Arne Haselbach (1981)

Specificity and universality
Conceptual Aspects and Underpinnings of Regionalization in the Social Sciences
Inter-Regional Workshop
(Vienna Institute for Development, 14 - 17 December 1981 - Vienna, Austria)

The present report is distributed in order to stimulate inter-regional discussion. Your contributions and comments would be greatly appreciated. Please send them to Arne Haselbach email: arne.haselbach@vienna-thinktank.at



Most of the theories in the social sciences have been developed in the Northern parts of the world and reflect their historical development, their socio-economic and cultural circumstances. By way of a number of mechanisms these have been - and continue to be - transferred to, taught and applied in situations which are widely differing, in which their explanatory power is limited and in which their straightforward application may even be hazardous.

There are two discernible trends in the opposite direction, an institutional regionalization of international co-operation in the social sciences and efforts to create an endogenous body of social science knowledge.

While institutional regionalization is well on its way, the theoretical basis of this process is still in want of the necessary conceptual underpinnings.

In order to overcome that situation it is necessary to collect those facts and concepts considered to be essential elements of this problematique, to establish and to evaluate the state of the art, to pinpoint the gaps, to determine the priorities for further research (both from a theoretical and a science policy point of view), and to actually undertake the necessary intercultural and multidisciplinary research.

The inter-regional workshop on 'Specificity and Universality' has contributed to these tasks.

Moving from the - historically essential - 'reactive phase' of 'indigenization' of the social sciences towards a 'constructive phase' based on a better understanding of the issue of specificity and its relationship to the quest for universal validity of social science knowledge, however, constitutes a historical process, the direction and speed of which will be determined by the intensity of participation of social scientists from all over the world.


"a response to the realities, the imperatives, and the challenges of the contemporary world requires the forging of new conceptual instruments and techniques and the invention of new methodologies."

By publishing the conclusions of the workshop we are passing these challenges on to you in the hope that you will choose to participate in the inter-regional endeavour necessary to overcome them.

Dr. Arne Haselbach
Vienna Institute for Development


Summary Statement of Conclusions of the Workshop

(Original: French)

1. An inter-regional workshop, bringing together social scientists from the African, Arab, Asian, European, and Latin American regions, was convened by the Vienna Institute for Development and held in Vienna, Austria, from 14 to 17 December 1981, on the following topic:

Specificity and Universality
Conceptual Aspects and Underpinnings of Regionalisation in the Social Sciences

2. Two parallel and mutually reinforcing processes in the social sciences have grown in strength during the last decade: the institutionalisation of cooperation among social scientists on a regional level, on the one hand, and the search for paradigms, methods and techniques which correspond to the realities of each region, on the other.

On the basis of this regionalisation a process of establishing a new pattern of international cooperation, taking the form of inter-regional cooperation, is unfolding - a process to which this inter-regional workshop was to contribute.

3. The participants' major preoccupation was to emphasize the discrepancy between the growing and increasingly unbalanced mondialisation and the more and more impetuous claim to and assertion of the specificity of various geographic, historical, socio-economic and cultural areas, on the one hand, and social theories, conceptual and methodological tools not suitable for grasping and interpreting this two-sided process, on the other.

4. The participants denounced the fallacious theories of universality. Most of these theories are - often implicitly - based on Euro-centrism and tend to establish the idea that only Europe or 'occidentality' are carriers of universality. Specificity is considered an anomaly and as backwardness of non-European peoples who are called upon to conform to the values and norms as well as to the economic and social models prevailing in the respective hegemonic metropolis.

This Euro-centric view and approach is increasingly questioned and criticized, even in Europe itself.

Positivist theories and methodologies were criticized because they are not suited for analysing and interpreting the social dynamic in its totality and the dialectics of universality and specificity. However, the criticism of positivism and empirism should not lead to their total rejection; rather, results emanating from such positive research should be interpreted with reference to their historical totality.

The participants insisted on the importance of combining a mondialist with a local, national and/or regional approach. An exclusively mondialist approach leads to underestimation or neglect of autonomous aspects of specificity as well as of repercussions of specificity on universality and mondiality. An exclusively local, national or regional approach confines social scientists to the analysis of micro-processes, prevents them from seeing and understanding the totality and from engaging in macro-economic and macro-sociological analysis.

It is, therefore, necessary to combine the efforts of social belonging to various cultural areas as well as to encourage and carry on interdisciplinary research.

5. A response to the realities, the imperatives, and the challenges of the contemporary world requires the forging of new conceptual instruments and techniques and the invention of new methodologies.

This constitutes a major challenge to all social scientists which deserves the attention of the best among them.

The problems, which this challenge poses, are manifold and difficult to solve. Detailed discussion during the workshop led to the following formulations of some of these problems:

a) How to formulate the questions in such a way that the resulting analysis and interpretation of social realities will be adequate?

b) Which are the new components of specificity which call in question the presently dominate concepts of universality?

c) How does specificity become mondialised and mondiality specified?

d) How should comparative studies of different historical, economic and cultural areas be carried out? How can the differences be respected and given their due place without disrupting universality?

e) How to develop categories and notions suitable for grasping and interpreting the interaction of contradictory processes?

(A contribution to a better articulation of universality and specificity was made in the discussions by relating these concepts to the problematique of contradictions having their roots in the historical development of universality itself.)

f) How do the various contradictions (capital/labour; economic and social domination/dependence; political hegemony/subordination; physical labour/intellectual labour; rural world/urban world; elitist culture/popular culture; etc.) assert themselves?

g) Which are the specific mediations by which these contradictions interlace and interact and which are their manifold and hybrid forms of appearance in all the different parts of the world and in the various spheres of social activity?

h) What is the impact of regional cooperation (e.g. different types of regional integration) on the North/South and East/West divisions?

i) What are the implications of the specificity/universality dialectic for development research?

6. The participants insisted not only on the necessity of analysing the causes and origins of tensions, conflicts and crises, but also on the necessity of detecting the alternatives and ways of solving such crises which meet the requirements of development, take into account endogenous creativity and respect the unfolding national, cultural and political identities.

From this point of view it is desirable to explore new paths for reducing the gap between theory and practice.

7. Methodologies, research techniques, and techniques of theoretical exposition ought to avoid bias and prejudice, which deform mentalities, manipulate consciousness and are obstacles to the solution of crucial problems facing all mankind.

Intellectual instruments ought not to be mere logical and formal games, but should be in harmony with the historical and social content, with the aspirations and efforts aiming at accelerating the transformation of the world to make it liveable for each and every human being.

8. In a world, which continues to be economically, politically, and culturally dominated to a large extend by asymmetrical and inequitable relations, the social sciences ought to provide a more objective knowledge of the world, and by doing so, contribute to bring about a transformation of the world in which specificity is respected and mondiality renewed.


Alya Baffoun, CERES, Université de Tunis, Tunis, Tunisia

Jan Berting, Faculty of Social Sciences, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands and Vienna Centre (European Coordination Centre for Research and Documentation in the Social Sciences)

Harald Gardos, Austrian Commission for UNESCO, Vienna, Austria

Arne Haselbach, Vienna Institute for Development and EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes), Vienna, Austria

Imre Marton, Karl-Marx University, Budapest, Hungary

Subrata Kumar Mitra, c/o Ruhr-Universität Bochum, F.R.G., India

Felix Gustavo Schuster, CLACSO (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales), Buenos Aires, Argentina

Fredj Stambouli, CERES, Université de Tunis, Tunis, Tunisia

K. Twum-Barima, Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research, University of Ghana, Legon - Accra, Ghana and CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa)

We are grateful to the participants in the marvellous experience of intercultural cooperation that the workshop turned out to be, to the United Nations University for allowing us to use non-published papers from a workshop on the same problematique held in the framework of the Project on Socio-Cultural Development Alternatives in a Changing World, and to the Federal Chancellery of Austria and to UNESCO for their financial support.

This report was originally published as »Specificity and Universality - Conceptual Aspects and Underpinnings of Regionalization in the Social Sciences«, Occasional Paper 81/4, Vienna Institute for Development, Vienna 1981.