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Sciences with the Science

 | 
Jacques Commaille
, 
Françoise Thibault

To what avail ?

Quelle utilité ?

Texte intégral

The faces of purpose

1Much has been written or said regarding the society and the economy of knowledge. It has often been described by an image of a three bladed propeller representing the transfer of knowledge from the laboratory to the factory or to the office and on to daily life. In this momentum of transformation, producers of knowledge are subjected to strong disturbances and their role is as essential as it is changing, always moving. The triple propeller introduces a breakup in the way we should consider SSH and the role they play. Although we stop a little too quickly with the idea of transfer as the application from conception to practice.

2In this respect, the fields of intervention of the scholar in SSH are composite : whether as ‘the expert’, the ‘translator’, the ‘action searcher’ or the ‘committed searcher’. The multi facetted interventions of the SSH researcher, and the dissemination of the hypothesis and conclusions are many. Thus there is no need to be concerned about the applicability of their contributions and mobilisation in meeting the challenges for the SSH.

The requirement of a detour strategy

3Any consideration of the progression in the process which leads from the production of knowledge to its uses eventually leads to the conclusion that SSH, no more than any other science, can be guided by a principle of utility, all the more so when these utilities are of a short term nature and are referenced by the sole interests of the period in progress.

4As with other sciences, the research utility can stem from a ‘detour strategy’. This ‘detour strategy’, well documented in the cognitive development, goes through fundamental research building theories, taking uncertain paths and new analytical configurations, making improbable encounters with other disciplines, before a possible return to the action.

5As much as with other sciences, categories of knowledge should be developed autonomously according to the standards of a practice, of an action marked by current representations be it public, European or international, inspired by the promotion or the defense of a cause.

The making of new society models

6The value of SSH lies in their explanatory, analytical, comprehensive, creative and projective virtues. They are intrinsically implied sciences not applied sciences. To acknowledge this value, as seen above, consists in making possible the invention of new society models, of living together and creation.

7Depending on the situation, the concerned disciplines must criticize or accompany public procurement. In the most favorable situations, historical sciences address this request by accompanying or criticizing the realisation of projects directed by a public authority (national, regional or European). However, in a democracy, policy makers would profit from listening to the propositions, grounded hypotheses, explanations backed by methodologies (that scientists set against a narrow and instrumental conception of science) within a relationship that should be of mutual trust.

8More generally and beyond historical sciences, scholars have always found a legitimacy with politicians. This position was not a matter of principle of utility (although it was referred to as ‘political technologies’) but rather as a matter of acknowledging their specific regime of knowledge. This was the base of their plurality (and therefore pluralism as a complement to knowledge) and the variety of their methods and approaches which guaranteed their diagnostic ability as a critic (in the sense of crisis : to decide), insuring through their analysis and capacity to define the conditions of the democratic debate and the variety of viewpoints.

Interaction between society, research and education

9In the relationships between research and action, what is relevant in the link between political power and public procurement is also relevant in the relationship with society : the gender issues, the variety of sexual orientations, colonial and postcolonial situations, the environmental alert or the request for an opening in the economic sciences. These questions have inspired research fields within the higher education and research system at the cost of militant mobilisation. Researchers have forced the gates of universities and legitimised these new research fields which often remain nonetheless vulnerable. We are therefore confronted, subject to critical awareness, with a normal regulation mode of the higher education system. Any research and education system closed to such practice is a disintegrating system. The difficulty for universities then, is not to produce new specialists working in relatively closed circles but to be able to circulate the knowledge produced amongst many disciplines.

10Today more than ever an education in Social Sciences and Humanities is indispensable for all students to master the complexity of our world, to put the objects studied into perspective and allow for an inter-sciences dialogue.

11Possessing abilities of abstraction, as mighty as they can be, is not sufficient to shape today’s scientific mind. There is a ‘knowledge drowsiness’ if one does not permanently ask questions and a well prepared mind for abstraction is not free from a tendency to return to the remains of old beliefs. Famous mathematicians have been the proof that too much ‘mathematism’ leads to irrelevant measures and senseless quantitative descriptions. It is imperative to curb the process currently at work in university curricula which could lead to the end of the humanities.

Critical distance and time imperative

12According to SSH it is also a way, starting from a demanding and critical vision of research - when projecting itself or when it is projected into the future, to escape the ‘wishful thinking ’ syndrome, particularly perverse when starting from problems other disciplines have not managed to solve. The predominance of research frameworks implicitly implies that efficient SSH should be able to find solutions to human and social issues and eliminate difficulties within 4 years. The use of available recipes is encouraged when, in fact, the real need is the opposite, to question the prerequisites : relative to operating facts, interrogations and the problems presented.

13It is often more pertinent to look for the sources of imbalance rather than balance, the sources of conflict rather than peace, of frenzied violence rather than appeasement, irrational rather than reasonable emotions or obstacles to social cooperation rather than their potential for success. The non analysis of resistance, failures, or blockages can only but encourage incantatory speeches in favour of a world in progress and only lead to impotence. In short, it is indispensable to be given the time required to analyse the dynamics represented in the contradictions and the tensions inherent in the making and the functioning of societies.

14Important themes can only be raised if the cultural basis, made up of the identity, the resistance, the historical momentum of societies, are analysed and if the economic and social problems associated to these challenges are dissected and a solution, even partial, be found. It is important to stress the nature of these problems amongst which the destructuration of the social relations and public authorities, induced by the double impact of the globalisation of trade and scientific and technical transformations.

15Language requires special vigilance. To take a few examples in the subject of environment, references to ‘climate change’ instead of ‘global warming’, or ‘adaptation to climate change’ instead of a ‘fight against global warming’ or else to be concerned about ‘the environmental awareness of economic agents and citizens’ without considering politicians’ refusals or powerlessness to act or on certain industries’ pressures, brings a risk of understating the resistance.

16Research must make the time for this language distance, the researcher is not the expert in this field. Instead of the expected questions, he will rather explore new paths. For instance thoughts that the relationship between environmental protection and economic development are an a priori is to suggest that there are two distinct domains. One could ask the question whether the economy could not be integrated into ecology and the various human and non human forms of life in the sense that any relationship with our universe must be the subject of calculation. A calculation with its political dimension that is to say a debate where values and aims will not be separated from scientific analyses.

17The logic of this equilibrium might reproduce the stereotype of the protection of the environment against the economic development. In fact, their cooperation should be spotlighted since this is the ground for better resource management and innovation guided by the very principle of environmental preservation.

18Another example is in the field of health : it is important to create the right conditions to question the many presuppositions regarding on going research (as any other research field), their interaction mode with patients, the patients’ lifestyle and the care systems in order to explore new opportunities. Likewise, much clinical research which would not normally take into account and test the position of the patient in this loop would be incomplete, as they would choose a priori a therapeutic scheme however limited it has been shown to be. Many subjects, such as the AIDS treatment have shown the importance of the publics’ participation for the advancement of knowledge.

19These examples call for SSH to stand the test of time in a double posture. The first, like with any other science, producing data and analyses on all phenomena falling under the social sphere. The second, putting the various regimes of knowledge that are important in a society into the spotlight. With no approval, nor pure objection, they act on deciphering interpretations, controversies and practices in order to strengthen public debate. The adoption of such a critical distance aims at the cumulation of knowledge susceptible to open new research fields. As near as possible to the social, economic and political transformations, and to invigorate the public sphere.

Nourishing the democratic ideal

20In a more general way, the status of scientific and technological transformations in relation to the citizen deserves to be analysed in another way than from the ‘top down’ perspective.

21The approach by acceptability and not by the appropriation and participation of the citizen not only proves mean and insulting but also inefficient. Many major problems today come from a disconnection between centres of decision, regulation and living environments, together with an insufficient implication of the citizen. To pose the problem of participation in terms of ‘a citizen to educate’ is a major political and normative statement and an obstacle to the comprehension of what is actually taking place.

22Rising education levels, learning how to contribute through digital networks, massive dissemination and availability of contradictory expertise are some of the many signs of a major change taking place in the decision making process. Scientific and technical uncertainties are no obstacle but rather a spring board for scientific activities and the notable political impotence in front of contemporary crises, strengthens this feeling of uncertainty. Purely rationalist analyses of the processes leading from science to decision and action are facing the limits of knowledge (known unknowns / unknown unknowns), the building up of ignorance, the difficulties of decision making in an environment of uncertainties and controversies. Public decisions are facing new criteria : common property, environmental and social utility, responsibility. They must include and acknowledge citizens competences : democracy’s definition being the governing of participation for all on an equal basis with no distinction related to their level of knowledge in the fields where decisions are made collectively. They must take into account the development over decades of multiple and competing, consultation schemes, and try to include public decision makers, scientific experts and ordinary citizens in the elaboration of relevant and renewed public criteria.

23Decision support in the construction and evaluation of public policies cannot use a purely technical expertise, nor analysis tools that proved to be inadequate in contexts where epistemic, ethical and political imperatives are stronger and stronger.

24It becomes essential to take this situation into account to imagine new forms of participation that would take the publics’ contributive capacities, who do not suffer from irrationality nor unsufficient information, but of loss of confidence in the authorities who are viewed at best as incompetent at worse as accomplice (example of financial or ecological impropriety). The study of methods used to gain power (empowerment) that is the capacity to act through various collectivities, to create new solutions for controversial problems, must be reinforced within a dialogue with scientists, engineers, decision makers and citizens, providing they are given the time to experiment and to learn.

25Today’s development of pluri disciplinary works in social sciences, especially in legal research, gives us an example amidst others. These works concern the use of legal resources – civil law, criminal law, commercial law, industrial property law, international law etc. – or that represented by justice (national or supranational courts) on questions regarding the mastery of certain scientific evolutions (for instance in physics, biology, genetics, in agro business and environment etc.).They take into account the growing aspirations expressed by the organized forms in the civil society, at national or supranational level, and should be associated to the role of science and their impact.

26French research is currently focusing on theoretical streams such as law consciousness (in reference to a law being part of the society, present in citizens’ daily life) or of cause lawyering (management by law professionals of ‘causes’ supported by action groups possibly coming from the world’s civil society). Another focus is the requirements in healthcare knowledge or legal protection for knowledge or products coming from traditional societies and in opposition to pharmaceutical groups.

27The development of research on gender and sexuality, very significant in France over the last years, is also driven by the democratic emergency to take women into account as a ‘datum’ in the constitution of knowledge (in history, law…) and as equals. Gender is an example, exceptional in three ways, of a scientific concept formed by a crossing of interdisciplinarity and disciplinarian fields created by the transformation of a social movement in a field of research and critical analysis of a globally unequal situation. It includes SSH and other sciences : integration of the idea of ‘sex difference’ in the field of health (tests on drugs), but also in the fields of engineering and environment, has been the source of several significant recent developments. Controversies about the so called ‘gender theory’ have illustrated certain tendencies of scientism quick to denounce as ‘ideology’ or even ‘anti science’, scientific innovations which have an effect as social criticisms and democratisation .

28These new fields of research illustrate the analytic work that the new democratic requirements have called for when faced with scientific and technical changes.

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