Image courtesy Hilary Burage

Keynote address delivered at the 4th Annual Research Symposium of National Centre for Advanced Studies (NCAS) in Social Sciences and Humanities, Colombo, Sri Lanka on December 20th 2017. I acknowledge the substantial contributions of my colleague, Dev Nath Pathak at South Asian University in formulating this text.

Let me begin by thanking Prof P.S.M. Gunaratne for inviting me to deliver this keynote address. Interestingly however, despite being a Sri Lankan university insider for nearly twenty years as a teacher, I was never part of the layers of operations at UGC with which National Centre for Advanced Studies (NCAS) is affiliated.  As a result, I was never privy to the intrigues of UGC.  I am still an outsider to this system, and now to the country’s university system as well.

I find this outsider status useful when it comes to delivering this kind of lecture. This is because it necessarily involves a significant degree of self-reflection and detachment, which can best be achieved when there is adequate distance from the ground situation to maintain a sense of objectivity.

From what I could see, the research and training agenda of the National Center for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities is as abroad as the very long institutional nomenclature itself seems to symbolically suggest.  In this context, since the symposium is not a thematic one, and is open to a broad range of disciplines falling within Social Sciences and Humanities, Prof  Gunaratne suggested that I choose a topic which might suit a general audience. And I have taken his advice seriously.

There is a general sense in most academic circles in the world today that social sciences and humanities are in crisis. Personally, I share this anxiety. But I have not seen a similar sense of urgency among my Sri Lankan colleagues. I say this on the basis of the relative lack of concerted and engaged debate and discussion on this, and related issues, compared to other academic domains in South Asia.

In this context, I thought of taking this sense of global disquiet juxtaposed with relative local inertia as my point of departure today.

First, after reflecting on what humanities and social sciences have meant historically, I will very briefly explore how scholars located in different fields of social sciences and humanities in our part of the world assess the situation.  Does this disquiet reasonably reflect the status and futures of our disciplines? Or, is it mere doomsday conclusions by perennial systemic outsiders such as myself?

Second, within this background, I would like to outline my own views on the situation in Sri Lanka. In this specific context, I will offer my thoughts on how the research and institutional agenda of an entity like NCAS could ideally look like, and by extension, think about the agenda for research in social sciences and humanities in Sri Lanka.

About humanities

But first, what do we actually mean when we very casually refer to social sciences and humanities?  Simon During, following the ideas of Edward Said as expressed in texts such as Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004) suggests, “that there is no adequate or clear and distinct “idea of the humanities” at all” (During, no date). Instead, he says, what exists is a “humanities world,” which at one level consists of  “a loosely-linked conglomeration of practices, interests, comportments, personae, offices, moods, purposes and values” (During, no date). At another level, this humanities world is made out of “various settings, which these practices, interests and so on inhabit” (During, no date). What During finds so difficult to fathom, is what we so often readily define!

Terry Eagleton has suggested, what we now call humanities subjects initially manifested in their present form in the 18th century. And they were known as the  “humane disciplines”  (Eagleton 2010). Their key role according to Eagleton, “was to foster and protect the kind of values for which a philistine social order had precious little time” (Eagleton 2010).

In other words, humanities were not just domains of knowledge, but were avenues to craft a sense of political consciousness, a sense of collective public ethics. According to Eagleton, what was expected from humanities at the time they came into contact with industrial capitalism was “to preserve a set of values and ideas under siege” (Eagleton 2010).

About social sciences

Similarly, what we think of as social sciences came into being from diverse sources within the generality of western philosophical traditions. But as a cluster of cognate disciplines, the more obvious emergence of social sciences was in the early 19th century as a direct influence of positivist philosophy of science. It is from the mid-20th century onwards that the terminology, “social sciences” has been more broadly used to refer to a range of disciplines, which we are now familiar with. Social sciences, with their core point of departure – the systemic study of humanity – can be better understood when located in the intellectual break that occurred between the rupture of the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of modernity.

The direct intellectual foundations of social sciences are the moral philosophies associated with iconic temporal moments in the history of knowledge and politics such as the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. If we are to look into the history of social sciences in general and the twin histories of sociology and social anthropology in particular, in addition to the presence of progressive Enlightenment ideas, one could also see the influence of Edmund Burke’s conservatism as well as the romanticism of the German idealist tradition, among many other sources of influence. That is, from the very beginning of social science knowledge production, it flirted with numerous contradictory intellectual influences that both competed with and complemented each other in the long term. These interactions gave shape to the disciplines we now call social sciences. In this context, the idea of a monolithic social science, often modeled upon a sense of Newtonian reductionism that most simplistic pro-Enlightenment proponents celebrate, is a too simple and too linear a proposition.

Arguably, it was only when each modern discipline of social science began to distinguish itself from others, one could see the emergence of sanitized and mutually exclusive social science disciplines with seemingly concrete borders. The advent of sociology, after Emile Durkheim, separating itself from a broader and less differentiated body of social sciences and humanities, is one example of this new landscape of knowledge.

It was in reaction to such tendencies in social sciences, that in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Max Horkheimer and Thedore Adorno declared that Enlightenment itself was totalitarian, along with all more tolerable bounties of modernity. Hence, their appeal for a return to philosophy and social thought, rather than abstract positivist theorizing.

But today, when we think of the relevance of social sciences and humanities to our societies, our universities, and when we gather in these kinds of forums for the ostensible purpose of expanding on these systems of knowledge, I cannot but help thinking that we are approaching knowledge completely devoid of a nuanced understanding of disciplinary histories and their constituent politics. It seems to me that contemporary knowledge production in these disciplines in countries like ours is completely a-historical and often devoid of a sense of public ethics.

General decline of humanities and social sciences

In 2010, looking at the British University system upon which ours was initially based, Eagleton asked the following very disturbing question: “are the humanities about to disappear from our universities?” (Eagleton 2010). He went on to argue that in an ideal sense,  “there cannot be a university without the humanities,” and “if history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one” (Eagleton 2010).

Of course, he was only talking of humanities. But my suggestion is, the same question can be posed with reference to social sciences as well. That is, social sciences deprived of their imagination, and re-arranged as mere data-generating processes as they often function nowadays, would reflect the same outcome.  But the issue for me is not that social sciences and humanities disciplines are disappearing from universities.  The issue is that their centrality in thinking and the collective conscience of national socio-political environments in general, are underemphasized and neglected.  In my view, much of this has happened due to two interrelated reasons:

1) First, most disciplines that fall within social sciences and humanities – with the exception of economics – have been exiled into the lower strata of academic hierarchies, as irrelevant soft subjects by educational decision-makers as well as the general public.  This is a global situation.  In many places, economics have escaped this situation due to its alleged direct implication in what is known as ‘development.’ And to a certain extent, sociology in countries like ours, have re-invented itself as a mere data-gathering device in a poor simulation of economics.  So instead of serious scholars of sociology, we now have a world mostly inhabited by consultants in sociology.  With regard to sociology and social anthropology in particular, this reductionist and utilitarian cloning of economics has seriously damaged these disciplines’ quest for theories, concepts, and methodological perspectives for which they were known for a long time. In other words, trying to become ‘relevant’ in a simple utilitarian fashion has led social sciences and humanities to become collectively malnourished in philosophical, humanistic and intellectual terms. This is exhibited at all levels of the academic hierarchies, from young academics’ dissertations to established scholars’ magnum opuses – where the tendency is to merely sprinkle theory as the icing on empirical cakes, rather than engaging theoretically with data and information, and adding to the overall process of theorizing.

2) Second, many people in social sciences and humanities have also not shown any clear intent or ability to disprove this popularly held belief by enhancing their research, intellectual engagement, publishing and public interventions.  In this sense, the perception of crisis and decay, which have befallen these disciplines, have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, dictated by official decision-making bodies, and internalized by the practitioners themselves by mediocritizing their own practice.  As a result, these tendencies have adversely impacted our thematic preferences for research as well as in designing our course curricula. We no longer take intellectual risks or undertake adventures, without which advances in any form of science or art is nearly impossible. As a result, mediocrity in knowledge is a necessary outcome.

What I have described here though somewhat simplistically, is a contemporary global situation. This is however, very clearly visible in South Asia in general, and Sri Lanka in particular. Referring to same phenomenon in the UK, Eagleton says – and I think quite rightly – that “the quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies” (Eagleton 2010).

For me, the issue of ideas and values and their resultant implication in politics is of crucial significance for social sciences and humanities — beyond the generation of disciplinary knowledge more generally.  With the struggles of the French students’ movement for social justice in the 1960s still fresh in mind, Pierre Bourdieu observed in the 1970s that sociology is the “discipline that makes trouble” (Bourdieu 1994). This is not a simplistic assumption that sociology and social anthropology[1] are inherently troublesome and unstable.  Instead, it means that they are disciplines that need to be systematic in their approaches in as much as they are reflexive and conscious of societal issues. But being all this, can often mean, trouble for rulers and regimes at any time and anywhere.  As far as I am concerned, any social science or humanities discipline, if it is incapable of being reflexive in the way it practices its craft, has already failed its mission.

From this historical perspective, and notwithstanding the complex dynamics in the evolution of our disciplines over the years, it is up to you to ponder over how far the core ideals of these disciplines have shifted, and what this shift means in intellectual terms today.

Social sciences and humanities in South Asia

Let us see for a moment, how scholars in the region have seen this situation with regard to their own disciplines in the recent past. Veena Das, looking into the situation of Indian sociology in the 1980s observed, “the crisis in sociological research in India has to be located in three institutional structures — the universities, the UGC and the professional bodies such as the Indian Sociological Society” (Das 1993: 1159). She notes, “at the level of the universities, the proliferation of the subject (in this particular case, sociology is taught everywhere) has simply not been matched by the will to ensure competence in teaching and research” (Das 1993: 1159).

This situation becomes worse when knowledge entry into the system is curtailed in places where higher education is provided in local languages without adequate intellectual infrastructure in place to bring in global knowledge in local contexts either through English or any other global language.  Sri Lanka is very clearly in this situation as well.  She also refers to the politicization of academic environments, and its promotion and appointment schemes as a problem, which adds to this negative state of affairs  (Das 1993: 1159).

How the Indian UGC is implicated in this situation is quite interesting given what it has to say for Sri Lanka. The Indian UGC is perhaps the most financially endowed in the region. As Das notes, “the decision-making bodies in the UGC seem to have completely misguided notions about the state of social science research in the country” (Das 1993: 1159). For her, the basic concern is the UGC’s mechanistic decision-making process when it comes to funding, which assumes all institutional entities to be the equal.  This equality is obviously not a reality.  And these variations need to be seriously considered if the idea is to systematically develop social sciences, humanities or any academic or professional discipline in a country. But to make such decisions, it is crucial that such entities are well aware of the actual status of these disciplines, and what is needed.  Though Das made her observations in the 1980s, what she said then, remains equally relevant today as well.

Akbar Zaidi writing of economics in particular, but with general reference to social sciences in Pakistan notes that social sciences in the country are in a ‘dismal state’ (Zaidi 2002). One reason for him to make this claim is due to the Pakistani social scientists’ continued application of imported “theoretical arguments and constructs to Pakistani conditions without questioning, debating or commenting on the theory itself” (Zaidi 2002: 3644). In other words, he is lamenting about the lack of local theoretical engagement. This emanates primarily when ideas are not considered seriously enough in disciplinary practices as opposed to linear empirical research, and when one is satisfied being a mere follower of theory, rather than an innovator of theoretical constructs.

Zaidi also says that state patronage in research and appointments within universities and in government also has a stunting affect on the development of social science research in Pakistan.  He further argues that in the case of Pakistan, “there seems to be no research in the social science which expands the spectrum of knowledge and ideas, and Pakistani social scientists are primarily in the ‘business of giving advice’” (Zaidi 2002: 3645).  This situation is further exacerbated due to the lack of a “culture promoting free floating discussion and debate” (Zaidi 2002: 3645).  The overall decline of social science institutions — from universities to think tanks and research organizations — have also impacted this situation.  And as a result, rather than institutions conducting research, often research is conducted by individuals who happen to be based in institutions or on their own, independently (Zaidi 2002: 3645).  In this situation, one cannot expect significant institutional growth.

The general situation described above is broadly applicable to Sri Lanka as well. In my own reflections on Sri Lankan sociology in particular and our social sciences and humanities more generally, I have also referred to a similar situation as exists in India, Pakistan and the rest of the region.  In our context, and depending on the specific discipline, this situation of decline is related to out-migration of trained scholars; the relative lack of success in training others to take up their intellectual roles; substandard training in universities; relative lack of funding for research; the non-emergence of a serious local academic publishing industry, and so on. As a result, when it comes to social sciences and humanities, Sri Lankan “universities are no longer in the forefront of initiating or publishing cutting-edge, path-breaking or creative research; neither is this the preserve of the civil society sector” (Perera 2005: 232).

In this situation, as in the case of both Pakistan and India, “serious research on contemporary Sri Lanka is the activity of individuals, be they based in the country or beyond” (Perera 2005: 232). In this context, looking specifically at Sri Lankan sociology and social anthropology, and despite the existence of a large institutional structure within the university system, and an extensive network of students and teachers, research and teaching in these disciplines are “at best unimaginative, uncreative, predictable, theoretically regressive, and mostly dated” (Perera 2005: 333).

In these general circumstances, sociology and economics very clearly, and other disciplines in social sciences and humanities which have some ‘developmental utility,’ have been colonized by the broader development practice of both the state and the non-government sector. Commenting on this situation with reference to India, Mukherji notes that “much of the academic time of many social scientists in universities and research institutes is being diverted to evaluation/consultancy researches very much demanded by NGOs” (Mukherji: 2004: 29). In Sri Lanka’s case and in continuation of a broader South Asian practice, consultants have affectively replaced scholars.

In this context, development and applied oriented work have become mainstream as opposed to dealing with ideas or theoretical issues. But unlike, India and to a lesser extent even Pakistan and Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, there have been no major discussion on this reversal of intellectual roles, which have fundamentally changed the public perception and actual practice of social sciences and humanities in the country.

Thoughts for the future of social sciences and humanities in Sri Lanka

In the backdrop I have sketched so far, let me ponder over the role the National Center for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities could play in Sri Lanka in reimagining the country’s intellectual landscape. What we can say about NCASS can easily be expanded to the social science and humanities knowledge scenario in general across the country. Hence, my decision to enter this broader discussion via a reflection on NCASS’ research agenda. I was intrigued by the word ADVANCED in the nomenclature of the institute (National Center for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities).  I further noticed that it also publishes a journal called the Sri Lanka Journal of Advanced Social Studies. Again, the word ADVANCED caught my attention. In this context, what does ‘advanced’ mean in a conceptual sense?

To me, the immediate question is this: how, and on what basis can the research and training agenda of NCASS be rendered advanced? And how would the essays published in its journal (which does not seem to be published regularly) contribute to advanced social studies or the advancement of knowledge in general? How are such advances in intellectual terms to be achieved and gauged when the general background of research in social sciences and humanities in our country and that of the region is in decline?  Let me address this apparent dilemma with reference to a number of recent personal experiences.

In Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region, words and concepts are often not used with the seriousness they deserve in academic contexts. It was Bourdieu who once suggested that concepts and terminologies used in social sciences should be revisited regularly to see whether they continue to make sense over time, and if not, they should be suitably modified (Bourdieu 1994). So my former Department at Colombo University had a compulsory course called Advanced Sociological Theory, as do most other sociology departments in the country and elsewhere in South Asia.  But most such courses are merely summaries of theory without any tangible efforts to engage with these theories in the broader contexts in which they are discussed and taught. My present Department, which I have personally helped establish, also has a course for the PhD program called Advanced Social Theory, as do many other similar Departments in India and in other parts of the world. I could never see what was so advanced in any of these courses. In our PhD course however, a number of more themes were covered, accompanied by a larger dose of reading compared the two compulsory MA courses on theory.

In both cases, it was not possible to see a serious advancement of knowledge in any real sense. And neither was such an outcome anticipated.   ‘Advanced’ was just a word! When my colleague, Ravi Kumar[2] and I took over the teaching of the Advanced Social Theory course this year, we wanted to try and make it come closer to its claim of being ‘advanced.’

Towards this, we consciously reduced the course from ten integrated sections to four.  The first dealt with the idea of what theory is, and what it is expected to do in social sciences.  The second dealt with what we called ‘the work and puzzles of culture’. The third dealt with ‘understanding the self and being.’ In each section, we asked the students to read a handful of core readings, and discuss them in class, as they understood them.  In the fourth section, which we had called, ‘Advanced Social Theory: South Asian Possibilities’, we asked students to explore selected “thinking from South Asia” on the basis of what they have read and discussed in class.

We wondered why the academic training we receive in universities seemed to suggest the non-existence of social theorization in South Asia despite the existence of philosophical works, which looked at categories such consciousness and self as in Buddhism and Charvaka philosophy or the ancient Indian thought on materialism; politics and diplomacy as in Kautilya’s Artashastra, and taste and aesthetics as in Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra,  among many others. All of these had their own complex analytical apparatus.  We asked the students to engage with these South Asian ideas, and see if and how they might provide a basis for contemporary theorization devoid of notions of faith and belief.  This was our attempt at making this course ‘advanced’ by actively asking our PhD students to think out of the box, and attempt to fine-tune ideas and reflect on possibilities of new theorization.  For us, this came closer to a certain advancement of knowledge. And it offered possibilities of creating new knowledge. In other words, this was close to the philosophical expectations initially associated with humanities and social sciences.

But this kind of self-conscious effort is generally not the norm.  In this context, let me try and explain my own understanding of NCAS’ sense of ‘advanced,’ and offer some suggestions on how this might be re-imagined.

By the time the call for papers for this conference was closed, I have been told that NCAS received 96 papers across disciplines, and about 60 of them would be presented today. I was impressed by this degree of interest in the production of knowledge.  But a closer reading of the titles of these papers, indicated that they had a very specific idea of knowledge. Almost without exception, they were applied and developmental in orientation.  They were empiricist in approach, and were looking for solutions to specific problems. But this is only one specific kind of social science and humanities knowledge.

What about the rest? Why not deal with ideas? Why not an active engagement with theory and theorization?   Why not research for the sake of knowledge, and not for the sake of finding a solution to a problem? It is from this latter cluster of research, the kind that is by and large absent in this conference, that knowledge in our disciplines can be truly advanced, rendered nuanced and made theoretically sophisticated.

But this is not a uniquely Sri Lankan problem.  One can see this everywhere in South Asia, and to different degrees in the rest of the world as well.  In our region and in Sri Lanka for sure, this has come about as the result of the political interpretation of a very regressive and dangerous word. And that word is, “relevance.”  Often nowadays, and particularly if research is funded by state agencies, we are asked “how is your work relevant”? This means that all research understood in this sense – be they in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences or engineering – must be subsumed by the utilitarian logic of national or regional development.  It is in such a context that the former Minster of Higher Education, Vishwa Varnapala (2007-2010) asked in an UGC-sponsored conference in Colombo years ago, what the ‘relevance’ of Gananath Obeyesekere’s seminal work, The Cult of the Goddess Paitini was.

Of course, Obeyesekere’s elegantly written book does not inform us about the number of tube wells in the North Central Province, how many kilometers of roads have been asphalted in the Eastern province, the extent of electrification in the South, how many liters if Palmyra toddy is annually produced in the north or any such matters of applied utility.  In that sense, his book is absolutely irrelevant.

But it informs us through a detailed study of Pattini worship, important aspects of the country’s cultural history, dynamics of migration by looking at how specific ideas of faith and worship have traveled from South India to Sri Lanka, and places in context important parameters of identity formation of Sinhala and Tamil people through matters of belief.  Seen in this sense, Obeyesekere’s book and others like it, are crucially relevant to our sense of being.

However, that kind of knowledge, which dwells in the realm of ideas, history, philosophy and politics cannot be generated if the focus of Sri Lanka’s social sciences and humanities is overwhelmingly dictated by developmental and applied criteria.

Seen in this sense, I think there are two possibilities for NCAS’ future as well as our country’s future in knowledge production in social sciences and humanities:

  • The first possibility, and the easiest, is to do absolutely nothing. Let the kind of research that predominates today continue. They will certainly add to the quantum of our information, developmental planning, promotions within universities, and so on. But this approach will certainly not add to any kind of serious advancement of knowledge.
  • The second possibility is to seriously recognize a multiplicity of knowledges as essential and necessary for social sciences and humanities in the country, and actively promote this diversification. In this scheme of things, applied research will be one kind of research. And, it is an important kind of research. The other is the kind of knowledge that will deal with ideas, would promote theorization and abstract thinking. Besides, the self-conscious coming together of applied and so-called non-applied at different plains would have significnat benefits. For instance, if we want the applied to be more nuanced and sensitive to the complexities on the ground, then, the so-called non-applied can offer the orientation and the necessary intellectual curiosity to ask the right kind of questions.  But at the same time, the non-applied should not mean the constant replication of ancient, outdated or obscure practices in the name of research. Social sciences and humanities also need to actively reinvent themselves in the present by visiting the intersections of science, technology, contemporary ethics, and politics. For me, this is way to make the word, ‘relevant’ more sensible.

Theses decisions are yours to make. It is also your choice not to make the kind of decision I am advocating. But the future will tell us if you have opted to be simple technicians in the world of applied research, or opted to do that as well as contribute to serious and theoretically nuanced production of knowledge in social sciences and humanities.

If NCAS or any other entity in the country needs my university’s help in making this knowledge diversification possible and vibrant, I am certainly willing to help.  It is also well within the mandate of our university, which after all is partially funded by Sri Lankan taxpayers.

But ‘futures’, like most things in our society, tend to be unclear, distant and seemingly unreachable. Precisely due to this, ‘futures’ worth becoming a part of our lives, have to be passionately imagined and fought for. Until that clarity emerges, until shadows of that future becomes visible, and until you share my anxieties, let me wish all of you and this conference all the success.


Das, Veena. 1993. ‘Sociological Research in India: The State of Crisis.’  ’ In, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No. 35 (Aug. 31 – Sep. 6, 2002), pp. 3644-3661.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994. Sociology in Question. London: Sage.

During, Simon. No date. ‘The Idea of Humanities.’ Unpublished paper. Available at: (accessed on 22 October 2017).

Eagleton, Terry. 2010. ‘The Death of Universities.’ In, The Guardian (17th December 2010). Available at: (accessed on 22 October 2017).

Mukherji, Partha N. 2004. ‘Introduction: Indigeneity and Universality in Social Science.’ In, Partha N. Mukherji and Chandan Sengupta eds., Indigeneity and Universality in Social Sciences: A South Asian Response. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Perera, Sasanka. 2005. ‘Dealing with Dinosaurs and Reclaiming Sociology: A Personal Narrative on the (non) Existence of Critical Sociological Knowledge Production in Sri Lanka.’  In, Sociological Bulletin: Journal of the Indian Sociological Society, Vol. 54, Number 3, (Sept-Dec 2005).

Zaidi, S. Akbar. 2002. ‘Dismal State of Social Sciences in Pakistan.’ In, Economic and Political Weekly (June 5, 1993), pp. 1159-1161.

[1]. Bourdieu did not make a distinction between sociology and social anthropology, and thought the border between the two is spurious (Bourdieu 1994).

[2]. Much of the re-thinking and restructuring  of this course was done by my colleague, Dr Ravi Kumar.