Alternatives to the Established Social Sciences

We publish Ann-Kristin Kowarsch’s contribution to the conference “Challenging Capitalist Modernity—Alternative Concepts and the Kurdish Quest” which took place in Hamburg, Germany, 3-5 February 2012.

The paper raises critiques for the role, methodology and institutions of modern social science and presents the theory and practice of Jineolojî and Women’s academies in Kurdistan. Since the paper was written, the Jineolojî works of the Kurdish women’s movement have grown constantly and have become a reference for feminist movements all over the world. For example, the Andrea Wolf Institute in Rojava has been established and Jineolji camps are taking place in various countries. The speeches on the conference have been published as a book as well.

In the quest for a free life in a free society that can propose an alternative to capitalism and patriarchy, we have to understand the society in which we live in, in order to be able to change it. Behind this backdrop, I would like to discuss the role of social sciences and their meaning for progressive societal alternatives. In my talk I will focus on the following questions:

• Which role do the established social sciences play in the assertion and maintenance of the dominating conditions? Which methods and institutions are used for this?

• What are the radical critiques of the established social sciences? How can the quest for alternatives be designed?

• Which approaches have been developed in the Kurdish movement in this course? And what are the positions and contributions of Abdullah Öcalan to the discourse?

1—Definition and tasks of the social sciences

The role of the social sciences has been thematized in the Kurdish movement and society through Abdullah Öcalan’s prison writings (Sociology of Freedom et al). He was especially moved by the question of why real socialism and national liberation movements were not able to realize their ideals and aims of a liberated society. Behind this backdrop, Abdullah Öcalan describes the model of a “democratic, ecological, gender-liberated society” as an alternative to the attitudes of revolutions that aimed at overthrowing the one in power and seizing the power. In this context, he introduces the term of an “moral and political society” that governs itself on a grass-roots level (and which distinguishes itself from capitalism’s disenfranchised, homogenized consumerist society).

The process towards a free society cannot be imposed as a ready-made blueprint model from the outside. Because this way, society would just be dis-empowered again. Moreover, this process is supposed to be designed by society, social groups and individuals themselves. For this, societal ideas of morality (collective consciousness and the ethics of society) and the politicization of society are key factors. Thus, Öcalan regards the development and the strengthening of liberationist consciousness and the proposal of solutions for social problems in an open and societal process as a key task of the social sciences.

The common concept of the social sciences today stands in contradiction with this vision. It is split from the humanities and natural sciences and applied as a collective term for all scientific disciplines that concern themselves with the societal cohabitation of human beings. The task of the established social sciences is to only research and explain the societal, human cohabitation by a determined theory and empirical procedure.

Even though the social sciences — as opposed to the humanities and natural sciences — concern themselves with subjects of research that would potentially have the ability to contribute to the knowledge acquired and develop solutions for their questions, this possibility is withheld from society. That is why Öcalan criticizes that humans and societal groups are not treated as acting and thinking subjects but rather as research objects.

That is why the discourse of social science — including many critical theories — are so aloof that it is not accessible for “normal people”. In other words, the majority of society does not know what is being discussed, nor can they contribute to the discussion. However, we are all confronted with the consequences of this science, its logic and method — often without even realizing it. This is reason enough to think about alternatives.

Construction and foundations of today’s (social) sciences

If we want to understand the foundations and methods of the “established” social sciences, we have to ask ourselves: Who constructed and designed the social sciences when, where and with which interest?

In previous epochs, people tried to explain the world and life through observations from nature, myths, and religions. The “modern” social sciences developed from the idea of the European-Northern American “enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th centuries. Mythological, theological and metaphysical explanatory models were replaced by a form of “truth quest” that claims to be “scientific”, i.e. “objective” and “universally valid”.

When we look at the historical conditions in which today’s social sciences developed, we see an era of people’s and peasant uprisings, reformation and renaissance in Europe in which the omnipotence of the Catholic Church and its monopoly on knowledge were questioned.

On the other hand, a new monopoly on knowledge and science was created under the hegemony of new nation-states very quickly. Western European scientists such as Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Auguste Comte and Max Weber transferred empirical-analytical procedures of the natural sciences to societal contexts. Thus, social sciences were split away from philosophy, ethics, and attitudes to morality and were hence instrumentalized. Through nationalized universities and schools, these “new ideas” were institutionalized and appropriated. The faith in god was replaced by scientism. Because the new elites needed new explanatory models and a new world view in order to replace the living and production forms of the middle ages by new ones that would promise the capitalists bigger profits. A mechanical world view was necessary in which everything — nature, humans, material and ideal resources — could be put into the service of “progress”, i.e. profit. While social scientist helped new, middle class elites gain power, they themselves constituted a new elite with the power to define and classify. Along the hegemonic model of the nation-state and the capitalist industrialization in Europe came colonialist expansions and imperialist wars.

These processes impacted the gender relations and the concepts of patriarchal domination: the role of women whose knowledge and societal role had been decimated during the witch hunts in Europe, were pushed out of manual production. The reputation of agricultural production was degraded through industrialization. The “modern” patriarchal nuclear family model began to be based on gender specific division of labour: women were burdened with unpaid domestic and reproductive labour. They were driven out of production labour (even if reality looked very different especially in times of war and crisis!).

At the same time women were denied access to education and economy. They were excluded from the public and political life of the cities. “Separate spheres” were created in society — between men and women, proletariat and bourgeoisie. There was a reason behind Francis Bacon calling the era of modern science “The male birth of time or the renewal of the domination of man in the world”, from which he concluded that “knowledge is power”.

This short description of the situation suggests several hints for the frame conditions which created the foundation of the “modern” sciences and which in turn were supposed to be consolidated by the “modern” sciences. It becomes clear that this way the contents, methods, and the institutionalization of the social sciences are related to the implementation of a domination model which tries to legitimize and sustain itself through sexism, racism, nationalism, and Eurocentricism.

2—The contribution of the social sciences to the sustenance of “dominant/ dominating NORMality”

In order to uncover the alleged “objectivity” and “neutrality” of the social sciences, I would like to focus on their underlying methods — rationalism, positivism and the subject-object separation.

a) Rationalism

According to rationalism rational thinking and analytical reason are decisive and sufficient to understand reality. All other sources of cognition are degraded as “irrational” and “unreasonable”. “Steady progress” poses a ground principle of rationalism. The capitalist economic theory of “steady growth” also refers to this. Thus, every means of exploitation of humanity and the environment are regarded as legitimate.

b) Positivism

Positivism is another essential method of the established social sciences. It limits knowledge acquisition to “positive findings”, i.e. on phenomena that can be observed. Rules were established that are supposed to apply to both the natural sciences as well as the social sciences. According to the positivist “scientific world view” scientific and philosophical problems can only be solved in three ways: logical, mathematical or empirical. All other insoluble problems were declared as “pseudo-problems” (Vienna Circle 1924-36). In this process, society is turned into an experimental laboratory which is supposed to be measurable, calculable, provable, as well as controllable through numbers and formulas.

c) Subject-object separation (dichotomy and dualism):

According to the positivist understanding all elements are categorized and examined in opposing, complementary term pairs. Clear borders are drawn that split thought, perception and societal life: All appearances and humans are put in one or the other category: Either black or white — subject or object- right or wrong- abstract or concrete- norm or deviance… With the split, hierarchies are constructed at the same time: one category of the opposing pairs was declared as belonging to the “dominating” category, while the other belongs to the “dominated”.

Questions arise:

Who has the power to define? Are social reality and coexistence gradual, without contradictions? Can they be explained by mathematical formulas? Can social scientific methods be “universally valid”? Are they understood by men and women, by people from different cultural, social contexts in the same way?

Who determines which arguments seem plausible and which can be discarded as “subjective opinions”?

3—Radical critiques of the “established” social sciences

3.1—Critiques of methodology

The feminist critique of the social sciences criticizes patriarchal constructs of the “universal” reason, “objectivity” and “neutral subject” concepts. When rationalism put the reason of the human being (=man) at the centre, women were excluded. Men who developed these methods defined themselves as creating, rational subjects. “Unreasonableness”, “irrationality” and “passivity” were attributed to female characteristics. Women were declared as the “complementary” and “a counterpart” of men. Through these methods, sexism and hetero-sexism were laid down and internalized through alleged “scientific objectivity”. Later on, the term of “gender-neutral, rational subject” was constructed, in which “neutrality” is oriented once again on the model of the man.

Thus, the social sciences assume data that are defined as “universal”, but are in fact the result of male norms. This way empirical studies designed survey questions that ignore the lived realities of women. Topics like domestic labour, role behaviour ad sexist violence in the “private” sphere (family) are only treated as a side issue. The assumption is a uniform society, without acknowledging that women are individually and structurally subject to sexist oppression. Thus, sexist structures are covered up and codified as “NORMality”.

Another important approach emerged in the framework of critical theory, to which the theoreticians of the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno etc.) belong: They criticize that the traditional methods of social sciences accept societal facts as given. In this process, it is forgotten that facts are no actualities by nature, but social constructs, in which the injustice of domination mechanisms is hidden.

 Scientific insights cannot be considered in isolation from its consequences

(atom bomb, gene technology, etc.)

 Critique of right positivism: Following the positivist logic, laws are to be applied according to the exact wording, as they are “legitimized” by the according legislator. (i.e. following that logic, NS-fascism or the AKP-regime are constitutional states)

Even if there have been and are critics rationalism, positivism, and the subject-object division continue to influence the social sciences and thought strongly today.

Building on these critiques, Abdullah Öcalan has formulated a foundational critique of these methods of social sciences in his prison writings. He believes them to be inappropriate, even dangerous. Some of the important points of his critique are:

Along with rationalism, analytical thought was separated from ethical values, empathy, and social responsibility. These methods allowed for the construction of logical lines of reasoning and calculations whose ways — appropriate to respective interests and its logic — could reach dimensions of genocides, feminicide, the destruction of nature, from Fukushima to Hiroshima to Auschwitz.

In order to explain society and find solutions to problems, Öcalan pleads for a synthesis of analytical and emotional reason. For, not the logic of application, but the ethics of a democratic-ecological and gender-libertarian society ought to be the point of reference for social scientific thought.

In this course, it needs to be considered that knowledge has objective and subjective sides — consciousness and wisdom result from the encounter of the observed and the observer after all. In this relationship there is no subject and object — but rather an encounter.

In his critique of positivism, Öcalan especially points to the danger of describing history and social development by “law of nature” and linear, mathematical formulas or in perceiving it as a mere amassment of facts: The dogmas of “objective thought” and “universality” deny society’s diversity, will and ability to act.

When events — separated from the social and historical context — are isolated and observed externally aim, cause and impact remain unclear. The exaggerated split into different scientific disciplines and subjects also contributes to this. It has turned out that social sciences that merely string together and describe facts do not serve to resolve social problems.

Öcalan evaluates the dualism of splitting society into subjects and objects, us and them, body and soul, god and slave, dead and live, etc. as another mean to assert domination. The existence of transitions between categories and the social diversity beyond these categories are denied this way. Öcalan further describes that this domination principle was historically first used to legitimize patriarchal domination. Later on, the same method was used for the “economic” legitimization of class domination, racism, imperialism and other forms of oppression.

According to him, the Marxist dualist interpretation of social development by “antagonistic contradictions” in which one class fully defeats the other has proven to be insufficient. The dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis causes changes, but not necessarily a classless, communist society! History cannot be analysed as “closed chapters” or only from the perspective of the rulers. Because history — in which there have always been struggles from freedom as well — continues to impact the present.

Referring to Adorno’s claim “Wrong life can not be lived rightly”, Öcalan emphasizes the importance of methodology. A method cannot be treated isolated from its conception and the interests connected to it. Therefore, a method is necessary which is in harmony with the aim of a free society. Appropriate methods to seek the truth need to be found, without ending in a method-inflation (in the sense that “Everyone seeks for their own truth”).

3.2—Critique on the institutionalization of social sciences

As previously mentioned, it has never been possible for society to participate in the social scientific knowledge quest. Especially women, oppressed social classes and different peoples were excluded from the design of this science, from the determination of its methods and contents.

Universities and institutions in which there is research on society, different spheres of human coexistence, conduct their research in isolated, untransparent spaces that are closed to the majority of the population. At the same time, the system that surrounds, builds, and promotes these scientific institutions determines the contents, organizational forms, and personnel of these institutions. Since the sponsors and clients for science and research are usually state institutions, armies and corporations in the era of capitalist modernity, it becomes clear which interests these universities and social scientific institutions (have to) subjugate themselves too. Already in the 1970s, nearly one million scientists were employed in projects for military-technical sectors.

This illustrates once again that social science and social scientific research are not “value neutral” or “objective”. They are designed and developed by people with certain interests (usually white, European men from the upper and middle classes): by the means of social sciences, “truths” and “realities” are generated and these findings influence our culture and life styles.

In the scientific process not only social realities are analysed and described, but are continuously interfered with. This means that just as the rulers use social sciences and their current paradigm, in order to control society and form their interests accordingly, society can use social sciences with a new paradigm in order to change these conditions.

4—Quests for Alternatives

In the framework of feminist critique of science and feminist scientific theory, two main currents emerged in the discourse over changing the dominant scientific norm. The deciding question is: Should women interfere with the discourse internally or externally? Should the aim be to reform existing theories, methods and institutions? Or shall we think anew, examine anew and build institutions anew?

Referring to this important question, I would once again like to reference the theses of Öcalan. He answers this question that feminist scientific discourse is confronted with clearly: let’s think anew, examine anew and build institutions anew!

In order for social sciences to be able to contribute to the development and implementation of libertarian societal, political and economic alternatives, they have to liberate themselves from the material and ideological dependency from the system and consider themselves as part of the resistance against capitalist modernity.

For independent social science, the creation of independent and autonomous institutions is a precondition. Their task is to orient themselves on social needs and contribute to the development of a democratic-ecological, gender-libertarian society. All scientific works need to be conducted by and for the ethical and political society.

Öcalan suggests to build a world confederation of academies based on local and regional academies. Each cultural or regional academy could determine their own program, own organization and forms of action itself. However, common principles should be in place such as the independence from states, corporations and power structures. The aim is not to reproduce the existing, official institutions but to generate new, original approaches. These academies should train their own teachers, while teachers and students should be constantly changed. Everyone should have access to this education, independent from school attendance or diplomas, from “shepherds to professors”.

Every mountain, every house, every street corner can be turned into an academy. They don’t need rigid time schedules, but common ethical rules are absolutely necessary.

Furthermore, Öcalan finds it important for women to create and run their own academies and educational institutions. In this context, he proposed the concept of Jineology (Kurdish neologism which means something like the “science of wisdom of women”) with which women could overcome the patriarchal science logic and create their own social alternatives. This suggestion was adopted by the Kurdish women’s movement and is currently being discussed in many places.

4.1—Jineology — Theory and Practice for Women’s liberation

The concern of Jineology (Science of wisdom of women) is to develop a social science that breaks with patriarchal logic and methodology in science. Based on the situation and needs of women — which have so far been denied or made invisible — women work on reaching an own understanding and own ways of solution.

Jineology is not limited to the so-called “women’s question”, but encompasses all fundamental questions of humanity, all relationships and areas of life. Because we cannot leave topics that determine us and our lives up to social science under male hegemony or other sexist scientific branches.

At the heart of this ambition lies a broad systemic critique, which encompasses the questioning of all existing religions, scientific notions, nationalist, capitalist, and sexist thought structures. Part of this is the questioning and analysis of Eurocentricism and patriarchal domination.

Another important topic is the development of a definition of freedom, philosophy, and ideology, in order to overcome patriarchal thought models, as well as their impacts on the soul, thought, and actions of women.

Because without comprehensive theoretical work, ideological fights, programmatic and organizational activities, feminism is in danger of being trapped inside the limits of the system.

The women’s struggles of past centuries have shown that it is not sufficient to advocate legal equality. Because formal, legal equality has also not been able to stop violence against women.

Behind this backdrop, another task of jineology is to develop strong perspectives on the women’s liberation struggle.

Part of this is that women develop and implement their own concepts and alternatives in all areas of life. It is an interplay between theory and practice:

▪ The generation of new economic concepts and models that are not based on consumption and surplus value, but are ecological, just and oriented on needs; a new definition of “labour”, which includes domestic and reproductive labour

▪ The creation of production and consumer cooperatives which orient themselves on the needs of women

▪ The removal of the separation between the “private” and “public” sphere; the questioning of concepts like love, family, relationships, and marriage in the fight for the liberation of women and of social coexistence

▪ The development of an alternative educational system and new life forms with the aim of developing libertarian criteria and ethical norms for societal coexistence;

▪ The development of necessary revolutionary theory and practice for women’s liberation — program, organization and ability to act

▪ Strengthening of self-organization and self-determination of women as a precondition for a liberated society

▪ The development of consciousness, ability to act, and solidarity for the self-defence against state violence and patriarchal violence in society

4.2—Academies for a free life—The example of women’s academies in Kurdistan

These concepts are not just theoretical. Instead, they are actively adopted, discussed, and implemented by the Kurdish movement, the women’s movement and society. In many places — in different cities, villages, refugee camps and in the mountain’s of Kurdistan — independent, alternative education and research institutions have been started by and for women. One example is the “women’s academy Diyarbakir” which was founded on June 30, 2010 in the Sur municipality in the Kurdish city of Amed. Women from all social strata participate in its activities with great interest. To be literate is not a prerequisite for participation, but it can be learned in the academies. Social, political, and cultural topics are prepared by changing committees and put up for debate. There are no strict roles such as “students” and “teachers”. Rather, it is assumed that all women possess information, knowledge, and experiences which they can share and exchange in the academy.

Generally the program is put together according to the problems, needs, and interests of the women concerned. An important topic is the confrontation with the history of women and women’s movements. The individual women try to make sense of themselves and their life situation in the framework of historical, political and social developments. The confrontations with the socialization as women and patriarchal role models are posed with the aim of overcoming internalized mechanisms of oppression and resignation to fate, to reclaim women’s own history, stolen knowledge and self- confidence. This way, women gain the strength and courage to leave predetermined paths, to take their life into their own hands, to strengthen their possibilities of expression, to take own personal and political decisions. At the same time, relationships to other women can be developed through the collective learning process and exchange. This can help build faith in oneself and other women; isolation and competitive thinking of patriarchal society can thus be overcome more easily.

The key idea behind the academies is to encourage women to “examine reality, to change this reality with our knowledge and the newly acquired knowledge, and to create it anew; to achieve a more beautiful life and a freer society”.

The rulers seem to have recognized the blasting power and potential which can develop from this kind of process of societal consciousness raising: That is why the AKP government is trying to criminalize the work of the people’s and women’s academies in Turkey and Kurdistan. That is why dozens of academics like Prof. Büsra Ersanli, Ayse Berktay, and Ragip Zarakolu, journalists and other people were arrested and charged in the framework of the “KCK operations”, because they had been teaching at the academies. Hundreds of students were arrested, just because they had participated in the seminars. Women’s academies are also affected by these repressions, since they question the pillars of the system with their educational work, which is also conducted in the Kurdish native language.

However, the work and resistance for the creation of new education and social sciences continue. Thus, 400 academics from Turkey and Kurdistan began the campaign “We also want to teach at the academies”. Many wellknown academics have ever since given seminars to social, political and historical topics and thus contributed to the continuation of the work of the academies. Because they are also convinced that there must be alternatives to the educational institutions of the state.


“Is there a need for a radical critique and alternatives to the current social sciences?” If there is a need to change the dominating conditions, YES!

Because the social sciences produce and reproduce thoughts and ways of thinking that impact our social conditions, coexistence, our culture and ways of thinking. When we look at the injustice and the destruction that have been caused by sexism, racism and capitalism, as well as their legitimization through social scientific theories and methods in the last two centuries alone, we will realize the urgency of a radical critique of the current social sciences and the necessity of building new methods and institutions. These have to be directly related to societal life, dedicated to libertarian ethical principles and be accessible and understandable for all people.