Reflections on CLACSO 2015: lots of praise and two concerns

I and several Norwegian colleagues recently got back from the most impressive social science event I have been to: the conference organized by the Latin American Social Science Council (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO) in Medellin, Colombia. It was an example to follow for all of us in making social sciences a platform for broad social debate, but it also revealed some trends in Latin American social science that left me a bit concerned.

Social sciences for everyone

The CLACSO Conference in Medellin was not your regular social science conference. 30 000 People had signed up, of which 85 percent were presumably students – at least they were below 25 years of age. There were 600 speakers from 48 countries, including big names such as Lula, “Pepe” Mujica, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Baltazar Garzón, Gustavo Petro, and Alvaro García-Linera (of which only the latter did not show up).  While we academics in Europe (or the United States) spend our time at conferences discussing details of methodologies and “trends” in theory and perspectives between ourselves, the focus of CLACSO was to make social sciences inclusive and accessible. The conference was free for everybody and cheap and tasty and food from local farms was available from stands set up outside the conference hall allowing anyone who wanted to live well on a tight budget. In the cases where the halls proved too small for the audiences (in spite of fitting thousands), big screens were set up outside.  And most impressive: in spite of having among the speakers two ex-presidents and a number of high level politicians, thousands of people in the audience, and taking place in what (in spite of impressive recent achievements) still is one of the most violent countries in the world, I did not personally see a single armed guard. I suppose some armed guards were hidden discretely somewhere, but “security” was deliberately kept to an absolute minimum.

A celebration of the world of ideas

Aside from speeches, panel discussions and workshops, there were exhibitions, book exhibits and launches and movie screenings. In the end, it was a big celebration of the power of the mind and the world of ideas. It was also a celebration of CLACSO, which in its 48th year is showing an impressive resilience and ability to innovate and expand in spite of facing many challenges including reduced funding from some of its main sources. CLACSO was established at the dawn of the long period of dictatorships in South-America, when academics were persecuted for their opinions, and social sciences (to the extent they existed) where attempted eliminated. The intention to establish CLACSO was to strengthen social sciences to document social conditions, but crucially also to contribute to improving them.  Since then, CLACSO has become a major actor in social sciences in Latin-America with 432 associated institutions including 25 000 researchers across the region. It has provided scholarships to an impressive amount of students and young scholars, it has established 47 active thematic working groups including 15 000 researchers in the region, and an editorial that now counts on 1500 titles, all “open access” and easily downloadable from the internet.  CLACSO is not only speaking the speak of fighting social exclusion and inequality; it is walking the walk. It seeks deliberately to make knowledge accessible to most people, not only to a small academic elite.

The rejection of modernity   

However, after having listened to a number of interesting speeches and panels, I was also left with a feeling of unease and some concerns, not about CLACSO, but about some trends in Latin American social sciences that the conference revealed.The first is that the Latin American post-colonial or de-colonial thinking has moved too far in the direction of rejecting technology and modernit.  Some of the most original contributions from Latin American social sciences the last two decades are found in this tradition, from thinkers such as Arturo Escobar, Aníbal Quijano, Edgardo Lander, and the late Fernando Coronil, as well as Enrique Dussel. Although diverse, some of the main lessons drawn from them is the need to pay attention to the “colonialism” of science and knowledge producting that use western perspectives to categorize the world, and the need to search for alternative ways of understanding the social world avoiding the use of categories from outside. These perspectives have provided the foundation for innovative thinking to construct a way of living that does not destroy the planet or systematically exclude the majority of its population from some benefits for the few.

The authors mentioned above and many others have made great contributions to making us think differently about development, capitalism, and the role of knowledge. However, there is a tendency to taking the rejection of modernity too far. Most of us are completely dependent on modern technology in our daily lives, and indeed our ability to communicate our knowledge and get acquainted with alternative visions of life and nature depends to a great extent on the production of technology and knowledge, done within the same frames of modern sciences that are so eagerly criticized. What we need is not a complete rejection, but a dialogue between different systems of knowledge underpinning different ideas of development. However, that requires attention to detail and not more slogans wholesale rejection of “modernity” and its multiple “disguises” such as “sustainable development” such as were heard frequently in Medellin.

The risk of "geographical fundamentalism"

CLACSO has done a formidable job in making visible Latin American social sciences in a whole book series on “critical Latin American social thinking”. It is important for numerous reasons, including bringing to our attention relatively unknown writers from the different countries. Importantly it includes a number of women among its contributors.  CLACSO is now also establishing a series on perspectives on Latin American social realities viewed from the outside, of which I was given the privilege to edit the one on Norwegian social thinking on Latin America.  One of our most striking conclusions is the impact on Latin American thinking on Norwegian social sciences. It is not only the case that the study of Latin American realities is affected by perspectives developed in the United States and Europe, such as those arguing about the colonialist of knowledge will have it. It is also the other way around. Moreover, many of the authors above that are pioneering the search for new perspectives from below and from Latin America are highly inspired themselves by European and US writers. Thus, knowledge is developed in a constant circulation of ideas and perspectives, and we should warn against any “geographical fundamentalism” or attempt at privileging some ideas over others without a thorough discussion of the criteria.  

In defense of peace and pluralism

Another concern I was left with was the complete rejection of some speakers and ideas due to affiliations or viewpoints that are aligned with the right. The reaction of the audience to the few of the speakers that did not rub the audience the right way by speaking of de-colonialism and anti-capitalism was in quite sharp contrast to the pledge for pluralism and peace by the organizers and the leading (left-wing) speakers. The complete acceptance of anything coming from a professed leftie, and lack of patience with objections to it, is also quite contradictory to the encouragement of “critical thinking”. But most importantly, I was left with a sensation of confrontation that is not very productive for peace and justice of the conference’s main title.

My reason for worrying about all of this is probably partly that I am situated in a European context where the need to defend pluralism, dialogue, openness and rational, knowledge based reasoning seem more urgent than ever.  The social sciences have a unique role in collecting and communicating perspectives and information from different cultures, social classes and geographical areas. But while admitting that the traditional, positivist social sciences underpinning modernist perspectives on development, have been hostile against alternative perspectives for decades, the solution is not to adopt the same hostility in return. In order to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it should be used as a platform for dialogue.  NorLARnet has recently become associated with CLACSO. I hope to use that opportunity to strengthen such a dialogue.

Publisert 30. nov. 2015 14:26 - Sist endret 1. des. 2015 22:30
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