Comments on Latin American Social Sciences
As the President of the Latin American Association of Sociology (Asociación Latinoamericana de Sociología, abbreviated as ALAS) during the term 2013-2015, I witnessed the diversity and richness of the expressions of the regional social sciences as well as the weaknesses and challenges that need to be overcome. This experience convinced me that our scholarship must maintain the long-standing critical reflexivity of its perspective and not abandon this achievement, while also taking advantage of our highest disciplinary standards. It is therefore my motivation to position our scholarship within global context, augment its prominence and impact, and reduce its dependency, especially when there are no intrinsic or immutable limits that could hold them back.
The possibilities for the development of the regional social sciences are auspicious. The accelerated changes, the recurrent crises, and the uncertainties of all kinds, which are being reported by the mass media, have increased the need for explanations and technologies for social coexistence and improvement in the quality of life. However, our expectations may be disappointed if our contributions lack solid grounding.
The knowledge production about our region needs to overcome the increasing difficulty of addressing social interrelationships, which makes forecasting or even indicating short-term tendencies more difficult. The complexity of social phenomena is certainly overwhelming, but we should not allow passivity or discouragement to reign over academic communities. Regarding the latter, it is striking that our stored disciplinary knowledge, i.e. the subjects taught to students or alluded to in papers are almost exclusively produced in institutions located in developed western countries. Not surprisingly, in an evidently limiting disciplinary self-colonialism, the inspiration or resources needed to study or interpret our realities—even to learn about critical thinking or new Latin Americanist approaches—are coming from abroad.
The condition of the regional social sciences is closely related to the globalization of the scientific system’s operating mode and structures, the new forms of which implicate, among other aspects, a unilateral standardization of its formats. Linking published knowledge and allowing its dissemination and debate among diverse publics, without necessarily implying greater quality or social commitment, are among the functions of these adjustments that so far benefited the anglo-eurocentric scholarship. By extension, they contributed to the indiscriminate diffusion of its themes and emphases, which currently include religious conflicts and forced migrations.
In practice, anglo-eurocentric social science got stronger with more prestige and funding to the detriment of those who do not assimilate or conform to its templates. ISI-mania and the hegemony of the English language undermine and discourage alternatives, and they increase dependency. As a result, Latin-American students and researchers learn or study about events happening in the world, or even on their own streets, through foreign languages and journals.
As nothing else points to a change, this diagnosis calls for the development of proposals and alternatives to resolve this predicament. This task is not easy, but not impossible. The present formats of scientific activities and the human and technological resources do afford opportunities for dedicated involvement, including the development of counter-hegemonic alternatives.
A great leap could come from closer engagement with the region’s foremost scholarship, such as Germani’s concept of asynchronous modernization, Cardoso and Faletto’s dependency approach, Ribeiro’s evolutionary theory, and the most recent contributions by Ernesto Laclau, Paulo Freire, Theotonio Dos Santos, Pablo González Casanova, Antonio Cattani, Aníbal Quijano, José Mauricio Domínguez, Fernando Robles, feminists, and many others Latin American researchers. These outstanding non-mainstream contributions link the analysis of local social processes and global scales without dismissing the inclusion of critical conceptualizations and methodologies of universal character. The contributions of authors, such as those mentioned, need to be connected to wider and more specialized audiences, thereby strengthening the regional social sciences and the research about the salient issues of the contemporary world. This includes, for example, the new and growing social inequalities and exclusion; the devastation of environmental resources and global warming; the retreat of states, the lack of protection and individualism; changes in affective, sexual and gender guidelines; citizen outrage and protest from indignation, among other issues. These topics, frequently treated in a local context, need to be globally connected in order not to become particularistic and insufficient.
Latin America could be highly relevant in providing important comparative evidence about conflicts, inequalities, and social precariousness, which are increasingly also treated by many Europeans, Chinese, and North-Americans. One could also add inquiries into the social effects of unequal and the fast economic growth that gave rise to the growing political prominence of an emerging middle class, or the vulnerabilities of neoliberal variants of contemporary capitalism, or the extent to which consumption capacities enhance the restless yet uncertain daily lives and aspirations of individuals and their families. These are only some examples about the prominent role that the regional social sciences could play, even anticipating global trends.
The need of strengthening our disciplines is equally worthwhile whether as means of illustration or emancipation. It is relevant also for those who distrust institutions and promote radical changes or re-define mobilizing utopias; they cannot resign themselves to produce and justify their actions based only on intuition or voluntarism.
The lack of scientifically backed and solid knowledge limits citizens to learn about their own countries and their own life conditions, leaving them with inadequate means. Trivialization, dogmatism and simplistic visions are always there to bridge that gap, and advertising and slogans gain ground in instilling an image of society in public opinion. The latter is by no means promising: it leads to confusion and puzzlement, confusing sociological knowledge with statements of commentators who expose their particular, often short-lived statements and beliefs to audiences looking to ratify theirs, or trying hard to hide their boredom through scandal and sensationalism.
It is necessary to state that the desired strengthening and global positioning of the regional social sciences, and the indicated possibilities, are not something that will happen automatically over time. The effects of a passive attitude are comparable to an escalator: Everyone is moving, but the distances remains the same. It is therefore pertinent to inquire deeper into the opportunities for resolving our current shortcomings and making contributions to development, while avoiding detrimental attitudes such as the convenient hall criticism around a glass of wine, cup of tea or coffee, or the submission to the hegemony of scientific production standards without intervening.
The social sciences lessons that are critical and rigorous need to be emphasized. Both conditions are crucial for these disciplines to be regarded as source of expertise. Centuries old public universities and new academic centers are potential sources of deeply significant and thoughtful contributions not only for enhancing the sociological comprehension of societies, but most importantly, for Latin America to become the place for imagining the future we want for a humane living together. We must not forget, nevertheless, that we should keep our expectations modest, no matter if they are about the kind of truth and objectivity of our temporary knowledge, or about the expected benefits of their application. But, still, these restrictions remain better than their current alternatives.
Irrespective of the strategies adopted, the integration of the regional scholarship in new discussions, along with critical and creative appropriation of their debates, is highly desirable. In summary, the regional social sciences must keep their theories and methods updated in pace with the need to explain changing realities that are often profoundly linked to global and systemic social processes.
The challenges have been defined and we must make a choice: to start off or to keep waiting.
Marcelo Arnold-Cathalifaud, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Universidad de Chile. He served as President of the Latin American Assocation of Sociology (ALAS), 2013-2015. He edited El pensamiento latinoamericano: diálogos en ALAS. Sociedad y Sociología (2015). He authored many publications on social systems theory. His research focuses on the development of sociopoiesis, constructivist epistemology, organizational systems, emerging complexities of contemporary society such as social effects of biosciences on societies, organisms and environment, changes in social collaboration and solidarity; politics, social inequity and exclusion; development of regional social sciences and, lately, the impacts of population ageing. – Email: email@example.com
Banner Image: A tree in winter under a deep blue sky, waiting to grow green in the spring; the regional social sciences are waiting for their moment (Marcelo Arnold-Cathalifaud, 2016).
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