Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thoughts about UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences Program

I have been thinking about this program, which appears quite strange to me. This is the smallest of UNESCO's five programs.

I, like most Americans, tend to think about the social and behavioral sciences as linked. This is not true for UNESCO. Indeed, there does not seem to be a place in the UNESCO program for psychology and cognitive science -- strange given the emphasis in the organization on education.

I understand that the term "human sciences" includes philosophy and ethics (which UNESCO distinguishes from philosophy), and that the term comes from the French influence on UNESCO. The Social and Human Science program includes significant emphasis on ethics (of science and technology). It also includes efforts related to human rights, and poverty. Apparently these latter activities focus on practical analysis more than on philosophical discussion.

The program also has a component dealing with sports and doping in sports. Is that social or human science? I doubt it! On the other hand, if the member nations require UNESCO to program activities related to sports and doping, where else should they be placed?

The flagship effort of this program is Management of Social Transformation (MOST). It takes a problem based approach rather than a disciplinary approach. That is, rather than have programs on economics, sociology and/or anthropology UNESCO seeks to bring all the social sciences to bear on the management of social transformations.

I got to thinking about what exactly are the social sciences. Wikipedia's entry on the subject is helpful, but perhaps not as good as I hoped. I think of the in groups:
  • sociology, anthropology, archaeology, ethnography
  • economics with its subfields such as agricultural economics
  • political science
  • management sciences (focusing on the study of formal organizations including government -- public administration)
  • linguistics
  • human geography and demography
Wikipedia also includes part of the study of law within the social sciences, stating that legal studies involve both the social sciences and the humanities.

I think of history as a social science, and some historical work seems to be done within UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences Program, but UNESCO's ambitious series of histories seems to be centered in its Culture Program.

So too I think of area studies as a field of social sciences, applying a whole range of social sciences to understand societies within geographic regions (Latin American Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Asian Studies). Area studies programs exist in many universities, bringing a different kind of scientist to the field.

I think that the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, etc.) tend to take the responsibility among intergovernmental organizations for development economics, WTO and UNCTAD for trade economics, and organizations such as FAO, WHO and UNIDO for economics in their fields (agricultural economics, health economics, industrial economics respectively). Similarly, I suppose that the UNFPA takes some lead responsibility for demography and human geography. Still, it seems to me that UNESCO devotes few resources to social sciences given their importance for the planning of social and economic development, which in turn is necessary for the alleviation of poverty.

I would think that a strong, multidisciplinary program in the social sciences would be justified per se, helping to promote international networking among social scietists and to build social science capacity in developing nations in support of their social and economic development. Such a program should be an important element in UNESCO's efforts to promote peace and dialog among civilizations, since the social sciences are creating and disseminating knowledge critical to these UNESCO efforts. I believe that there would be a natural complementarity between a strong social science program and UNESCO's programs in education, culture and the natural sciences, as well as the philosophy component of UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences program.

I suppose the lack of such a program is in part due to the relative weakness of the social sciences in 1945, when UNESCO was founded. It is not surprising that as UNESCO struggled with an expanding portfolio of responsibilities and a very tight budget, somethings were done "on the cheap". Perhaps also many nations did not want social science scrutiny of their cultures; governments might have resisted social science scrutiny of their operations. Still, without examination of the social, economic and cultural soundness of development policies, they too often fail. Only UNESCO would seem to have the charter to take a comprehensive approach to encouraging the development of holistic social science capacities in developing nations. Too bad it devotes so few resources to that task.

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