17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van Bergeijk in this article show how close and intensive cooperation across the artificial borders between the sciences can be made possible and argue for a methodology acknowledging that only a combination of qualitative and quantitative research can create the type of knowledge that’s required to move forward together.

Hans-Peter Gauster (unsplash)

We start with a proposition: that both social and natural sciences are good at boxing, but not as good at wrestling. They ‘box’ by telling themselves stories about where they and researchers in the respective fields ‘fit’ into the scaffolding erected around the supposedly chiasmic divide of natural and social sciences. We all seem to know what side of this divide we want to be on, and a lot of time is invested in delineation, often drawing distinctions without differences. For too long, specialisation and deeper knowledge, both applied and theoretical, have been seen as the royal road to academic success.

But there are limits to what any science can do on its own. We’ve seen this during the current pandemic. As in any context, COVID-19-related health problems cannot be tackled from a purely medical angle; the exploitative social and economic structures that make people sick must also be challenged. Indeed, the validity of medical solutions to a large extent depends on social and economic conditions of time and place. The pandemic does not provide a new insight – it simply makes it clearer.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that by boxing in the disciplines and keeping them apart, we fail in a monumental way to ‘wrestle’ with multi-faceted problems, like global pandemics. We avoid the intellectual battle inherent in engaging with what the other side thinks. To deal with COVID-19 or to understand what is happening, we need less boxing and more wrestling! A mono-disciplinary perspective, however sophisticated, cannot help us design and evaluate policy interventions, or grasp the wider meaning and significance of COVID-19 in specific contexts. A lot of time is now being invested in delineation with other strands and lines of thought based on high principles of epistemology and ontology. Our point is that that energy would be better spend on truly working together.

A physician and an economist…

We write from different sides of a supposedly chiasmic divide, a divide we each try to bridge and straddle in our own ways. C. Sathyamala is a public health physician with a Master’s degree in Epidemiology who opted to do her PhD in development studies at the ISS. In the process, she developed a strong interest in class and state power and in the history of the biopolitics of food and hunger. As a medical doctor concerned with action for social justice, the Bhopal gas leak disaster proved a crucial turning point in her life as corporate interests in collusion with the state effaced people’s lives. The COVID-19 pandemic created similar tendency, displacing the migrant working class across India and subjecting them to what Giorgio Agamben has called ‘bare life’.

As an agnostic Dutch economist, Peter van Bergeijk is the first academic in a family of South Holland-based bakers, carpenters, and farmers. As a policy maker at the OECD, he was frustrated by the impossibility to engage major developing countries in discussions on environment and health. This motivated his move to the ISS, where he is equally happy to employ a neo-Marxist or a ‘empiricist’ framework as a toolkit, depending on what analytical toolbox is most suitable for the problem at hand.

…together critically examining the COVID-19 pandemic

Each of us has written on COVID-19 – on the urgency of communicating our concerns – in the form of  books or a range of Working Papers. Writing from different social and professional positions, we now also write…together. A common interest around COVID-19 has bridged our science-social science divide.

Primarily, we agree that if at all a silver lining is to be found in the COVID-19 situation, it is that we can learn a great deal, especially with mixed disciplinary backgrounds, with science, social sciences, and the arts (we have also worked together artistically: you will find Sathya’s poetry and Peter’s lithography alongside at the exhibition Broken Links).

And we both agree that we will only truly understand pandemics and their consequences, and what to do about protecting human societies from their fallout once social scientists and natural scientists stop practicing social and intellectual distancing by boxing themselves into their own disciplines.

This is more urgent than often recognised: the next pandemic is a certainty, only its timing is uncertain.

The WHO hopes to forge solidarity and encourage the sharing of knowledge across disciplinary and global divides. The purpose is to generate greater consensus around COVID-19.

But while lip service is paid to medical opinion, it is powerful political and economic elites that continue to call the shots.  State interventions provide selective care in the matter of making live and letting die, and even in making die in the Foucauldian biopolitical sense. Academics find themselves struggling to keep up in real time with the pace of the pandemic, with its spread, recurrence, changing pattern, and often its gross mismanagement.

Huge as the problem is, we are pleased to have started our own dialogue, right here at the ISS, and based on our own published and ongoing research on the subject. How COVID-19 affects us now, and what kinds of ‘pandemic futures’ we face, are questions all of us can contribute to answering once we learn to wrestle across our disciplinary divides.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

C. Sathyamala is a public health physician and epidemiologist with a PhD in Development Studies. She is currently a postdoc academic researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Den Haag, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her areas of interest include food security and politics of food, political economy of health, medical ethics, reproductive rights, and environmental justice. She has been active in both the health and women’s movement in India for some decades. She has authored and co-authored books and published in journals, peer-reviewed and otherwise, and in newspapers on wide-ranging topics. 

Peter van Bergeijk is professor of international economics and macroeconomics at the ISS.

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3 Comments
  • Nico Guns
    July 11, 2021

    Evidently, C. Sathyamala and P. van Bergeijk are not only knowledgeable scholars in their fields; they are also wise persons. Knowledge and wisdom do not automatically pair. In fact, many scientists are not very wise persons. Here we find two scholars combining these essential characteristics. Praise for that! Their wise advice is to be followed! Nico Guns ph.d.

  • Nico Guns
    July 6, 2021

    C. Sathyamala and P. van Bergeijk are evidently knowledgeable scientist in their fields. With this blog they show themselves to be wise also. They thus show us the way ahead. Wisdom is essential; knowledge is important also. Nico Guns Ph.D.

  • Anonymous
    July 6, 2021

    C. Sathyamala and P. van Bergeijk are evidently knowledgeable scientist in their fields. This blog shows them to be wise as well. They show us the way to progress. Wisdom is essential; knowledge is important too. Nico Guns Ph.D.