope to induce and sustain effective and long-term social change for a more progressive society and greater social equity without having a profound understanding of the sociological challenges and opportunities that stare us in the face?
Although, scientific discoveries and technological advances offer new and enormous potentials and possibilities, they are dilemmatic by nature, as they offer both challenges and opportunities. Nuclear energy finds applications in nuclear medicine as well as nuclear bombs; study of virus and viral transmissions is used in applications of genetic engineering as well as biological weapons of mass destruction; electricity is used to light up a home as well as to inflict harm and torture; and so on. Science and technology have led to catastrophic disasters whenever calculative certainties of “scientific progress” have not been checked and rebalanced by their ethical implications based on the lived experiences of individuals and societies. Indeed, it is only through an appreciation of their impact and their ethical application/deployment that science and technology become empowering rather than overpowering.
Sociology did not discover electricity nor the steam engine, however, through an exploration of societies and a study of difference and diversity, it led us out of the dark ages of prejudice and discrimination.
Sociology does not build cars, rockets, or planes to facilitate transport and to increase trade or commercial exchange, however, it offers the sociological understanding of people, societies and cultures, that serve as the foundation and prerequisite for any sustainable accord and/or commercial exchange.
Sociology will not discover new resources deep in earth, nor will it produce the next high-tech mobile device or the next medical breakthrough, however, it will offer an understanding of the impact of such discoveries on local and global populations that may serve as stimulus for innovation of alternative energy resources. Furthermore, sociology will present the analysis of social interactions that may informs the development of a new high-tech connectivity or a new Internet, and it will capture, study, analyse and foster the micro and macro social interactions that lay at the very heart of all such creative endeavours.
Faced with unprecedented challenges and enormous opportunities offered by new cyber-technologies and biosciences and the ‘plate tectonic’ shifts in every individual and social construct the role of sociology has never been more important than today. It is only through an appreciation of the sociological impact and ethical implications of science and technology that we can challenge the positivistic ‘scientific’ hegemonies that lead to catastrophe, and prevent a repeat of monumental disasters and future Hisoshimas.
We must therefore, take this unique opportunity to broaden our perspective with a multi-disciplinary approach in our actions, decision and priorities in order to bridge the divide between subjectivities and objectivities. We must develop a better understanding of and regain our focus on what oxford physicist David Deutsch called ‘fabric of reality’, in order to adhere to our true mission and objectives, and to play a more incisive and effective role through a holistic approach that re-spouses our objectives and subjectivities as well as our science and society.
Therefore, let us maintain our appreciation for the soft, the ethical and the humane aspects of life and society. Let us value and endorse the great contributions of humanities and sociology to our enriched prosperity and our enhanced appreciation of everyday lived experience.
Originally published on: Sociology and The Cuts