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The Social Sciences in Cuba:
Between Eclecticism and Synthesis

By Juan Luis Martín

In this essay written specially for ISLA, Dr. Martín examines the state of Cuba's social sciences in light of the island's difficult position in the globalized world. He offers an historical review of the discipline's development in Cuba, and shows that social scientists today play an increasingly decisive role within Cuba's changing society.

Dr. Martín is director of Cuba's Center for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS). He also coordinates the Social Science seciton of Cuba's Academy of Science.

As in other fields of scientific endeavor, social sciences in all countries tend to be shaped by three basic factors:

a) The specific problems that a society faces at any given period of time;
b) The dominant theoretical and methodological approaches used by the international scientific community;
c) The specific cultural traditions of a given society.

The relationship between these elements has become increasingly contradictory during the present historical juncture. This will probably lead to a deep transformation in the role social sciences play at a global scale.

The ascent of capitalism and the emergence of nation-states brought with them the birth of modern social sciences. Similarly, the simultaneous processes of globalization-fragmentation are bringing forth deep changes in the agenda of problems to be solved by humanity in all its distinct social groupings. This will result in profound transformations in the issues, theories, methods and probably the very nature of the social sciences, as indeed natural sciences are now changing.

Cuban social scientists are not exempted from this process. We are affected by it in a very particular way because of our country's history and present situation.

The History of Cuban Social Sciences

Cuban social sciences have gone through five stages during their historical development:

a) Pre-scientific social essays. This stage spans the 18
th and 19 th centuries and is distinguished by a high productivity, creativity and depth of ideas. The essays do not conform to today's theoretical or methodological standards, or requirements of empirical verification. Rather, they reflect the way social sciences were practiced elsewhere starting in the 19 th century.

b) Positivistic stage, which spans the dependent capitalist republic during the first half of the 20
th century. This stage is characterized by the progressive (though not exclusively so) influence of positivism, and the emergence of scientific research proper, particularly in the fields of historiography, ethnography, economy and sociology.

c) Regeneration and Innovation stage, spanning the years 1960 to 1974. This period is characterized by the predominance of the Marxist paradigm as a dominant theory, both in its Western and Latin American schools of thought.

d) Exegesis and "Technicifation" stage, spanning 1975-1985. This period is characterized by two distinctive traits: the increasing influence of the Eastern-European school of Marxism (though highly simplified and vulgarized), and the development of professional institutions of applied research, linked to the state's central administration.

e) Rectification stage, spanning 1986-1990. This period is characterized by a critical analysis of the Eastern-European influence, and a reappraisal of the historical, national and Latin American roots of social thought.

The international changes that occurred during the 90's and their impact in Cuba are leading to the emergence of new problems and historical processes. This has brought about a new stage of scientific activity that places the social scientific community at a crossroads between sliding towards eclecticism or contributing to a new synthesis of the socialist experience.

The sudden collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the economic ascent of China and Viet Nam, the simultaneous processes of globalization and fragmentation, the increase of environmental problems, both at regional and global levels, the increased flow of communication due to the telecommunications revolution, are all external factors that influence the social and economic life of our country, as well as the thought and action of the social scientific community.

The collapse of Eastern Europe brought about the crisis of a dominant theoretical paradigm. The new context allowed for a critical evaluation of its premises, together with a reevaluation of socialism's practice.

The Cuban "Rectification Process" that began in 1986 generated diverse effects on our social sciences. Among them, the recognition of sociology as an independent discipline, and the re-opening of this field in two universities. Other changes brought about by Rectification were the diversification of information sources and contacts with other academic communities; the implementation of a broad program for social research on Cuban society; and an increased publication of national authors.

As a result, a more integrated view of international social sciences began to take shape, and the groundwork was layed for the discipline's active role in society by providing diagnosis, evaluation, projection, in some cases, proposals. It is within this context that Eastern-European socialism collapsed, provoking two basic effects on social science research:

On the one hand, academic exchange with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was reduced to zero (they had been the main source of exchanges during the 1975-1986 period). This allowed for more diversified relations with other academic communities, exemplified by the 18
th Congress of the Latin American Sociology Association (ALAS) in 1991, with over 3,000 participants from all over Latin America. This Congress marked the reestablishment of dialogue with the region's social research communities. Later, contacts with the North American academic community were broadened, especially through the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) congresses, as well as with Western European academics, through several collaborative projects.

The increased contact with academic communities of diverse theoretical viewpoints initially brought about a certain imitative tendency, due to a lack of internal maturity. But soon the Cuban scholars learned to rediscover the importance of their own intellectual experience, and to expand their paradigms through an interaction with new ideas.

The second effect was the development of a more reflexive attitude towards the possible ways of perfecting socialism. Initially, Perestroika generated a strong sympathy in Cuban academic circles, resulting in frequent proposals of reforms similar to those adopted in the Soviet Union. The outcome of the Soviet experience provoked a more measured evaluation of the possible ways of perfecting the system.

In contrast with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the economic ascent of China and Vietnam has produced an increased attention to these countries. The result has been a set of detailed studies of "market socialism" in its achievements, as well as its theoretical and practical difficulties. This has brought about a series of research projects, both within and outside of the National Programs of Science and Technology, leading to several publications and colloquia from 1994 onwards.

The Eastern European collapse raises profound questions regarding the theory of contemporary socialism-building, of capitalism as a social system, and how these phenomena are played out in history.

As with the general political scenario, these circumstances have gradually imposed on social sciences a reexamination of the different views on socialism that have been accumulating since the end of the 19
th century. No theoretical synthesis has been achieved which could lead to a precise and pragmatic platform. The diverse approaches to socialism have been put forth in the following conceptions: that of the First International, with its focus on socialism as a process that belongs to countries with a highly developed work force; the Second International focused on a gradual transition directed by a party of the masses; the Third International focused on socialism as a viable process for countries with a medium and even low capitalist development, led by an avant-garde party; the Fourth International, with its theses of a World Revolution. This conception held that socialism is a path of liberation and development of Third World nation-states. Also, Asian processes emerged which held that a socialist market was a vehicle to construct socialism (Amín, 1996).

The Cuban Revolution inserts itself within this sequence, with a strong emphasis on the role that subjective factors play. Ethics as a foundation of politics, and as a mechanism for mobilization and social cohesion, was particularly focused on (Rojas, 1993).

The applicability of these different ways of thinking about socialism and its construction is conditioned by the state of today's capitalist system. This is the most important strategic challenge faced not only by Cuban social sciences, but by the intellectual community that continues to believe in the need of finding a formula for social organization which can offer humanity a rational and ethical alternative to capitalism's crucial challenges.

Socialism and Globalization

To the questions derived form the construction of socialism are added those that flow from globalization. The present nature of this process makes it an object of increasing scrutiny for two fundamental reasons:

a) Its impact on the Nation-State as an historical form of community. This is a crucial point for any revolution whose essence rests not only in class struggle, but also in the rescue of the identity and sovereignty of a nation.

b) Globalization raises a host of new questions in the fields of international relations, economy, cultural dynamics, the evolution of social classes. Ultimately, the question should be posed of whether capitalism will be able to assimilate globalization without itself collapsing or crushing humanity.

The historical evolution of the Nation-State, as well as the dynamics of international relations, are of great importance to us, given Cuba's size, geographical position and natural resources. The dominance of these combined factors greatly affects Cuban society.

The path presently taken by globalization is defined by the spread of neo-liberal economic policies. This raises very sensitive strategical questions on the future of the Cuban Revolution. The accelerated processes of centralization and capital concentration, on the one hand, increases the power of transnational corporations, creates large blocks dominated by them, and standardizes culture. On the other hand, globalization increases the number of people in the world who are economically and socially impoverished (in what would seem a turn-of-the-century variant of the "immiseration of the working class" that Marx foresaw) (Petras, 1998), aggravates environmental problems, and radically polarizes wealth.

Globalization shows us the urgency for an alternative model to capitalism and mobilizes solidarity towards those who want to build such an alternative. This paradox makes the continuous evaluation of the globalization process an essential task for Cuban social sciences.

Cuba's vulnerability to growing global and regional environmental deterioration, due to its insular position, its relatively small size and the increasingly important role of tourism in its economy, has attracted the attention of the academic community. Thus, institutions like the newly created Environmental Agency (Agencia de Medio Ambiente) have generated an new demand for specialized researchers. Similarly driven research centers have appeared in some universities as well.

The Transformation of Cuba

Changes in the international scene have led to accelerated internal transformations in Cuba's social fabric. The strongest impact has been in the economy, particularly the transformation from a State-run economy to a mixed economy. Property has been diversified (expansion of cooperative property, appearance of freelance work, and joint ventures), the currency has been "dualized," State-run companies have been decentralized, and tourism has gained new importance. These changes have generated an extraordinary range of social, political and cultural impacts, by modifying the basic processes of production and distribution developed during the 60's, 70's and 80's.

First, they are producing changes in class structure and social groups, as new components emerge and traditional ones are transformed. Secondly, they alter the allocation of investments, resulting in an increased regional differentiation. Thirdly, changes appear in the paths for social mobility, and with them transformations in collective organizations and values. This calls for readjustments in the socialization processes that may allow to maintain and develop the social cohesion within the new circumstances.

These transformations operate in the context of an increased information flow, which continually broadens our frames of reference. The impact of new information technologies is still impossible to evaluate, since the Internet is still a very new presence in the island. The "information highway" could produce either a numbing saturation or a way to engage in deeper analyses. The path taken will depend in the theoretical cohesion within the academic community. This is one of the reasons it is important that our agenda include a critique of contemporary thought.

Cuban Social Sceinces Today

Research agendas have suffered a relative reordering due to the collection of external and internal factors described above. The general objectives of Cuban social scientists can be summarized in the following way:

- The analysis and systematization of socialism's tenets both nationally and internationally, covering the historical, economic, political and social aspects. This objective leads to the analysis of thought within the Cuban Revolution, its historical sources, particularly José Martí's work; an evaluation of the different readings of Marx, as well as an analysis of the evolution of contemporary capitalism and the causes of the collapse of socialism.

- The evaluation of globalization in its different aspects (economic, social, cultural, environmental, legal and political), and its implications for Cuba and other Latin American countries.

- The monitoring of changes in the internal social structure. Of special interest are the effects at the objective level (scale, geographic distribution, racial and gender composition, etc.), as well as at the subjective level (perception, social representations, dominant values, etc.)

- The perfecting of the political system, particularly that of the State. This encompasses issues such as the adjustment of the judicial system, of the social policies, of the organization of emergent economies, such as tourism, science and joint ventures.

- The perfecting of the socializing system, and its adjustment to the new circumstances. This objective includes the educational system, mass media, social control, criminal activity and biosocial problems such as AIDS.

- An evaluation of the changes in international relations and the Cuban Revolution's network of alliances.

- Studies on emigration and relations with the Cuban community abroad.

Three National Social Sciences Programs have been initiated as of 1996 to cover the above-mentioned objectives. They are know by their working titles: "Cuban Economy," "Economy and International Relations," and "Cuba Society."

The third program's purpose is to analyze Cuban society's present state, and to forecast its future scenarios. Some of the topics are: civil society, civil law, social structure, social subjectivity, religion, regional municipalities, community and sustainable development, youth, labor relations, family, educational systems, emigration, Cuban communities abroad and Cubanology.

Along with the national programs are the Branch Programs, the Territorial Programs and independent projects, all of which make for a very broad and diversified scope of research. There are tight budgetary restrictions for carrying out these projects, but the scientific community that undertakes them has gained in experience and maturity.

From the institutional perspective, the same structure attained in the previous stage has been maintained, with the exception of a new research center at Havana University: The Center for the Study of Political Alternatives (CEAP). Other working groups have emerged in the universities, without yet attaining the status of research centers. The historical problem inherent in specialized fields of knowledge is being addressed by integrative projects such as Programas, el Polo de Ciencias Sociales.

In the publishing field, many more journals exist today than in the 80's. Journals such as Temas, Contracorriente, Cuadernaos Americanos, Bimestre Cubano and Cuba Socialista, are beginning to play an important role in contemporary intellectual debates.

Interestingly, given the many threats that Cuban society currently faces, both the government and society in general pay much more attention to these research projects than in previous years.


Cuban society has always been both an island and a crossroads. Within it converge very diverse interests, influences and aspirations, all drawing from a history and a culture of contrasts and particularities. This set of factors, along with the present national and international scenarios, carry with them a host of issues that make Cuba one of the most interesting social laboratories in the world.

We social researchers have the responsibility of identifying these issues and suggesting responses in tune with the ongoing quest for social justice. As in all genuine scientific endeavors, this task requires a commitment not only to our country, but also to humanity in general. Our work should be driven not only by a quest for technical rationality, but also by an ethical orientation.

The magnitude and complexity of the issues could lead to a fragmented eclecticism in their study (eclecticism has a long tradition in Cuban culture). Or it could contribute to the synthesis this new stage requires.


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Translated by ISLA. Spanish language original available upon request.



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