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  • The Role of the Social Sciences in COVID-19 Responses in Southeast Asia: An Introduction
  • Inaya Rakhmani and Rosalia Sciortino

What does the future of Southeast Asian societies after the COVID-19 pandemic look like for social scientists working in the region? It is clear that the practices of academic work—specifically the kinds that problematize power and side with those on the margins of society—have become increasingly complex as the pandemic has caused socio-economic inequalities to surface and deepened the precariousness of societies that are already grappling with unbalanced ecological, economic and social development. The urgent need to link health to other dimensions of society and unpack social inclusion and exclusion in COVID-19 responses has emerged as a key concern in social science discussions, and the articles in this Special Focus ground that discussion in the experiences of social scientists working on policymaking and with communities in Southeast Asia.

The authors of this Special Focus and social scientists of various orientations in other regions (Burawoy 2021; Connell 2020; Lupton and Willis 2021) highlight these complex implications and advocate structural changes during the crisis and after. Yet, they may not be dominant in the competition for attention and resources: by and large, the medical sciences and macroeconomics dominate policy discourses, while the social sciences and humanities in general are marginalized in spite of their potential to contribute to a better [End Page 351] understanding of the pandemic and to developing better ways of addressing its impacts (Sciortino and Saini 2020).

This Special Focus aims to conceptualize social science practices as characterized by Burawoy (2005), distinguishing social sciences from the natural sciences as well as the humanities in the use of both instrumental and reflexive knowledge. The production and use of knowledge to achieve a goal (i.e., instrumental) and to provide various forms of powerful knowledge for the public (i.e., reflexive) may pose a variety of opportunities for policy interventions. We apply Burawoy’s approach to the context of the pandemic in selected countries of Southeast Asia.

The articles presented here have been further developed and deepened from an eleven-country study titled “Social Science and COVID-19: A Southeast Asia Response”, conducted by the Global Development Network (GDN) and the Asia Research Centre at Universitas Indonesia (ARC UI), together with teams of social scientists from the respective Southeast Asia countries (Fussy, Obino and Rakhmani 2022). Engaging in this research project is, in itself, a kind of social knowledge intervention for the authors involved—in ways that Burawoy might categorize as public social sciences. While GDN’s and ARC UI’s research focused on the main hindrances and enabling factors in the use of the social sciences in COVID-19 policy responses, this Special Focus investigates more deeply the relationship between social scientists and state power in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore. To do this, it asks several basic questions:

  • • What kind of presence do social scientists have in national and local responses to COVID-19 in Southeast Asia?

  • • What are the implications of the state-driven responses that treat the pandemic as a security and medical issue while downplaying its sociocultural dimensions?

  • • What kinds of social sciences are being funded by national governments and international organizations?

  • • What types of social sciences are privileged by national [End Page 352] agencies (for instance, technocratic or immersive, ethnographic understanding of the most vulnerable), and what are the consequences of such choices?

  • • What kind of role do the social sciences play outside dominant structures?

We critically unpack the role of the social sciences in COVID-19 responses in Southeast Asia with the purpose of mainstreaming Southeast Asian accounts into broader discussions of the social dimensions of health and ways to address them. To achieve this purpose, we outline below three considerations that can elevate our understanding of the relevance of the social sciences in policy responses to the pandemic.

First, we problematize the inclusion and exclusion of the social sciences, and particularly certain perspectives in the state responses towards COVID-19. As the pandemic progressed and Southeast Asia became a global epicentre in 2021, states had to balance multiple interests while juggling rapid containment measures with macroeconomic concerns...