The fantasy of an apolitical social science as instrument of neoliberal hegemony

In a recent piece documenting the experiences of migrant labor amid market reforms in China, I was reminded by one of the reviewers that social scientific work should stay away from "politics."

In another conversation with a graduate student conducting an ethnographic study of cellphone penetration in an indigenous context, I was reminded of a note from a reviewer who urged her to stay away from advocacy because she referred to her data from the field that challenged the hegemony of transnational corporations in the mobile phone sector. As an aside, the reviewer who made this comment often did work for mobile phone companies as a consultant or as a collaborator.

In each of these instances, critique directed at the broader corporatized context of neoliberal governance and its local manifestations is seen by these traditional social scientists as being overtly political, polemical, and/or advocacy. Thus "politics" stands in as a referent to critique of the hegemonic structures that constitute academic aspirations and the accepted processes of knowledge production in the mainstream. The supposed apolitical position of the social sciences in the traditional framework is contrasted with the seemingly political nature of critical work, thus delineating the realms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the arena of claims making.

The role of the social sciences in this traditional worldview is to stay away from critique, working through data and theory to make specific articulations, albeit situated within the configurations of the dominant structures. So it would be just fine with me reporting from ethnographic work on meanings of health with migrant construction workers; but when this ethnography is tied to a critique of the broader structures of neoliberal organizing that constitute global migration patterns, it becomes non-academic.

What is particularly salient about this worldview is its taken-for-granted assumption about the natural state of things that appear as data and as objects of theorizing within the social science. Such a position remains oblivious to the politics of its own position, thus seemingly producing de-contextualized (read neutral/objective) knowledge that is universal, supposedly being free from the power of political and economic structures.  The power of this position of the social sciences in maintaining an objective distance is shaped by the broader power of the structures of knowledge production.

The study of cellphones in an indigenous community is almost always political, and to ignore this political frame is itself a political position, a polemic, a stance of advocacy. The power however in such stances of advocacy within the dominant structures of social science is in erasing the very nature of advocacy embodied in a study of say, cell phones. For a social scientist who is on the payroll of cellphone companies to study cellphone penetration is not only a political position, but a position that is rife with all forms of conflicts of interest. Yet, the social sciences have been so re-organized that it is the critique of such a position that is framed as polemic, thus leaving unchallenged the political economy of the social sciences as sites of knowledge production serving power structures.

Similarly, to suggest that discussions of neoliberal reforms in examining migrant work is political is itself a political position. To assume that the natural state of occurrence of migration and migratory exploitation as normalized features of structures is a political position. Such a political position retains its power by denying the oppressive nature of social structures. In such a political position, the facade of neutrality forecloses possibilities for interrogating the organizing of global structures that produce oppressive forms of migration.

Any social scientific argument, whether it is theoretically derived based on abstractions, or is empirically guided based on data, is fundamentally intertwined with the politics of knowledge production. To deny this politics is a discursive move that retains power in the hands of the status quo and frames the social sciences as instruments of control in the hands of the power elite.


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