By Siri Gamage –
Last week, I conducted a workshop on this subject at the Centre for Continuing and Distance education, University of Peradeniya. It was organised by the team managing Social Affairs Journal (whose editor is Mr. Nandana Wijesinghe) as well as by the World University Service(WUS). Participants were students undertaking political science degree at the University of Colombo and a few academics from Peradeniya university. In the first session, we examined how Eurocentrism and academic dependency exist in the use of theory, concepts, and methods in the social sciences. A question we discussed was how social science disciplines were introduced to Sri Lanka and South Asia during British colonial period; though theories are provincial to the places in which they give rise to e.g. in Europe or north America, theories were presented to us as universal? Other topics discussed included the nexus between knowledge and power, uncritical assimilation of Euro American theories, concepts and methods by social scientist in the global south, how an unequal global knowledge order has been created and its impact; how the centres of knowledge production in metropolis (Western imperial capitals) is privileged by this order and those in the periphery are underprivileged; and how the uncritical reproduction of received knowledge make captive minds among social scientists in Asia, Africa etc.?
We discussed why knowledge is not becoming a means of personal and social liberation, as well as how it functions to create dependency externally and internally in the current knowledge production and dissemination process? We recognised the translation of Euro American social science knowledge from English to Sinhala and Tamil by academics and teaching the same instead of critical and comparative scholarship or knowledge interrogation as a particular shortcoming that we need to transcend.
In the next session, we examined the impact of the global unequal knowledge order together with its local counterpart and academic dependence. Topics covered included how the indigenous knowledge as well as methods of constructing the same were marginalised and even erased with the expansion of modernity based knowledge constructs from the West during the colonisation period and its aftermath? As a result, how we started to consider knowledge from the West as superior compared to knowledge constructs from the countries in the global south? We then focused on the need to construct alternative theories, discourses, and concepts for social analysis, developing indigenous social sciences, and applying such knowledge for much needed social reform.
In the third session, we looked at creative ways and means of constructing indigenous social sciences and knowledge relevant to social sciences. Topics discussed included the sources we can use for this task, examples, process, and challenges. A major challenge in such a task is how to identify and eliminate distortions that have been introduced to social scientific way of thinking and acting as well as positivist methodology of knowledge production. It was recognised that we need to use more creative and innovative indigenous ways of knowing for this purpose –not necessarily so-called scientific method aimed at discovering so-called ‘objective’ knowledge as in the use of positivist methodology. Preference can be given to interpretive methods and even common sense. It was recognised that the first task is to prepare a bibliography of useful resources pertaining to pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods in order to extract principles, concepts, theories or tools of social analysis from indigenous sources. Participants pointed out some examples of what we can consider indigenous knowledge paradigms as in the case of Buddhist theory of knowledge, skill training traditions, literature and folklore. The need to re-read classical texts from specific countries in the global south, in our case South Asia, was recognised as another method with a view to identify useful tools of social analysis.
Students were actively engaged in the discussions throughout the workshop. Rather than teacher-centred lecture style, the interactive method was adopted. Though students were reluctant initially to come up with their opinions and experiences, once they realised the scope of the workshop and its style, they openly expressed various ideas and viewpoints in the sessions. In the one hour radio discussion about the workshop, three students participated by expressing their views.
One important point emerging from the discussion was how we are detached from our own intellectual, philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions that embody collective knowledge and wisdom when we undertake training as social scientists and indeed become one? In the case of social anthropology, we explored how we look at our own society, culture, institutions, behaviour and attitudes from the theories and perspectives developed elsewhere –though we are already a part of the same social and cultural system? It seems that once we go through university education, we not only change our identities but also our world view, epistemology, knowledge base, and even our values and style of life to be different persons. It is important to have a critical look at this process in order to identify the relevance of received knowledge to contemporary context.
Developing methods of research that are organic to the societies we study should be a priority when constructing indigenous social science. We nonetheless recognised the need to avoid nativism in such exercise. One highlight was the need to create more socially conscious and activist social scientists by using our own intellectual traditions whose lineage includes our religious, historical, literary, artistic, philosophical and cultural spheres of knowledge rather than those detached from their soio-economic, political and cultural contexts after going through university education. Very early, Martin Wickramasinghe referred to this process as cultural uprooting.
Ultimately, academic dependency on Euro-American knowledge and methods of knowledge production continue to sustain the maintenance of unequal knowledge order in various forms and shapes. It is the responsibility of social scientists in the global south and countries like Sri Lanka to map a different path for the benefit of emerging generations of social scientists who may play a social activist role in the reform of social institutions and hierarchies that make life somewhat oppressive for the majority without personal linkages with power figures. As university teachers, we need to show students the correct and more relevant way to become a social scientist rather than making them prisoners of alien theories and perspectives that make little sense in the local contexts not only in terms of grasping social reality but also for producing organic intellectuals. We cannot achieve this goal by relying on imported texts or ways of knowing while marginalising our own ways of knowing. Southern Theory (e.g. Connell), and post-colonial sociology (e.g. Julian Go and Bhambra) are constructed by those concerned with the predicament of knowledge construction in the global south in the unequal global knowledge order. We can learn much from their writings and pronouncements.
Participants highlighted the Importance of following up on the various suggestions made during the workshop. In September next year, an international Symposium on the same topic is planned in Sri Lanka by the team managing the Social Affairs Journal.