Over the last three days, the first meeting of authors of the International Panel of Social Progress (IPSP) was held in Istanbul. The IPSP is to some extent modeled after the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but one important difference is that it is not commissioned by governments, but rather fully peer-led and hence ‘autonomous’ (in at least one important sense of that word). There are some partners/funders, but they have no influence on the content of the report. The entire event is quite experimental: a highly interdisciplinary group of scholars, drawn from around the world, will try to write a report capturing the state of the art on social change, and look at paths for a better future.
A bunch of visionary social scientists and humanities scholars (under the leadership of Marc Fleurbaey) felt that scholars from the social sciences and humanities (SSH) should team up to tackle the question of social change and social progress – summarize what the SSH have to say on this, and how we can in a systematic way think about which institutions and practices have brought us social progress and which ones have not, and which options are open for the future. Apart from it being not commissioned by a government, there is another major difference with the IPCC. The nature of the substance is quite different; we are not dealing with the ecosystems of the Earth, but rather with social change – a topic where empirical research is quite strongly influenced by theoretical frameworks and conceptual choices, and which is also inevitably normatively laden when it comes to evaluations and suggestions for paths for the future. As a consequence, it will be impossible, given the nature of the beast, to aim to report on consensus. In the SSH, there is only often to a limited extent a consensus on ‘facts’, and most of the time no consensus at all about normative issues. How, then, can there be a report that aims to summarize what scholars in the SSH know about social change and social progress?
The task that has been set is to provide, to the extent possible, a state of the art of knowledge in the SSH on the many dimensions of social progress, but not to be bland or try to write an encyclopedia. We are given the freedom to focus, select, and highlight. The aim of the IPSP is also to show some paths for the future, to bring out to the wider public ideas that have been developed in the SSH. Clearly the selection of those paths and ideas cannot be fully consensual. But given that the groups are composed of a widely diverse range of scholars, many of which are at the top in their disciplines, and who all bring a set of views and knowledge, there are internal forces that force the chapter groups to work towards some sort of compromise. At the same time, there is a general sense that the aim should above all be to give a set of descriptions, explanations, evaluations and discuss inspirational proposals that are helpful for the intended audience (social actors, movements, organizations, politicians and decision-makers). The IPSP report does not aim at completeness and doesn’t want to be an encyclopedia.
The group of authors is very large. There are more than 200 authors from a wide variety of social sciences and the humanities, working in smaller groups, writing the 22 chapters. Two Timberites are part of this – Harry is co-writing the chapter on education, and I’m a contributing in the socio-economic part of the report on the chapter ‘perspectives on social justice and wellbeing’. It has been a quite unique experience to work with this group over the last days – basically you’re put with ten other people in a room for a couple of days and given a task. These other people are virtually all from different disciplines, all but one you don’t know. The task you’re given is clearly highly ambitious, but also allows for much creativity. I guess social psychologists would have loved to observe us! It was unusual but also very good. We had two days to come up with a chapter outline, so the pressure was high; but all chapters presented their outlines earlier today, so the groups can go ahead and start writing the drafts over the next months.
Now, it’s not the case that all 200+ authors are equally happy with the term ‘social progress’, and some are also worried about risks of being modernistic and warn that the ISPS has to look at what has happened in the past with other attempts to put forward analyses and proposals on social progress. These warnings are important, and we should share the knowledge on failed or misheaded ‘social progress’ initiatives so that we can do better. But what assures me most, is the composition of the group: over the last days, I spoke with several post-structuralists, post-colonialists, critical social anthropologists and others who will speak up when needed and prevent this IPSP initiative to head in the wrong directions despite having good intentions; moreover, I think many of us working in traditions that are more prone to these errors are enough self-critical to know we have to prevent these errors to be made. Admittedly, that doesn’t guarantees a particular outcome.
It’s early days for the IPSP with still many unanswered questions about where this will lead us. In my view, this can be felt in the comments by some of the lead authors. Yet the atmosphere at the first authors meeting has been energizing, and there is a great enthusiasm for taking this forward, and turning this into a worthwhile endeavor. I really hope this will become an example of academia-for-society at its best.