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Insights 2012: The failure of Western social science?



8 August 2012

Professor Colin Wight
"It is time for the social sciences to start asking the 'big questions' again", says Professor Colin Wight.

In this week's Insights 2012 lecture (August 9th), Professor Colin Wight will argue that the social sciences have failed to achieve their initial lofty goals as set out by the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Professor Wight, from the Department of Government and International Relations, says rather than solving the world's social problems, the social sciences are in a profound state of crisis caused by an inappropriate scientific model being applied to human affairs.

"When approximately 3.8 million children under the age of five die every year from poverty, neglect and malnutrition it is time to wonder what the social sciences are for," Professor Wight says.

"And when the gross domestic product of the poorest 48 nations in the world, is less than the wealth of the three richest people it is time for the social sciences to start asking the 'big questions' again."

In his public talk, "From Enlightenment to Irrelevance? The Failure of Western Social Science", will explain how the social sciences got to this point of crisis and offer suggestions as to how the discipline can regain relevance in the contemporary world.

Professor Wight says the early founders of the social sciences were dazzled by the success of the natural sciences and hoped to replicate that success in the social realm.

But he says these aims have not been realised and the contemporary social sciences have largely been used by governments to legitimate policies rather than as guidance in making them.

Indeed the relevance of social sciences is also played out in a crisis of funding where funding for the social sciences continues to be cut in most developed economies.

In the US, for example, the House of Representatives has voted to abolish funding for political science from the National Science Foundation altogether and an editorial in the Washington Post urged the House to go further arguing that all social science funding should be cut.

Colin Wight's research is primarily constructed around the desire to understand, and show, how theoretical work impacts on empirical research.

His lecture will aim to identify the causes of the crisis. Second, is to provide some suggestions as to how the social sciences can regain their intellectual nerve and fulfill the dreams of the early founders.

This lecture will be delivered as part of the Insights 2012: Inaugural Lecture Series, presented by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.

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Contact: Kate Mayor

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