Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

Social Science Research: Do We Need to Dig Deeper?

Social Science Research: Do We Need to Dig Deeper?

Publication Year : 2022
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We need to rethink social sciences research in Pakistan. Currently, the research in social sciences is superficial and does not go beyond basic questions. The research does not dig deeper into the questions and issues that are crucial to Pakistan’s economy. This state of affairs is partly due to the way we have set incentives for academia in Pakistan. Moreover, research networks barely exist in Pakistan, which are very important for bouncing ideas off of one another.

Superficial versus deeper research in social sciences. Does such a distinction exist? I believe it does, at least in Pakistan. To be sure, any type of research, whether superficial or profound, generates knowledge. Even taking an empirical paper published in a top-notch journal and replicating it with, for example, extended data is an addition to knowledge. The issue, however, is such research’s usefulness. We may call such research superficial research. What is profound or deeper research, then? In simplest terms, deeper research is the type of research that scratches beneath the surface.

To further distinguish between superficial and deeper research, we can look at the industrial classification system. The industrial classification system, Standard Industrial Classification (SIC), categorizes industries from general, i.e., one-digit level industries, to specific industries, i.e., four-digit level industries. Similarly, we can also categorize superficial research as one-digit level research, which only deals with general topics. And we can categorize deeper research as four-digit level research, which digs deeper and goes into the specifics of a topic.

An example of general, one-digit level research is that good institutions are necessary for economic growth, which has become a sort of truism now. However, what we need is to understand the specific, four-digit level research on institutions. For example, what institutions promote growth; is it necessarily the Anglo-Saxon institutions that are suitable for a developing country like Pakistan? Does not a history of a country matter in choosing the institutions? What is the role of informal institutions in shaping formal institutions? Similarly, we often get to hear or read that Pakistan inherited laws from the British and these need overhauling. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a piece of research that cites an example of any such outdated law.

We can also liken superficial and deeper research to – to borrow the analogy used by Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque, VC PIDE–snorkeling and deep-sea diving. We Pakistani researchers are afraid of deep-sea diving even though the more prized fish are found in the deep-sea, not on the water’s surface!

We Pakistani researchers, and I am talking here about the social sciences, are stuck in generalities. Let us have a look at the titles of some papers published in Pakistani economics and social sciences journals. For example, one paper talks about institutional governance and climate change in a panel data framework. Another paper is on the role of financial services in economic growth and their implications for Pakistan. These topics show that not only do we only stay at the surface, we also fixate on using advanced analytical techniques rather than on the content of the research.

So what are the reasons for such a state of affairs? One reason perhaps lies in the way we have set incentives. We are more concerned with numbers game rather than with the quality and content of their research. The name of the game is to publish papers just to reach a specific number of publications for promotion or other benefits. We find it easier to replicate papers published in international journals and publish our work than to find a more challenging topic that is also more relevant for our economy. Since we can publish even such general topics in peer-reviewed journals, we do not find any need to stretch our imagination and spend some shoe leather. Surely, this strategy has high private returns, but what about social returns? What this strategy does is that it diverts intellectual resources and efforts away from more important and pressing issues.

Another reason could be that there is no cultivation of research networks in Pakistan. Because of the numbers game, most researchers are working in silos; there is no culture of internal brown-bag seminars and discussions among the peers, which is perhaps the best way to bounce ideas off of one another.

There are many issues that are holding back Pakistan’s economy, and these issues require a deeper understanding. For example, why is economic growth not picking up pace in Pakistan? Why is the investment rate low in Pakistan? Is Pakistan’s tax structure suitable for its economy, to cite a few examples. The Pakistani community of researchers must focus our attention on relevant public policy issues to find specific answers. The incentives must be reset so that we do not mis-align our social returns with our social returns.

  1. This blog is inspired by the ideas of Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque, VC PIDE.