Kamran Asdar Ali, professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, at a seminar last Wednesday in the Alison Richard Building at the University of Cambridge, provided a comprehensive overview of the state of the social sciences in Pakistani Universities.
His talk was advertised as part of a series entitled ‘Critical Pakistan’, a forum that some Pakistani graduate students conjured into existence. The talk was partially focused on the overall scholarship in world universities on different themes pertinent to socio-political issues.
As an academic with 30 years of experience of teaching and research under his belt, Kamran Asdar perceptively narrated and analysed various aspects of higher education in Pakistan. The striking aspect of his talk was its balance. He avoided relating the usual doom and gloom scenario. While obviously critical of the prevailing state of knowledge production in the country, he also underlined a number of positives. Problems like self-censorship, scarcity of tangible resources, as well as the all-pervading perception that the social sciences and humanities have become superfluous as compared to quantitative subjects, were scrutinised at length.
The need to diversify and to turn to newer themes other than the mega narrative was also emphasised in his interactive hour and a half long talk. He was spot on in his observations that themes like Pakistani cinema, television, theatre, cricket, hockey and the history of small towns do not attract any scholarly attention which is deplorable. Multi-disciplinarity among the social sciences is another aspect that is starkly omitted, he argued.
Tellingly, he stated that in an environment in which the socio-political landscape has become so complex and interstitial, discursive boundaries can hardly remain neatly crystallised. For example, new approaches such as environmental and cultural history have made it imperative for historians to draw on geology and geography in an extensive manner, making inter-disciplinary co-operation and technique essential to modern research.
While listening to him, the disconnect of the social sciences with our social milieu played heavily on my mind. This disconnect renders a great deal of social science research irrelevant to us. In such circumstances, new theories are needed in order to indigenise the existing body of knowledge. At the moment, students are forced to learn material and theory which is absolutely steeped in western epistemology. Thus, it is through rote learning that the knowledge of social sciences is imparted.
In view of this reality, I underscore the need of theory so that social sciences can be re-defined in accordance with the indigenous realities. When I put to a colleague of mine the question of how Pakistan can be defined in sociological terms, she was brave enough to concede that so far, such questions are conveniently avoided. Sociological problems are being dealt with using quantitative tools.
Using such methods, I wonder if the fundamental questions about Pakistan as a distinct social formation can ever be resolved. Similarly, we have yet to produce any political theorist of any merit. We have a good number of talented political scientists, but their analysis lacks the indigenous touch simply because Pakistan’s political trends are made sense of in the light of Western theory. That is what differentiates Pakistani scholarship from its Indian alternative.
During the seminar, Professor Kamal Munir commented that the indifference displayed towards the humanities and social sciences was a universal, not just a Pakistani, phenomenon. He argued that even Harvard University is struggling to keep the humanities from faltering.
Undoubtedly, the social sciences and humanities both have an uncertain future. The best students, he said, opt for the sciences of finance, law, economics or medicine, as those are the areas upon which a materialistic society places most emphasis.
Later, I broached this point with Dr Kevin Greenbank, a trained historian and archivist at Centre of South Asian Studies, who revealed that at the University of Cambridge the budgetary allocation for student fees for both sciences and non-sciences is equal. Furthermore, the people doing sciences here do all they can to support social sciences and humanities because they consider these disciplines absolutely crucial.
When he was making his point, I kept thinking about the prevalent trend and concluded that the dialectical interface of social scientists with this trend is important for the social sciences. Social scientists usually draw on a situation, conjured up as a result of the dialectical relationship they come to have with the existing trend(s). The only pre-condition is a bit of out-of-the-box thinking which requires creative engagement with the existing discursive trends and patterns.
One point which could not secure our attention at that talk was with respect to Humanities and the prominence that cultural studies have gained over the years. Creative writing and fiction have steadily moved out of academe for several decades. Many noble laureates in literature have in recent years had hardly any interaction with universities. I therefore think that a large section of literary production has for some time had its own (independent) existence, which does not at all mean that it has declined.
Similarly, Islamic Studies as well as the History and Politics of various Muslim regions have increasingly become the focus of scholarly attention in recent years. The amount of knowledge produced about Islam in various universities may have a positive effect on the myopic traditional streams of knowledge production in that particular subject.
Another thing which was very briefly touched upon was the element of fear that inhibits social scientists. This is a fait-accompli and nobody has any clue on how to resolve it. Muslims have, as Khaled Ahmed avers, done wonderful work in polities that are ruled and governed by non-Muslims. Probably, there they get the requisite space to think and act too. In regions ruled by the Muslims, such luxury is sadly not available.