Presented by the Centre for Cultural Research, the Knowledge/Culture/Social Change International Conference was held at the University's Parramatta campus 7-9 November 2011. The conference brought together academics from the humanities and social sciences, government, industry and community representatives to discuss the changing social roles of knowledge in contemporary societies.
Academia shaping society - the final frontier
A conference round-up by Mark Smith
Mark Smith is a media officer at the University of Western Sydney. He has previously worked as a radio, television and print journalist.
The study of the human condition is undergoing rapid change. Consigned in the past to individual disciplines such as history, language and literature, the humanities and social sciences (HASS) are confronted with the very modern practice of disregarding set boundaries and firm distinctions as overly conservative. Just as Generation Y is known for eschewing a single career in favour of a variety of part time jobs, HASS is developing a reputation for crossing the academic divide into the natural and physical sciences to pursue new ways of investigating society and culture. Yet, despite the advances being made by HASS in terms of breaking with tradition, the final frontier, a world where academia actively engages with the government and commercial sectors, is still some way off.
To address these questions, the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney gathered leading historians, scientists, public servants and other eminent thinkers from around the globe to its Knowledge/Culture/Social Change Conference. One of its aims was to outline ways in which they could work together better, and to expand the shared existing knowledge and develop new frameworks for understanding our world.
The rise of science
The field of biology is a good example of how HASS is being reshaped, as outlined by Professor Nikolas Rose, currently the Director of the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics. The Western sense of self has traditionally been informed by HASS, with fields such as philosophy, religion, history and literature the standard means to explore the human condition. Yet the rise of technology, and subsequently science, has profoundly changed our methods. As we began unlocking the mechanisms and processes of cells, leading to a greater understanding of the human brain, we've been forced to overcome the traditional theories regarding the human condition. Biology has gatecrashed the previously exclusive domain of HASS, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the masses of books now available discussing the science of our bodies and minds, and the paths to self improvement. The very modern notion of 'peak performance' is not a reference to spiritual and philosophical enlightenment, but a state of being achieved through exercise, a healthy diet and the correct amount of sleep.
This is just one example of the shifting nature of HASS as we move through the first stages of the 21st century. Another new phenomenon recasting HASS is the process of globalisation. The self proclaimed dominance of Western knowledge, spearheaded by the old British Empire, has fractured, confronted by the rise of Asia and the resurgence of Indigenous and community beliefs. Added to this, the advent of new electronic technologies are radically changing the ways in which people talk, think and act with each other, with profound implications for universities.
Some traditionalists may think that these issues present imposing obstacles for humanities researchers, but the Centre for Cultural Research sees this evolution as an exciting opportunity. Nowhere is this enthusiasm better reflected than in the push to ensure that emerging academic knowledge and research is utilised better by the politicians and CEOs who help determine how society is shaped.
Academia- Lost in Translation?
The University's Chancellor, Professor Peter Shergold, helped put this case with the address 'Academia- Lost in Translation'. Drawing on his own experience, first as an economic historian and later as the Head of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Australia, Professor Shergold exhorted researchers to be proactive in finding a use for their work outside of universities. This thesis was prefaced with three qualifications: that the primary purpose of a university is not to contribute to political decision making; that anyone who chooses to pursue academic research in a public policy area should not feel compelled to engage in public debate or policy development; and that university researchers should not become political simply for the sake of being political. Accepting these qualifications, there are still a variety of ways for academics to share their knowledge outside of academia. Locally, the Australian Research Council Linkage grants, which support research and development projects conducted with a partner organisation, are one example. Pursuing internships with government departments such as the Department of Immigration is another. In short, academics must make better use of their opportunities to help shape public policy and to bring about change in society.
Gone are the days when HASS researchers could comfortably offer rigorous academic analysis without referencing the natural and physical sciences. Our growing knowledge of the scientific world continues to shape our understanding of humanity and society, and to tap into this trend and explore it more fully, the Centre for Cultural Research will soon become the Institute for Culture and Society. The new centre will give researchers a wider remit to collaborate with academics and institutions outside of the traditional HASS disciplines, as well as helping academics actively engage with government and business. Watch this space.
Professor Bruno Latour: Social Theory, Tarde and the Web
Bruno Latour's keynote lecture Social Theory, Tarde and the Web is available for viewing on Vimeo. Please note that this video is password-protected and read the instructions below before proceeding. It is anticipated that the Vimeo lecture will be played alongside the slideshow.
Professor Peter Shergold in The Conversation
University Chancellor, Professor Peter Shergold, features in the online academic opinion website The Conversation discussing the gap between academics and policy makers:
Professor Nikolas Rose in On Line Opinion
An excerpt from Professor Nikolas Rose's keynote address at the conference features in e-Journal On Line Opinion:
Professor Peter Shergold and closing plenary videos
University Chancellor Professor Peter Shergold: Lost in Translation: Academic Research and Public Policy
Professor Peter Shergold question and answer session
Closing plenary: Cultural Research and Knowledge Translation
- Zoe Sofoulis: Translation Problems for Social and Cultural Research with/for the Water Industry
- Ingrid Richardson: The Journey from High Theory to Partnership Research and Practice
- Lesley Head: What are the Outcomes of Cultural Environmental Research?
Closing plenary question and answer session
The humanities and social sciences today struggle to come to terms with the explosion of knowledge in increasingly complex, diverse and networked societies. Which forms of knowledge work best for managing, challenging or engaging with rapid social change? Do new kinds of information play an increasing role in economic and social management? Do these changes raise questions about what 'knowledge' is, or is to become? What are the new rules for engagement between academic and other knowledge practices and institutions?
This conference brought together theorists and practitioners from a range of backgrounds and knowledge institutions to debate these questions in relation to the following themes:
Shifting knowledge maps. Discipline boundaries are increasingly permeable within the humanities and social sciences and across these and the natural and physical sciences. Yet it often proves difficult to connect these new knowledge maps both within academia and across sectors (university/government; public/private; NGO/university/government, etc.). Knowledge engagement is more problematic, just as it is becoming more important and desirable. How are these problems best addressed?
Knowledge and globalisation. Processes of globalisation undermine the relevance of purely national knowledge frameworks, while the hegemony of Western knowledge systems is challenged on many fronts: the increasing influence of Asia; the resurgent interest in indigenous and community knowledges; and the competing perspectives of multiple modernities. How can the relations between these multiple knowledge practices best be engaged with?
A (Post)humanities? The nature/culture dualism is under challenge from a diverse range of knowledges (ecological, post-rational, feminist, animal studies, etc). These interventions engage the global predicament presented by climate change, blurring the boundaries between natural and social environments, while medical and nano technologies radically restructure our sense of the boundaries and constituents of personhood. How can we now best understand our entanglements with the more-than-human?
Digital knowledge practices. New electronic and digital technologies are rapidly changing the mechanisms and speeds of knowledge flows with profound consequences for intellectual property and the practices of knowledge institutions, while also enabling new ways of knowing that significantly challenge older relations of knowledge production. How can our practices respond to these new knowledge possibilities?
Knowledge and governance. New kinds of data – quantitative and qualitative – and methods and techniques of visualisation play an increasingly important role in economic and social management, while science/arts divisions are undermined by new kinds of art/science practice. Knowledge institutions and technologies play new roles in processes of social and cultural change; e.g. archives, museums, science centres, statistical and other data banks. In what ways do these new knowledge practices actively intervene and shape social life?
^ Back to top
Dipesh Chakrabarty, (opens in a new window) Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago.
The Human after Climate Change.
Penny Harvey, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester; a Director in the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change.
Surface Dramas, Knowledge Gaps and Scalar Shifts: Infrastructural Engineering in Sacred Spaces.
Bruno Latour, (opens in a new window) Scientific Director, Professor and Vice President for Research, Sciences-Po.
Social Theory, Tarde, and the Web [via videolink].
Nikolas Rose, (opens in a new window) Professor of Sociology, King's College London.
The Human Sciences in the Century of Biology.
Peter Shergold, Chancellor, University of Western Sydney.
Lost in Translation: Academic Research and Public Policy.
Cultural Research and Knowledge Translation
- Distinguished Professor Ien Ang, Director, Centre for Cultural Research – Plenary Chair
- Dr Zoe Sofoulis, 2010-11 National Water Commission Fellow, Centre for Cultural Research – Translation problems for social and cultural research with/for the water industry
- Dr Ingrid Richardson, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University; CRC for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing – The journey from high theory to partnership research and practice
- Professor Leslie Head, (opens in a new window) Laureate Fellow, Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research, University of Wollongong – What are the 'outcomes' of cultural environmental research?
^ Back to top
Conference Organising Committee
Sonja van Wichelen
Conference Secretariat: Reena Dobson
Conference Programme Committee
Sonja van Wichelen