Academic Dependency in the Social Sciences: Reflections on India and Malaysia

By Alatas, Syed Farid | American Studies International, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Academic Dependency in the Social Sciences: Reflections on India and Malaysia


Alatas, Syed Farid, American Studies International


The study of the social sciences can be approached in a variety of ways. Various types of meta-analyses exist, and concerns range from the epistemological to the empirical. Metatheory, or the reflexive study of the social sciences, involves the study of the social, cultural and historical contexts of theories and theorists, and their philosophical roots. The particular variety of metatheory that I focus on in this essay is the political economy of the social sciences, with reference to the cases of India and Malaysia.

In what follows, I introduce the topic by way of a discussion of the relevance of the social sciences to developing societies, after which I move on to an account of the structure of academic dependency. This account concerns the manner in which the social sciences in developing societies are dependent upon American social science. I then suggest that academic dependency alone is insufficient to explain the continued currency of American-dominated social science in the Third World. There is a rhetorical dimension to the social sciences that in part explains the global spread of the social sciences. The overall aim of this essay is to shed light on the nature and typology of intellectual dependency.

The Problem of Relevance and Academic Dependency

The institutional and theoretical dependence of scholars in developing countries on Western social science has resulted in an uncritical and imitative approach to ideas and concepts from the United States and, to some extent, Great Britain, France and Germany. Whereas, the relevance of the social sciences for developing countries has been called into question (Myrdal, 1957; Singh Uberoi, 1968, Misra, 1972), the ideas of social science became entrenched. For example, even though it seemed that the humanistic and less technical political economy would be relevant because it stressed the role of non-economic variables in development, it was modern economic science in the form of abstract models that established itself in much of the Third World (Pieris, 1969: 439-440). In the discipline of geography, for instance, it has been noted that in the 1970s more theoretical works addressing the relevance of Western-derived development models began to appear (Raguraman & Huang, 1993: 285).(1) What the discipline of geography experienced is true for other disciplines as well. Political decolonization was accompanied by the spread of a polycentrism in world geography in which the relevance of Western or Anglo-American models is questioned (Hooson, 1994: 5-6).

Reflection on the question of the relevance and utility of the social sciences for non-Western societies has resulted in the highlighting of a number of themes that have emerged as a result of the encounter between a largely Western-oriented social science tradition on the one hand, and specifically national/regional socio-political issues on the other. One such theme is academic dependency.

The social sciences, as they were introduced in the colonies and other peripheralised regions of the world from the nineteenth century onwards, were imported and implanted without due recognition of the different historical backgrounds and social circumstances of these societies, a greater awareness of which would have warranted modified and revamped theories and methods. Following political emancipation, the intellectual dependence of the former colonies on American and European models continued. Although the leading theoretical perspectives originating in Europe and America have not always been relevant in alien milieus, their continuing presence in university syllabi and lists of references in journal articles in the non-West are testimony to the process of adaptation to the "rules of the dominant caste within the Euro-American social science game" (Kantowsky, 1969: 129).

This intellectual dependence can be seen in terms of both the structures of academic dependency and imported ideas whose relevance are in question. …

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