Modernisation theory effectively disappeared before what had happened in the 20th and this century. AFP

AMONG other things, negative pluralism transforms interests into principles and claims into rights, and maximises cleavage politics. It reinforces parochial communitarianism and collectivises individualism. It makes difference the priority basis of representation and accountability. Universal sectarianism thus poses the unanswerable question of how tolerant of the intolerant a democratic political system can be, especially when political parties and movements become locked into stalemates that thwart the institutional bases of accommodation, accountability and consent.

As such, David E. Apter argues for a new modernisation theory that can become useful for the recognition and the analysis of negative pluralism, which creates a divide between the technologically literate and the technologically disadvantaged. The resulting polarisation goes well beyond theories of class division to cognitive differences, each with its own deployment of intelligence.

Subsequently, interests are raised to the level of principles. This highlights differences of religion, caste, race, language and other categorical affiliations, and turns them into often profound convictions, exaggerating differences rather than minimising them, and favouring the potential for conflict over mediation. In turn, this reinforces and perpetuates differences that threaten prevailing institutional frameworks, and renders party politics a war by other means.

Modernisation theory effectively disappeared before what had happened in the 20th and this century. It took Franz Fanon to extend its shelf life for a while instead of Talcott Parsons. But as Apter explains, the old modernisation theory disappeared for good reasons. It was influential but never dominant in the social sciences, and it was always the object of suspicion — ironically, not from us.

Apter, Yale scholar in Comparative Political and Social Development, explains that among the many weaknesses of early modernisation theory was that its categories ignored the important ways that people interpreted “systemically defined” reality on the ground.

There was much talk about norms and values, but in the abstract rather than concretely. On the whole, it ignored the events and actual circumstances of roles and the lives as lived within them.

Missing was much sense of how interpretation acted to change that reality itself. As a result, a good number of the theory’s more confident predications turned out to be, if not wrong, then not right enough — such as the rise of secularism, and now various forms of extremism at the expense of the sacred. One can argue that if we accept that the driving force of development was industrialisation, and development was the driving force of modernisation, over time it has become clear that universal functionality does not so easily ride roughshod over prevailing and more parochial particularisms, such as race, ethnicity, religion, and differences of language and kinship.

Much that was reported in the 2010 World Social Science Report and arguments, such as the one by Apter, imply a more structured interest in social science research in the non-Western world. The use of the conventional bibliometrics misses out a vast body of dynamic social science scholarship and advocacy being created through other means — more systemic, conceptually and empirically concrete.

We argue that good social science lies in what people say about their circumstances, how they interpret their condition, and the narratives they form, from and out of which they construct a logic of action. We need to be able to read words and acts like a text — a social text, as Clifford Geertz would have it, much after reading Indonesia as a “theatre state”.

We cannot expect the act and the text to have undergone substantive changes since 2010. The inequality of societies and knowledge production remains. While the WSSR 2016 urges governments, especially in Asia and Africa, to end a culture of underinvestment in social science research into inequality, it argues that if we take inequality seriously, we need serious social science research into the long-term impact of inequality on people’s lives.

And to that, non-Western social science scholars must always be alert on the corpus and the discourse lest we subscribe to theories, policies and actions that are removed from our systemic realities.

Datuk Dr A. Murad Merican is a professor with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia

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