It is said that each generation has to define its own time and age. We inherit traditions, values, opinions, ways of doing things, and so on.

But it doesn’t quite belong to us unless we evaluate it and make it our own, and sometimes change or reject things, replace them with something new, which is indeed our own. What is important to us today may be different from what people before us thought was important. If we can, we will take part in shaping our time, but more common, we will be shaped by our surroundings, and thus we belong to the time and place we live.

I don’t know if this is entirely true, and if we perhaps need to be more precise and elaborate to make good sense of it. But I do know that there is something quite distinct about many things and thoughts at specific times and places. So that we can easily say, “that photo must be from a middle class home in Pakistan in the 1950s”; or, “such opinions were typical for students in Norway in the 1960s”; or, “that music was definitely made in England in the 1980s”. As we grow older, and look back at the trends and fashions, we may feel nostalgia or resentment, or just be neutral observers, accepting how things were at the time and place in question.

To study ancient history, indeed the near-past and contemporary history, is fascinating. It makes us wiser and able to understand more of our own time and perhaps even be able to plan the future better for ourselves and others. Being a social scientist, I find this important, well, just by being a human being.

How is our time defined? Who does it? Is it writers, religious leaders, politicians, pop artists, or others, or maybe a combination of many?

Today, maybe it is the media people? Or, perhaps it is we social scientists who have taken on the mantle, or a major part of it? In many ways, I believe that, belong to that sector myself.

As a background, we need to have an understanding of the concept of time, or a bit broader, generation, making each 25-30-year period a bit easier to get a grip of. This may sounds too educational and boring, but I promise to bring some surprises, too, as you continue reading my article.

First, let me tell you something about the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). He is considered to be the founder of the modern social sciences, indeed sociology and to a lesser extent, anthropology. Before Comte, theology, philosophy, history and the humanities rained the ground.

On the other side, there were the mathematical, technical, chemical, and biological sciences, fundamental to the further scientific development in medicine, engineering and other disciplines. They had developed fast after the paradigm shift a few hundred years before Comte, and he being a positivist, he envisaged that the philosophical and ‘thinking sciences’ could in due course become more like the natural sciences, neutral and objective, yes, exact sciences.

Of course not! Not even the natural sciences are ‘built in stone’, and the social sciences could not do their work if they wanted to ‘freeze a situation’ so we could study it, for example, that children should be quiet so we can study them more easily. Besides, it is not more scientific if we isolate and control issues than if we study the broad complexities. The social scientists have to study and consider ‘everything’ at the same time. Well, we can also isolate and organize what we study and develop relevant methods. Comte began when using generation as a practical ‘entity’ for how to study and compare social issues at a particular time and in a defined geographic area.

It is interesting, too, that Comte began using the term generation when some people began living longer than before, not just a generation and a half, and often shorter. Societies began changing faster as the agrarian societies gave room to the First Industrial Revolution from about the 1760s (to about the 1840s), notably for three to four generations. In our time, we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which also will be the topic of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, next week. And then, the generations for change will probably be fewer and faster than before.

Technological change goes faster than before, the material world changes fast, and also the way we learn and study it all. That was the reason why I felt it was important to refer to Comte and the social sciences above. The latter I like to do, since I believe the social sciences, the ‘thinking sciences’, are essential for us to make sense of the world we live in. But they are not the only ones.

This week, we were reminded of that; the extraordinary and often outrageous English rock artist David Bowie (1947-2016) passed away.

Those of us who were his contemporary were reminded, through the necrologies and memorial media programmes, that he had been a huge figure in shaping his time over two generations, often setting the agenda of many social, ethical, artistic, musical and other discussions. Bowie put issues upfront on the agenda, but he didn’t draw the final conclusions in many fields; he asked questions and re-invented.

The next generations will have their say, and must continue the journey. We may already have begun looking back at Bowie’s time, evaluating and judging it. Ordinary people and specialists will do that, indeed with social scientist and thinkers outside academia.

At the same time, but probably mainly unrelated, we have begun evaluating the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have set out to control the consequences of Nanotechnology, robots and more, and make them more useful for the ways we want to structure our world, our working life, social life and economies.

Who is it eventually then, that defines the time, age and generation we live in? Who is it that influences and shapes the future most?

We all do contribute, but mostly, we ‘flow with the tide’, depending on where we live and in what sub-group. At the same time, there is always something that is universal, today facilitated by globalization, IT, media and communication. We can live in a village in middleclass setting in Norway or in Punjab and much of what we will be the same, and much different, too. But if we met, we would realize that we belong to the same generation and time.

Beyond all this, there is something common in all human beings and all human settlements, something which exists at all times, in all places and all societies. Religion is one such dimension. Perhaps one of the things we can learn from my reflections today is precisely that.

At the same time, each generation must study its own time, make it one’s own, and build on the new knowledge and ideas to make the future better for all.

And then, since I often call the social sciences, the ‘thinking sciences’, let me express the hope that the next generation will get more time and inclination to think, not just do, learn and change things – the way we often do today with all the technology and gadgets we are surrounded with. Let us in future take more time and focus better on real intellectual and social activities – indeed so this 2016, when an influential group in Pakistan has been termed it the Year of Social Sciences.