The humanities, social sciences and advanced studies


By Usvatte-aratchi

Professor Sasanka Perera delivered a lecture, in late 2017, on invitation, before a meeting of the National Centre for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities, an affiliate of the University Grants Commission. The subject of his lecture was ‘Reclaiming Social Sciences and Humanities: Notes from South Asia’. I read the lecture in The Island Newspaper in December 2017.

The humanities

The term ‘the humanities’ came into use when the central concerns in academic work changed from the study of divinity and theology, which had gone on for almost a millennium, to matters primarily to do with humans, when society shifted its attention from the life of people after death to the betterment of life of people on earth, and scholars wanted to know not how many saints could dance on the point of a needle but what composed the atom. They discovered pre-Christian sources of knowledge and learnt Greek, Hebrew and Latin (Republican) and even Arabic and Farsi in pursuit of knowledge carried in those languages. The fall of Constantinople, in 1454, when scholars in Greek, Hebrew and Latin fled to Lombardy, especially to Florence, eased the re-discovery of knowledge cultivated in ancient Greece, Rome and more recently among Islamic scholars. Europeans also discovered drama, poetry, writings on ethics. It is noteworthy that they took the Hippocrates oath from pagan Greece rather than Christian sources. Well into the 17th century, the study of Greek and Latin texts comprised the mainstay of learning in Europe. Even new learning was carried on in Latin which was the language of the learned, because medieval scholarship had been in Latin. The European vernaculars took time to develop. Isaac Newton (late 17th Century) and William Harvey (early 17th Century), both in England, wrote their treatises on mathematics and science in Latin. As late as 1840, although Thomas Arnold had introduced mathematics at Rugby, he refused to teach physical sciences. (For what was taught in pirivena in Sri Lanka see my 2017 lecture, ‘Sinhala attitude to knowledge’ before the National Heritage Trust, published in their blog.) A telling instance of the shift from concerns of the divine to that of humans was that ‘Whereas 90 percent of all college presidents serving in 1860 (in the US) had trained for the ministry, by 1933 no more than 12 percent had (had?) theological training’.

Universities take to science

The advance of science was very much a part of the pursuit of humanism. It was only later that the humanities gained the usage that Professor Perera gives it. As for social science (I prefer the term social studies.), they rose into prominence in response to needs that grew with the emergence of complexity in economies and with large conglomerations of people giving rise to ‘social’ problems. Anthropology rose later and for different reasons. The earliest works on economics date from the physiocrats in France and moral philosophers in Britain in the 18th Century.

In the second half of the 19th Century, these changes gathered speed, not only in Germany but also in England and in the United States of America. University teachers who had been clergymen earlier now became lay dons. The public who turned to men of the church in times of crisis and disaster, now turned to experts, who were often university teachers or professionals trained in universities. In times of drought and consequent famine, no amount of prayer or pirit chanting swill bring succour, as perhaps cloud seeding and help from countries with food surpluses. Other peoples have surpluses not because some fancy god (Indra or Varuna) brought bounteous harvests to them but because they used high yield seed and scientific methods of irrigation, cultivation and storage. Roughly, the same can be said of epidemics. Nothing on the scale of the Black Death has taken place largely because of the development of science, the output of universities. So did modern universities become apart of the institutional map of societies. They ceased to be cloistered abbeys or ivory towers, a now common cliche`.

Examples of this new idea of a university in application come easily to mind. Birth of the University of Berlin and the policies of William Humboldt in Prussia and the Morrill Acts of the United States followed by the establishment of the Imperial University of Japan are landmarks in this changed academic world. The two old English universities (London University was not yet a force to reckon with) were slower to come in. ‘In 1870, the University of Cambridge was a provincial seminary enhanced by a traditional prestige, by expertise in a small range of disciplines and by a few academic giants.’ (Those giants included Henry Sidgwick, J.J. Thomson and F.W. Maitland.)

Economics started later. Anthropology came in even later when Haddon started teaching it in 1904. American universities decided early with Land Grant Colleges that university education was useful in directly improving conditions of living of ordinary people. Sociologists like Robert K. Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld (a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany) added much that is in common use in many spheres of activity.(For a discussion of relations of the university with the market place see my J. E. Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture 2004, ‘Sarasvati meets Lakshmi: Educations meets the Market’, my Sirisena Tilakaratne Memorial Oration 2004 and my forthcoming book ‘Universities: Origin, Nature, Diversity and Functions’ (in Sinhala)).

The second half of the 20th Century saw rapid changes in technology used in production and in social relations all of which depended on work in science in universities. If you study changes in the 20th Century in places like Stanford, UCLA and MIT, you will see that they pioneered educating people who brought about this changed world, but also participated actively in the market place selling their products. It is this shift to the study of hard sciences, their application in engineering and later in computer science and to professional studies such as medicine, law, business studies and journalism that Professor Perera worries about. Although the total number of students rose dramatically after about 1950, the proportion and even the absolute number of students in the humanities and social studies has fallen. Similarly, money to undertake research in these areas has become quite scarce.

In contrast to this picture of close collaboration between universities on one side and economy and society on the other in now rich societies, there has been much disappointment in poor countries. If you read reports on establishing universities in new countries that emerged in the 1950s or so (e.g. Malaya, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and Malawi) you would see that they all expected the university to be an instrument that promoted the rapid development of the economy. Many who gave evidence before the Needham Commission rued that the University of Ceylon had failed to contribute to the development of the country.

The enthusiasm of Nigeria was so high that when they established the universities of Ife and Nsukka, they went out to experiment with the US model in preference to the one at Ibadan, which came into following British models. The universities performed one major function, that of bringing forth the cadre of persons to run the government, to man their hospitals, to maintain roads and other elementary functions of government. However, there was no economic activity which could employ university level scientists, high caliber engineers, mathematicians and other specialists. Those that the universities trained using rich country modules of study left for places where they could find fitting employment.

The poor countries with small scale non-mechanised non-commercial agriculture did not need the agriculture graduates that came out of their universities. Neither did they have places for young graduates in medicine who needed facilities and equipment both to treat patients and undertake research into the nature of illnesses and their cures or engineers who wanted to work on space vehicles and so on. Where such work was available as in India they stayed back. The visionary move to establish Indian Institutes of Technology paid rich dividends, as the Indian economy changed in structure during the last 30 years. Poor countries could not afford work in the humanities and social studies that interested rich countries. High quality students in social studies went to work in rich counties. Research was funded by government (USAID and anthropological work at Cornell), by University Foundations money and private foundations (Twentieth Century Fund, Welcome Foundation). That wages in rich countries, higher than in poor countries by several multiples, was a strong magnet drawing able scientists, engineers and scholars into those countries.

Three questions regarding sociology

Having dealt, at some length, with the rise and the ‘decline’ of the humanities, I take up three interesting questions that Professor Perera raised. First, what constitutes advanced studies in sociology. Second, what comprises theorization in social studies. Third what is the relevance of sociological and anthropological studies to society. These are complex and difficult questions to answer but as they had been answered in the course of one morning’s lecture, I thought I might make enough trouble to induce more knowledgeable persons to clarify issues. I am myself no sociologist.

What constitutes advanced studies in Sociology? Professor Perera mentioned four themes which were studied at his present university in a course in Advanced Social Theory. This concern with theory and theorization is central to his idea of ‘advanced studies in sociology’. The entire purpose of physical and related sciences is to explain natural phenomena. What is the composition of the atom (Neils Bohr) or what is the nature of DNA (Crick and Watson). Putting this knowledge to practical uses is the function of applied sciences. The function of social studies, in parallel, is to explain social phenomena. Putting this knowledge into practical use is the function of social policy. What is the nature of capitalism or socialism? How is there inequality in the distribution of income? Why are there variations in the level of employment over time and changes in social structures in the long term re examples? It is especially important in the contexts India and Sri Lanka that students are alive to new sorts of inquiries that take place. There are wholly new sets of studies into the social make up of populations in the US. That there is no documentation of such changes in our societies might be something that may interest senior students. As examples of the exploitation South Asian of ‘social theorization’, I have seen Amartya Sen referring to ancient Indian texts in some of his public lectures. Thambiah had studied agganna sutta and dharma sastras in his comments on government. Do these constitute advanced studies in sociology?

What comprises theorization in sociology? We noted earlier that the function of social studies was to study social phenomena. So any theorization in social studies must be about social phenomena. Theories are different from descriptions because their conclusions can apply to a large many situation and where there are exceptions, the exceptions are explainable in terms of the earlier theory itself. So we have Marx’s theory of surplus value, Veblen’s theory of the leisure class and Benedict’s theory of imagined communities. M. N. Srinivas’s idea of sanskritization is in the same category. Here the character that may help in identifying that category is that they are not location specific but explain phenomena wherever they occur. Comparative analysis may be a requirement for arriving at such findings.

Finally, what is the relevance or value of social studies to society? Law, accounting, management studies, cost benefit studies and studies in the ownership and usufruct of land are of direct use to society. When answering that question we need to introduce the additional question who benefits from a set of studies.The massive advances in high energy physics came from the need of the US government to develop weapons using that knowledge.

The US Federal government, directed by that great engineer from MIT Vannevar Bush, paid for these projects. Large pharmaceutical companies support studies for the development of drugs from which they earn high profits. Much knowledge in anthropology came from studies useful to colonial governments in the administration of unfamiliar peoples. The learned journals in rich countries and publishing houses manned by their scholars promote the creation of knowledge in areas of their interest. There are no such organisations in South Asia to pay for studies of its social phenomena. That may explain why scholars from South Asia study subjects that interest ‘a market’ outside their societies. That economists and sociologists have turned consultants or data gatherers for foreigners is a part of that story.

NCASSSH, if it can find the money, might promote the familiarity of teachers and senior students with current publications of major interest. There is a Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies in the University of Colombo of which much can be made useful if there is some more energy and funds. It is often when confronted with new ideas that you are inspired to think about familiar phenomena in new light. Such new ideas often come first in learned journals and later in books.


NCASSSH has as one of its interests the study of languages and perhaps its literature, perhaps, because literature may belong in the fine arts. Of language there is much to be studied: Changes in usage, inadequacy of vocabulary and problems in translation.

Professor Perera has opened a discussion useful not only to academics but also to all those who wish to understand the functioning of their societies. Walk through it, even uninvited!

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