Beyond theory

August 18, 2019

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The writer is an independent researcher, social policy analyst and lecturer in international development and global migration.
The writer is an independent researcher, social policy analyst and lecturer in international development and global migration.

THE social sciences have long been an outlier when it comes to higher education in Pakistan. The discipline, which includes economics and political science, is often misinterpreted as one that holds no real potential. People see it as an academic exercise in philosophy taken up by those who have no real intention of having a career, or who, at the most, want to ‘work with an NGO’ — another misunderstood career path.

In actuality, modern social sciences are quite the opposite, having moved beyond philosophy, anthropology and economic theory to include subjects such as human migration, public health and education, community organisation, behavioural sciences, gender equality and human rights, each a discipline unto itself.

As Pakistan’s social and political institutions, including our educational institutions, deteriorate, the importance of educating students on such issues is increasing — more importantly, educating students using methodologies that are firmly grounded in real-life applications involving such issues.

But the teaching of the social sciences in Pakistan, like many other things, still follows the age-old tradition of grounding it in textbook theory, taught by those who view the world as a social experiment. As a development practitioner, and now teaching university students based on my experience in the field, a gap is apparent when students can’t make the connection between what they see around them every day and the role that various elements of society have to play to progress effectively.

The social sciences are quite the opposite of how they are perceived.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that many universities are unable to hire practitioners as permanent faculty — let alone recognise their ability to contribute to academia — because they lack a PhD degree. The Higher Education Commission does not allow non-PhDs to hold permanent positions in academia.

But if it is mostly practitioners of the social sciences who do not have PhD degrees, it is also mostly the same practitioners who can provide real-life examples of how public policy is developed and implemented (or not) and its impact on daily life. This does not only include the ‘NGO types’, but public servants, bureaucrats, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, health practitioners, women’s rights activists and many more whose job it is to work within systems that are meant to provide social, economic and political solutions to citizens.

For the moment, universities here that offer social sciences as a degree tend to fill this gap via either guest lectures by such practitioners, or at the most, a course taught by a visiting fellow. But it is not simply hiring practitioners that is the issue. A change is required in the approach to teaching the social sciences, where practitioner-based education is absorbed into the curriculum, where theory is mixed with practice through exposure to practical exercises and interactions with real social systems beyond classrooms and textbooks.

This is not to undermine the worth or utility of a PhD degree or those who have taken up academics as a profession. Instead, it is to point out that simply relying on theory is no longer an option in today’s world.

Issues such as providing access to basic healthcare or education, or minimum wage to workers, or access to justice to rape survivors, to name a few ‘social science’-related issues, cannot be debated in just a theoretical context. They require those who have had exposure to working in these fields, to create a knowledge base for students who may wish to pursue a career in these areas.

And many do wish to join these ranks. Many of my students have been attracted to careers in the development and humanitarian fields. Exposing them to mere theoretical propositions cannot prepare them for the enormous challenges of the real world.

Canada’s former prime minister Stephen Harper infamously claimed in 2014, after a foiled domestic terror attack, that now was not the time to “commit sociology”, ie rooting out the causes of radicalisation was nowhere near as important as rooting out the radicals themselves. The maligned reputation of the social sciences in Pakistan echoes this sentiment, where the emphasis on, for instance, Marxian or Keynesian economics is deemed sufficient to equip students to address the root causes of poverty or failed public policy. In reality, the causes form a complex web of interconnected issues that require a detailed look at how people respond to inequality and abuse.

Understanding society and its norms and structures does require an understanding of the theories behind it. But addressing the ills of society also requires an understanding of how it functions on a daily basis. Pakistan’s current approach to social sciences in higher education needs to understand that as well.

The writer is an independent researcher, social policy analyst and lecturer in international development and global migration.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2019