The Wither of Social Sciences (?): A Problem of Relevancy in Contemporary Times

The announcement from the Indonesian Government a few months ago regarding the budget cut for LPDP scholarships in the social science field, although shocking to some, was not a surprise. The budget cut shows an inherent problem that has plagued social science since quite some time, mainly regarding the role of social sciences in the “real world”, or in other words, its relevancy. Throughout this article, I intend to show contributing factors to the problem of relevancy, and what could be done regarding it.     

The problem of social science regarding its relevancy is nothing new. In history, the term “ivory tower” is used to describe social scientists that, with their far-reaching and sophisticated theories, are often perceived far from reality. This issue of relevancy had been attempted to be fixed through the rise of behavioralism in the 1970s, with the intention to make social science  (especially political science) more “scientific” with the adoption of the natural science methodology. This trial was not a success due to resistance from social scientists adopting the term, “post-positivism”. The issue of relevancy has become more important, especially with the “post”-term distancing it more and more from social science.

How did this happen? Even though there are no precise answers that could be offered, I have come up with two premises; 1) too many people are learning social sciences with too few empirical events or case studies to analyze, and 2) especially in Indonesia, there are not many places to practice things learnt in classrooms. In the first premise, what I meant with few empirical events is that most international events are focusing on too few events. For example the contemporary world mostly emphasizes on events concerning Donald Trump, the Korean Missile Crisis, and Brexit. This contributes to the question of relevancy in two ways. First is that because too many people are studying social sciences when empirical events are few, most of the research, studies, and findings are often similar. It is very hard to find groundbreaking research when almost all academic products are similarMoreover, what happens is that these researches overstate themselves to be the most “groundbreaking” when almost all of them are similar. Based on my observation, the only way to be groundbreaking is to ally yourself with policy-making institutions or high-ranking officials, making your thoughts heard outside academia. However, this solution also has its problem. By allying oneself with said parties, scholars are prone to produce something that is biased toward those particular institutions or officials.

Academic products that are not biased toward policy-making institutions or high-ranking officials could be interpreted as something irrelevant. This is what’s being criticized by several scholars and gave birth to the critical studies; criticizing the relationship between academia and structure of power hegemony. In addition to creating a lively debate within academia, it has also created another problem contributing to the issue of irrelevancy. On the other hand, there will also be varied academic products based on the many perspectives towards one particular subject. Take for example the study of security (security studies). When looking at security studies alone, one of the most surprising facts is that it can be seen through many perspectives such as State Security, Feminist Security, and Post-Colonial Security. This many perspectives, however fruitful for academic discussion, rarely exits academia to find its way in the real world. For example, it is rare that people are talking about Post-Colonial security in security sectors. Even the “-ism” in International Relations theories such as Realism and Liberalism is rarely considered by policy makers and is instead merely a jargon used by academia.  It is then very hard for scholars to disseminate social science ideas and when they do, it’s still difficult to influence the policy-makers.

The second premise is the fact that finding a place to practice has become problematic, especially in Indonesia. It’s hard to find opportunities for social science students to practice what they have learnt in class. As such, the knowledge that is generated in classrooms finds no place to be practiced. This problem of place to practice is very problematic since the relevant bureaucrats do not always have a background in social science studies. In addition to the fact that policy makers rarely hear academia’s voice and perspectives, social science is seen more of a problem rather than a solution. We can’t really blame said policy makers because they tend to look for something that is pragmatic, not a long-but-hard-to-apply solution for problems in the social field. With policy makers eschewing social science, they tend to create short-time solutions while still keeping the problem at hand. Meanwhile, scholars lose the grip of the “real”, pragmatic world because their voice is not being heard, and they turn to discussions with fellow scholars on a theoretical level.

With the two factors explained above, it would be difficult to keep social sciences relevant. What young, aspiring scholars could do is conduct research whose results can be applied for practical reasons. I, however, do not discourage young scholars to write about theoretically emphasized topics. The homework for academia is to build bridges between the theoretic-centered world and the pragmatic-centered one.