What, we might ask – in the age of big data, automation and artificial intelligence – can the social sciences and humanities contribute to dealing with global environmental change? While the global challenges of climate change, escalating social inequality, mega-urbanisation, shifting geopolitics, and so on, are closely interconnected, our abilities to understand and to deal with such complex and strongly interrelated problems remain limited.
Despite the technological innovations and smart gadgets that flood our contemporary world, what is urgently needed is to realise how unfit for purpose our perceptual, cognitive and even moral collective capacities are to conceive of and deal with the rapidly changing global situation. It is only by acknowledging how much we don’t know, and by trying to do something about it, that we may begin the transformation of knowledge systems needed to develop what we may call a truly ‘global intelligence’. By this, we mean a global collective capacity, or learned capacities necessary to cope efficiently and equitably with accelerated environmental change. Such capacities can only result from countless reflective human and ethical experiences which are already being assembled across the globe.
The World Social Science Report 2013 provides a unique opportunity to grasp the meaning of such multiple capacities and to unveil the kinds of decisive contributions that social scientists can make to their realisation. Rich examples of collaborative initiatives, many at local and community scale, as well as a wealth of reflective practical and theoretical insights about models of human behaviour are provided by the more than 150 contributors to the report from around the world. This impressive document gives a fundamental basis to learn the many institutional, social and cultural arrangements that ought to be tested and put together to confront the current quandary. But at the same time, such essential work is also proof that those societies which do not take seriously the potential contribution of the social sciences may diminish their ability to cope with environmental change, simply because the collective intelligence capacities needed to anticipate, describe and provide accurate context-based solutions to global challenges will also be undermined. As stated in the report, through engaged research, the social sciences can bring a kind of knowledge which is ‘indispensable for a clearer understanding of the causes and consequences of global environmental change, and for informing more effective, equitable and durable solutions to today’s broader sustainability problems’ (p.36).
The World Social Science Report 2013 is a blatant example of the urgent need for pluralistic, albeit not relativistic, world views and methods to deal with the complexity of the contemporary world. It is only by systematic and meticulous observation and accurate analysis of our own societies – not only as we wish them to be – but as they actually prove to be in the many hidden and tacit structures in which social action takes place, that we may have a chance to construct a more humane and viable prospect for all of us. Social sciences face many difficulties to flourish, and are prone to many misunderstandings and even to being despised, in contexts in which reflectivity is not actively pursued, or is simply ignored. But a main reason for that may lie in the fact that social sciences constitute one of the main intellectual sources for societal and even personal transformation. As we improve our concepts, methods and theories to interpret and understand our own societies, we reveal the limitations of our own human condition, and the many imperfections, inequalities and disfunctionalities of the world we have created. But at the same time, we can also propose more robust and realistic options to construct a new common future. As argued in the report, what we need is ‘a new kind of social science: one that is bolder, better, bigger and different’, and in which gives us the tools to adequately ‘frame the change, be the change, build capacity for change and enable change’ (p.49). Indeed, because after all, the kind of science and knowledge systems that we want will depend on the kind of world we want, in the same way that the kind of world we want will depend on the kind of science and knowledge systems we promote to build such world.
Transformative science requires a radical shift from a science which is mostly concerned in describing the causes of problems to an integrated science which is committed also to a robust understanding of the solutions – and to showing how to implement them in an effective and equitable way. This calls not only for the acknowledgment and a better understanding of the complexity of biophysical systems but, above all, of the key complex moral and cultural components that drive our global social dynamics and structures. In this respect, social scientists are especially well-equipped to reconcile and integrate multiple ethical frameworks and sources of knowledge while, at the same time, interpreting and managing the diversity and richness of the many local perspectives which are called for to define and propose systemic solutions to our complex situation. As shown in the World Social Science Report 2013, social scientists are not only indispensible to build more tolerant, open and diverse societies but, above all in the present predicament, to develop the necessary global intelligence which is urgently required to adequately reflect and cope with our rapidly unequal changing world.
I would specially like to thank Professor Stewart Lockie for his comments which largely improved the original manuscript.
This piece first appeared in Global Dialogue, the newsletter of the International Sociological Association
Image: NASA via Flickr