ASIA-PACIFIC: Social science transcends boundaries

In his discussion of social sciences and the Asia-Pacific region in the World Social Science Report 2010, John Beaton says the main elements are employment, social mobility and equity, security and safety, education, population, health, globalisation, adaptation to climate change and the governance required to manage these matters.

As Executive Director of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and Secretary General of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils, Beaton is well qualified to comment.

He says there is a divide in research capacity because of funding differences and other factors, particularly the isolation of scholars in developing countries.

"Within the overarching themes, social scientists in the region often focus their research on practical issues that are pertinent to measuring individual and community well-being," he says. "This is particularly true of social scientists employed by government-supported agencies. It is increasingly recognised that although social scientists should be concerned with local issues, there are some universal themes such as poverty, equity, population and health."

Beaton says these themes transcend national boundaries and promote collaboration and a regional view. But in most Asia Pacific nations, inter-generational and geographical issues are of current importance, such as the young increasingly abandoning rural life for the opportunities in cities while skilled and unskilled workers move from homelands to distant or foreign soils.

"This topic links specialists in migration, labour, identity, citizenship, language, politics, law and perhaps even the full range of social science disciplines," he says. "Most Asia Pacific social scientists are deeply committed to understanding emerging patterns of multiculturalism and the conditions that can give rise to harmonious societies rather than dislocation, anomie, crime and wasted lives."

Social scientists in the region also address the issues that arise from economic cycles that can drive prosperity or poverty and both outcomes have practical consequences in social upheaval and failures in social cohesion, Beaton says.

"In recent decades, the great economic success of Thailand, India, China, Vietnam and elsewhere has produced over-populated cities, uncontrolled pollution and the loss of social infrastructure. Understanding how governance, institutions, trust and security can contribute to confident and hopeful lives is important for social scientists and their governments."

In a second commentary in chapter three on the research capacity of social sciences in Asia, Beaton says whether a nation is rich or poor the support available to researchers is a fraction of that provided to their scientific and technological colleagues - despite the evident human and social problems facing their governments.

He says social scientists in developed and developing nations are equally frustrated that their knowledge is not quickly translated into improved well-being for their people. In small, less developed nations social scientists may struggle to have any effect at all.

"Some nations have exceptional scholars who suffer from pitiable infrastructure support and little connectivity. Other nations may have numerous researchers and sufficient infrastructure support, but lack the connectivity to remain informed about sophisticated research methodologies and advances in their international colleagues' thinking."

Beaton says India, China, New Zealand, Australia and Japan have well-developed social science linkages with Europe and the Americas. Yet social scientists in most other Asian nations mostly have "impermanent individual relationships".

"The challenge of understanding the bewildering complexity and interaction of social, economic and political systems in an ever-changing world has inspired social scientists in Asia and elsewhere to embrace the promising, but challenging, guiding principle that large-scale problems demand multi- and cross-disciplinary social science approaches. Furthermore, these problems require approaches that cross sectoral boundaries to the natural and physical sciences, engineering and the humanities."

He concludes by saying that it is in the interests of regions, as well as countries, to support a well-networked system of collaborating scholars and practitioners in the social sciences: "Economic, political, ethnic and other social issues are rarely, if ever, unique to a single country. In a globalising world, issues and potential difficulties can spread across national boundaries with exceptional ease and speed.

"To some degree, all social scientists in Asian nations suffer from an inability to share, compare and analyse their data, experiences and thoughts."