Friday, October 29, 2010

Serendipity alone is not an option - we need Consilience

Decisions taken that affect anyone's lives - let alone those taken that affect those who have very little input into those decisions - should be well informed. How to get this to happen? All too often it is left to serendipity.

In Beijing recently a group of us met - social scientists, physical scientists, Europeans, Americans and Chinese - and I discovered a new word which seemed to sum up what we in development studies should all be working towards - Consilience (Oxford English Dictionary: "agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities").

Wikipedia explains it: "Modern views understand that each branch of knowledge studies a subset of reality that depends on factors studied in other branches. Atomic physics underlies the workings of chemistry, which studies emergent properties that in turn are the basis of biology. Psychology can no longer be separated from the study of properties emergent from the interaction of neurons and synapses. Sociology, economics, and anthropology are each, in turn, studies of properties emergent from the interaction of countless individual humans"

My heart skipped a beat! "At last", I thought, a concept with a scientific recognition that underpins what the DSA tries to do. Whilst appreciating the need for individual disciplinary study - for these to be truly useful - what we need is Consilience.But back to my first word - Serendipity - a lovely, happy sounding word, but possibly not as helpful as its positivity belies. Agreed, that it is not possible to marshall everything, but we do need to be more systematic in getting our research into use, to better inform those who are in positions to effect and manage change. There are many broad scoped initiatives underway - DFID's Research4development, IDS' Mobilising Knowledge for Development are just two that spring immediately to mind.

There are however many others, working on more specific topics that need to get out into the larger development universe, burst out beyond their own solar system and engage with the other 'aliens' out there. The DSA works to unite these solar systems - so do join our universe of diversity!

The DSA is expanding our membership to research institutes based in developing countries, and we welcome anyone working on development issues. The wider our membership, the broader our church and the greater our consilience, the less will be left to serendipity.

We cannot, and should not, let the decisions that govern the lives of poor people be left to chance.

To find out more about the DSA, visit

By Frances Hill, Executive Director, DSA

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