Dr. Kenneth Stunkel
Dr. Kenneth R. Stunkel
Keynote Address- 34th Annual Conference, Atlantic Cape Community College, Mays Landing, New Jersey
SOCIAL “SCIENCE” AND THE GLOBAL “COMMUNITY”
Dr. Kenneth R. Stunkel
Professor of History
Monmouth University, N.J.
How social sciences might be of service from a global perspective invites a context and three questions. The context faced by social scientists is one of disruption unfolding in a crowded, fragile, contentious, over-heated world. One question is whether disciplines mobilized under the rubric “social science” can offer a unified point of view about society and human behavior useful to public policies with a global reach. A second question is whether there exists a coherent global “community” receptive to what social sciences might contribute based on evidence rather than ideology, custom, local politics, and faith. A third question is what social sciences might do to make a difference in a global frame of reference. As a prelude to exploring context and questions, here are the assumptions guiding my remarks.
Assumption 1: What's going on in the world is usually worse and moving faster than you think. Consider the present onset of economic shocks driven by collapse of the housing market, the credit freeze, rising oil prices, and investment bank failures, all of which were mocked or ignored by most politicians and economists a year ago. With onset of the placecountry-regionIraq war, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz put the cost at no more than 50 billion dollars, while Vice President Cheney said all the bills would be paid by sales of Iraqi oil. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress recently judged the tab will be at least two trillion dollars. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes put the true long-term cost at three trillion dollars. Then we have the prediction in 2006 that Chinese carbon emissions would not match those of placecountry-regionAmerica, the prime emitter, until 2020. The current estimate is that parity arrived in 2008 well ahead of schedule. The Nobel Laureate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has revised its previous estimate of bad times ahead. Instead of one to four degrees in temperature rise by century's end, the worst case scenario is already upon us and the rise anticipated is as much as six degrees by 2030.
Assumption 2: Serious public policy usually follows rather than precedes unpleasant events. As Walter Lippmann correctly observed in The Public Philosophy, “The movement of opinion is slower than the movement of events. . . . .Just because they are mass opinions, there is an inertia in them” (p. 24). The sociologist William Ogburn made a similar observation with his idea of “cultural lag.” It seems likely that federal response to the likely onset of recession is too little too late and the wrong medicine. More consumption with a few hundred dollars doled out to millions isn't an answer to people in need who've lost their homes or are about to do so. Oil dependence has long been a major cause of economic and environmental worries, whose continuation also allows foreign governments to use oil payments to buy up real estate, businesses, and securities in the placecountry-regionUnited States. Yet little has been done or is being done to cure the addiction despite ready availability of technological and legislative options.
Assumption 3: Most everyone, including me, would rather be optimistic about the future despite good reasons to think otherwise. Actually, dividing optimists from pessimists is fallacious since with equal justification one can be optimistic about possibilities and pessimistic about probabilities. On the side of possibilities, knowledge and technology needed to achieve a sustainable, tolerable life on earth is available or within striking distance. On the side of probabilities, vested interests, partisan politics, ethnic conflicts, religious divisions, ideology, and myopic nationalism, reinforced by a mass psychology of inertia, denial, and wishful thinking, obstruct timely, meaningful change.
Assumption 4: Change proportional to outsized problems seems virtually impossible without the stimulus of external shocks. It took placePearl Harbor to get Americans in the battle against fascism. It took the OPEC price increase for a barrel of oil in the early 1970's to awaken Americans to the reality of energy dependence, although nothing serious was done about it. It took 9/11 to focus attention on unsatisfactory relations with Islamic countries. At the moment it appears a long recession in progress is the only way to get officials and the public to embrace policies to slow or and shorten it. No one expected or predicted in 1970 that the Aral Sea, the fourth largest lake in the world, would be reduced to ten percent of its size by 2004 as a result of thoughtless human activity, costing thousands of jobs, destroying whole industries, reducing fish, bird, animal species by half or more, and causing widespread illness because of wind-borne poisons from the dried up sea bed.
Assumption 5: Averting or diminishing major external shocks requires unprecedented cooperation across boundaries and political will to fashion policies that stay in place long after the latest cohort of politicians has left office. Big problems of a global nature are connected and require systemic thinking and action. The usual piecemeal, incremental approach will not do, especially with 200 sovereign states jockeying for position to protect local interests.
Assumption 6: Social sciences wanting to influence public policy in placecountry-regionAmerica face an entrenched attitude that is anti-intellectual and anti-science, from White House stonewalling of inconvenient scientific reports to the evasion of reading by students in higher education. While most people want the power and benefits bestowed by science, many reject the ideas and thinking that produced those results. A scientific attitude requires willing suspension of belief, skepticism about claims, a respect for evidence no matter where it leads, and readiness to live with tentativeness and ambiguity. That doesn't appear to be the American way, an unhappy truth recently summarized in Al Gore's The Assault on Reason and Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. If physics, chemistry, and biology as natural sciences have been denied a hearing in the White House and Congress, one wonders what chance sociology, psychology, and anthropology might have with their knowledge and insights. Before social sciences can have a wide impact, a prior condition is respect for knowledge in homes, schools, media, and public office.
With these reservations tucked away, I turn now to a troublesome global frame of reference facing social sciences. Two incompatible forces are colliding on planet earth. The first might be called Business as Usual, the second the Reckoning.
Business as Usual means that most of the world's 6.6 billion people and their governments plod along from day to day with familiar routines, agendas, problems, and worries. The Reckoning is a network of incipient or manifest difficulties sure to cripple Business as Usual if not addressed in ways both timely and at sufficient scale. When accumulated evidence of the Reckoning is noted, the threat to Business as Usual is alarmingly obvious. An insight also surfaces that entrenched habits, attitudes, and institutions are not inclined to adapt except in ways fruitlessly piecemeal, uneven, slow, and incremental. Early in the last century, the historian James Harvey Robinson put his finger on it: “Curiously enough our habits of thought change much more slowly than our environment and are usually far in arrears. We are, therefore, in constant danger of viewing present problems with obsolete emotions and of attempting to settle them by obsolete reasoning.” (in Stern, The Varieties of History, p. 264). Business as Usual in placecountry-regionAmerica is accompanied by a noise level that obscures awareness about The Reckoning. On a public level, events and problems that monopolize attention can be sampled in most daily papers, local or national television news, and in speeches by politicians. The philosopher Nietzsche termed all of that “the wretched, ephemeral babble of the day.” The soon to be two trillion dollar war in placecountry-regionIraq is a distraction in a class by itself, now compounded by a faltering economy.
On a private level, still more energy and thought are drained off by worries over insecure jobs, unpaid bills, fragile relationships, bad health, and just getting through the day. Escape and forgetfulness are supplied by sports spectacles and pop culture, neatly analyzed by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Amidst these distractions is the ubiquitous sound of cell phones going off as millions imagine themselves “connected” while the world shifts under their feet. In his novel Exit Ghost, Philip Roth comments on the experience in New York of seeing people everywhere almost perpetually on the phone: “I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life. No, those gadgets did not promise to be a boon to promoting reflection among the general public” (p. 65).
The Reckoning can be sampled in the decline of ecosystem services and irrational energy consumption. The word “services” is meant to stress the usefulness and necessity of natural systems to human well being in general and economic activity in particular. Ecosystems do three big things free of charge. Provision supplies food, genetic material, and medicine. Regulation controls floods, encroachment of deserts, and purifies water. Support replenishes fertile soils, fresh water, and pollination of plants.
Some worried economists have put a dollar value on these services, which is a major contribution by one social science. Collective worth of the services far exceeds the combined gross domestic product of all countries. Meantime, the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, staffed by 1300 impartial scientists, finds that all ecosystem services are in decline and being used unsustainably. In other words, the free lunch is rapidly coming to an end. Some Chinese economists took these services into account as placecountry-regionChina's economy roars along in the business as usual lane, and concluded that if costs of widespread environmental damage were acknowledged, apparent gains in gross domestic product would drop by as much as 20 percent. The report was silenced.
Meantime, the oil consumption express train is headed for a brick wall. Instead of slowing down, it's speeding up, thanks to country-regionChina and placecountry-regionIndia, which jointly house 37 percent of the world's people. Modern industrial states can't function without oil. Demand has outstripped cheap supply in the past 30 years and the two lines-demand going up, supply going down-are passing one another. The evidence is higher prices, the $100 plus a barrel phenomenon, and ferocious international competition for existing reserves. Meantime, consumption in relation to population is radically skewed. placecountry-regionAmerica has five percent of the world's people, three percent of oil reserves, and consumes twenty-five percent of available petroleum each year to support “the American way of life.” country-regionChina (not to mention placecountry-regionIndia) with about twenty percent of the world's people, absorbs some ten percent, a disproportion unlikely to continue. Peace, prosperity, and health on a global scale require huge quantities of energy for now and the near future.
Yet there is no unified public policy to shift decisively to other energy sources by using a fossil fuel subsidy wisely in a realistic time frame. Rather, squabbling is already afoot over who gets to extract reserves from under the melting ice of placeAntarctica. Meanwhile, only two percent of the energy consumed by nations comes from renewable sources such as sun, wind, and geothermal. A United Nations estimate is that a global transition to alternative energy would cost 20 trillion dollars over a couple of decades, an investment clearly not being made or even contemplated by industrial nations.
What accounts for such stubborn inertia? One argument is that the human species may not be equipped culturally or biologically to look very far ahead. Most eyes are fixed on the horizon of tomorrow, next week, or next month. Unless nasty events supply a painful knock on the head, there is little incentive for behavior to change quickly in a major way. Until large-scale, unpleasant trends become irreversible, most people and their institutions can be expected to take comfort in Business as Usual, reinforced by denial, wishful thinking, and the comforting band aid of incremental change.
A second explanation is that attitudes and institutions have been shaped by historical events like the industrial revolution and the spread of political nationalism for two centuries. Many years are needed for the richest hundred nations to transition out of the present deadlocks of energy and the environment. Thus American oil dependence and its vast infrastructure for production, distribution, and consumption has been put in place over the past 65 years or so, and can't be undone in less than another half century. The sociologist and psychologist might have something to offer if a self-conscious goal of public policy is to change the way people react to relatively slow and threatening trends.
Knowledge and Social Science
Social scientists must assess what they have in common as social science. When the sociologist Robert Lynd published Knowledge for What? The Place of the Social Sciences in American Culture in 1939, he had a fairly clear idea about the meaning of social science. He distinguished knowledge from value judgments. Value orientation, he argued, is inevitable and always governs a choice of what is studied, but once a topic is selected, value bias must yield self-consciously to detached inquiry wherever it may lead. Lately value bias has invaded both choice and treatment of the choice, obviously not a good thing. But the real problem is balkanization of the disciplines.
Usually social “science” is defined in vague terms as the study of behavior and relations of people in society. Thereafter the definition breaks into a litany of individual disciplines which have become fragmented, a result of their increasing professionalization and specialization. Anthropology is a good example. Forty years ago I had no trouble understanding what anthropology was and no longer is. Touchstones for me were the likes of Boas, Kroeber, Malinowski, and Benedict. There were four coherent fields: physical anthropology, archeology, linguistics, and ethnography, which these days have little to do with one another. Ethnography became “cultural anthropology” and thereafter splintered into ever smaller compartments- social, symbolic, ecological, political, urban, feminist, and, lately it seems, military anthropology. A contemporary field worker noted recently that such diversity means anthropology has lost control of its central concept-culture. Much the same story of compartmentalization can be told for sociology, psychology, political science, and economics.
Economics invites comment. While economists from the left and the right often disagree on just about everything regarding what is best for the economy, a shared myopia is the stubbornly dominant model of economic activity as equilibrium in a free market sustained by allegedly rational individuals maximizing their advantages in a competitive arena of free wheeling supply and demand, a model going back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo when unpleasant ecological and resource issues were still over the horizon. Most grievously needed in our time is a perspective on what sustainable human activity might look like to neutralize fixations on open-ended growth and consumption. The established preoccupation is with familiar index economics-i.e., numbers relating to GNP, employment, inflation, prices, balances of payment, and the stock market.
Such matters are not unimportant, but only less so when we acknowledge three fallacies. The first is that unsustainable plundering and impairment of natural capital like forests, fisheries, grasslands, arable soil, and estuaries, not to mention the atmosphere, can go on indefinitely without undermining growth-oriented economies. The second fallacy is that sheer physical growth is the solution to all social and economic problems when the issue should be controlled growth and wise development. The third fallacy is that an enclosed world of market forces wedded to a pricing system that shuts out environmental costs can produce public as well as private goods and diminish income inequality. As Lewis Mumford remarked, the only kind of thinking that matters now is ecological, a kind of thinking alien to classical economics. Economists like E.F. Schumacher, E.J. Mishan and Hermann Daley, are more in touch with reality than Alan Greenspan. Economic theory and modeling that make sense for the long term can be sampled in the Journal of Economic Issues, which emphasizes ecological, behavioral, and institutional perspectives on production, consumption, and sustainable economic behavior.
A priority task is to bring disciplines under the rubric of social science together in an interdisciplinary synthesis to explain how human behavior might be focused on a correction of global distortions caused by poverty, ignorance, war, and self-defeating development. The world has some 5,000 ethnic groups, so anthropology can help by moving beyond micro-analysis and Clifford Geertz's “thick description” to an understanding of how so much diversity can be translated into effective unity on shared issues. There are some 200 autonomous nation states, so political science can help by locating commonalities that heal and bind and explain how governments might rise above narrow local interests. Since everyone needs resources to make a living, economics can help by showing how it can be done sustainably with a more equitable distribution of income and other benefits. These disciplines going about their usual business of isolated micro-analyses will not help. The result can only be thousands of additional journal articles and crowded academic conferences adding bits and pieces of knowledge disconnected from public policy.
The Slippery Idea of “Global Community”
What is “community” from a global perspective? There's reason to believe it's a comforting phrase with little content. Communities have always been relatively small and distinguishable from one another. The world is overwhelmed by diversity at a moment in human history when unity of vision, purpose, and action are most needed. The belief of many that globalization spurred by commerce and the Internet will weld peoples together has the look of a noble illusion. Perhaps nothing is more characteristic of “modernism” than the variety and clash of belief systems. Not only have the alternatives multiplied, reasons for choosing between them are more numerous as well. Men and Women nearly everywhere have become aware that they live in a bewildering marketplace of values and beliefs that compel a choice between them. This phenomenon was perceived and explained 65 years ago by the sociologist Karl Mannheim in his essay "The Crisis in Valuation" (1943). He argued that "we do not even agree as to whether this great variety of opinions is good or bad," much less have a consensus on any one of them. placeCityMannheim's analysis runs like this.
No coherent system of values, local or global, can exist without a process for their "creation, dissemination, reconciliation, and assimilation." In short, there must be a means of standardization built into the social order itself. In country-regionAmerica, for example, that isn't the case, much less for a place like tribal, religiously divided placecountry-regionIraq. Prevailing economic and social forces encourage pluralism and fragmentation. Ours is a high-speed business society whose main thrust is to commercialize all value. The outcome is anonymous, unstable neighborhoods and personal relationships often like disposable plastic cups. In higher education the commodification of professors and students is well along. For many professors the traditional, non-economic values associated with a "community of scholars" have been eroded or displaced by market values-compensation, benefits, personal advantages, and the offer to move elsewhere that can't be refused. Many students are seldom concerned with non-economic values of education, but rather seek quick payoffs that accrue from narrow training easily marketed. An "uncontrolled and rapid growth of society," Mannheim notes, which includes population, urban centers, mobility, and abstract contractual relationships, has moved us from relatively intimate primary groups based on emotional solidarity and face to face relations to larger kinds of shifting groups difficult if not impossible for an individual to identify with.
Our social environment and behavior have changed while categories of valuation-what matters and what does not, and what roles are suitable for men, women, and children-are from another time and place, the fate of the old nuclear family probably being exhibit number one. Reconciliation and assimilation struggle against a smorgasbord of beliefs, ideologies, and "life styles" defended by a chaos of interest groups. Blame for this radical pluralism, which impedes agreement on anything really important, doesn't rest with secularism, skepticism, and hedonism, but rather with the railroad, airplane, telephone, and travel agency, and more recently with television, communication satellites, the Internet, and cell phones.
A restoration of “traditional values” would require turning back the clock. Consider another prominent idol the traditional values-free enterprise. Here we have an economic model founded on the assumption that the basic unit of society is not the cozily collective nuclear family but rather the sovereign individual maximizing his or her self-interest. TV preachers are enthusiastic about free enterprise, but they also want electronic congregations faithful to traditional families governed by biblical, patriarchal ideals. No wonder we're confused about values. How does one reconcile values of a patriarchal family with those of individual autonomy?
Mannheim concludes that "neither the human body nor the human mind can bear endless variety." Something has to give. The uncomfortable implication is that less freedom and pluralism are needed rather than more if a common basis of valuation has a chance, assuming wide consensus can be reached on what matters and what does not for everyone. For example, can it matter to all that open-ended consumption and economic growth are restrained, or that fossil fuels are phased out quickly, with real but temporary inconvenience to restore the atmosphere and service functions of ecosystems?
How Social Sciences Can Make a Difference
The first priority is to convey and instill a respect for knowledge. Students should leave an academic course or classroom convinced that knowledge exists, has power, and can shape their lives for the better. The point needing emphasis is that tested knowledge is universal and must be distinguished from partisan ideology, custom, opinion, and faith. Knowledge tells us what the case about the world is whether we like it or not. It resists and challenges unsupported claims and unexamined beliefs. In the realm of knowledge, claims, opinions, and beliefs must submit to evidence and logical argument. Knowledge lies therefore in the domain of reason, and, as we all know, reason in contemporary placecountry-regionAmerica is embattled. Nothing could be more important than mentoring students to an understanding of these distinctions.
It follows from what knowledge is that all beliefs are not equal. Knowledge requires alert, critical thought. It can't be discovered and applied successfully to human needs without scrupulous attention to evidence guided by provisional skepticism and doubt. In effect, a comfortable will to believe must yield to a disciplined will to question. The idea that all beliefs must be respected as equals is inherently irrational. Toleration is usually appropriate for the most bizarre convictions, as long as they don't threaten life and limb. Respect in the domain of knowledge must be earned.
Students must also understand that all knowledge about the world is uncertain but no less knowledge for the uncertainty. We simply know some things better than others on better and more evidence. Indeed, without uncertainty there would be no impulse to have doubts, be puzzled, ask questions, and seek answers. Uncertainty is a necessary condition for knowing anything at all. The guide for a rational person is probability, which depends on the quality and quantity of evidence available to justify any belief about the world, history, or human behavior.
In the past thirty years or so many social scientists have been preoccupied, one might even say obsessed, with diversity and the “other.” Diversity is simply a cultural and historical fact that must be understood and accommodated. There's nothing intrinsically virtuous about it any more than with similarities. Too much diversity can impede thought and action that address common interests. Too much uniformity can stifle innovation and development of the individual. Whether either is good or bad, disruptive or helpful, depends on circumstances and collective human needs. Obviously diversity in Darfur, CityKosovo, country-regionKenya, and among Muslims in placecountry-regionIraq hasn't been worth celebrating. Amidst the global welter of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions, complicated further by widespread gender and racial inequality, the bedrock priority for any sense of ”world community” is solidarity about shared dangers and needs that rises above self-enclosed diversities of culture and religion. We are presently awash in diversity, While it requires attention, emphasis in this century must shift to our common humanity on one little planet. Social scientists can make a difference by moderating racial, gender, and ethnic tensions and separatism on behalf of a common good.
Finally, the accumulated knowledge of all the social sciences must be coordinated within an interdisciplinary frame of reference. Some progress in that direction has been made, but far more is needed. An ideal is systems thinking in which social and cultural patterns are understood in relation to the changing landscape of environments, technology, and resources. Teachers of social science can do nothing more helpful than show students how to leap over disciplinary boundaries and use knowledge from all the disciplines to define and solve problems that bring human lives in all cultures into harmony with a shared planetary environment.
A systems perspective works from positive and negative feedback loops within a presumed system like the global “community.” The positive feedback loops tell us things are getting better with respect to life expectancy, literacy rates, infant mortality, per capita income, technological innovation, trade connections, and other signs of improvement since the days of Adam Smith. The negative feedback loops are trends and realities outlined earlier as the Reckoning. My point is that negative feedback in a system can strangle or blot out the positive feedback quickly and unexpectedly, especially if the negative loops are driven exponentially, which surely is the case with population growth, energy consumption, and ecosystem destruction. Tracking and heeding the flow of feedbacks is a road to sane public policy so that change can be undertaken before the worst happens, even if the moment seems rosy. I leave part of the solution in the hands of forward looking, collaborating social scientists. Thanks for your kind attention.
About the Speaker:
Dr. Stunkel earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Maryland, where he also took an M.A. in philosophy and was University Fellow in sociology for year. He is currently Professor of History at Monmouth University. He served as dean of Humanities and Social Sciences for 11 years and dean of Arts and Sciences for two years between 1981 and 2001. In 1973-74 he taught Chinese history and oriental philosophy for the University Maryland’s East and Southeast Asian overseas program.
His teaching and published scholarship encompass Asian civilizations (India, China, Japan), ancient history (Greco-Roman), European intellectual history, history of science, energy and the environment, technology and ethics, systems thinking, and world politics. More recently he developed courses in the history of art and architecture in relation to ideas, history, and engineering, which took him to Princeton University as a Visiting Fellow in the 1980’s. He is the published author, or co-author, of seven books, 31 scholarly articles and 25 essays on a variety of topics.
His travels have included China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa, Thailand, and Laos (two years in Asia), and 25 trips to Europe for visits to museums, historical sites, architectural monuments, and libraries in England, Scotland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, and Turkey.
View Dr. Stunkel's Curriculum Vitae Below: