November 2003 – Canberra, Australia

  • Youth in transition: the challenges of generational change in Asia
  • Privatization and state resource allocation in higher education: a regional perspective on social science teaching and research
  • Reminiscing on the eve of AASSREC’s 30th Anniversary by AASSREC’s first General Secretary, Mr. Yogesh Atal.

Reminiscing on the eve of AASSREC’s 30th Anniversary

by AASSREC’s first General Secretary, Mr. Yogesh Atal

I have no words to express my gratitude to the members of the AASSREC Executive Committee and to the organizers of this Conference for this generous gesture of inviting me to share the joy with all of you of celebrating the 30th Anniversary of this Association.

Having witnessed births and deaths of several regional and national organizations in my long career with UNESCO, it is indeed remarkable that your Association has not only survived but has flourished with so many member-councils, and that it is able to stand on its own with the gradual weaning away of the support from the organization that helped its birth and nursed it all along.

For me, AASSREC has a special significance. It is the founding of this Association that exposed me to the Asian social sciences, in my capacity as its first Secretary-General; and it is my work at this Association that gained me a berth in UNESCO, to be, again, the first Regional Adviser for the Social Sciences for Asia and the Pacific region. It was the AASSREC position that took me to the UNESCO regional meeting in Bogor, Indonesia, in early 1974. There I got another exposure to the Asian social science, and an opportunity to plead for the UNESCO support for this Association.

When, in September 1974, I went to Paris to join UNESCO, I carried with me the book Social Sciences in Asia, which contained the proceedings of the UNESCO supported First Asian Conference on Teaching and Research in Social Sciences, held in India in May 1973. It was at this Conference that AASSREC was born, and I was seconded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research to be its First Secretary-General, while continuing as the Director. That book became my “visiting card”, almost a substitute for my bio-data, and justification enough for my recruitment as UNESCO’s Regional Adviser for Social Sciences – the first such regional office set up by UNESCO to “internationaIise the Social Sciences”. Since I was to set up an office for the region, and develop the Asia-Pacific programme for UNESCO, I naturally sought AASSREC’s support and collaboration. It is this strange coincidence of events that influenced my association with AASSREC, which continued until I retired in 1997. In fact, my last assignment was to represent UNESCO at the 12th ASSREC biennial Conference held in Beijing in October 1997 – a few days after my 60th birthday!!

Prior to the birth of AASSREC in 1973, there was virtual absence of any , organization in the region catering to the needs of Asian social sciences. It is not that attempts were not made, but they somehow did not succeed. One of the reasons for this was relative recency of the social sciences in the region, and location of its reference groups in the developed West. Social sciences were then described as “Western implantation”. Even UNESCO’s entire social science programme was focused on the Western social science, and that too more on intellectual development rather than on building up of infrastructure. Social scientists in Asia knew very little about the work of their peers in the region but were au courant with the developments in the West. When I was interviewed by the Press in India on my appointment as the Regional Adviser, I said in reply to one of the questions: “Asian social scientists are geographically proximate, and culturally close, but are academically remote from each other”. It was to remedy this situation that UNESCO decided to set up its first Regional bureau for the Social Sciences in this region. I had the honour to head it for the first nineteen years.

Let me, however, say it for the record that UNESCO did make some attempts earlier to promote the social sciences in Asia. The first serious attempt was made in 1954 when it organized a Round Table Conference on Teaching of the Social Sciences in South Asia. It was attended by social scientists from Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, Indonesia, Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore, Pakistan, and Thailand. The country presentations gave the impression that the differences between them outweighed the similarities. The Report of the Conference said that the knowledge of the participants of the region “was largely confined to conditions of their own country, or at most in one or two countries out of seven. It was not at all easy to discover what common interest was peculiar to, or particularly characteristic of, the region as a whole”.1

Following the Round Table, the Eighth General Conference of UNESCO, in 1954, decided to establish a Research Centre on the Social Implications of Industrialization in Southern Asia. The Centre was set up in 1956 in Calcutta, and was later moved, in 1961, to Delhi with a new name: UNESCO Research Centre on Social and Economic Development in Southern Asia. In 1967, when it completed ten years of its functioning, it was merged with the Indian Institute of Economic Growth. As UNESCO Centre, it carried out research, convened seminars and conferences, organized training seminars on developmental issues, and provided library and documentation services. Evaluating the work of the Centre, the Evaluation Commission felt that while the Centre did useful work by way of research, it “made little contribution” to increase the size of the social science community. The Commission was of the view that the major need of the Asian region was for an increase in the desperately small number of active social scientists.

It is of interest to note that prior to 1967, only three countries in the region had national level social science bodies, namely i. Science Council of Japan (set up in 1949) ii. Social Science Research Council of Australia (set up in 1952), renamed in 1970 as the Academy of the Social Sciences of Australia. iii National Research Council of Thailand (set up in 1956)

Both Japan and Thai Councils were basically science Councils, but they had also included social sciences.

Prior to the birth of AASSREC, three other councils were created. They were:

  • Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in 1967
  • Philippine Social Science Council (PSSC) in 1968
  • Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) in 1969

In 1971, social scientists of the ASEAN region formed SEASSA – The South-East Asian Social Science Association with a view to (i) encouraging regional co-operation with regard to research, teaching and publication; (ii) sponsoring symposia, conferences, lecture tours, and other academic activities; (iii) encouraging the establishment of professional societies in each discipline; and (iv) fostering collaboration among professional associations. SEASSA organized some regional meetings, but stopped functioning somewhere in the mid 1970s. There was also another institution, set up in 1970 under the ASEAN auspices in Singapore; it was named Regional Institute for Higher Education (RlHED). There also existed since 1956 an Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning – acronymed ASAHIL. Both the latter institutions had included social sciences in their agenda but their scope remained broader, and social sciences did not receive the kind of attention they needed.

It is in such a climate that the Indian Council of Social Science Research approached UNESCO for a grant to convene the first Asian Conference on Teaching and Research in Social Sciences. With a grant of US $10,000 (regarded generous at that time) from UNESCO, and adding its own contribution, ICSSR convened the Conference in May 1973 that was attended by fourteen countries, namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia (Khmer), India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Each delegation presented a country paper on the social science situation.

The social science situation in Asia presented a variegated profile. While some countries had highly developed social science enterprise, others had rudimentary beginnings. In most cases, no social sciences were taught at the school stage, and in some countries, they were taught at the first-degree level in the colleges; only few countries had post-graduate programmes. For example, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka had only undergraduate courses.

Whereas in Afghanistan those who had only a BA degree taught these courses, in Sri Lanka these were taught by those who had obtained postgraduate degrees abroad. With no scope for doing Ph.D. in the country, and no prospects for teaching MA level courses, Sri Lankan teachers had to go abroad for higher education; as a consequence, many left the country for good, and those who returned tried their luck at out-of-the campus research institutions, such as Marga. In Nepal social sciences arrived as late as 1959, but it had no courses in sociology, psychology, and anthropology until the mid 1970s. Political science was introduced earlier but the University did not allow modern textbooks in that subject until 1950; only Sanskrit texts, such as Kautilya’s Arthashastra, were prescribed. Economics was the other social science subject taught in Nepal; of course, students could register for Ph.D.s in the subjects that were not taught at the MA level. In Iran, while there were courses in social sciences at the MA level, in 1974 there were only two students registered for Ph. D. within the country. Others had gone abroad for higher studies. It is interesting to note that students from Asia mostly went to Western countries for higher education disregarding availability of such facilities in some of the countries within the region. Only Nepalese students went to India for higher education. Students from the Pacific island countries opted for Australia and New Zealand. Not much change has come in this regard even today.

The orientation of the social sciences also differed in the countries depending on the colonial experience. Countries that were colonized by the British followed British tradition. Countries that were influenced by the Dutch or French educational system started with law in which sociology and political science were first introduced as papers. This was the situation in Indonesia, Cambodia, Iran, and Afghanistan. In Indonesia, anthropology arrived through linguistics and prehistory. Philosophy mothered psychology in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma, and sociology came through the gateway of economics.

In the 1970s, social sciences in most countries were part of the faculty of Humanities or Arts. Also what constituted social sciences differed from country to country. Sociology, political science, social psychology, social anthropology, and economics found mention as core disciplines. Other subjects that were treated as social sciences in one country or the other were: public administration, mass communication, social work, journalism, military science, demography, law, criminology, linguistics, philosophy, education, geography, and even commerce (also called business administration). The country papers also revealed that the first generation of social science teachers ‘were mostly foreigners; in the colonized countries, they came from the colonizer country, and in others, from those countries which had developed with them significant political linkages. This also determined the language of instruction, and of the reference material. In the second phase of development, native scholars trained abroad joined the teaching faculty, while foreigners continued to arrive mostly as researchers doing field work. The colonial phase in the history of Asian social science had the most decisive influence on the growth of various social science disciplines, and on the general intellectual climate. With the end of the colonial rule, social sciences began receiving exposure from various other countries. The single-aperture model of influence got transformed into multiple-aperture model. But the orientation continued to remain westward, and enlightened intellectuals started decrying the onset of, what they called, “academic colonialism”. Professor S. Alatas expressed his concern over the “captive minds”. It is at this stage that a demand for the Indigenization of social sciences was also raised. It was in such a milieu that the Simla- India Conference was held in May 1973. For the first time, detailed accounts of the growth of social sciences in major countries of the region were presented. Of the several recommendations made by the Conference participants to improve the situation, and create an Asian identity for the social sciences, there was one for the setting up of this Association. All the participating countries at this Conference endorsed this proposal, and immediately set up an interim office in Delhi to publish the proceedings of the Conference, draft the Constitution of the Association, and seek formal membership from the national bodies. It is necessary to mention that the Conference recommended this Association to be the body of national level councils, or its equivalents, and not of individual scholars.

While pursuing the recommendations, I encountered two major difficulties: the Conference was attended by scholars who were nominated by the UNESCO National Commissions, in their individual capacity; and that only six countries had national councils – of which two were clearly the science councils having a section on the social sciences. In case of the Philippines, PSSC was a non-governmental body set up on the lines of SSRC of America, at the instance of Margaret Mead and support from the Ford Foundation; but the government had a separate Council that also had social scientists on its Board. In such circumstances, active support was received only from India, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, as the representatives of the Councils of the respective countries participated in the Conference. Though Australian Academy was represented, but it was hesitant to commit – perhaps because of the retirement of the incumbent Chairman.

With four core members, and a draft constitution, AASSREC secretariat planned its first Conference in Iran, though it had no national level council In the hope of getting membership from other countries as well, the Conference invited scholars from several non-member countries. By the time this Conference was held in early 1975, I had already joined UNESCO, and I had the privilege of addressing this body as the representative of the Director General, committing full support of UNESCO to this regional initiative.

To promote membership, the second Conference was held the following year in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Already elected as one of the Vice Presidents of the Association, the Korean scholar took steps to create the Korean Social Science Research Council- KOSSREC-under the auspices of the Korean National Commission for UNESCO. The Korean NatCom was very keen to enhance its regional presence and gave me full support to further the cause of the social sciences. The good point was that the people appointed to the position of the Secretary-General of the NatCom in that country were all chosen from the academe and were mostly social scientists. Korean NatCom also had a special privilege. It enjoyed an autonomous status, and was able to generate its own funds through a commercial complex given to it by the government. With its support, my office was able to launch two cross-cultural comparative research projects with the involvement of social scientists. These projects resulted into two major publications, one on Community Development, and the other on Rural Women, titled Women in Villages, Men in Towns.

Although I was not able to attend the Second Conference of AASSREC in Seoul, it was a good augury for AASSREC. Since then AASSREC is regularly holding its biennial conferences at different places. So far AASSREC has met in India, Iran, Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Japan, and China. Some countries, Australia included, have hosted the Conference for more than once. Over the years, AASSREC has also been able to enlist membership of several national level bodies. In fact, AASSREC has provided stimulus to several countries for the setting up of national level bodies, separately for the social sciences, or for heightening the visibility of the social sciences in those bodies where they were part of broader scope councils. AASSREC officials showed foresight in inviting representatives even from those countries which had not become members, or where no such councils existed. More than the hope of enlisting their membership, the positive orientation was to make this body a truly representative forum for the social sciences, rather than an exclusive club.

It goes without saying that in all this UNESCO played a crucial role. It was the grant given under the regional participation programme that helped the organisers invite the member-councils, and some other countries. As UNESCO Regional Adviser, I managed to “attach” one of UNESCO’s regional seminars to the Conference so that additional participants could be invited. , Since the purpose of the Association was to generate discussion and debate on social science issues, it accepted my suggestion to treat the regional symposium as a culmination of national seminars I symposia. AASSREC Conferences were asked to recommend a theme for the symposium for the next Conference. This theme was then accommodated into the UNESCO’s Programme and Budget for the next biennium giving me, as the Regional Adviser, the authority to implement it in close association with AASSREC. Separate funding could be provided to various national bodies for holding the national symposia – ensuring participation of at least 20 to 30 social scientists in each country. The outcome of these national discussions, in the form of a national paper, rather than a paper of an individual, was presented as a country paper in the Regional Symposium at the time of the AASSREC conferences. That tradition, I am glad, is still continuing. I know that the member-councils, depending on their individual circumstances, have always modified the format suggested by AASSREC but the basic principle –of ensuring national level participation in AASSREC – is accepted by all. This way AASSREC has reached a much larger social science community.

My job gave me the opportunity of visiting various member-states, and these were utilized also for garnering support for AASSREC. The National Commissions for UNESCO were kept fully informed of AASSREC activities, and their support was sought for enlisting the membership of the national level bodies. Crucial were the cases where no such councils existed or where social sciences were part of the science councils. My first visit to Bangladesh was in 1975, when the new country had just born, and was eager to set up Infrastructurees. The Ford Foundation had prepared a report for the promotion of higher education assigning an important role for the University Grants Commission. The national Planning Commission had made provision in the First Plan to set up a body for the social science researches. These were good beginnings and gave me the clues for negotiations. The Vice Chancellor of the Dhaka University arranged a dinner in my honour inviting the senior faculty from the social sciences. Addressing the dinner gathering, I narrated the story of the creation of ICSSR, which had its beginnings in the Planning Commission as a Research Programmes Committee. It was the recommendation made by an Economist Member of the Planning Commission (Professor VKRV Rao) that the Ministry of Education took steps to create the ICSSR as an autonomous body. It so happened that the same member became Education Minister and accepted the recommendation that he had made as a Member of the Planning Commission.

Next day, the dean of the faculty and Professor of Economics (Dr Huda) visited me in my hotel with a group of senior professors, and asked me to help establish a Social Science Council through UNESCO support. He told me that Professor Claude Levi Strauss of France had visited the country as UNESCO consultant when it was still a part of Pakistan. Again it was a strange coincidence that Professor Huda was made Minister of Planning, and one of his first acts was to create the Bangladesh Social Science Research Council within the Planning Commission. Immediately he informed me of his decision and invited me once again to visit Dhaka to advise BSSRC officials about developing international links. And thus, Bangladesh joined AASSREC A similar thing happened in Nepal. When the Education Minister knew about my mission, he asked his office to fix an appointment for me. I was pleasantly surprised when he said that he had spent time in India as a political scientist and was familiar with my work on Indian elections. Upon explaining him the purpose of my visit, he immediately called the education secretary and two senior professors and ordered to set up NESSREC – playing on the acronym of AASSREC Dr Manandhar of the Geography department was appointed secretary, with Dr Dambar Narain Yadav – the Minister himself – assuming the presidency. In Sri Lanka, social sciences were part of the Science Council. The social scientists were somewhat uneasy and wanted to have a separate council. They expressed the desire to visit ICSSR. Their visit was arranged; the Report on the visit became the basis for the setting up of NARESA.

I had paid several visits to China and Japan with a view to getting them as members of AASSREC Japan was very reluctant, to begin with. Since Japan Science Council was under the direct charge of the Prime Minister, it refused to accept the decision of the UNESCO National Commission, under the Ministry of Education, to join AASSREC Since the Japanese delegate to the Shimla Conference was not the representative of the Japan Council, it refused to honour the commitment made by him. The matter went to the Diet, but remained unresolved. My discussions at the Japan Science Council also remained inconclusive as I was told that the Council was authorised to become member of only international bodies. AASSREC was treated as a regional body and, therefore, ineligible. However, the Council agreed to send an observer to each Conference provided AASSREC met the travel expenses. Thatwas agreed. But this did not strain the AASSREC resources, as the Japanese delegate returned the entire sum to AASSREC as contribution – not a membership fee. Much later, to my surprise, I learnt that the expenses for the Japanese delegate were personally borne by the Chairman of the Social Science Committee of the Japan Science CounciL When finally Japan decided to join AASSREC, it was a matter of great rejoice for us – as a happy outcome of the effort of full sixteen years by my Japanese colleague (Takeo Uchida), and me.

In case of China, the Academy of the Social Sciences always favourably responded, and gave promises to join, but it did not happen. On one of my visits to China I was told that the membership fee was the real reason. “How could $ 200 be a problem?” I queried. They thought that the fee was as high as US $20 thousand. What had happened was that the dot after the figure 200 and before the two other zeroes caused confusion. When I assured them that the fee was only $200, the decision was taken instantly. New Zealand had the problem of identifying a suitable body to represent the country, as there was no Council. The National Commission for UNESCO invited me to visit all the universities and consult the social scientists in this regard. Based on my report the Institution was identified. Similar efforts were made to enlist membership of Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam with varying degrees of success.

AASSREC also tried to enlist support of other organizations by making amendments in its constitution to include the category of Associate members. Professor Smolicz’s Centre at Adelaide became member in this category. I am sure, more organizations will get associated with this body in the years to come.

During my tenure, AASSREC collaborated with UNESCO in three other activities to serve the wider social science community. Its members participated in some cross-cultural projects initiated directly by the Regional Office. Every biennium, UNESCO programmes included one such project; and as Regional Adviser, I sought the help of the member-councils in identifying suitable scholars! research institutions to carry out such projects. The themes on which such researches were carried out and monographs published by the Bangkok Office of UNESCO included, Community Development, Swidden cultivation, Migration to the Middle East (MIME), Rural Women, Women in Politics, Women in the Decision-Making domain, Communication and Nation-Building, Violence Against Women, Changing Family in Asia, etc. The other activity was preparation of teaching materials; UNESCO published a series of monographs on the intellectual history of various social science disciplines as they developed in different countries of the region; similarly, teaching materials for women’s studies programmes were prepared for several countries of the region. The third activity was related to the training of young social scientists in research methodology, use of Mathematics and Computers in social research, Management of Human Settlements, and issues of Development.

In this regard, I must say that AASSREC showed a relative failure when it decided to undertake such activities on its own. For example, AASSREC decided at its conferences to undertake comparative research projects on the theme that emerged in the discussions. Member-councils expressing their interest in participating in such projects were also identified on the condition that each participating council would meet the expenses of the country component of research and that AASSREC, via UNESCO, will provide funding for the inter-country exchanges – such as meeting of researchers to develop the research design, and site visits of scholars from one country to another. One such project was initiated with a meeting of researchers who formulated the research design for a project on Gateway Cities of Asia. But all such enthusiasm went waste because no member-council provided the needed funds for the country study as part of that very useful project. A similar failure was the project on preparation of Social Profile country booklets. Funding made available for this project helped AASSREC to commission a few studies, but only two – on India and Indonesia – saw the light of the day. I understand monographs were also received for Thailand and the Philippines but were never sent to the Press. Authors commissioned to do books for Bangladesh, Republic of Korea, and Nepal did not submit their manuscripts. Moreover, the publisher felt disheartened, as the member-councils did not cooperate in publicising these publications in their respective countries, and assisting in their sale.

AASSREC actively associated itself in another UNESCO initiative in the field of social science information and documentation. At the Bali Conference of AASSREC a special session was convened to discuss the report of the UNESCO consultant on the proposal to set up a network of social science information centres. With strong endorsement from ASSREC members, we at UNESCO took steps to create such a network. It was established in the year 1986 and was titled APINESS – Asia-Pacific Information Network in Social Sciences. With great enthusiasm several countries of the region participated in this Network. But after my departure to Paris in August 1993 to take up the new assignment as UNESCO Co-ordinator for the World Summit on Social Development, interest in this project started dwindling. And I am told that APINESS is now defunct. That such fate has not visited AASSREC is a matter of great relief to me who has assiduously worked to make it a really representative organization. It goes to the credit of AASSREC that it has facilitated the setting up of national level bodies in various countries where they did not exist; similarly, its success in attracting membership of other reluctant councils is worthy of note. An Asia-Pacific social science presence is distinctly noticeable on the international scene, with AASSREC enjoying the status of an accredited NGO with UNESCO. There is also greater interaction amongst the social scientists of this region and better awareness about the work being done in this region.

The biennial conferences provide the occasion to the member-councils to know about the activities of each other. There is now good amount of literature on Asian social science. In my own humble way, I edited around 45 monographs in the UNESCO RUSHSAP series, in addition to more than 200 reports on various seminars and conferences organised by UNESCO during my tenure in Asia for about 19 years. And I had seen to it that all this literature was made freely available to the region’s social scientists and social science institutions. I am also happy to learn that some of the member- councils have lessened the burden of AASSREC Conference organisers by meeting the participation expenses on their own.

Thirty years in the life of an Organization are not too many; but they indicate that the teething troubles are over, and that it is heading toward maturity. The momentum that AASSREC ahs gained over these years should propel it to newer heights. I am sure this Conference will not only renew the commitment of the member-councils, but also take new resolves to chart out future path for it that would ensure more frequent interactions between social scientists of the region, and a flourishing social science culture.


  1. Round Table Conference on the Teaching of the Social Sciences in South Asia. UNESCO South Asia Science Cooperation Office. New Delhi, 1954, p.53.