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Reexamining social sciences in the context of globalization (II)

Michel Wieviorka | 2014-04-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today


French sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, regarded as the father of structural anthropology


Review: In an article published by CSST on April 10, Professor Wievi­orka stressed that the "universal value" of the social sciences should be reconstructed from the perspec­tive of globalization.


Getting rid of methodological nationalism                                                   German sociologist Ulrich Beck, with one incisive phrase, sum­marizes the task we face today: to give up what he terms "methodo­logical nationalism". In employing methodological nationalism, social scientists limit the perspectives they take in interpreting their research to a specific national context. Once  methodological nationalism we jet­tison, we will soon see that we need to reconsider everything about our research, from the objects of study to our research tools, theories and paradigms. When we study social integration in the context of the European Union (EU), for example, what we are considering is the issue of European integration. Employing the perspective of methodological nationalism, we study social integra­tion by examining immigrants—are they able to find a foothold in Euro­pean countries? Some will complete­ly lose their original identity; others will discover they actually have more affinity with the community they subsequently joined. If, however, we drop the methodological national­ist perspective, we have to consider some other issues. For instance, where do these immigrants come from? How do they get through the transitional period? What is their liv­ing situation like—e.g. are they living in shantytowns? If we change our methodology and our perspective, the logic of the same issue becomes completely different.                   


There is also an incredible difference between methodological nationalism and a transnational perspective when we look at the issue of people returning to their ancestral country after one or more generations living abroad. During 1915-1920, a number of Japanese immigrants settled in Latin America, particularly in Brazil. Traditional sociologists would probably choose to study how and to what extent these immigrants and their descendants integrated into Latin American society. One of my doctoral students considered another question: how are the Second and Third generation Japanese immigrants treated when they return to Japan? The student found they were treated with racial prejudice. Though they are Japanese in their appearance, they are not spiritually; therefore, they live in more marginalized circumstances in Japan than in Brazil.


Analysis of these kinds of issues transcends the scope of what we ad­dress in traditional sociology. These transformations drive us to rethink sociology and all disciplines in the social sciences. For example, history, in its traditional sense, focuses on na­tional narratives. However, the shift to a more transnational perspective has spurred two simultaneously changes in historiography: some researchers investigate global his­tory, while others consider personal history, including the stories of mar­ginalized groups.


Transcending traditional boundaries in research                                          During the period when Europe and America had a quasi-monopoly on the social sciences, there was a distinction between sociology and anthropology based on specializa­tion. Sociologists studied Western society, while anthropologists fo­cused on non-Western nations and ethnic groups. Now this division of research has been broken in the West. The formerly "distant" coun­tries and ethnicities that anthropolo­gists studied have become part of the world system, and now anthropolo­gists need to adjust their focus to phenomena within the same sphere they inhabit. For instance, one French anthropologist studies on the subways and Jardin du Luxembourg (a large public park) in Paris. Sociol­ogy has also changed dramatically. Formerly, sociologists only studied domestic issues within a country or nation. To the extent their research involved international affairs, it was simply for background. The way sociologists look at war and terror­ism is particularly indicative of this trend. In the 1960s and 1970s, they considered terrorism as something that took place inside a nation or a country. It was placed in the internation­al context only when a region tried to secede and become independent. However, since the September 11 attacks oc­curred in 2001, we have con­ceived of terror­ism as a global phenomenon. To un­derstand why terrorism has caused innumerable victims throughout the world, we need to examine it from a new, global perspective while we study the country where the terror­ism occurs.


The same can be said for war, the study of which requires both a regional and global perspective. In New and Old Wars, Mary Henrietta Kaldor describes wars fought today are different from those fought in the past. Likewise, development studies also needs to employ a global rather than merely a regional perspective. The English book Social Stratifica­tion in the BRIC Countries: Changes and Perspectives, co-edited by Li Peilin and other scholars from the BRICs countries, is a prime example, demonstrating that when studying a phenomenon in developing coun­tries, we should examine more than one country.


Over-specialization and excessive division                                                            In a previous analysis I described how in the 1960s, the majority of scholars in the social sciences were willing to construct grand systems that allowed for both comprehensive thinking and research on concrete topics. Today, the development of the social sciences is a far cry from such ambitious undertakings. There's slight irony in how this current situ­ation plays out in academe today. Suppose a scholar publishes a very rigorous paper that uses new data to account for 92% of a phenomenon where before we had only been able to account for 87% of that phenomenon. In other words, we can explain the phenom­enon 5% more. Although this work is clearly very fruitful, it is use­ful only to a handful of people who are working on the same or similar topics. The scholar who contributed the additional "5%" contributions is very happy to discuss their work with the 1-2% of scholars who are advancing this research. Well-trained in quantitative and statistical meth­ods, their academic communication has also become globalized, as they often keep contact with scholars from other places studying the same questions. However, they probably will never discuss their research with colleagues who occupy the of­fice next door.


The environment in which we live and work is increasingly closed off. Scholars confine their focus to issues squarely within their own research fields, seldom participating in broad­er discussions. There are two causal factors for this over-specialization we need to address: the organiza­tion of universities and trends in academic publishing. The modern university system inevitably fosters division between disciplines rather than multi-disciplinary integration. Worldwide, universities encourage students to choose a particular field or major. When students go on to be­gin their academic careers, they are further confined by pressures from evaluation systems. To make a differ­ence early in their academic career, junior scholars are much more likely to publish a paper that explains a single specific phenomenon "5%" more than they are to publish a pa­per exploring a broad topic. This sort of fragmentation and specialization removes scholars from public dis­cussion.


Indeed, our current system en­courages specialization. At the same time though, we should have the ability to establish a more compre­hensive and extensive theoretical perspective. The American sociolo­gist Michael Burawoy, in his book Public Sociology, has pointed out where the problem lies.


Cross-disciplinary cooperation in knowledge production                                  In the 1960s, sociologists were quite interested in developing static analytical frameworks, like function­alism articulated by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons and structuralism by French sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Our current cir­cumstances have changed, however, and the social sciences need cross-disciplinary discussion to provide its disciplines with new perspectives. In the past few years there have been plenty of instances where sociolo­gists collaborated with scholars from other disciplines. For example, the social sciences and natural sciences have cooperated to produce cogni­tive science. Interpreting society from a biological perspective can certainly be risky, but sociologists need to work with biologists. There­fore, as one of the foremost scholars of social networks, Manuel Castells became famous for his popular tril­ogy The Rise of the Network Society. Geneticists can also cooperate with archaeologists to understand more about how a group lived through genetic analysis.


The social sciences have entered the era of globalization. This con­text is actually quite conducive to social science research. To create a more promising future for the so­cial sciences, scholars need both to be critical about the current state of the social sciences, and free to choose their own research field and subject. They must decide their own academic paths.


Michel Wieviorka is a French sociologist and the director of the Centre d'Analyses et d'Interventions Sociologique (CADIS) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. 


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 568, March 7, 2014

Translated by Baile

Revised by Charles Horne