Asian educators should do more to de-Westernize social sciences, says Asian-American professor in forthcoming publication
Posted on March 8th, 2013

By Professor Shelton Gunaratne

 Asian educators should cease to reify Western social science theories and models by creating their own.  My recent incursion into textbooks written in Sinhala for mass communication education in Sri Lanka showed unmistakable dependence on the Western masters and the authors’ lack of originality.

I hope that the following excerpts from a book chapter I wrote for a Blackwell handbook on communication would throw some light on the Western biases impinging on rejuvenating Eastern thought:

I got my doctorate in mass communication from the University of Minnesota in 1972, but sooth to say that late in my career I got disenchanted with the American/Western philosophical framework that guided academic discourse at American universities. The aim of the doctoral program was to train the students to think and act like scientists and to revere the scientific method willy-nilly. The pitfalls of trying to apply the methods of physical and biological sciences to behavioral and social sciences that produced a spurious “scientism,” not science, rarely came under discussion.  Mass communication gurus knew very little about Eastern philosophies or the socio-cultural ways of the people who inhabited the Eastern/non-Western hemisphere.

However, Raymond Nixon, my mentor in international communication, drew my attention to the seminal work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, the father of proxemics, which helped me to understand the significance of cultural space from an American perspective. Although American universities offered numerous courses in intercultural and international communication, their aim invariably seemed to perpetuate American/Western universalism. As in the case of the Four Theories of the Press, American gurus had the tendency to critique rival ideologies and cultures as good or bad to the extent they conformed to or deviated from American norms. This syndrome was widely reflected in the quantitative sociopsychological and sociocultural traditions of (mass) communication studies, but not so much in the qualitative traditions identified as rhetoric, semiotics, phenomenology, and critical.

The quantitative traditions, which emphasized the use of inferential statistics for interpreting and analyzing data gathered from field studies, relied heavily on the linear Newtonian paradigm to claim scientific status. Peter Westbroeck  (2004), a geophysiologist, bluntly expressed his disenchantment with the presumptions associated with classical Newtonian approach and its extension to the social sciences, thus:

Classical science searches for simple rules of general applicability underlying the multiple phenomena. Its quest is order, causality, and determinism. It splits the world into elementary components and isolates them from their environment. It creates fragmentation of the scientific enterprise into insular disciplines and ignores the social stratum from which science emerges. Although its successes are overwhelming, classical science is incapable of placing problems into their proper context. As a result, it can only lead to a mutilated view of the real world, and to technological applications that are blind, unchecked, and manipulative. Thus, the old science fails to properly address the huge problems facing us today””‚mass destruction, the environmental problem, global economic deregulation, the demographic explosion, and social inequality. (p. 408?)

My disenchantment with the scientific method arose when, out of curiosity, I read the seminal work of Capra (1975), a quantum physicist, who drew parallels between the mysteries of quantum mechanics and the mysticism of Eastern philosophies. The Murphy Hall faculty who taught me communication theory and methodology knew very little about the implications of quantum mechanics on the social sciences. They conveniently ignored systems theory and its various outgrowths like the general systems theory, chaos theory, and the complexity theory, as well as world systems analysis.

Because the hypotheses on wholes (like the universe or the world) were almost impossible to test, they preferred to research the parts. They were exponents of reductionism who tossed the idea that the whole was more than the sum of its parts into the domain of metaphysics.

For three decades after I earned my doctorate, I taught the classical/American version of journalism and mass communication to students in three countries””‚Australia, Malaysia, and the United States””‚where I worked. I decided to change course when I realized that the socio-cultural values I learned as a child and youth in my country of birth were noticeably absent from the Western models I learned in America. As Wallerstein (2006) correctly points out, they lacked universal universalism, which they confused with Western universalism, a Trojan horse implanted by Western scholars to confer the status of universalism on Western thought in hopes of maintaining their supremacy over the world academic order.

I decided to study Eastern philosophies””‚particularly Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, and Confucianism””‚because Capra’s (1975) work and those of his followers like Goswami (2000) and Zukav (1979) made me conscious of my ignorance (avijja) of Asian culture and religions. I felt that my doctoral education would have been richer had I received directions to explore the potential of Eastern philosophies to enrich communication studies. Further encouraged by the path-breaking work of Kincaid (1987), I published my first book on communication theory, The Dao of the Press: A Humanocentric Theory in 2005, 33 years after I got my doctorate.

Goswami (2000), a quantum physicist from Oregon, concluded that quantum physics has dismantled the fundamental principles of materialist-realist science: causal determinism, continuity, locality, strong objectivity, material monism and reductionism, and epiphenomenalism. Backed by an array of such incontrovertible evidence, I wrote The Dao of the Press in hopes of merging Eastern philosophy and Western science to demonstrate the veracity of diversity within unity.

In The Dao of the Press, I tried to explicate the Eastern view of democracy, the congruence of quantum physics with Eastern philosophy, the emerging theory of living systems, the obvious West-centrism in the classic Four Theories of the Press, the potential of linking Eastern philosophy with Western science, and the connection between democracy and journalism. Finally, I put together my own theory of communication outlets and free expression as a substitute for Four Theories of the Press. However, to my dismay, I found only a mild interest, more a deafening silence, among my colleagues in mass communication.

Subsequently, I have tried to show how Eastern thought, particularly Buddhism, could be applied to improve the theory and methodology of what is loosely called communication studies. My aim is to de-Westernize this field of studies to establish universal universalism, not to establish Asia-centrism (yin/anti-particle) in place of West-centrism (yang/particle) but to blend them where possible.

In short, I am engaged in helping Eastern philosophy to rise up from its jaramarana (decay and death) stage in its bhavacakra (wheel of becoming) so it could be reborn into its next cycle of existence in samsara (cyclic existence).

Communication Studies in Asian universities could make capital out of Buddha’s doctrine of dependent co-arising (Paticca Samuppada) by refining it to serve as a rudimentary metatheoretical framework to determine the chain of factors/links (nidanas) instrumental in causing/processing a particular phenomenon. Systems characteristics are embedded in this theory. It asseverates that nothing in the universe is independent.

Figure 1 shows how the 12 nidanas form a never-ending circular process to condition the karmic balance of all sentient beings as they experience varying levels of dukkha in their samsaric journey. No nidana is independent because all are dependent on one another as in modern complexity systems theories. Karmic energy propels this entire process that has no beginning or end. It bears all the marks of existence: anicca, anatta, and dukkha.  Buddha surmised that although the interactions of all nidanas conditioned the level of dukkha generation, the most important were tanha and upadana.

dependentcoarisingmodelAs Explanation of the Bhavacakra  (Wheel of Becoming)

Avijja = ignorance; Sankhara = Karmic formations; Vinnana = consciousness; Nama-rupa = name and form; Salayatana = six senses; Phassa = contact; Vedana = feelings; Tanha = desire; Upadana = mental attachment; Bhava = becoming; Jati = birth; Jaramarana = decay and death

 

 

6 Responses to “Asian educators should do more to de-Westernize social sciences, says Asian-American professor in forthcoming publication”

  1. Nanda Says:

    Sir,
    Whre is the figure 1 ?
    Avijja, Sankhara, Vinnana,Namarupa,Salayathana, Phassa, Vedana,tanha,upadana, bhava,Jathi, (11 only)?

    All the above except the last one is happening every moment.
    Wouldn’t the last one too momentary (even though the meaning apperas to be the birth) ?
    Does this mean phisical “birth” has nothing to do with this birth ?

  2. Nanda Says:

    If phisical birth happened without the other 10, there will not be any Dukkha domanassa …jara marana.
    Thus, even phisical birth logically cannot happen, because salayathana ..vedana etc will be inevitable if there is body and mind (even though one has got rid of thanha).
    Before physical death, enlightened being will not feel dukkha because all the causes have been eliminated.
    Therefore, even bodily Vedana should be mild.
    Person is still living. He has not become extinct. He has certainly not sicuide. He is not depressed. He is always satisfied without any external desires and extremely happy. This cannot be Ben Silva or Mervyn Silva for a long long time.

  3. Nanda Says:

    It is strange that foolish people are miss-quoting “killing of avijja” ( literally means science) as getting rid of desires.
    Science will therefore bring eternal happiness and the end of suffering.
    Only one fool on this earth is calling this suicide ?
    This fool is infact suiciding – ending in hell.
    May wisdom will come to this being one day !

  4. Arcadius Says:

    DURING the printing process Figure 1 has dropped two nidanas: vinnana and jaramarana.

    The article, however, is not about the accuracy of the nidanas, but the usefulness of the circular framework of the paticca samuppada framework that illustates the interaction, interconnection and interdependence of all the nidanas with one another. such a complex framework cannot make predictions as in “scientism.” Predictions presume that static outcomes are possible whereas processes are ongoing operations that produce varying outcomes of a momentary nature.

  5. Nanda Says:

    Thank you for the figure. Should we demonstrate this in such complex manner ?
    Did Lord Buddha say ” Avijaa pachchya Vedana” ? If not, why is that arrow ( and few more not really connected)?
    I am a “scientist” and like to see things simple and arguable.

    In fact ( without bad intention) I would like to donate more FUEL to the FOOLs. It is up to them to get out of it.

    In Maha Nidhana Sutta, Buddha explained few more “mini” cycles. One of those goes like,

    dependent upon feeling (vedanā), there is craving;
    dependent upon craving (taṇhā), there is seeking;
    dependent upon seeking (pariyesanā), there is gain;
    dependent upon gain (lābha), there is decision-making;
    dependent upon decision-making (vinicchaya), there is desire and lust
    dependent upon desire and lust (chanda,rāga), there is attachment;
    dependent upon attachment (ajjhosāna), there is possessiveness;
    dependent upon possessiveness (pariggaha), there is greed;
    dependent upon greed (macchariya), there is safe-guarding;
    dependent upon safe-guarding (ārakkha), there arise various evil unwholesome state—
    taking up of the rod, taking up of the sword,
    conflicts, quarrels, disputes [strife], back-biting,
    harsh speech, false speech.
    It is said: ‘Dependent upon safe-guarding, there are born various evil unwholesome states—
    the taking up of the rod, the taking up of the sword, conflicts, quarrels, disputes, harsh speech, false
    speech.’

    Here , Lord Buddha described Aarakkha ( protection ) leading to evil, unwholesome states.

  6. Arcadius Says:

    Buddhist phenomenology does not recognize the fallacy of the independent variable (nidana), the hallmark of the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm. My interpretation:

    Buddhists believe that every nidana in a living system is interdependent, interconnected and interactive with all other nidanas. Thus, although they recognize that some nidanas (like tanha, upadana, and avijja) have a greater impact than others in generating negentropy (like dukkha in the samsara), no single (or independent) nidana could alone do that. That is why they refuse to acknowledge the so-called First Cause.
    This seems to be the reason that Buddha advanced the theory of dependent co-arising that each nidana could not arise alone to process the karmic energy of a living being’s bhavacakra. This processing cannot occur if all elements are not involved. We are talking about a circular system that has no beginning or end. Therefore, the processing could commence with any point in the bhavacakra of a living being.

    Whether you accept my interpretation on dogmatic grounds is not important. What is paramount is the systems thinking that we can borrow from Buddha’s notion of the samsara/world. The arrows in Fig. 1 (distorted by omitting two nidanas in the proofing process) reflect this complicated interaction. Understanding how the system works is much more important than the time spent on testing or measuring psychological variables like vedana, tanha, upadana, etc.

    Even with the advent of supercomputers, “science” cannot test non-materialistic manifestations of the universe. Operational definitions of nidanas in ontology do not produce valid results because not everyone will agree with those definitions.

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