Impressions from the first IPSP authors meeting

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 29, 2015

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.



Commenterlein 08.29.15 at 4:08 pm

I haven’t googled all or even most of the participants, but based on people working on the topics closest to my interests, there is a striking under-representation of economists. Among the few economists I recognized or found, every single one is left of center.

Call me a cynic, but I am pretty sure the participants will not decide on a pro-market / pro-growth agenda as the solution to most of the social ills in the world.


Hindu Friend 08.29.15 at 4:47 pm

Think local. Maybe Turks could stop oppressing Christians (e.g., restictions on Church-construction).

Nah– wrong kind of “social progress” I guess.


Plume 08.29.15 at 4:52 pm


Did you miss Kenneth Arrow, and the economists from Brookings? Center right.

Beyond that, being “pro-market” and “pro-growth” are just euphemisms for being against workers and the earth. Actually, they’re euphemisms for being against any sustainable path for human existence on this planet. Why on earth should an organization seeking “social progress” want to be held back by the moronic, obscenely elitist, selfish and self-centered visions of right-wing economists?


Abbe Faria 08.29.15 at 5:44 pm

Let’s be clear, a conference on progress in the sense of the ‘Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind’ is an absolutely great idea. Istanbul, in particular, needs a conference on social progress in the same way Atlantis could have used a conference on climate change.

But I think the other commenters have this bang to rights; the stock photos of smiling 6 year old hijabis is a dead give away. I think we all can see exactly what’s being propagandised there. Did anyone even comment on holding the conference in a country that’s trying to destroy the best hope for progress and democracy in the Middle East and drag the Syria back to the 6th century, or did you just all walk around patting yourselves on the back and congratulating each other over how diverse and multicultural the place was?

And what is the mentality of people who sign up to a conference on social progress and then start bitching about modernism and progress? Why didn’t you tell them to get back on the plane and fly home? Why would you even consider inviting someone to a conference on social progress if they weren’t on board with the whole progress thing?


Ingrid Robeyns 08.29.15 at 8:05 pm

Commenterlein: economists, political scientists and sociologists are the biggest groups (all about equal size – around 10%). But since ‘social change’ covers a wide range of topics, there are also philosophers, anthropologists, urban planners, historians, scholars from area studies, public health, development studies, media studies, etc etc etc.

Whether people “are situated” at the left of “the center” depends on where for you “the center” is. I’ve discovered in recent years that there are places in the US (and surely elsewhere on earth) where the center is close to where the deep conservatives in some other countries are. So whether or not people are “left of center” is not really very informative, in my view. Perhaps they have good reasons to endorse those claims that are seen as “left of center”? (when I worked in an economics departmentsin the 1990s, we would hold “mock-elections” every time a national election was held – and in that period twice a green-social democratic coalition emerged. So perhaps people who spend their days studying and doing research have reasons to think that those social democratic policies, and those that protect the ecosystems of the earth, are not that crazy at all.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.29.15 at 8:11 pm

Abbe Faria: it is a great scholarly virtue to keep questioning, and not forget about complexities and the possible risks if one does research that also entails suggestions for social change. Academia needs to organize its internal criticism, and scholars critical of discourses on ‘social progress’ do that – and we need them. The fact that they volunteer to spend time writing this report (they could also be doing something that earned them refereed-publications, or consultancy money), shows that one can be critical and being part of a project at the same time. I have encountered this often in academia, and it is a scholarly virtue, rather than what that you make of it.


Stephen 08.29.15 at 8:21 pm


I wonder if you realise that your repetitive and impassioned rants, against the (rather large percentage) of people who do not entirely agree with you, have the effect of making people who might otherwise in some ways agree with you write you off entirely?


engels 08.29.15 at 10:42 pm

I, for one, welcome our new overlords.


Commenterlein 08.29.15 at 11:40 pm

Ingrid, thank you for your response.

I am an economist and I do academic research for a living (when I am not teaching). And I have voted for both Green and Social Democratic Parties. Which I guess reveals that I am not American.

But as an economist, I also recognize that we have seen an incredible number of people lifted out of poverty in the last three decades (China, India, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) thanks to an opening of markets. This process is ongoing, and it has led to a massive decline in global inequality. Amazing social progress for a very large number of people.

Again, I may be wrong (and I did indeed overlook Ken Arrow), but the program on the IPSP website seems to focus on a very specific and, frankly, misguided notion of social progress.


LFC 08.30.15 at 2:00 am

as an economist, I also recognize that we have seen an incredible number of people lifted out of poverty in the last three decades (China, India, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) thanks to an opening of markets. This process is ongoing, and it has led to a massive decline in global inequality. Amazing social progress for a very large number of people.

1) Inequality *between* countries has decreased, but inequality *within* many countries has increased.

2) Extreme poverty remains a v. serious problem, despite some progress. One data point: Child mortality has been reduced significantly in the last 20 years, but a UN report in June said that, without more action on the issue, 68 million children under age 5 will die, mostly from preventable causes, by 2030 (on past figures, a fairly substantial percentage of them will die in the first month after birth). And even a glance at the UN’s concluding report on the Millennium Development Goals, despite its somewhat upbeat tone, indicates the scale of the problems.


Gareth Wilson 08.30.15 at 4:08 am

So, what rate of child mortality would change your opinion?


LFC 08.30.15 at 4:47 am

what rate of child mortality would change your opinion?

If you’re asking me what rate wd convince me it’s no longer a problem, a reasonable answer, I suppose, wd be when the rate in most countries begins to approach that in the ‘developed’ world. (Note, btw, that Angola, far from the world’s poorest country, has, I believe, the highest child mortality rate. But generally I think it tracks w/ the poverty of the country.)

I’m saying it’s possible to hold more than one idea in one’s mind at the same time. Thus, the reduction from roughly 12.6 million under-5 child deaths a year from poverty-linked causes in 1990 to roughly 6.6 million in 2012 represented progress. However, the latter figure is still unacceptable. This NYT piece (linked below) summarizing the report I mentioned raises questions about whether measurement in natl averages has obscured some things:


Gareth Wilson 08.30.15 at 5:07 am

a reasonable answer, I suppose, wd be when the rate in most countries begins to approach that in the ‘developed’ world.

Fair enough. What about South Korea? It went from a child mortality of 114 per 1000 in 1960 to 4, about the same as Germany. Is that good enough for you to accept the South Korean model of social progress?


Ingrid Robeyns 08.30.15 at 10:11 am

Commenterlein, I would like to know why you think the notion on the IPSP website is misguided. I fail to see this. Also, I don’t think the IPSP will argue “against markets” but most likely “against unregulated markets” which is a hugely different thing. The devil is then in the details about which forms of regulation one thinks are leading to more social progress.

I realise I may have been short in my description of how the IPSP will actually go ahead over the next 2 years in writing this report. But the bottom line is that much of the content of what will emerge is not clear – and nothing so far is set in stone (except the topics in which is decided that are relevant).

There is a chapter at the beginning that will be devoted to looking at answers from the social sciences and humanities (with a strong participation from ethics) to the questions “what are strong (in the sense of academically defendable) notions of social progress” and also “what are the criteria to evaluate when there has been progress, and when not”. These are (a) very difficult questions with no easy answers, and (b) the group that is writing that chapter was not coming with pre-conceived ideas to the meeting.

The IPSP is of course not the first to write on social progress – one example is the ‘Better Life Initiative” of the OECD – but I don’t know of any process in which so many academics have been involved, that contains so many disciplines, and that is also based on peer-review (in the sense that all groups are composed of a diverse group of people, and hence you can’t just push trough any wacky ideas if they are not based on the best scholarship).

The process that we will follow includes several months in which feedback will be sought from all relevant parties in society – but I am actually much in favor of having this discussion earlier on too. So thanks to all raising their critical comments in this tread.


ccc 08.30.15 at 10:48 am

Commenterlein: “the IPSP website seems to focus on a very specific and, frankly, misguided notion of social progress.”

Pro market/pro growth is a cool slogan, but what specifically is that misguided notion you perceive? There are many views on how to best construct markets and generate growth. The social democratic tradition has a strong empirical track record in both regards while also developing decommodifying social programs. In academic economics the equality efficiency tradeoff view appears to be losing ground fast. It may even turn out that laissez fare is anti growth.


LFC 08.30.15 at 4:07 pm

Gareth Wilson @13
Obviously child mortality is just one of many possible indicators of ‘social progress’. One can’t judge any ‘model’ on the basis of one statistic alone. (I assume S. Korea has made social progress since 1960.)

My original comment was a response to Commenterlein’s remark that an “opening of markets” in the last three decades has resulted in “amazing social progress for a very large number of people.” There are two possible responses to that, istm. One could say: Yay, open markets; let’s just keep opening markets and everything will eventually be fine. Or one could say: ‘Opening’ markets has helped lift a lot of people out of poverty, but it also has had some less desirable effects (e.g. rising within-country inequality), and it hasn’t, by any means, solved all the problems, so relying on it alone to solve everything might not be a great idea.

Now perhaps you think that all we have to do is keep on the current general course and all countries will eventually follow S. Korea. Any conscious interventions in the operations of markets will not help. Is that your position? If it is, you would have to address the well-known fact that S. Korea itself followed a ‘state-led’ development model, not anything like a laissez-faire one. (I don’t know much about S. Korea, but I know that much.)

(Btw, if you think I’m going to take the time to google your name [which sounds vaguely familiar, but beyond that does not mean anything to me] to try to find out who you are or what you think, you’re wrong.)


Plume 08.30.15 at 4:22 pm

The “opening up of markets” always means the loss of local commercial arrangements — in some cases arrangements that go back centuries. In the capitalist system, it generally means large corporations get to establish a beachhead — and more — in places which previously had local markets, local economies, small producers and their own “commons.” To suggest that this can be done without major disruption, including the creation of a host of losers and more poverty, is ridiculous.

Read The Invention of Capitalism, by Michael Perelman, for the early history of this process.

Offering a more immediate kind of example: Walmart comes into a town of small, family-owned businesses, which were unsuccessful in keeping it out. It takes very little time before those small businesses fold. They can’t compete with Walmart on price or selection. And Walmart can also put major pressure on suppliers to comply with its agenda.

The mantra of “lifting people out of poverty” never, ever bothers with the fallout from “open markets,” which runs the gamut from bankruptcy to falling into poverty to the destruction of whole ways of life. You could claim that some people do marginally better. But it’s absurd to claim that there are no consequences. And that’s what capitalism’s cheerleaders consistently try to peddle. One of those consequences is often the total destruction of culture and previous ways of engaging in commerce.


Nick 08.30.15 at 10:18 pm

Capitalism is very disruptive to existing economic arrangements, but the original arrangements tend to be highly exclusionary, leaving the majority of people in poverty. Capitalism brings the majority out of poverty. And social democracy seems to be the best way of compensating for the disruption.


magari 08.31.15 at 4:24 am

To those bitching about hosting in Istanbul: good luck finding a major city to host a conference whose central government is doing lamentable things. Second, (a) Syria is doing its best to destroy itself, and (b) ISIS has much more to do with the US than Turkey. Not to be a Turkey apologist, but really, some perspective please.

Second, I wish Ha-Joon Chang’s work was more widely read. Growth does not necessarily or even often follow the opening of markets.


magari 08.31.15 at 4:25 am

*is not doing lamentable things


praisegod barebones 08.31.15 at 9:01 am

‘There are more than 200 authors from a wide variety of social sciences and the humanities, working in smaller groups, writing the 22 chapters.’

Interestingly, from what I could make out, none of the 200 had a Turkish institutional affiliation (though Kemal DerviÅŸ on the International Advisory Board is Turkish and I spotted one or two other names that seemed Turkish.)

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