In the West, the social sciences have their second coming; the first was in the 1960s. Well, or maybe it was some 150 years ago, when Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx and others developed groundbreaking descriptions, theories, and proposals for improvements related to how ordinary, working people lived as opposed to the little upper classes, and how wrong many things were. They gave us ideas about how we could live better; how people’s voices could be heard and how we could organise our societies and countries in more democratic and equal ways, not just let the capital, industrialists and the owners of the productive forces do what they wanted, at their whims, or their planned moves to accumulate more money.

The social scientists of that time, 150 years ago, with backgrounds in economics, history, philosophy and other ‘thinking’ and ‘questioning’ sciences, played an essential role in shaping the modern world. If they had come earlier, much suffering of the poor could have been avoided; and maybe many wars too; even the whole colonial era when Europe underdeveloped the South. The Western rulers’ understanding seems to have been that they shouldn’t develop not just yet, and they could to be looted for their natural resources and serve the capitals of the world powers. We know that development is from within and below, with local leaders who serve their people.

In London, Paris, Berlin and the other capitals, the ‘amateurs’, well, I mean, the politicians of the time, had free hands to shape their countries and the world. It was not based on theories and knowledge, not on democratic ideas; it was based on a few leaders’ own ideas. The capitalists have their little (kitchen) cabinets to plan their moves. But then, the capitalists 150 years ago began to be questioned and the politicians wanted to control them, at least in certain areas. Alas, the ordinary, working people were not included, those who sold their labour to the industrialists, land owners and ship owners.

If the social scientists had been more prominent, they could have told the leaders quite a bit about democratic development. Well, if they had not been in the pocket of the leaders, just hired to run their errands and developed ‘theories’ to suit the leaders’ practice. Social scientists, too, do that, wittingly or unwittingly; they are part of their time, culture and popular thinking, even if they ask questions and also go against the going ideas.

Although Karl Marx and other early social scientists did indeed go against accepted ideas, others did not. For example, if they had been more independent and radical in their thinking, women would have been able to play an entirely different role in society much earlier; remember, women have only had the right to vote for just over a hundred years even in the West, and it is mainly in the last decades that gender equality has been achieved. Furthermore, in the colonies there wasn’t much of universal suffrage, human rights, and equality for the law. Social anthropologists and other social scientists came a bit late to dismiss racial theories about superiority and inferiority. Not even the Christian theologians and missioners were very different from the mainstream thinking in those days.

Social scientists, too, made mistakes in the past, and we can make mistakes in the future, too. Our thinking, analysis and recommendations are never neutral and entirely objective, yet, better than without scientific data and reflection.

You may indeed say that the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union were based on Karl Marx and colleagues’ theories, with China and many other Third World countries all over the world following in the footsteps (still joined loosely in the Non-Aligned Movement).

We say that socialism and communism failed, and we say that America and the West won the Cold War. But then, we may draw conclusions too fast and indeed unscientifically. True, socialism is mostly gone today. But the reason for that is largely because the West didn’t want competition with its capitalist economic system. If the Western leaders had cooperated with the socialist leaders in Eastern Europe and beyond, the socialist model might have succeeded, and also adjusted its negative sides. In several fields it did well, often better than the West, such as in education, health and improvement of living standards. The capitalist countries could have learnt more from communist and socialist models, making the West’s model kinder and more people-oriented than it was and is, not mainly money and things oriented, often overexploiting people and nature.

But then I should hasten to add that this has actually happened, but we don’t like it admit it; in Europe and to a lesser extent in America, the social-democratic development model, which is an offshoot of socialist thinking, is the leading development model today. It is based on a capitalist private sector, where the state can also be owners, but the running of companies should be capitalist. The public and private sectors should be heavily regulated and taxes paid according to ability.

Through such a system, the selfish capitalists (which would be all of us, if we had the opportunity) would be forced to share with the rest of society. Today, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (IBRD) have realised that the social democratic model is better than ‘raw and ruthless capitalism’, and that regulations are essential for peace and development, and even good for the capitalists.

The Scandinavian countries are arch examples of how well this can be done, and they remain the most innovative and vibrant economies in the world, open for change, with strong social and inclusive policies, often with ideals from the old communist and socialist thinking, but with new thinking, too. Women often form half of the government cabinet members in Scandinavia. There are challenges, of course, but participatory societies will usually be able to find solutions that are acceptable for all! Today, social scientific surveys, opinion polls, studies, research and thinking help the politicians so they can make well-informed decisions.

We should remember, though, that there is never a straight line between theory and practical politics (and maybe that was part of the problem with communism). Politicians can learn from social scientists, but the ‘art of politics’ is not top down; it is based on the participation of the people, hence, it will be different in practice than in theory. But without social science research and studies, there is certainly a gap. The social sciences are essential for background, thinking and analysis in our time.

When the large two-day South Asian Social Science Expo 2016 opened in Islamabad yesterday, several of the issues I have touched upon in my article were discussed, and more will be on the agenda today. The main question being: How can social sciences in Pakistan be used in improving politics and administration? How can social sciences contribute to a better understanding of development? How can we sound the alarm too, when things are not done ‘right’? The latter should not be done so it is taken to be against the leaders; it should be done as a favour. Social science studies and analysis must be done before major political decisions are made. Indeed, social scientists can help provide background data and thinking for better decisions. But it is the politicians, with the people, who must make the decisions in a democracy. We don’t want a meritocracy either, where the learned think they know it all, because they don’t!

Voltaire (1694-1778), the Enlightenment philosopher, historian and satirical writer, said that “doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”. Social scientists – and politicians – can never be entirely certain about what they believe and do in an always changing world. But it doesn’t do harm, does it, to have some more scientific data and thinking to help in making decisions? Good social sciences, and the other sciences, can provide better understanding. Creative people in literature, film, arts, religion and so on are also essential – and simply ordinary people’s non-dogmatic wisdom and thinking.

I congratulate the organisers of Social Science Expo 2016, the Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences (IUCPSS), which is an offshoot of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Islamabad. I will listen attentively to Expo deliberations today on its second and last day, and I wish for serious follow up. I hope the social sciences can become better, and can be used more by the public and private sectors in future.