Interviews and Opinions

Situating Social Sciences and Humanities in Sri Lanka in the 21st Century

The keynote address delivered via Zoom at the ‘Ruhuna University International Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences 2020’ on 5 November 2020 at University of Ruhuna, Matara, Sri Lanka. The first part of this presentation draws heavily from the keynote address delivered at the 4th Annual Research Symposium of National Centre for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities, Colombo, Sri Lanka on December 20th 2017. 


Members of the clergy, the vice chancellor, the dean of social sciences and humanities and colleagues, good morning to all of you.

I want thank the organizing committee for inviting me to make this presentation at ‘Ruhuna University International Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences 2020’ focused on the very broad theme, ‘Culture, Modernity and Social Transformation.’  Since there is some confusion in our country and in the region what a keynote address is supposed to be, let me outline what I think it should be. A keynote address should not be a research paper.  Instead, it ought to be a reflective presentation of ideas that would hopefully create a foundation for a larger deliberation of ideas to take place.  So, I want to place in context my view of social sciences and humanities in our country at the present moment, so you can continue to think where you stand, and what you wish to do about your own institutional location.

To be clear, it is unmistakable that the world has progressed rapidly in terms of knowledge production in every conceivable field over the last three centuries. But beyond obvious generalities, this development has clear limits depending on where one is located and what fields of knowledge we are talking about.  Within this simple qualification, it is essential to recognize that social sciences and humanities are in decline globally today, even though a quantitative expansion in terms of output continues to be evident. As such, this decline is not in terms of what is produced and how often, but in terms of the relative influence of these disciplines in national contexts and globally, as well as in the intellectual quality of what is produced in the name of humanities and social sciences.

Humanities and Social Sciences

In 2010, looking at the British University system, Professor Terry Eagleton posed the following simple question: “are the humanities about to disappear from our universities?” (Eagleton 2010). In answering his own question, he noted that in an ideal sense,  “there cannot be a university without the humanities,” and “if history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one” (Eagleton 2010).  This is a question, we should ask ourselves today in our context too.

Though he was only talking of humanities, the same question can be posed with reference to social sciences as well. That is, social sciences deprived of their imagination, and re-arranged as mere data-generating practices – as they often function nowadays – reflects the same outcome. The issue that we should be concerned about is this: why is the centrality of social sciences and humanities in the thinking and the collective conscience of national socio-political environments in general, been underemphasized, demonized and neglected over the last few decades?  Much of this has happened due to two interrelated reasons, which I had earlier presented at an UGC-sponsored conference in Colombo in 2017. Let me restate these again as the operative conditions have not changed:

1) First, most disciplines that fall within social sciences and humanities – barring economics – have been exiled into the lower strata of academic hierarchies, as irrelevant ‘soft’ subjects by educational decision-makers, political leaders and the general public.  It is in this context that we can understand President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s recent advice to young students that they should be interested in subjects that had a ‘demand.’[1] In his mind, subjects without a demand obviously was a reference to social sciences and humanities.

But this not a local condition.  Rather, it is a widespread global situation.  For instance, the same attitude was displayed in June 2020, when the Australian Minister of Education, Dan Tehan said that students in humanities subject areas in universities would have to pay fees that were increased by 113%. Comparatively, fees for more utilitarian subjects such as engineering, agriculture, nursing etc were much less. He argued this decision was meant to offer incentives to students to make job-related choices in higher education.[2] In other words, his interest was to push young people away from humanities and social sciences in general.   But in many countries, economics as a discipline has escaped this situation due to its alleged direct implication in what is known as ‘development.’ And to a certain extent, sociology in countries like ours, has re-invented itself as a mere data-gathering device in a poor simulation of economics. With regard to sociology and social anthropology in particular, this reductionist and utilitarian cloning of economics has seriously damaged these disciplines’ quest for theories, theorizing, conceptual sophistication, and improving methodological perspectives for which they were once well-known. In other words, in the march towards becoming ‘relevant’ ‘and to be seen as subjects in demand’ in a simple utilitarian sense, social sciences and humanities have collectively become malnourished in philosophical, humanistic and intellectual terms.

2) Second, many colleagues in social sciences and humanities have also not shown any clear intent or ability to disprove this popularly held belief by enhancing their own research, intellectual engagement, publishing and public interventions.  In this situation, the perception of crisis and decay, which have befallen these disciplines, have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, dictated by official decision-making bodies, and internalized by the practitioners themselves by quite often mediocritizing their own practice.  As a result, these tendencies have negatively impacted our thematic preferences for research as well as the designs of our course curricula, teaching and the selection of core texts. As far as I can see, we no longer take intellectual risks or undertake academic adventures, without which advances in any form of science or art is nearly impossible. Consequently, mediocrity in knowledge is a necessary outcome. And unfortunately, many of us have taken this state of affairs for granted.

Social Sciences and Humanities in South Asia

What I just outlined with reference to our country, to a large extent is also a contemporary South Asian phenomenon. Prof Veena Das, looking into the situation of Indian sociology in the 1980s observed, the discipline’s crisis in India comes from serious lapses in universities, the ways in which India’s UGC works and the thinking of professional bodies such as the Indian Sociological Society” (Das 1993: 1159). She further points out, even though sociology has proliferated as a discipline everywhere, this expansion has “not been matched by the will to ensure competence in teaching and research” (Das 1993: 1159). This situation remains much the same today. Prof Akbar Zaidi writing of economics in particular, but with general reference to social sciences in Pakistan notes that social sciences in that country are in a ‘dismal state’ (Zaidi 2002). These general conditions broadly apply to Sri Lanka as well. In my own reflections on Sri Lankan sociology in particular and our social sciences and humanities more generally, I have also referred to a similar situation as exists in India, Pakistan and the rest of the region.  In our context, and depending on the specific discipline, this situation of decline is related to out-migration of trained scholars since the 1960s; the relative lack of success in training others to take up their intellectual roles; substandard training in universities; relative lack of funding for research; the non-emergence of a serious local academic publishing industry, and so on. As a result, when it comes to social sciences and humanities, Sri Lankan “universities are no longer in the forefront of initiating or publishing cutting-edge, path-breaking or creative research” (Perera 2005: 232). In this situation, as is also the case in both Pakistan and India, “serious research on contemporary Sri Lanka is the activity of individuals, be they based in the country or beyond” (Perera 2005: 232).

Admittedly, what I have outlined is not an enviable picture.  Though this state of affairs is obvious to me, some of you might not agree with me that these disciplines are in crisis. What I find unfortunate is the fact, no Social Science or Humanities Department in our country – in any university – has so far proposed a conference, a workshop, a special issue of a journal or a reflective edited collection of essays that would seriously explore this situation, and place it in the broader social and political contexts in which it would make sense.

Though this is a very complex situation, let me flag very briefly a set of specific reasons that would explain this situation on one hand, and go on to suggest what might be done to address this state of affairs if there is an interest and the necessary political will.

Four Reasons

While there are serious lapses in training and institutional issues in social sciences and humanities in our country in general, I think a number of specific conditions have contributed to this more decisively. For today, I will identify four of these:

  1. The nature of forums and networks in which contemporary scholars have become part of;
    ii. The quality of publishing in social sciences and humanities;
    iii. The ways in which social sciences and humanities engage with and generate theory, and finally,
    iv. The extent to which Sri Lankan social science and humanities knowledge production impact the global discourses in these disciplines.

Forums and Networks

Academic and intellectual networks and forums play a crucial role in constructing and expanding disciplinary knowledge as well as in building individual careers.  But these networks and forums have to be carefully built and maintained. By forums I mean the kind of conferences and seminars that are organized. And by networks, I refer to the local and global institutional and personal connections these conferences and seminars might create over a period of time.  Serious and well thought-out conferences are very focused, and do not necessarily involve large numbers of people. But this is no longer the preferred model in many places.

I genuinely appreciate the efforts, the commitment, time and funds that must have been needed to organize this conference itself – particularly under the challenging conditions posed by the pandemic. However, even a casual look at the subthemes of this conference would indicate, its thematic preoccupation is extremely broad. These themes include archaeology, history and heritage; conflict resolution and reconciliation; counselling, psychology and social harmony; democracy, governance and public policy; gender and women’s studies; globalization and social challenges; language and literature; religion, philosophy and spirituality; society, culture and education; and tourism and hospitality. Something this broad will simply not allow for engaged intellectual conversations as opposed to an academic performance.

But this specific model of conferencing is not unique to this conference or to the university of Ruhuna. I have seen the same at Universities of Peradeniya and Colombo. And my sense is, this might well be a feature in the local university circuit more generally.  I have seen this model in other parts of the world too. It is certainly one of the models for conference-planning that is available. However, this almost unimaginable broadness in conference-thinking and planning so typical in social sciences and humanities in our country today is very different from the more serious model of global conference ethos, where discussions are more focused and robust. Rather than knowledge production on a serious note, what this typical Sri Lankan model of conferencing offers is to ensure that all colleagues in a Faculty can present a paper based on their research interests that would also help in the scheme of internal promotions.  This is a utilitarian concern, though I admit it is a very important concern.  However, this is not a strictly intellectual concern. I would like to ask you, is it not possible to fulfil both intellectual and utilitarian needs by making conferences more focused, smaller, organized more often and by groups of interested scholars and departments rather than Faculties or Universities?

Also, what about networks that colleagues build over time? When colleagues travel overseas or even locally today, they do not necessarily carefully select the venues of their academic engagements and subsequent networks they become part of. Instead, what I see is this: though international mobility has increased and may even be funded by public funds, many younger and very senior colleagues often come to conferences that I am aware of in India, Pakistan and sometimes Bangladesh where the most outstanding local scholars would simply not come. That is because they do not take these engagements very seriously. To out it differently, these Lankan scholars do not go to the intellectually more interesting conferences and seminars organized in these countries. And as a result, they will not become part of the more engaging academic networks.  Instead, they become part of what may be bluntly called quite mediocre networks. How would being part of such networks and attending such intellectually unchallenging academic conversations help build social sciences and humanities in our country or the careers of individual scholars? It seems to me the intention here is not the advancement of knowledge, but mere survival in the operative institutional system, and the need to acquire marks for the local promotion system by attending so called ‘international’ and ‘national’ conferences.  But my question again is, is it not possible to do both, simply by being selective?


Let me now outline how the quality of publishing in social sciences and humanities might also pose a problem. As professional practitioners of social sciences and humanities in a mainstream Sri Lankan university, can you honestly be satisfied that the norms and parameters of publishing in social sciences and humanities in our country meet global standards? Personally, when I read some of these publications in Sinhala and English whenever I visit Sri Lanka, I am constantly concerned that we as a community of scholars learn very little from ethical and good practices from places in the world where we can be inspired.  I am sure you would agree with me that in our country, there is no formal academic publishing industry. We do not have dedicated academic presses as we see in other parts of the world. The University of Ceylon Press that fulfilled this role once upon a time came to an end in the 1960s. Now, to a large extent, we merely have ‘printers’ who publish almost anything. And on many instances, I do not see serious editorial interventions in these publications.  That is, issues with regard to careful peer-review and selection as well as obvious problems in copyediting remain unaddressed in the final publication. As a result, published works tend to be very uneven.   This, in the very least, is unprofessional.

Many universities, departments and faculties also publish journals these days. These forums have actually expanded over the last twenty years giving more colleagues expanded opportunities to publish. The problem however is, many of these journals do not follow a recognizable editorial policy when it comes to selection of essays for inclusion, stylistic matters, referencing and so on. Often, I read very average writings that hardly add anything substantial or new to existing knowledge or debate.  I am sure you would agree, journals, and university-based journals at that, are supposed to fulfil a more significant role than being mere forums for average texts. What is unfortunate is that Sri Lanka had an established tradition in high quality and globally reputable journals until the 1970s. These include the Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies initially published by the Ceylon Historical and Social Studies Publications Board in 1958; the Ceylon Journal of the Humanities, published by the Peradeniya University initially in 1970 and the Social Science Review published initially in 1979 by the Social Scientists Association. These journals – particularly the first two – published seminal papers that also contributed to a global discourse on social sciences and humanities from Sri Lanka. But I don’t see that global contribution now, and in my view, the local contribution to knowledge has also diminished in importance – barring a few exceptions – even as the number of publishing forums has expanded.

Theory and Theorizing

Another important problem area that explains the problems in humanities and social sciences has to do with the ways in which these disciplines in Sri Lanka engage with and generate theory. As you know, in any discipline, the generation, and engagement with theory are of crucial importance in making sure that the output from these disciplines is intellectually robust. It allows for abstract thinking as well as explaining phenomena generally in comparable social and political systems – beyond a specific place. In this context, what Professor Akbar Zaidi has observed for Pakistan applies equally well to Sri Lanka too. As he noted, Pakistani social scientists blindly apply imported “theoretical arguments and constructs to Pakistani conditions without questioning, debating or commenting on the theory itself” (Zaidi 2002: 3644). In the same sense, has Sri Lankan scholarship in social sciences and humanities seriously engaged with in recent times with the dominant theoretical constructs that currently hold sway in the more academically dominant parts of the world? And when have we offered our own constructs and voice to the world?

Lets us understand this situation carefully. This is not a simple matter of discarding theory or any other ideas borrowed from the West or anywhere else. If such theory works well in explaining local conditions, it would make sense to use them.  This is not about discarding borrowed ideas for the sake of that being borrowed.  The problem is the lack of critical engagement with these ideas. I am also not promoting the blind replacement of these ideas with emotional, irrational, often religious-based and confused local constructs.  After all, in humanities and social sciences, like all other bodies of formal knowledge, we are dealing with ideas and science and not with emotions. But, every theory emerges from specific historical trajectories and in very specific historical conjunctures, all of which impact upon the nature of theory that is constructed. When these ideas are taken elsewhere, to countries like ours, where historical conditions are vastly different, would these theoretical constructs be able to explain our social phenomena equally well? Perhaps they would. Also, they might not. The issues is, most practitioners of social sciences and humanities in our country and in our universities do not even pose this question. That is, there is no serious theoretical engagement. Without such engagement and generation of theory, no discipline can have a robust foundation or a future. 

Impact on Global Disclosures

Let me now come to the final problem area I had identified. That is, the extent to which Sri Lankan social science and humanities knowledge production impact global discourses in these disciplines. Given the conditions outlined earlier, which negatively impact our knowledge production and dissemination in these disciplines, can we seriously think we have the capacity to impact global discourses? If you agree with me with regard to what I have said about our training, the nature of our networking and knowledge production forums, lapses in our publishing and our engagement with theory or lack thereof, how would we be able to impact global discourses? Who would listen to us? And how would we make others listen to us? In many ways, it seems to me, we have literally become an island unto ourselves. But no discipline can evolve robustly if it does not engage with the world, if it does not both borrow knowledge from the world and impart knowledge to the world at the same time.

The Future

Now the question is, whether anything could be done about this. I think there are two possibilities for Sri Lanka’s future in knowledge production in social sciences and humanities:

1) The first possibility, and the easiest, is to do absolutely nothing. Let the kind of teaching, research, publishing and networking that predominate today continue despite the kind of serious problems I have briefly outlined. They will certainly add to the quantum of the information that is produced. At times, they would also add to developmental planning as well, along with promotions within universities, and so on.  But this approach will certainly not contribute to any kind of serious advancement in knowledge locally or globally. But perhaps we can live with this.

2) The second possibility is to seriously recognize the existence of the kind of problems I have outlined, and find ways to deal with them. After all, it is not impossible to upgrade our teaching if there is adequate political will.  It is a matter of personal responsibility as well as university oversight to ensure that conferences we organize, seminars we attend and networks we become part of are carefully selected that would clearly benefit individuals and the institutions they represent in intellectual terms, while also adding to the advancement of knowledge more generally. It is similarly well within reach to restructure our journals to ensure that they represent a commitment to knowledge and quality and not to mere quantity.  However, given that Sri Lanka’s market for academic publications is very limited, I accept it is quite difficult to establish dedicated academic presses.  But, as I have suggested elsewhere,[3] it is well within the realm of possibilities for selected universities to work with and train private sector publishers to produce more serious academic works as part of the work they do, and also to take them to the world.

Theses are serious questions that need serious reflection and equally serious solutions along with pragmatic decisions both from individual academics and from the university system.  It is also a matter of choice not to make the kind of decisions I am advocating, and simply maintain the existing status quo. Only the future will tell us what decisions you have made. That is, whether you have opted to reinvent yourself so that you can address the world and negotiate with the world in the production of knowledge, or whether you have opted to be in the shadows of our island, and engage in quotidian ordinariness.

While I wish you good luck for your future, and courage to take these decisions, I also wish the conference would go well, and that something intellectually concrete would emerge from it. If anyone is interested in going in the direction I have outlined, I am personally willing to help and introduce them to the intellectual resources I have access to.

Thank you for your time. I wish you all the best.



Das, Veena. 1993. ‘Sociological Research in India: The State of Crisis.’  ’ In, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No. 35 (Aug. 31 – Sep. 6, 2002), pp. 3644-3661.

Eagleton, Terry. 2010. ‘The Death of Universities.’ In, The Guardian (17th December 2010). Available at: (accessed on 22 October 2017).

Perera, Sasanka. 2005. ‘Dealing with Dinosaurs and Reclaiming Sociology: A Personal Narrative on the (non) Existence of Critical Sociological Knowledge Production in Sri Lanka.’  In, Sociological Bulletin: Journal of the Indian Sociological Society, Vol. 54, Number 3, (Sept-Dec 2005).

Zaidi, S. Akbar. 2002. ‘Dismal State of Social Sciences in Pakistan.’ In, Economic and Political Weekly (June 5, 1993), pp. 1159-1161.



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