Decolonisation by Data

A New Agenda for South African Social Science

South Africa is at a political and social crossroads. There is social conflict on the streets and online, economic conflict in the mine lands and the farm lands and political conflict in both the halls of power and the periphery. There is a struggle within the ANC for the reins of power, and a struggle outside of the ANC for authority in the inevitable but distant post-ANC landscape.

A narrower but no less important conflict is playing out at universities around South Africa. Along with deep debates and disputes around funding and support for students, there have been growing disagreements about excessive Western influence over university education and research.

Arguments around “decolonisation” of the humanities and social sciences have centred on the primacy of Whiteness and Western thinking in the syllabi and course materials of various university departments across the country. In Philosophy departments students are pushing for greater focus on, for example, critical theory rather than analytic philosophy. In Economics departments students are opposed to what they view as uncritical endorsements of “neoliberal” free market economics rather than a focus on heterodox thinking. There are also entirely merited critiques of the slow pace of transformation of academic staff.

There is no doubt that the humanities and social sciences in South African tertiary education do need to change, both in terms of personnel and substantive focus. Whether the major change required is simply that more African (or rather, non-Western) heterodox scholarship is introduced to syllabi is one worth debating. After all, there are plenty of more orthodox thinkers who are African, South East Asian, Latin American, and sub-continental. Syllabi in South African universities are too white and too male, but embracing and encouraging academic diversity does not necessarily entail embracing heterodoxy. In fact, it is possible that the answer to encouraging diversity and improving the education offered to students is exactly the opposite. South African departments may be orthodox but they are not modern: We have critically failed to keep pace with the modern orthodoxy, and are far worse for it.

From an international perspective, it is astounding that South African university students can graduate with a degree in many social sciences without having taken any classes in basic mathematics or statistics for the social sciences, or have been required to read any texts that use sophisticated quantitative techniques and evidence to test theories about the world.

If one opens any current edition of the leading journals in Sociology, Economics, Political Science, Development Studies, International Relations, Public Administration, or Public Policy, the vast majority of articles use scientific research designs and quantitative data. Yet one would not know this looking at many syllabi across the country. South African academia has, with a few notable exceptions, been left behind by international trends. Not only is the vast majority of high quality research being done worldwide making use of quantitative data and statistics, but we as South Africans are increasingly surrounded by data, be it from Statistics South Africa, various government departments, social media like Twitter, or originally collected surveys and experiments. There are tremendous opportunities to learn about the state of our country and ways to change peoples’ lives, yet we lack the tools to use the information available to us.

Growing and developing empirical and quantitative social sciences is so important because South Africa is facing tremendous social, economic, and political challenges. Racism – be it structural or interpersonal – remains ever present in the lives and experiences of black South Africans. Inequality and unemployment remain catastrophically high, and economic growth remains low. Perhaps most important of all, basic education is in crisis. This year alone roughly 40% of our graduating school cohort failed to even sit Matric. In this single cohort, roughly 400,000 young South Africans (that’s almost 1% of the country’s population) left the formal education system before writing their final examinations. And, of course, the pass rates for those who did write Matric hide extensive functional illiteracy and innumeracy.

These “big” issues are merely the tip of the iceberg. Healthcare provision, agricultural sustainability, water security, crime and order, the list of major issues facing our country is long and daunting.

Apartheid and colonialism are in large part to blame for the varied crises we face, and this fact is no doubt intertwined with the rapid growth of decolonisation movements. Critical and honest reflection and discussion are necessary to help inform our priorities and focus points, but it is worth remembering that our problems are neither unique nor insurmountable. Beyond theorising and critical debate, there are practical policy-based interventions to be made. The practical challenge of running, growing, and bettering South Africa demands renewed attention from those in the academic social sciences, but also from other spheres of society, from government to the media to civil society.

There is an opportunity now for a new type of intellectualism in South Africa. For decades, academic research, governance, and policy-making worldwide were driven by guesswork and stubborn path dependency. Innovation is difficult and challenging, so people do what has always been done, refusing to truly test their beliefs, and shying away from change. In the media pulpit we allow “political analysts” and “thought leaders” to speak without evidence or data or scientific rigour, indulging their (and our) biases and sub-conscious prejudices. This is human nature, but it is not inevitable: it can be resisted by embracing data-driven, evidence-based debate, policy generation and decision making.

In many other parts of the world (including many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa) governments, civil society, academia, and even the media, are learning to embrace the application of science and scientific reasoning to social, economic, and policy problems. Media ventures like the New York Times UpShot and the Washington Post MonkeyCage are providing social scientists with a means to use data and evidence to speak to a wide audience about social, economic, and political issues.

Government-run educational programmes to improve learner outcomes are now routinely evaluated through experimental methods. The introduction of job market or health care or micro-credit interventions are randomised so that social scientists can study their short-term and long-term effects. Crime and policing are studied with publicly accessible “Big Data”, notably the recent debate led by Black Lives Matter about racial bias in US policing. The tools of laboratory, biological, and the hard sciences are being brought to bear on social, economic and policy problems, and to great effect.

The potential applications of these tools are wide and varied. They can help us increase the number of people participating in elections, reduce the potential for racial bias to influence hiring decisions, improve early childhood reading and maths, ensure HIV/Aids patients follow drug regimens, lower drop-out rates at school and university, reduce gender-based violence in the home, and even increase the efficiency of government service provision. But upon graduating with a degree in the social sciences from many South African universities, one would probably not know that this entire world of modern social science even existed. The reality is that at present, there remains a strong opposition to the use of quantitative evidence and scientific methods in South African social sciences (economics departments notwithstanding, for the most part).

South Africans must realise that the problems we face are not simply difficulties to be overcome. They are vast untapped opportunities. For South African universities and academics, they are opportunities to produce cutting edge research that changes how both our society and those around us build solutions. They are opportunities to re-establish our country’s pre-eminence in social scientific enquiry. For young students wondering what to study, they provide a unique opportunity to contribute major solutions to major problems.

The challenges we face are a chance for the South African government to promote innovation, to lead on the continent and in the world, both within its bureaucracy and in society more broadly. For civil society, activists, NGOs, and funders, the challenges we face are opportunities to learn how better to allocate time, spend money, and genuinely make an impact.

The only true solution to South Africa’s economic and racial malaise is the total structural and economic recalibration of this country. Bringing that about, when 40% of our children (almost all of whom are black African) do not even get to sit Matric feels impossible. But universities can lead the way by embracing scientific inquiries into social and economic hardships. The public can do its part too, by demanding that “political analysts” use evidence to justify their opinions in the media, and by encouraging government to engage in evidence-based policy-making. Decolonisation fundamentally means bringing about meaningful change. A new intellectualism is needed, but part of that must be the embracing of modernity, of data, and of scientific reasoning.

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