Social science operates with multiple truths

Choosing a ‘right’ answer from a set of multiple choices does not do justice to the subject and nuances of social issues

May 18, 2022 12:06 am | Updated 12:06 am IST

‘Social science operates with multiple truths’

‘Social science operates with multiple truths’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As educational institutions began reopening in full throttle after the COVID-19 onslaught, there was news of a Common University Entrance Test. Unfortunately, measurable indexes for elimination and selection are becoming increasingly dependent on precision and objectivity, which is immensely worrisome for the social sciences.

In grey, ambiguous areas

It is not that there is a dearth of aptitude tests around the country to sustain the rat race of ‘competition success’. It is not that the pathetic and obsessive glorification of ‘toppers’ needs a top up. Still, our education policymakers often forget that the binary of a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ is not an all-mighty sacrosanct truth. Discourses in the social sciences are often housed in between — in the much celebrated grey and ambiguous areas that are, literally and metaphorically, the liminal zones between ‘true’ and ‘false’. While information such as dates, facts or events can be placed within the binary of right or wrong, the role of a higher educational institution is not to list or reproduce information, or to train students to do so. Textbooks, Google and an innumerable number of education-apps do that anyway.

The mandate of higher education is to nurture critical thinking that entails questioning; that includes a multiplicity of thoughts; and, most importantly, that offers multiplicity of choice that is not confined to two to five objective options in a multiple choice type question (MCQ)-scheme of answering.

For example, whether we are ‘modern’ or not cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. We live in a society where we encounter an assimilation of modernity and tradition in every aspect of our everyday life. Modernisation of tradition and the deep-rooted presence of the traditional in our modern lives is a lived experience. Forces of modernity have not bulldozed tradition into obsolescence. At times, in some spheres, there is peaceful dialogue and negotiation between tradition and modernity. Or else, in certain other spheres, they are engaged in conflictual negotiations. How can this nuanced and complex dialectic be expressed by being tick-marked as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

Opening up spaces

Social science deals with complex social facts and it attempts to make meaning of those through observational, analytical and argumentative skills. Which is why nothing can be distilled into a quiz-like game of ‘true’ or ‘false’.

The foundation of colleges and universities is premised on encouraging the spirit of a multiplicity of questions, multiple methods of observance, multiple modes of analysis and a coexistence of multiple arguments and counter-arguments. That sort of heterogeneity opens up spaces for diverse schools of thought, a variety of interpretations and interventions, and an existence of multiple perspectives — every stand point of which is valid in its own context.

One’s position on any social issue — be it on caste-based-reservation; on cutting trees to make way for a highway, or on religious fundamentalism — is defined by a septicity of perspectives and contexts. As a reader or as a scholar, one is free not to agree with the other’s claims and arguments. One is free to disagree with someone else’s reading and interpretation of the text — provided it is backed by reason. That freedom to disagree is a gift of living in a modern world and practising social science — where the world is not reduced to the confinement of ‘true’ or ‘false’. And that is how fresh ideas find grounding and recognition.

Going beyond the syllabus

And that is why — and that is how — a university experience is fundamentally different from a school experience. A good university constantly encourages its students to go beyond the syllabus. A good university mentors its students to question all the time instead of confining themselves to a limited set of binary answers. A good university allows its students to question everything instead of expecting them to fall in line. In a good university, one can question the text. One can question each other. One can question oneself. One can question one’s social circumstances. One can question the architecture and the operational structure of the university itself. One can question one’s teachers and all kinds of injustices and discriminations. And one can also question the idea of questioning as well. Knowledge production in institutes of excellence across the world is premised on questioning and criticising.

Doubting, disagreeing and dissenting is at the heart of higher education in any field, especially in the social sciences. Choosing a right answer from a limited set of choices is not only self-defeating but also goes against the spirit of critical thinking, and it does not do justice to the nuances of the social issues.

Social science operates with multiple truths. Like dialects, these truths alter, depending on one’s perspectives and geographical location. Just like every dialect is dominant in its specific space (and there are no good or bad dialects) every perspective is valid in its own context and is beyond the simplistic ‘true’/‘false’ binaries.

The social sciences have that enormous capacity to absorb those variations and differences. As students, we learn a lot more by choosing to disagree, deviate and criticise. We learn less or almost nothing by ticking or stating or remembering factual correctness. While trying to prepare for mindless entrance examinations, we often forget to examine the fact that the project of social science is inherently linked to ‘subjectivity’ and ‘reflexivity’. While reducing all subjects to ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, we often forget that the objective of a multiple-choice-question is neither pro-multiplicity nor pro-choice or pro-questioning.

Sreedeep Bhattacharya is a sociologist with Shiv Nadar University

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