Interview with Daniel Filmus, former Minister and social scientist: 'I applaud the social scientist’s political commitment.'
in SHS Newsletter 09
Daniel Filmus, former Argentina’s Minister of Education, Science and Technology, is also sociologist. On one of his visits to UNESCO, we interviewed him on the role of the social sciences in shaping public policy, and on the International Forum on the Social Science – Policy Nexus which took place simultaneously in Argentina and Uruguay from 20 to 24 February 2006.
In your capacity as both politician and sociologist, you are living proof that the social sciences can serve society. How do you think your training helps you to face the challenges you come up against in your work as Minister?
To head a Ministry such as Education, Science and Technology, on the one hand one needs to have a good grasp of the issues, and on the other one needs public management skills. The fact that I have both carried out research and taught in the fields of sociology of education and economy of education, helps me enormously, particularly with regard to understanding education issues. This is of the utmost importance, especially in Latin America, where it is essential for legality to go hand in hand with legitimacy. A Minister can be legally designated, but in order for him to have authority and to be legitimately accepted as such – particularly by academics, scientists and teachers – he also has to fully understand the issues. In the case of Education, authority comes from that understanding. In that sense, when defining policy, it is of great help to me that almost all those in the teaching profession have read my books, that I was a researcher for many years and that I am aware of the current research situation, and that I am a University professor. It is of great help to me when making decisions not merely because I know the problems but because I have some authority with those who apply the policies.
How do you see the contribution of the social sciences with regard to policy formulation?
In Latin America, the 1990s was a decade when we frequently listened to the views of economists, but little to those of sociologists. Those who implemented the policies were above all concerned with accounting and macro-economics. During that decade, the Argentine gdp increased by 5.5%. But at the end of that same decade, the people were poorer than they had been at the beginning. That’s where our saying comes from: “Macro is all right for Argentina, but the people take the micro”. * At that time, it was thought that if the economy was creating marginalization, exclusion, unemployment and the unequal sharing of resources, “the social services” would compensate for all that.
The contribution of the social sciences is very important on two counts: first, in emergency situations, to help formulate social policies that can reduce poverty, marginalization and exclusion; and second, in the medium-term, to take part in the construction of a social model combining growth with equality. It is this latter aspect that presents the most difficult challenge.
Social policies are often regarded as the poor relation that has to compensate for the effects of decisions taken at macro-economic level. How can the two be better integrated?
In the case of the Ministry I head, this is very clear. There is no other way of producing growth without exclusion, or for creating growth with equality, than through education. In our view, education is the foundation of democracy. Without education, we would still be in feudal times: every person’s origins would condemn him to reach a certain point but no further. Education should allow every child to succeed according to his or her ability. I am not talking about a utopian egalitarianism but about the possibility for every person to take up the challenge of upward social mobility thanks to education and according to his or her ability. When there is dysfunction in education – which is the case in Argentina and in Latin America in general – and when education is very unequal, the poorest section of the population receives the worst education and the wealthiest the best.
We are in fact in the process of returning to feudalism. We are reproducing a society divided into social classes where people’s origins dictate their fate. So it is clear that even with economic growth, even with job opportunities, those who have not had access to education will inevitably become marginalized. They will always exist according to social policy and will never be able to integrate the increasingly complex world of work.
The other aspect concerns the University, science and technology. For developing countries like Argentina to have the opportunity of being sovereign and autonomous in their decision-making, they must use knowledge. As soon as there is globalization, development has to mean integration into the rest of the world, and one has to know how to go about it. In Argentina in the 1990s, integration depended on three elements: the decline of working conditions with exploitation of the workforce and its low cost; the use of natural resources, without any added value; and short-term financial speculation. We call that spurious competition. Today we want to move to genuine competition. And in order to do that, without these three elements, we need to be able to rely on scientific and technological innovation capacities as well as on the quality of the workforce which can add value to the traditional, natural products. Therefore to create a chain of values in our country, we need trained people. We need innovation and scientific and technological growth in order to gravitate to autonomous growth and not depend on patents, royalties and knowledge produced in other countries.
The way globalization is happening today has to a large extent come about as a result of decisions taken by governments in the past. Some developments are positive while others have a devastating effect on societies and on people’s lives. Do you think that a better dialogue between researchers and decision-makers could have helped avoid the negative effects?
Yes, without doubt. But I do not believe in the utopian view that the social sciences alone can find solutions to problems that even politicians cannot manage to resolve. It is a matter of political will regarding the choice of the kind of globalization. If humanity does not alter the current form of globalization, the social sciences alone will not suffice to help societies manage. To date, globalization has created a deep divide between the rich and the poor countries. It has even increased the inequality within countries, particularly in Latin America. I think that at the very heart of the issue is politics: do leaders accept this situation or are they going to ask the social sciences to help change the model?
For example, who defends interculturality with regard to the new information and communication technologies? We all readily agree that these technologies are fantastic, that they open up previously unattainable possibilities in education and the communication of information. And yet what we see is an ever-growing monopoly of certain languages and certain cultures on the Internet. If there is no political decision made in defence of interculturality we are going to see a monopoly of some cultures over all the others. What we call globalization or universalization, means in fact the appropriation of these new technologies by just a few cultures to the detriment of the majority.
Do you think one can say there is currently a depreciation of the social sciences?
I think the strength of the social sciences generally lies far more in their critical rather than propositional ability. We often turn to the social sciences, either to criticize the established order or, as I mentioned earlier, within the framework of targeted policies aiming to compensate for the obvious inequalities that generate a model of inequitable globalization. It is as though the gentle democratizing breeze of the social sciences were up against the inegalitarian hurricane brought about by a far more powerful economy. It is very difficult to resist these fundamentally inegalitarian models. But we social scientists, either we just stay with criticism or we work inside the faults and gaps left by the dominant policies, and try to produce more equality. It is a very noble task.
Since the 1990s, the general crisis of the neoliberal model has been challenging the social sciences to develop strategies that go beyond plain criticism and show their ability to build a new model. In the 1970s, Latin America, along with some parts of Africa, was the cradle of the dependence theory and the need for freedom. In much the same way, the social sciences in Latin America can be expected to take the lead in making new positive proposals particularly today when a whole group of governments – Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina – is far more focused on equality and social issues.
But in order to be efficient, the social sciences need independence. By strengthening their interaction with the world of politics, do they not run the risk of losing their independence?
No, not in the slightest. For us social scientists who often work, discuss and take action within the political sphere, the dialogue with policy makers and with social reality is extremely rewarding. I do not think the social sciences are any the poorer or are becoming more dependent, as long as they maintain their point of view. One cannot practise a social science for a world that does not exist. The image of the sociologist far removed from politics, from the public and social problems, but nevertheless reflecting on society, does not belong to this century; what we need are committed social scientists.
What is the essence of the social sciences? It is the link between micro and macro, between structure and superstructure, and between individual and collective behaviour. For the specialist, that falls between the economy, politics and social issues. That is the contribution the social sciences can make and, in that vein I applaud the social scientist’s political commitment – not a remote scientist looking down from above, but one who is involved in daily conflict resolution, according to each person’s ideological position.
Argentina will be playing host to the International Forum on the Social Science – Policy Nexus. Why did your Government decide to support this initiative?
But that’s exactly why, because we believe it is both unavoidable and necessary for there to be a dialogue between policy makers and representatives of the social sciences. Because we think that Latin America, for the reasons outlined earlier, provides an arena favourable to improving this dialogue. Because this Forum will make it possible not only to talk of theories, but also to compare many countries’ actual experiences. And also because we want to turn over the page of the 1990s and even bring social prospects into political projects, and into current social models. I want to emphasize this point – it is not a question of calling afterwards on social scientists or policy makers dealing with social issues, to heal the wounds and tend the sick who have been left behind by a model that neglects equality; we need to build an egalitarian model.
If we are expecting anything to come out of the Buenos Aires Forum, it is strong interaction, an in-depth, critical, non-formal discussion, which will help us map out new, non-traditional ways of building more egalitarian societies.
The Forum aims in particular to strengthen international and interregional cooperation in the social sciences. Why is this so important?
It is, of course, very important to discuss certain universal problems, but it is just as important to discuss problems common to a region. A Latin American social science exists and it is time we recovered it! Today’s social sciences simply cannot be stamped by a radial relationship. Let’s imagine, just as in politics, a multipolar world of networks, rather than a single centre that radiates out. At the moment, for Latin Amercia, relations are radial with the United States and Europe: social scientists have more contact with their North American and European counterparts than with their Uruguayan, Chilean, Brazilian, Colombian or Venezuelan counterparts.
So if there is a strong contingent of social scientists from the region attending the Forum, this would also help us examine many of the issues we have in common, and put us in touch with our University communities. In the case of Argentina, for example, we are currently doing our utmost so that not all our young doctorate students leave the region to study elsewhere. We are striving to create mechanisms for evaluating postgraduate degrees in order to give our credentials a kind of label or guarantee of excellence in the MERCOSUR region, so that our students may pursue their studies in the region, first and foremost focusing on regional issues.
What about South-South cooperation?
South-South cooperation is another aspect we have to work on. We undertake almost no studies at all with our African, Middle Eastern or Asian counterparts! There are virtually no Asian social scientists in our University libraries. We generally limit ourselves to what is translated into Spanish and, let me say again, in a totally radial relationship with the United States and Europe… It is extremely difficult. One of the characteristics of the 1970s was the emergence of authors such as Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Elbio Yaguaribe and Juan Carlos Portantiero. All of them began to have some impact on the Third World. When their countries became independent, many African social scientists had an impact on Latin America. But today it is very rare for authors from developing countries to have any influence on the university training of our social scientists.
Would you say the social sciences have a unique characteristic in Latin America?
First of all, there is something very important that we have not yet touched on: the role played by the dictators and military governments in destroying Latin American social thought. Thirty years ago, almost all Latin American countries (with the exception of Costa Rica and Venezuela) were under a dictatorship. When a continent grows up like that, without democracy, the sector most affected is the social sciences. For example, I was studying sociology in my country and, well, the courses in sociology and anthropology, etc. were simply withdrawn from the curriculum. The development process of the social sciences in Latin America was not just broken, it was smashed – smashed through the expulsion, disappearance or exile of most of our social scientists.
Another characteristic we have in common is that Latin American social scientists have learned in the wake of dictatorships to appreciate democracy as we never did before. Freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, political parties, the whole democratic game, have become like prized possessions, so highly regarded that at first it seemed that democracy was enough on its own. Two decades on from the return to democracy, we began to see what was missing. Latin American social scientists will certainly not renounce democracy, but we cannot be content with a formal democracy. What is characteristic of us in Latin America is, I believe, the way we are striving to complete our democracy with economic and social policies, to create conditions that will not begin to disappoint the region again.
The surveys carried out recently in Latin America on people’s confidence in democracy show that this confidence has a strong tendency to decrease when faced with a lack of response on the part of democracy to health, education, work and housing problems. These are problems that most people encounter. Now that is a specific challenge for Latin American social scientists; it is bound to differ from the problems posed in Europe, from the Asian growth model or the North American model.
What are your hopes for the Forum?
My main wish is for the Forum to gather the best of positive experiences with regard to the link between policies and the social sciences, and I hope there will be specific commitments to help strengthen this link for the good of society. There should be a debate on the theoretical structure, with a high-level conceptual content, and also a solid debate for policy makers and social scientists to find joint ways of tackling our societies’ most pressing issues that can no longer be postponed.
Interview by Jeanette Blom, with Ana Krichmar.
Note: * In Argentina, the expression viajar en micro means to travel by bus.