At international conferences and other long research meetings, participants do not only listen to presentations of papers, engage in discussions in panels and question rounds, and talk with old and new friends during breaks and meals. We reflect and philosophise as we listen to long speeches, and we get new ideas, mostly related to the conference topics. For people with today’s busy schedules, to have such opportunities is a treat in itself!

I spent the last weekend as a participant at this years’ conference about ‘Emerging issues in social sciences in Pakistan’, organised by the Quaid-i-Azam University, or QAU, and the Higher Education Commission, or HEC, in Islamabad. The new “Inter-University Consortium for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities” was presented and an agreement signed with the National Testing Service. A trip to the top spot of Margalla Hills, Islamabad’s most exclusive viewpoint, was organised in the evening. Life could not be much better for young and old social scientists in Pakistan and visitors from abroad!

And then, after it all, we are supposed to become more learned and creative! Does that really happen? Does it help us to become more alternative thinkers, inspired by things we heard and read at the meeting? Will we go along the narrow and winding roads, not just stride on the paved footpaths and plastered highways?

True, we also need the standardised knowledge and core curriculum, but that we can learn “at home”, at the university or institute we work. At conferences, we look for impulses and ideas. We want to impress and be impressed, and we want to get ideas and inspiration.

At the current conference, one of the senior participants, Prof Dr Eatzaz Ahmad, Dean of Social Sciences at QAU, said at the closing session that one thing he would take with him from the conference was to consider and define development in broader terms than just GDP and other economic terms. He had enjoyed the proposal given by another speaker, who advocated “happiness” as a good measurement for the end result of development. Not easy to measure, of course, but we all know it when we have it, and indeed, when we don’t have it. I would say that it was good to hear that an economist discovered this and wanted to admit it.

Other social scientists, like psychologists, educationists, sociologists and others, have already understood that development is much more than something we can measure using models and figures, income levels and taxes, and so on. Is it not important what the economists study? Yes, it is, hence I will make my second point in this connection: we need more contact and exchange of ideas within and between disciplines. We need to become more interdisciplinary.

Since social scientists study the whole world and the human beings in it, we cannot exclude any issue. We have to be interested in “everything” and we have to be open to discuss issues and approaches that are contrary to our immediate gut feeling of what we think is important or right. Yet, we also have to specialise in certain areas, and they are the areas where we have deeper expertise and research experience. In those areas, if we are certain about our findings, empirical data and theories, we should be clear and strong too. It is not only religious leaders, who should preach; social scientists and politicians should also do that. But we must always listen, while preaching. It is easy to do both, if we want to.

At international conferences, senior students should always be present, also more junior ones. Their minds are like sponges; their capacity to think, both conventionally and alternatively, is huge. For them, exposure is the most important. One important thing that they will take with them from a conference is that they should not be shy of what they know themselves. Sometimes, they will notice that the old professors do not always have better answers. Yes, with age and experience, we become steadier in research methodology, and we know when and how to argue cases. We also have broader knowledge and we have read more books. But we may not always be as daring as young researchers. Well, when we get “really old”, we may also become daring, too, because we have less to lose and we want our points to be noticed. Young and clever researchers do the same.

At international conferences, it is important for local students and young researchers to see that foreigners are not always better and cleverer than local academicians. When my latest publication, The Know Norway Book, was launched in Pakistan in December 2011, a retired Professor, Dr I.N. Hassan, who had worked with Norwegian researchers, noted that the Norwegians she had met were all right. Their work was good. But also others do good work, she noted. Conclusion: Foreigners, including myself, struggle the same way as others do in our academic and other creative work.

This was a good observation, I thought. If the country is rich, like Norway, or big, like America or the UK, it does not mean that they have a priori monopoly on the best new, creative and alternative ideas. Yes, their money, traditions, institutional history etc, will give them a head start, but good and excellent work can be done anywhere. And if the work has to do with Pakistan, then the context is local and the relevance must be local. Most of the work can and should be done by Pakistanis. Foreigners may help and be members of teams, but it is not always necessary. Yet, I believe, it is good if we, even when we do local studies in Pakistan, can compare notes with foreigners, who have done local studies in their countries. A study from a rural area in Gujrat can draw lessons from a study conducted in a rural area in Norway.

I mentioned “excellent work” above. I hardly use that term. I believe that “good work” is good enough. Maybe good work is better than excellent work, considering its application and usefulness, and considering that research environments must be broad and inclusive, not little, overfunded ivory towers. Most candidates from universities are supposed to move on into real life. They should take posts in education and industry, business and trade, and rural towns and urban areas. If we were educated in ivory towers, maybe we can only work in ivory towers?

In Pakistan, we know that there is room for a lot of improvement in the social sciences and humanities. We know that universities must give these subjects more attention than in the past, especially when we have often given priority and allocated resources to science and technology. Prof Dr M. Nizamuddin, Vice Chancellor of the University of Gujrat, underlined this at the conference I attended. That was to be expected of a senior social scientist himself. What was even better was that a biotechnologist said the same, notably Prof Dr M. Masoom Yasinzai, Vice Chancellor of QUA. Well, not quite surprising because biologists are, perhaps, more holistic in their approaches than many others, encouraged by the focus given to environmental studies, global warming and climate change in recent years. They have understood that we live in one interconnected world, and they need the close cooperation with social scientists and researchers in the humanities.

These are examples of components that will contribute to development of creative capacity and alternative thinking, as the title of my article presupposes. Conferences help us on the way. But there are other important components, too, such as having fun when we learn, when we carry out research, when we discuss in conferences and try to get ideas and find solutions to the world’s many shortcomings. My friend - Dr B Ayesha Mustafa, originally from America - and I had very pleasant three days at the conference. We had much fun and shared many jokes, not least due to the company of our new friends, Khizar Jawad and Syed Hammad Hassan, young history researchers, and several others from universities all over the country, and senior researchers from abroad. If we cannot have fun in our work, we become less productive! That is why, it is so important to include young men and women in research teams. But we all know that research is a hard and tedious work, with many mistakes and difficulties, envious competitors, lack of funds, and so on. So, there is a need for humour and fun. Let these words form the end of my article this week. And you have noticed that I have only touched upon a few important issues. The road is still being built; work will take time. Your thinking and mine must continue!

n    The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.

    Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com