What are the barriers that hold back social sciences from making a more productive and relevant contribution to a rapidly and continuously changing development landscape?
Over the last three decades, there has been considerable experimentation with unorthodox development formulas with surprising outcomes emanating from emerging economies and the South. Paralleling this was the decline in hegemonic development discourses and the emergence of a plethora of evidence from the different disciplines in the social sciences. The still ensuing debate on what constitutes development, and the alternative pathways that can lead to it, suggests that the explanatory and predictive capacity of the social sciences is under question.
Drawing on lessons from the past, there are a number of barriers that hold back social sciences from making a more productive and relevant contribution to a rapidly and continuously changing development landscape. Foremost is the expectation that economics would offer a universally-accepted development trajectory. Economics exercised tremendous influence over the past half century, focusing attention toward material progress and privileging quantitative analysis, both of which tend to ignore the diversity and complexity of development challenges in the developing world. Questioning the dominance of GDP and the role of the market has re-opened debate on previously resolved matters such as the role of the state intervention and the importance of culture and indigeneity. The recent consensus that “institutions matter” is one step, yet much work is still needed to elucidate regarding how institutions evolve, particularly in distinct contexts.
At the same time, economics encouraged thinking that is pragmatic, empirical and multi-disciplinary. We now consider development as it unfolds in various contexts, rather than assuming stages of growth or universal pathways to social progress. Development thinking was undoubtedly enriched by the frequency with which prominent economists move between academia and public sector, a mobility that ought to be encouraged more broadly across the social sciences. As development increasingly wrestles with the social impacts of economic policy, there is an inevitable opening to perspectives and contributions from other disciplines. Chief economists and central bank governors remain influential, yet even in international financial institutions there is a noticeable shift towards inter-disciplinarity in research and policy advice.
The relevance of the social sciences in responding to public policy varies between the disciplines. By and large, academic silos serve to limit dialogue and inhibit learning among disciplines. For example, we still have a limited understanding of the relationships among education, human development, and economic development. The mismatch between supply and demand of education and the gap between aspirations and educational outcomes in developing countries suggests a limited dialogue between economics, sociology, psychology and policy. ‘Getting it right’ in terms of education, training, and human capital formation requires a more policy-relevant and evidence-based dialogue among these disciplines and the agents of change.
So far, the measurement of the influence of social science is not sufficiently developed to inform our understanding of how to effectively translate a body of knowledge into development thought and practice. While so much evidence, complex insights and knowledge on development is being generated across the social sciences, much remains to be learned about the cause and effect relationship between episodes of economic success-or-failure and the role of good-or-bad advice postulated on development theories or empirical evidence. Here issues of time, space, and politics tend to mediate significantly.
Development is not a single science, but the blend of sciences which together offer insight for understanding a complex world, as well as inspiration for enabling human freedom. Social science offers more to policy and development thought when it is used to foster open dialogue and learning among the disciplines and development actors. Social scientists are rewarded for generating knowledge, but also provide a valuable service by engaging the mechanisms, processes and interlocutors to influence policy and public understanding beyond academia.
Development thinking is moving toward more integrated understanding of how societies change over time, and how to enact such change. Whereas a generation of scholars once addressed hunger through supply and prices, today food security considers changes in farm-level production, mediated through markets and policy, to consequences in individual nutrition and population health. Similarly, whereas development once addressed human wellbeing as the natural consequence of boosting incomes, today we consider the interplay of equity, happiness, and social justice.