Social Science and Democracy: An Elective Affinity

by Dipankar Gupta, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi, India

Dipankar Gupta is a distinguished Indian sociologist and leading public intellectual. He is Professor and Director of the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory at the Shiv Nadar University in New Delhi. For nearly three decades he taught sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The author and editor of eighteen books, he has written on a vast array of topics related to India’s postcolonial transformation. His most recent book, Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite, argues that democracy advances through interventions from above. He is a regular columnist for The Times of India and The Hindu and is involved in public affairs through participation in various institutions, including directorships of the Reserve Bank of India and of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. He has been a visiting Professor in Toronto, Paris, and London as well as a senior fellow in various universities in the US. The recipient of many honors, in 2010 he was awarded the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. A fuller version of this article can be found at Global Express .

Ever wonder why social sciences, including philosophy, flourish only in democratic societies? Some of the world’s richest countries – Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia, for example – have made great strides in the natural sciences, but the social sciences are in miserable shape. China and Russia can match advances in electronics, physics, medicine, transportation, with the best, but bring in sociology, political science, economics, even history, and these countries falter. Is it only in democracies that social sciences are actively pursued? And, if so, why?

Some have argued that an apparent affinity between democracy and the social sciences masks a more superficial prejudice – that the apparent connection is actually a product of a specific Western culture. Perhaps the social sciences only appear to be culturally neutral when, in fact, they are confined to European or American concerns? Many non-Western critics of social sciences promote indigenous categories, as a corrective that also exposes the universalistic pretensions of the social sciences. But this approach forgets that the social sciences have developed only recently, even in Europe and America. Once, these knowledge systems were novel in those parts of the world as well, drawing none of their analytical powers from medieval, or even late medieval, Europe.

Before democracy, the context for the pursuit of social sciences did not exist. Nor were the kinds of data – staple items in modern sociology, political science, and economics – available. Social sciences were born when a new context emerged, and when a new set of facts became relevant – a twin thrust that together propelled the growth of the social sciences.

As long as knowledge consisted of beliefs handed down from above, whether church or state, secularism was out of the question, waiting in the wings until the individual could ask: “Before I believe what you say, prove it to me”. For the social sciences, secularism is key, because we study people in action. Lives do not remain static because contexts differ across the globe and in history. The natural sciences have more leeway: Water always quenches thirst, rainbow arcs the sky and fire brings both smoke and light. None of these require democracy, nor have they changed since its arrival. The social sciences are different.

For the social sciences, it is relevant – no, essential – to frame observations with the understanding that what others do impacts the self, even defines it. This aspect, so central today, did not hold valency or weight in the past. In earlier times, communities, groups, solidarities, tribes, castes, affines and blood relatives, lived within their confines, but we had no society. Wide-ranging, regular interactions across primordial frontiers – the subject of social scientific inquiry – arrived only recently in human history. With the coming of society, it is no longer possible to remain tightly bound within pre-existing groups: the awareness of the “other” becomes pivotal to the constitution of even one’s self.

In democracy, this awareness becomes all the more significant. Policies or economic initiative must consider multiple interests, even those of the less privileged. Britain’s 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, for example, was a major step in establishing democracy: it meant that labor would no longer be confined to parish-run poor houses, but could move freely in search of jobs.

Democracy surfaced a new, grand fact. From its inception, we began to accept human beings as rational goal-seeking actors, free to choose their path. With choices we are also liable to make errors – a welcome price to pay, for it is only when one is unafraid of making errors that innovative things happen.

What does this imply? When individual errors are not penalized, there is scope both for improvement and innovation. If democracy’s laws are not violated, errors that respect its boundaries are welcome. Democracy allows many routes: different ways of raising children, leading a married life, choosing jobs and professions, making friends. In the past, these choices did not exist; but in democracy, even those who find it difficult to break with traditional prejudices are constrained to restrain primordial instincts.

It is this thicket of trial-and-error that constitutes the empirical material of the social sciences. Making a mistake may be unfortunate from a personal point of view, but for the social sciences, errors are fundamental, giving social scientists both their data and their concepts. Democracy is the necessary condition for the emergence of social sciences, for it is only then that acceptance of errors becomes unexceptional.

Imagine yourself an economist in a pre-democratic society. For all practical purposes, the market was known, and buyers and sellers of commodities and services were pre-fixed and tagged from the start. Medieval “karkhanas” [workshops] produced for a defined category of buyers; skills were needed, but not enterprise. Nor was it possible to make an “economic” error; risk-taking did not arise, because buying and selling were shaped by custom or patronage. When land was not easily alienable, nor labor free to move around, status was defined from the start, which is why economics as a scholarly discipline had no place in pre-democratic times. There was no “hidden hand,” no market disequilibrium, no errors of judgment that led to economic swings and bankruptcy.

In a context where multiple interests interact, however, a democracy must eventually conduct its economy with sensitivity. While the market’s hidden hand operates, occasionally the state’s exposed hand is necessary to maintain social equilibrium. If government gives in to the interests of one class or the other, it takes that much longer for a hurt economy to heal – a pattern that reveals how central to democracy are the awareness of others, cross-cutting interests, and the admissibility of errors.

Economics as a discipline would not have a leg to stand on if it were not for the basic principle that people make mistakes. Is it time for quantitative easing? Should the exchange rate be pegged at a certain level? In totalitarian economies, the scope for such inquiries is severely restricted because decisions are taken from above. In democracies, we can insist “prove it.”

Similarly, by separating power from authority, political science underlines its dependence on democracy. In the past, rulers had power, but authority comes only with popular mandate, freely exercised. With democracy, other people count. Democracy accepts the multiplicity of interests in society as a necessary condition; conflicting views and goals must be expressed within a framework of free and fair elections, for no matter which party wields authority, it does so not in the name of God, or King, but People. In order to succeed, any authority-seeker must balance conflicting interests – agriculturists, industrial laborers, the white-collar class, and so on. And all these fractions have sub-fractions, compelling those in politics to pay attention to “others.”

For political science, it is imperative that the system allows people to make and unmake mistakes – always within a set of rules. Make mistakes, and you lose power. In a democracy, those in authority cannot take their elevation for granted: voters can change their minds, and are even encouraged to do so. Without democracy, there are no choices, no elections, no recanting and no anti-incumbency factor.

What of sociology, a discipline whose primary objective is to refract phenomena through classes, categories, genders, occupational groups? Social practices such as marriage are examined in terms of actual practice, or through different lenses, exploring the effects of caste, class, religion, occupation – a style of inquiry that starts from awareness of “others.”

Resisting popular conceptions of reality, or, more specifically, essentialism, sociology self-consciously digs deep into the comparative method, exploring variations over time as well as space, forcing the scholar to be dispassionate and critical. Through comparative studies we explore the general features of a social phenomenon, whether religion, marriage or social preference – as well as understand how social facts may manifest differently, depending on their setting.

Thus, sociology’s link with democracy is easy to understand: in the awareness of “others,” of context, this discipline defines itself, focusing on how people interact within and across cultural borders and economic boundaries. It is this attribute of deliberate refraction that lets sociology be a pacesetter in several areas, notably the study of social mobility.

In non-democratic settings, where is the freedom to ask those questions? Without the freedom that democracy allows, any enquiry along these lines would be labeled subversive. A democracy, by contrast, takes nourishment from such investigations, because all aspirants to authority compete, and it gauges how best to represent multiple interests.

Sociology can seem activist, or prompted by policy makers’ immediate interests. This is a misreading of the discipline, but it is also true that democratic politicians can profit from sociology: if policy makers want a complete picture of a problem, they can turn to sociology.

Yet when sociologists work at the behest of activists, they risk tainting their data to suit non-academic interests. Sociology is best suited to ask about the direction of change in a holistic fashion – often generating red-hot contestations, often obscuring the wider view. But sociology can also help, by plotting out paths towards a more inclusive society – producing greater participation, and greater tolerance of differences and errors. At the very heart of sociology, rests the proposition that people make errors, but that they also try to correct them, pursuing goals through means not pre-determined.

Similar arguments hold for history and philosophy. History, properly speaking, is an obsession with the present; we look at the past from the vantage point of our finite lifetimes. In democracies, scrutiny of bygone periods allows us to accept flaws of the past, while recognizing how earlier epochs influence the present. Without this, history remains a colorless chronicle, or a colorful hagiography – in both cases academically useless.

Philosophy, likewise, was transformed by the advent of democracy. The “self” which, in isolation, ruled Western philosophy from Descartes to Kant, has had to make room for the “other” – a transformation which should not be read as accommodative, but rather as constitutive, because philosophy today clearly admits that there really is no self without the other. If democracy signifies a concern for “others” and allows for errors, we are really talking about “citizenship” – ethics writ large, the corner stone of democratic law and governance. Democratic constitutions and penal codes are premised on accepting “others” as ethical agents, ontologically similar to ourselves, complements of our being.

When the “other” becomes so central, and when the acceptance of “errors” is routine, we are actually talking about citizenship; social scientists try to strengthen citizenship, for in doing so they consolidate their respective disciplines. The strength of a democracy can be judged from the strength and depth of its social sciences. Freedom of choice, the openness towards “errors” and the realization that others impact the self, are conditions available only to citizens in democracies. Consequently, the social sciences cannot be characterized as Western or Eurocentric. If anything, they should be seen as citizen-centric, perhaps even citizentric, disciplines.

Direct all correspondence to Dipankar Gupta:

India, Volume 5, Issue 3

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