Conference to focus on the invaluable contribution that the social sciences make to development

PhD researchers and leading academics from across the globe are meeting at Stellenbosch University (SU) this week to discuss the invaluable contribution that the social sciences make to development throughout the world.

The weeklong event, titled Social Sciences for Development, will take place from 28 October to 01 November and is co-hosted by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS). It will include an academic conference, a two-day workshop and a presentation session.

“The social sciences make a considerable contribution to development across the world. By focusing on the human dimensions of development that are so often neglected when people only focus on technical or financial dimensions, social scientists not only help us to better understand the goals and methodologies of development in general, but sensitivities and relationships, including power relations,  that should be considered in particular contexts.  Against the background of so many development initiatives in the past that failed tragically because of top-down implementation strategies neglecting the concrete experiences of potential beneficiaries, the social sciences has a lot to offer to humanise development and make it more successful,” says Prof Johan Hattingh, the Dean of the FASS.

PhD-candidates listen intently to Ronel Steyn during a coaching workshop session on how to make your research accessible to the man in the street. The workshop is part of the Social Sciences for Development week, which includes an academic conference, a two-day workshop and a presentation session. (Hennie Rudmann, SSFD)

PhD-candidates listen intently to Ronel Steyn during a coaching workshop session on how to make your research accessible to the man in the street. The workshop is part of the Social Sciences for Development week, which includes an academic conference, a two-day workshop and a presentation session. (Hennie Rudmann, SSFD)

Amongst the academics who will be presenting keynote addresses at the conference are Prof Ben Cousins, the DST/NRF Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) of the University of the Western Cape; and Prof Rachel Jafta, from the Economics Department at SU and Chair of the Media24 Board. Their topics will respectively focus on Intractable complexity vs. brutal simplification: The politics of land in contemporary South Africa and Creating knowledge for development: Asking the right questions like pioneers.

Talking about his upcoming address, Cousins says: “Unequal land ownership remains a highly emotive issue in post-apartheid South Africa, and its powerful symbolic resonance often makes it a key focus for political mobilisation. Land reform and rural development are seen by the government as national priorities, and as having the potential to contribute to job creation and poverty reduction. Yet the positive impacts of government’s land reform policies are often called into question, and they remain highly controversial. It is important that we understand these issues as we move into an election year.”

His address will therefore focus on the multi-dimensionality of land and property in contemporary South Africa, and will focus on six key aspects in particular: production, ecology, property, power, institutions and identity.

“These six faces of the land question (or questions) inter-penetrate and combine with each other, creating a seemingly intractable degree of complexity. This generates profound challenges for those who work on land reform, through political mobilisation, or policy making, or negotiations to resolve disputes over particular pieces of ground, as well as research and scholarship. In the centenary year of the 1913 Natives Land Act, when government is revising many its policies, thinking through the complexity of ‘land’, in all its multi-dimensionality, is an urgent task,” says Cousins.

Jafta’s address on Thursday links naturally with Cousins as she will focus on how PhD students contribute to development by asking the right questions about problems that are relevant to the society that universities serve, rather than selecting their research tools first and then matching their topic to the tools.

“The university contributes to knowledge creation through all three core activities: while teaching and learning creates the capacity, community interaction provides valuable real-world exposure and an understanding of challenges that our communities face. Research covers a broad spectrum from basic to applied, which all serve to expand the knowledge base and the use of that base to pursue economic growth and development. PhD graduates are crucial to this process in that they contribute to new knowledge through a thorough excavation of existing knowledge, and then their own research to fill a gap that they have identified. Research expertise is thinly spread in developing countries and delivering more quality PhDs faster, is essential to help nations reap the benefits of a 21st century knowledge economy,” says Jafta.

PhD candidates as well as academics – Profs Leo de Haan, Wil Hout, Kees Biekart, Alan Fowler, Dr Rachel Kurian and Mr David Wubs-Mrozewicz, – from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague will also be present and participate in the week’s activities. The ISS is part of the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).

The conference will feature parallel sessions on themes like governance, financial inclusion, urban development, peace and security, collaboration and climate change, and gender and identity with topics like Public opinion on land reform and the rule of law in South Africa; and Women’s bargain position: Could the decline in HIV/Aids prevalence can be attributed to women’s empowerment; amongst others to be discussed. * (Refer to the programme at for further information).

The week will not only focus on topical research within the development sphere, but is also geared towards the exchange of knowledge and experiences between PhD candidates. The two-day (28-29 October) workshop will specifically deal with how these candidates experience writing and conducting research; with a New Voices in Social Science: Sharing Science with the Public session to be held on 1 November.

“The aim here is to create a week of critical thinking, learning and networking for PhD students working within the social sciences on the general topic of development, in order to share their experiences as PhD students, their research with their peers and lecturers, and  to exchange ideas with fellow researchers from other countries on topics similar to theirs, and be equipped with skills to speak to the general public about their research in ways that are easily understandable,” explains Hattingh.

The PhD workshop on Monday and Tuesday is by invite only, with 10 students from the ISS, and 12 from three faculties at SU – Economic and Management Sciences, Arts and Social Sciences and Theology – selected to participate.

Out of this group, a few candidates will be invited to present their research by means of a six-minute presentation to an audience that include media, academics, and members of the private and public sector; before opening the floor for questions.

According to Ms Tanja Malan, the conference organiser, coaching sessions were held with students leading up to the workshop. Here students were taught how to “consolidate their academic work into a short presentation” with the aim of helping them “effectively communicate their research in layman’s terms to a wide audience”.  The coaching sessions where facilitated by Ronel Steyn, a postgraduate skills development co-ordinator.

Malan was assisted in organising the week by a student committee which included SU PhD candidates Almas Mazigo, Alfred Mtimkhulu, Zweli Ndevu and Jako Volschenk.

The decision to host a weeklong event in Stellenbosch was made last year after Profs Stan du Plessis from the Economics Department and Hattingh visited the ISS along with eight PhD students from SU and participated in their Lustrum Week. The week consists of PhD workshops concentrating on the sharing of knowledge and the writing processes involved in generating a PhD as well as a number of academic conferences.

“With this event, we are exposing our PhD candidates to the various aspects of doctoral study, from the exchanging of ideas, to building networks and getting experience in organising conferences or congresses – from the call for papers, to selecting papers, setting up a programme and reworking those papers for publication in credible journals.”

“In our Faculty, we try to create exciting spaces of discovery that contribute to the generation of knowledge and the exchange of that knowledge amongst our PhD students. The week will provide our doctoral students with practical experience of what it entails to organise a conference of this magnitude and this is an opportunity they will not easily be given at many institutions anywhere in the world.”

Du Plessis echoes his sentiments: “This week is an opportunity for PhD students at Stellenbosch and the ISS to share their experiences, to learn from the successes and mistakes of their peers and to start building the academic network that will be crucial for their careers as researchers in development. These students are from four continents and all backgrounds and share a joint interest in the crucial and varied research questions of development. It is also an opportunity for our research staff to meet and for our administrators to compare notes on the various initiatives at both institutions designed to support and encourage doctoral education.”

Hattingh says while all this activity is taking place, another initiative is being driven behind the scenes by the two faculties and the ISS – the creation of a memorandum of understanding to provide a joint doctoral degree endorsed by SU and EUR.

“A joint degree programme will provide the PhD student with an opportunity to use a supervisor from SU and the ISS, thereby benefitting from accessing the best expertise at both institutions. A degree that is endorsed by two leading institutions also increases the status of the degree as students must meet requirements both locally and overseas. It also adds to the internationalisation of our research and our programmes and this consequently has a stimulating effect on both environments. It will also further increase our standing in the international market.”

For more information on the conference and the full programme, visit