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Issues in Social and Human Sciences in Asia-Pacific

The greatest cross-disciplinary issue for social scientists today is world survival. This covers a wide range of concerns, such as the rapid depletion of natural resources due to pollution and over-exploitation, climate change, economic volatility and increasing poverty, growing inter-ethnic and religious conflict, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and the threat of biological warfare, to name just a few.

Issues of globalization have become a growing interest for social scientists in the region. Interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary debate on the merits and threats of trade liberalization was underway even before the Asian financial crisis. Some see trade liberalization as one of the most powerful engines of economic growth, and oppose international limits on liberalization aimed at promoting workers' rights. But many social scientists fear that if social protection is left to the discretion of each State, countries may seek a comparative advantage by minimizing the rights and conditions of workers. The economic reform programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are also the subject of much debate among the social science community.

In hard economic times, old forms of discrimination and ethnic conflict re-emerge and civil unrest is more likely to occur. How can governments, national and local, implement strategies to overcome discrimination? How can we empower women to achieve greater gender equity. As poverty increases so does competition for resources. It becomes more difficult to restrain the destruction of the environment through pollution, deforestation and over-fishing, in the pursuit of renewed economic growth.

Social scientists are now uniting with natural scientists to investigate issues surrounding the environment. Water, a vital resource for economic growth and sustainable development, is a focus of growing conflict. In the Cauvery river dispute in Southern India, the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are in conflict over water access. The issue has been complicated by the displacement of local farmers who depend on the water from the river for their livelihood. The waters of the Mekong river are also the centre of major debate in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. These countries which share the Mekong are grappling with how to ensure the equitable use of the river’s resources, both internationally and at home. In Thailand and Laos there is internal conflict between advocates and critics of construction of hydroelectric and irrigation dams. Some point to the benefits of generating "clean" energy, prevention of flooding and giving poor farmers who live far from rivers access to water for irrigation. Others point to the displacement of settlements, loss of livelihoods from fishing and environmental damage. Ethics and climate change is a major aspect of the work of RUSHSAP.

Ethnic conflict, long an issue of concern for social science, has intensified in relation to many issues. For example, forest utilization. In the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, the mainly Christian Dayaks' traditional way of life is based on harvesting, but not destroying, the rain forest. But Moslem Madurese transmigrants have been given deforestation rights in order to clear land for palm oil production for decades. Ethnic violence between these two groups has claimed hundreds of lives. There is no religious mandate for either action, but such decisions can play into the hands of those extremists who try to divide society instead of uniting it.

Social science is also turning greater attention to issues related to the rights of indigenous people in the context of emerging multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies. Governance is another field of concern. Many countries of the Asia-Pacific region face problems of corruption, along with a lack of official transparency and accountability, which contribute to internal conflict and unrest.


Social and human science in the Asia-Pacific region has an important role to play in building a culture of peace; one which involves universal respect for human rights and freedoms, as well as acceptance by citizens of their equal duties and obligations that come with rights and freedom. A culture of peace entails respect and tolerance for religious, cultural and gender differences and rights, and a rejection of violence as a means of settling conflicts.

One of the most important challenges facing social science in the Asia-Pacific region is how to get information to the general public in an intelligible form, so people may make informed decisions on issues which affect their immediate and long-term future. This is the foundation stone of a "culture of peace". The global information revolution has transformed civil society before our very eyes. But the growth of global information networks and the internet assist only those who can afford television, cable subscriptions, computers and modems. The international scholarly community may use these resources to keep abreast with emerging issues and debates, but the majority of the population in the Asia-Pacific is "information poor". This includes many of the social scientists in the region, whose institutions cannot afford the technology required to join the "global village". The challenge of disseminating key information must be revisited by the world social science community, with special consideration of the gap between the information rich and information poor.

The development and refinement of social theory requires on-going debate and the continuous re-evaluation of prevailing paradigms amongst national, regional and international communities of scholars. Often the exchange of ideas occurs through international conferences and specialized journals published in international languages. However, many scholars in the Asia-Pacific are restricted in their capacity to participate in the global exchange of ideas because they cannot afford to attend international conferences or to subscribe to leading journals in their field, or in some instances, because there are political barriers to such participation. Therefore RUSHSAP has developed networks including the UNESCO Asia-Pacific School of Ethics, the Ethics and Climate Chnage in Asia and the Pacific network, and  the Women's/Gender Studies Network for Asia and the Pacific,

Social science in many countries in the region has been isolated from international scholarly debate for much of the past century as it operated within the framework of colonial social science bounded by European languages (English, French, Russian, etc) and the paradigms of those countries. Now  independent nations need assistance and encouragement to revitalize their social science teaching and research programmes through various means, including international exchange programmes and translation facilities.

The role of social scientists in the dissemination of information is not only impeded by technological and economic constraints, but also by political factors. Because social scientists are essentially concerned with debate and the questioning of the status quo, they can face political impediments. This problem is often shared by the local press and electronic media. Not all the countries of the Asia-Pacific recognize academic freedom or freedom of speech.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has said:

“The question is often asked, should non-Western societies be encouraged and pressed to conform to "Western values of liberty and freedom"? Is this not cultural imperialism? The answer, of course, is that the notion of human rights builds on the idea of a shared humanity. These rights are not derived from citizenship of any country, or membership of any nation, but taken as entitlements of every human being. The concept of universal human rights is, in this sense, a uniting idea. Yet the subject of human rights has ended up being a veritable battleground of political debates and ethical disputes, particularly in their application to non-Western societies."

While the views of government officials and other authority figures are important, opinions from other sources must also be given equal weight. Critical analysis of policy decisions requires free research. Many social scientists have found they share common concerns with non-governmental organizations, civil society and human rights activists. Through these groups, many social scientists have found a channel for the dissemination of information to a non-academic audience, thereby building public awareness of issues that affect them.

The process of globalization has also fuelled the rise of a global civil society, in which social scientists, political activists and social reformers in different countries have joined forces. Advances in communication technology have created a new sense of community among non-governmental organizations worldwide.

Today social science in the Asia-Pacific examines a multitude of far-reaching economic, ethical, social, cultural and political problems, and in particular how modern-day change impacts on the marginalized, the poor, youth and women. There are many national and sub-regional social research projects to document the causes and conditions of poverty, the exploitation of child labour, and the recruitment of children into the sex industry. Teaching programmes and research centres for Women’s Studies are to be found in universities in most countries of the region. There is also co-operative action between social scientists and national youth associations throughout the region to document and analyse the problems and issues facing young people. New bonds are also being forged with the growing NGO movement. Social scientists must be encouraged and supported to undertake research to build a better global future and to disseminate their knowledge on human rights, peace, democracy, tolerance and non-violence.