Social sciences and humanities in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Social sciences and humanities in Sri Lanka

28 March, 2021

In 2010, looking at the British university system, Terry Eagleton posed the following simple question: “are the humanities about to disappear from our universities?” In answering his own question, he noted that ideally, “There cannot be a university without the humanities,” and “if history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term and it would be deceptive to call it one.”

This is a question we should ask ourselves today in our context too. Though he was only talking of humanities, the same question can be posed with reference to social sciences too. That is, social sciences deprived of their imagination and re-arranged as mere data-generating practices – as they often function nowadays – reflect the same outcome.

In general, these disciplinary domains are not taken seriously in Sri Lanka. This has happened due to two interrelated reasons, which I had initially referred to in 2017. This can be restated today as well because the operative conditions have not changed:

1) First, most disciplines that fall within social sciences and humanities – barring economics – have been exiled into the lower strata of academic hierarchies, as irrelevant ‘soft’ subjects by educational decision-makers, political leaders and the public.

2) Second, many colleagues in social sciences and humanities have also not shown any clear intent or ability to disprove this popularly held belief by enhancing their own research, intellectual engagement, publishing and public interventions. In this situation, the perception of crisis and decay, which has befallen these disciplines, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While there are serious lapses in training and institutional issues in social sciences and humanities in our country in general, several specific conditions have contributed to this more decisively. These are:

i. The nature of forums and networks in which contemporary scholars have become part of;

ii. The quality of publishing in social sciences and humanities;

iii. The ways in which social sciences and humanities engage with and generate theory and finally,

iv. The extent to which Sri Lankan social science and humanities knowledge production impact the global discourses in these disciplines.

Forums and networks

Academic and intellectual networks and forums play a crucial role in constructing and expanding disciplinary knowledge and in building individual careers. But these must be carefully built and maintained. Forums constitutes conferences and seminars.

Networks are made up of local and global institutional and personal connections these conferences and seminars might create over a period. Serious conferences are focused and do not necessarily involve large numbers of people. But today what I see in Lankan universities are extremely broad conferences and seminars under which almost anything could be presented.

But this almost unimaginable broadness in conference-thinking and planning so typical in social sciences and humanities in our country is different from the more serious model of global conference ethos, where discussions are more focused and robust.

When colleagues travel overseas or even locally today, many do not seem to carefully select the venues of their academic engagements and subsequent networks they become part of. Instead, many younger and senior colleagues often come to conferences that I am aware of in India, Pakistan and sometimes Bangladesh where the most outstanding local scholars would simply not come. That is because they do not take these engagements seriously.

To put it differently, many Lankan scholars do not go to intellectually more challenging conferences and seminars. As a result, they will not become part of the more engaging academic networks. Instead, they become part of what may be bluntly called quite mediocre networks. Being part of such networks and attending such intellectually unchallenging academic conversations will not help build social sciences and humanities in our country or the careers of individual scholars.


Can we honestly be satisfied that the norms and parameters of publishing in social sciences and humanities in our country meet global standards? When I read some of these publications in Sinhala and English whenever I visit Sri Lanka, I am constantly reminded that we learn very little from ethical positions and good practices of better-established publishing traditions.

In Lanka, we do not have dedicated academic presses as we see in other parts of the world. To a large extent, we merely have ‘printers’ who publish almost anything. On many instances, I do not see serious editorial interventions in these publications. That is, lapses in peer-review, selection and copyediting remain unaddressed in the final publication. As a result, published works tend to be uneven.

Many university entities publish journals these days. These forums have expanded over the last twenty years giving more colleagues expanded opportunities to publish. But many of these journals do not follow a recognisable editorial policy when it comes to selection of essays for inclusion, stylistic matters, referencing and so on.

Also, what is published are often very average writings that hardly add anything substantial or new to existing knowledge or debate. But journals and university-based journals in particular, are supposed to fulfil a more significant role than being mere forums for average texts.

Theory and theorising

In any discipline, the generation and engagement with theory are crucially important in ensuring that the output from these disciplines is intellectually robust. It allows for abstract thinking as well as to explain phenomena generally in comparable social and political systems – beyond a specific place.

Akbar Zaidi has observed with regard to Pakistan that Pakistani social scientists blindly apply imported “theoretical arguments and constructs to Pakistani conditions without questioning, debating or commenting on the theory itself.”

In the same sense, Sri Lankan scholarship in social sciences and humanities has not seriously engaged with in recent times with the dominant theoretical constructs that currently hold sway in the more academically dominant parts of the world. Neither have we offered our own constructs and voice to the world.

This is not about discarding borrowed ideas for the sake of that being borrowed. The problem is the lack of critical engagement with these ideas. Every theory and all bodies of philosophical knowledge emerge from specific historical trajectories and in specific historical conjunctures, all of which impact upon the nature of theory that is constructed.

When these ideas are taken elsewhere, to countries, such as ours, where historical conditions are vastly different, would these theoretical constructs be able to explain our social phenomena equally well? The issues is, most practitioners of social sciences and humanities in our country do not even pose this question.

Impact on global disclosures

To what extent does Sri Lankan social science and humanities knowledge production impact global discourses in these disciplines? Given the conditions outlined earlier, which negatively impact our knowledge production and dissemination in these disciplines, can we seriously think we have the capacity to impact global discourses? If my brief outline above on dynamics of networking and knowledge production forums, lapses in publishing and engagement with theory or lack thereof is correct, how would we be able to impact global discourses? Who would listen to us? In many ways, we have literally become an island unto ourselves. But no discipline can evolve robustly if it does not engage with the world and if it does not borrow knowledge from the world and impart knowledge to the world at the same time.

The future

I think there are two possibilities for Sri Lanka’s future in knowledge production in social sciences and humanities:

1) The first possibility and the easiest, is to do absolutely nothing. Let the kind of teaching, research, publishing and networking that predominate today continue despite the kind of serious problems I have briefly outlined. They will certainly add to the quantum of the information that is produced. At times, they would also add to developmental planning as well, along with promotions within universities. But this approach will certainly not contribute to any kind of serious advancement in knowledge locally or globally.

2) The second possibility is to seriously recognise the existence of the problems I have outlined and find ways to deal with them. It is not impossible to upgrade our teaching if there is adequate political will. It is a matter of personal responsibility as well as university oversight to ensure that conferences we organise, seminars we attend and networks we become part of are carefully selected that would benefit persons and the institutions they represent in intellectual terms, while also adding to the advancement of knowledge more generally.

It is similarly well within reach to restructure our journals to ensure that they represent a commitment to knowledge and quality and not to mere quantity. However, given that Sri Lanka’s market for academic publications is limited, it will be quite difficult to establish dedicated academic presses. Nevertheless, it is well within the realm of possibilities for selected universities to work with and train private sector publishers to produce more serious academic works as part of the work they do and to take them to the world.

These are serious questions that need serious reflection and equally serious solutions along with pragmatic decisions from individual academics and from the university system. It is also a matter of choice not to make the kind of decisions I am advocating and simply maintain the status quo.

Only the future will tell us what decisions were ultimately made. That is, whether we have opted to reinvent ourselves so that we can address the world and negotiate with the world in the production of knowledge, or whether we have opted to be in the shadows of our island and engage in quotidian ordinariness.