To ad­dress in­equal­ity, stud­ies must take into ac­count how peo­ple in­ter­pret re­al­ity on the ground

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer is a pro­fes­sor with the Cen­tre for Pol­icy Re­search and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (CenPRIS), Univer­siti Sains Malaysia

AMONG other things, neg­a­tive plu­ral­ism trans­forms in­ter­ests into prin­ci­ples and claims into rights, and max­imises cleav­age pol­i­tics. It re­in­forces parochial com­mu­ni­tar­i­an­ism and col­lec­tivises in­di­vid­u­al­ism. It makes dif­fer­ence the pri­or­ity ba­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and ac­count­abil­ity. Uni­ver­sal sectarianism thus poses the unan­swer­able ques­tion of how tol­er­ant of the in­tol­er­ant a demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal sys­tem can be, es­pe­cially when po­lit­i­cal par­ties and move­ments be­come locked into stale­mates that thwart the in­sti­tu­tional bases of ac­com­mo­da­tion, ac­count­abil­ity and con­sent.

As such, David E. Apter ar­gues for a new mod­erni­sa­tion the­ory that can be­come use­ful for the recog­ni­tion and the anal­y­sis of neg­a­tive plu­ral­ism, which cre­ates a di­vide be­tween the tech­no­log­i­cally lit­er­ate and the tech­no­log­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged. The re­sult­ing po­lar­i­sa­tion goes well be­yond the­o­ries of class di­vi­sion to cog­ni­tive dif­fer­ences, each with its own de­ploy­ment of in­tel­li­gence.

Sub­se­quently, in­ter­ests are raised to the level of prin­ci­ples. This high­lights dif­fer­ences of re­li­gion, caste, race, lan­guage and other cat­e­gor­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions, and turns them into of­ten pro­found con­vic­tions, ex­ag­ger­at­ing dif­fer­ences rather than min­imis­ing them, and favour­ing the po­ten­tial for con­flict over me­di­a­tion. In turn, this re­in­forces and per­pet­u­ates dif­fer­ences that threaten pre­vail­ing in­sti­tu­tional frame­works, and ren­ders party pol­i­tics a war by other means.

Mod­erni­sa­tion the­ory ef­fec­tively dis­ap­peared be­fore what had hap­pened in the 20th and this cen­tury. It took Franz Fanon to ex­tend its shelf life for a while in­stead of Tal­cott Par­sons. But as Apter ex­plains, the old mod­erni­sa­tion the­ory dis­ap­peared for good rea­sons. It was in­flu­en­tial but never dominant in the so­cial sci­ences, and it was al­ways the ob­ject of sus­pi­cion — iron­i­cally, not from us.

Apter, Yale scholar in Com­par­a­tive Po­lit­i­cal and So­cial De­vel­op­ment, ex­plains that among the many weak­nesses of early mod­erni­sa­tion the­ory was that its cat­e­gories ig­nored the im­por­tant ways that peo­ple in­ter­preted “sys­tem­i­cally de­fined” re­al­ity on the ground.

There was much talk about norms and values, but in the ab­stract rather than con­cretely. On the whole, it ig­nored the events and ac­tual cir­cum­stances of roles and the lives as lived within them.

Miss­ing was much sense of how in­ter­pre­ta­tion acted to change that re­al­ity it­self. As a re­sult, a good num­ber of the the­ory’s more con­fi­dent pred­i­ca­tions turned out to be, if not wrong, then not right enough — such as the rise of sec­u­lar­ism, and now var­i­ous forms of ex­trem­ism at the ex­pense of the sa­cred. One can ar­gue that if we ac­cept that the driv­ing force of de­vel­op­ment was in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, and de­vel­op­ment was the driv­ing force of mod­erni­sa­tion, over time it has be­come clear that uni­ver­sal func­tion­al­ity does not so eas­ily ride roughshod over pre­vail­ing and more parochial par­tic­u­larisms, such as race, eth­nic­ity, re­li­gion, and dif­fer­ences of lan­guage and kin­ship.

Much that was re­ported in the 2010 World So­cial Science Re­port and ar­gu­ments, such as the one by Apter, im­ply a more struc­tured in­ter­est in so­cial science re­search in the non-Western world. The use of the con­ven­tional bib­lio­met­rics misses out a vast body of dy­namic so­cial science schol­ar­ship and ad­vo­cacy be­ing cre­ated through other means — more sys­temic, con­cep­tu­ally and em­pir­i­cally con­crete.

We ar­gue that good so­cial science lies in what peo­ple say about their cir­cum­stances, how they in­ter­pret their con­di­tion, and the nar­ra­tives they form, from and out of which they con­struct a logic of ac­tion. We need to be able to read words and acts like a text — a so­cial text, as Clif­ford Geertz would have it, much af­ter read­ing In­done­sia as a “theatre state”.

We can­not ex­pect the act and the text to have un­der­gone sub­stan­tive changes since 2010. The in­equal­ity of so­ci­eties and knowl­edge pro­duc­tion re­mains. While the WSSR 2016 urges gov­ern­ments, es­pe­cially in Asia and Africa, to end a cul­ture of un­der­in­vest­ment in so­cial science re­search into in­equal­ity, it ar­gues that if we take in­equal­ity se­ri­ously, we need se­ri­ous so­cial science re­search into the long-term im­pact of in­equal­ity on peo­ple’s lives.

And to that, non-Western so­cial science schol­ars must al­ways be alert on the cor­pus and the dis­course lest we subscribe to the­o­ries, poli­cies and ac­tions that are re­moved from our sys­temic re­al­i­ties.

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