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Contextualizing Social Science in Nepa

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A Note on


Contextualizing Social Science in Nepal


Dev Raj Dahal, Head, FES



What is the connection between social science and the life-world of various social classes in Nepal? Is the division of social science into various disciplines—anthropology, psychology, culture studies, economics, sociology, geography, etc capable of addressing the growing complexity of problems in Nepalese society? Or do these divisions simply represent a caricature of dominant social science discourse? Are the social science theories derived from the public political culture of the West suitable to Nepal’s conditions? How can the underlying consensus between the general theories of social science and indigenous practice in Nepal be achieved? Is social science universal or culturally relative/ socially constructed? This paper focuses on the concept, structural constraints, art and science of social science, joy of teaching and research, delight in methodology, role of social science in Nepal and a short conclusion.



Social science can be considered as a human science or a synthetic social theory because it is continuously engaged in a dialogue with the essential ideas of human affairs—human nature, human interest, freedom, laws, social justice, society, institutions, politics, etc. Social scientists cannot derive ideas independent of their own institutional background and worldviews. Learning and research largely depend on the awareness of the self-interests of learners and researchers. This demonstrates that social scientific thinking is based largely on probability rather than objectivity, precision and certainties. The freedom and autonomy of teaching and research in social science are allowed only in democratic societies. It is because social science helps in the promotion of social consciousness, opinion and will formation, production of a number of choices in matters of public concerns as well as allows the evaluation and judgment of human action. Science of society is not culturally neutral and, therefore, its resemblance to the natural sciences can be ferociously contested. The rigorousness of social scientific research, however, enables one to apply appropriate external knowledge and tools to gain contextual learning about constantly changing human affairs. The formulas of social science can be grasped only by the harder route of contextual learning of the subtle links of differing knowledge and even of genuinely comparative ways of doing socially relevant research.

Social utility of any discipline is established by the purpose it serves for the social goal of creating a good society. It can come only if all social scientist share, up to their capacity, in determining public policy with the citizens and the state and strengthen their personal dignity. Inventing new ideas are essential for the transfer of knowledge at various generations, solving societal problems and contributing to public policy intended to promote common goods. Social science deals the issues that fundamentally shape human lives and their environment. This suggests that social scientists are morally responsible for their teaching and research products. If their moral responsibility and action contribute to the promotion of positive values, institutions and processes, it will help the relevance of social science in nation-building and social change as well as boost its autonomy as an independent, inter-subjective discipline.

Social science training, professional identity and competence must have certain utility to the society to make their efforts both purposeful and continuous. It enriches their initiatives and solidarity. Genuine fellowship in occupation makes collective endeavor easier. Does the social science methodology capture the “third wave” of science (microelectronics, information and communication) and the third wave of human rights and democracy? Or, is it muddling around behavioral revolution of scientification of social science and provoking a revolt against it by post-behavioral revolution by “establishing the relevance” of social science to social problems-- conflicts, youth unemployment, poverty, HIV-AIDs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, ecocide, human trafficking, slavery, etc.?


Structural Constraints

Social science is heavily leaned towards the industrial and democratic revolutions and Enlightenment. Consequently, most of its theories are derived from the development processes of the West, such as dialogue on moral philosophy, reason, state, polity, social classes, impersonal laws and institutions. Structural freedom and autonomy of social scientists are essential preconditions to creatively apply the general social science knowledge to the local situation. The codification of the philosophy of positivism laid stress on factual knowledge and liberation of the reason from religion. But, the continuous failure of reason to eliminate traditional status, passion and prejudice from the public life and public policy to shape human progress and solve social problems has given birth to “critical theory.”

This theory has added new insights into the social science as it stressed on the historical analysis of the present situation and brought to light multiple sources of knowledge—spiritual, rational and scientific, and its numerous forms and functions—emancipatory, empirical-scientific and hermeneutics—in society. Hermeneutics is an interpretive theory and has been used as a social inquiry by the students of humanities as an alternative to positivist social science. But, there are several pitfalls with “historicism” as it subordinates knowledge to the service of interest, power and prejudice than the ordinary citizens.

The nature of social science is context-bound and operates within the constraints of “historical and philosophical principles” of the West. This means social scientists’ discovery of knowledge is theory-history-philosophy-determined whose research output might not resonate the perception of reality held by ordinary citizens. Even popular consent derived through discussion, election, communication and education on the output of research generate completely different standards of rationality. The political systems of the West have tried to bridge the gap between the intellectual class and popular opinion by means of professional mobility, discourse free of domination, will-formation and the rule of law. Social science may be about social discipline, but it informs ideals and trains experts to deal with the complex social realities. This means it has public purpose rooted in what we call dharma as opposed to the arrogance of reason, self-will and self-rationalization intrinsic to contemporary rational choice and modernity. The belief in the solution of all social problems through the application of quantitative method of the natural science has been contradicted by evidence. And the universal relevancy of social scientific theories over time and across cultures has not passed natural-science-based truth tests. This has renewed the interest of social scientists in qualitative research. Only a structurally liberated mind is capable of undertaking qualitative research and innovation.



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Art and Science of Social Science

Gaining knowledge about society as an art and “social” as a science presupposes researchers’ engagements with citizens to understand their decision-making behavior under various circumstances affecting their life, liberty and property. An interface of social scientists with normative ideals helps in protecting human rights from the crassly insidious market materialism, fundamentalism and populism of all sorts. Individuals, groups or parties based on these factors attempt to instrumentalize the diversity of society and try to promote homogeneity in the “image of outsiders.” This is a threat to creative understanding of social pluralism and the right to dissent embedded in the concept of public intellectuals. Many other “isms,” which sought to achieve the “end of philosophy,” “end of ideology” or “end of history” was rooted in a grand utopia--the notion that belief in a particular ideology can bring a perfectly harmonious world order. The failure of each “grand” utopia was attributed to the fact that each sealed itself off from the positive criticism, distorted communication and rationalized the control of citizens which it wanted to emancipate. Each ignored the imperfectability of human nature—some of the irrational thinking and behavior of human action. This demonstrates the inability of the ideology to understand and to cope with the social problems which the ages posed to human beings.

Every modern society, therefore, provides basic qualification for citizen participation in public affairs through socialization, education, training and orientations so that they are governed more by human norms than human nature and instincts and able to debunk the myth that underlies any utopia—grand or mini. Science can help human beings both in understanding human nature and falsifying the destructive power of utopia. The belief in the redeeming power of science can equally be destructive without its relation to social purpose-- the purpose of improving the conditions of human life. This social purpose seeks a converging interest between science, social science and humanities.

A functional social system is based on an organizational structure that allows each individual member to involve in decision-making by combining his/her resources, educating one’s own-self and others, formulating ideas and programs that he/she can articulate and struggle to realize them through scientific use of the social science. In the absence of such process, governance becomes “polyarchy,” the domain of an elite group or the rationalization of elite domination. In this system, mass participation in political power is confined to leadership selection and experts dictate the course of public policy in economic and social matters whether based on indigenous or alien knowledge. The selective application of science and social science in the society is governed by the political interest of elites than the very nature of science itself.

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The division of labor of social scientists focusing on various areas is certainly important to cope with the complex division of labor in society and growing demands for the specialization of functions. In this sense, social science is public science, civil science or the science of citizens. As a human science, social science theories and research are geared towards achieving ideal potential of human life, such as equality of citizens, a system of rights, freedom of organization and expression, power of representation and fulfillment of basic human needs. No other sciences value these concepts very much. For example, economics focuses on efficiency and brutal competition, implying the fighting ability of individuals in the marketplace. Economics, in this sense, is the domain of virtue, a legitimizer of greed in social life. Sociology explores the hierarchy of mankind. The degree of freedom of individuals or lack of it depends on their location in the hierarchy. But, equality becomes disastrous if citizens are not properly trained in education and research and enabled them to select the best leadership for governance. Political science is the domain of rights, institution and decision-making. There is a codependency of social science disciplines and competition for supremacy in the life of society.


Joy of Teaching and Research

Teaching social science is a purposeful action because it incorporates systematic educational programs for the students that enable them to achieve social responsibility in the life-world, self-determination, self-confidence and autonomy in public life and decision-making. A good polity requires informed citizens who know about the institutions that dispose of power, the rules through which they operate and the motives of the individuals who govern them. Teaching and research are mutually reinforcing. Both utilize the concepts, values, assumptions and procedures in their search for understanding of the social universe, transmission of knowledge to various generations and contribute to generate better-informed conception of the public interests.

Research is a method of acquiring, conforming and verifying knowledge and information (data) about the meaning of social life and theory of ecological, social, economic and political processes. Social researchers often cross the disciplinary boundaries if the knowledge they intend to discover is inter-subjective in nature. Systematic collection, description, quantification and analysis of information require ideas (conceptualization) and imagination (hypothesis) which are provided by research methodology—the rules and methods social scientists apply in understanding and interpreting the human nature, nature of human relationship and their relationships with the nature, culture and society. Theory-building, generalization and abstractions are worthless unless their propositions (knowledge of relationships, sequences and laws) are tested in the life-world and their approved findings are applied in improving the social standards.

The importance of research lies in the power of forming images and concepts that catches the essence of things perceived. Concept forms the core of scientific thinking and so the limitations of concepts, by definition, mark the limitation of self-expression—whether it is research or teaching. Learning a concept has a synergy—establishing connection between the world of social science theories and the drama of social life. Obviously, teaching and research in social science is not a part of indoctrination, it is a critical process of self-discovery and the innovation of knowledge and the rationalization of society. It is the transmission and discovery of public knowledge at the inter-generational levels. Genuine teaching and research are independent of power consideration. If they are less genuine, then, students fall prey to the system of exploitation and education becomes largely superficial unrelated to the reality of citizens’ lives. Social scientists must express social truth before power and oppose where citizens are silenced and human rights violated. Enslavement to power distances them from becoming a scientist and removes their human sensitivity from the lives and hopes of powerless citizens. Social scientist, largely removed from human sensitivity, loses relevance in public life.

Indoctrination controls human thought about human affairs, while the purpose of social science is to liberate their thought and provide choices in policy matters in order to create a basis for civic culture. Those who are subjected to indoctrination, suffer from illusion in later life once they are exposed to media, scholarly research and publications as well as scientific inquiry. Freedom of thought helps to develop a culture of rational argument in which differences and conflicts are solved through dialogue and peaceful means. Social science teaching and research, in this sense, expects a participatory methodology from both researchers and the citizens, because it supports all efforts for the further democratization of attitudes, beliefs and orientations and provides the ownership of all those who had furnished answers to the questions asked by researchers.


Delight in Method

Participatory methodology, by definition, is input-oriented, interactive and mutually learning. It is entirely different from other instruments of imposing knowledge and information, which are, by nature, oppressive and restrictive of freedom. The purpose of every social science is the liberation of mind and body of the students and strengthening their ideas, values, skills, knowledge and competence. In social science comparison and case studies, therefore, hold enormous significance. Instrumentalization of education makes the students convinced of their intrinsic inferiority, weakens their power of thinking and imagination as well as yields them to a culture of silence. This sort of education is anti-democratic, essentially exclusive and, therefore, prevents the attainment of self-realization. In this sense, social science teaching and research, have purposive orientation to strengthen participatory democracy.

Social science deals with inter-subjective, rather than objective truth. Social scientists’ search for truth is both contextual and universal depending on the level of generalization, comparison, complexity, embeddedness and abstraction. How waves of civilizations were followed by counter-waves, ruptures and reversals, what went wrong with the development process and how they can be corrected in the future shall become a matter of perennial debates among us. System theorist, David Easton, in his essay “The Future of the Post-behavioral Phase in Social Science” indicates that central tendencies of social science teaching and research are the loss of purpose, direction and euphoria characteristics of behavioral and post-behavioral revolutions.

Now, there is not a single dominant view in social science inquiry and imagination. It has increasingly suffered fragmentation, disorientation and loss. What it requires now is, therefore, integration and coherence of different branches into a creative synthesis so that it can again become an intrinsic part of political wisdom. New problems emerging in the world entail new knowledge, new processes and institutions to solve them. The movement of things, then, follows the movement of contextual thought—both can produce the deepest law of human nature—the freedom, justice and solidarity. Here we agree with Amaratya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, who says, "freedom is development,” the development of human beings. For the future of social science I conclude with a quote from David Easton again, “If we were looking around for a label to capture one major aspect of the changes already underway as we move to a new phase in the discipline, neo-behaviouralism, might well serve that purpose.”



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The Role of Social Science in Nepal

Where do Nepalese social scientists stand in relation to the production of knowledge, public policies and formation of critical mass of community for social change? Professional social scientists in Nepal do not treat the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures as social science although these religions continue to have a profound impact on the daily life of the citizens and have contributed to the formation of their personal and social identity. Spiritual blindness of social scientists has thus opened multiple gaps between their worldview and those of the citizens, theoretical knowledge of social scientists and practical experience of citizens and expert knowledge of researchers and composite knowledge of people. Social researchers, therefore, go to citizens with their questionnaires as students. Buddhism provided a construction of secular knowledge about reality and was validated by discourse. Modern empirical discovery also relies on statistical correlation and causal laws of social life. Unlike Cartesian science, Buddhism presents a symmetry between past (cause) and future (effect). This causal explanation is still utilized by social scientists to resolve various types of problems and conflicts of society.

Buddhism also maintains a harmony between the ends and means of social action and advocates, like Jacques Derrida, the deconstruction of selfish desire and structural injustice through the transformation of the system of knowledge and behavior. Unlike mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton, both the Hindu and the Buddhist philosophies do not see human life as individual fragments. They are woven into what post-Cartesian system scientist Fritjof Capra calls “web of life” of the wholeness. The post-Cartesian thinking, entrenched in life sciences, thus exposes the limitations of “system blindness” of the disciplinary science and social science and their inability to solve the problems of society through the application of reason and reasonable action. Major changes in the society require powerful social and moral concepts to grasp its wholeness including its hole, rupture and breakdown in discourse. Nepalese social scientists have to work hard to creatively construct scientific concepts from the social processes of the nation. The position of Nepalese social scientists in relation to policy adaptation is high while innovation is abysmally low.


Enamored with grand theories of the West—such as modernization, growth, trickle-down, community development, basic needs, structural adjustment and millennium development goals-- Nepalese policy makers, planners and intellectuals since the 1950s have uncritically imposed them to Nepalese society for modernization, rationalization and development regardless of knowledge about preconditions and contextual relevance. The Nepalese social scientists can, therefore, be labeled as “paradigm consumer” and their integration in the world is characterized by unequal exchange and unequal division of labor. Development success largely depends on appropriate adaptation of the universal knowledge, tools and policy as per the cultural traits, social norms, history and ecology. The wholesale imposition of the grand theories invented in an industrial context into agrarian societies of Nepal has evoked continuous growth of the ignorance of planners about social reality and corresponding development failure, crisis of institutional stability and a growing disharmony between the society and the state.


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This failed development implies the failure of social scientists to apply creative mind and prescribe to the politicians and leaders a reasonable course of action to prevent the downward spiral of the Nepalese state, polity, society, economy and overall psychology. Today, Nepalese society is suffering from collective anxiety and self-doubt. Its effect is: inability to think beyond affno manchhe, one’s own circle of friends and relatives. The growing shrinkage of the public sphere is the symptom of the failure of governance. Has there been no reflection about it? Or, have social scientists found more benefits in transplanting new ideas and projects of conflict or post-conflict planning than resorting to concrete social learning? Or, are they incapable of indigenizing universal knowledge to local conditions?

There are bewildering explanations furnished by the Nepalese social scientists for the nation’s failure in any national initiative including development--fatalism or the cyclical view of life, colonized mind, land-lockedness of the nation, gender bias, marginalized status of intellectuals in negotiation, growth of a comprador class, external dependence, foreign domination, non-investment of social surplus in the economy, lack of democracy, capital flight, strategic alliance of the state, Kathmandu-centric view, lack of devolution of power, paternalistic approach of planners, etc. These conclusions are deduced from disciplinary biases of each researcher and there are no efforts in integrating these strands. It has thus repeated the story of blind men touching elephants and generalizing an elephant by its various parts.

This condition demonstrates that Nepalese social scientists are capable of “thick description” of already invented ideas abroad but are in capable of penetrating the core of innovation. This explains the underdevelopment status of social scientists in Nepal. As a result of this, neither the Universities nor the National Planning Commission of Nepal (NPC) have gained a central locus in knowledge production and constituted as an authority to define development and action. Market institutions, civil society, NGOs and citizens’ institutions are competing with and producing counter-knowledge against the conventional social science discourse. International funding opportunities in issue-based research, social science consultancy and collaborative research have opened the possibilities for social science research. But, they are sectoral in origin and cannot contribute much to both social cohesion and system integration. This has entailed social science research in Nepal an open-ended process, subject to critical discourse and change with the transformation of knowledge, actors, issues, rules and context. New concepts are required to capture deeper insights into the change process and societal rationalization.

Does this condition point a drive towards post-modernism or reactive re-tribalization of social science research and praxis in Nepal? Can there be a synthesis of modernity which provides a meta identity—Nepali and post-modern mini-identities such as ethnicity, class, gender, caste, region and religion for the evolution of new research agenda for nation-building? Disciplinary construction of knowledge itself is sectoral in origin in Nepal and cannot capture the larger domain of public policy. Globalization of the Nepalese state, economy and society is deconstructing the disciplinary knowledge, disciplinary society and disciplinary institutions and constitutions. Internally, social science discourse has become a site of resistance by subsidiary identities of the nation. This condition requires a new conceptual and structural adjustment of social science research and teaching in Nepal.

Different traditions of disciplinary knowledge and research in Nepal have set off controversies about the “root causes” of Nepal’s underdevelopment and rationality. This equally applies to a choice of conflict resolution mechanism. Bridging micro-macro gaps through cross-fertilization of social science research is, therefore, important in Nepal through training like “Qualitative Research Methods in Social Sciences” so that a synergy can be developed through a balance between empirical and normative, local and global, reflection and action and societalization of social science rather than its alienation from both society and human rationality. Universal codes of social science based on reason is likely to prevent Nepalese researchers to resort to ancient Hindu curse theory of history and help to invent their own karma, the destiny, through rights-based, demand-driven and politicized discourse.



The proponents of new social movements in Nepal, such as women, Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis, youths and marginalized population are seeking a structural shift in reason-based knowledge to both reason and feeling in social science knowledge discovery. As they have found that Nepalese social scientists stand in a chain of social causation, as an acting and reacting force, rather than emancipatory, they are looking for a representative knowledge in teaching, socialization and research where socially constructed institutional and knowledge biases are eliminated. The explanation of social transformation undergoing in Nepal requires a coherent, systemic vision rather than an attitude of muddling around conceptual confusion and enlarging it into the public political sphere. Innovation of multi-version of democracy has made Nepalese citizens, politicians, journalists and donors’ victims of this cacophony.

New social movements have also questioned the legitimacy, validity and ownership of social science products. This can open the “captive mind,” to social learning of contextual knowledge, conduct research with the citizens, provide inputs to the policy makers and reverse their linear, structure-bound, rationalist and disciplinary thinking into the one that represents what the world is really like and how to improve it for the better. This opening is essential to adapt social scientists to the technological evolution of society as per the spirit of the Age and undergo deep reflection about the gap they created between reason, expert knowledge and human feelings. The renewal and indigenization of qualitative social science research in Nepal is important to overcome the spirited challenges posed by social forces in Nepal and contribute to the application of scientific reasoning in public policy and social change.



This Paper was presented by Pro. Dev Raj Dahal at a Workshop on “Qualitative Research Methods in Social Science in Nepal,” organized by NEGAAS, DSN, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) etc at Kathmandu-2007.


knowledge of advocacy!! Cheer.












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