Martha Piper: Building a Civil Society: A New Role for the Human Sciences

Martha C. Piper’s 2002 Killam Lecture, Building a Civil Society: A New Role for the Human Sciences (PDF) argues that support of humanities and social science research is needed for a civil society. This lecture received significant attention in Canada, in part because it was one of the documents the Social Science and Humanities Research Council circulated during their Transformation exercise. Piper points out that despite the importance of civil society issues in the news and to governance, our governments rarely include such issues in their “innovation agendas”.

Why is it that the public concerns we hear about daily are largely focused on what I would call civil society issues, but that the policies proposed for the creation of a thriving society are often focused on economic goals? Are these two areas—civil society and economic well-being—not related? It might reasonably be argued that economic prosperity must come first if we are to produce the resources required to develop the social capital associated with a civil society; however, the question I would like to ask this evening is how important is a civil society to the building of an innovative and productive society in the twenty-first century? Can we achieve the goals of strength and prosperity without a secure foundation of the values embodied in what we call civil society?

Look at the front page of any newspaper – most of the news is about issues the human sciences study. The issues we face, from international terrorism to unethical businesses, will not be solved without understanding and that understanding is nurtured by the humanities and social sciences. Piper goes on to argue that to build a civil society we need to pursue three lines of inquiry,

first, we must encourage knowledge and scholarship that will enable individuals to better understand themselves, their values and the roles they play as citizens; second, we must pursue knowledge and scholarship that will assist us to define our Canadian identity and our role as global citizens; and third, we must advance knowledge and scholarship in those areas that bear on legislation, public policy and social programming.

The end of the lecture is addressed to a Canadian audience making recommendations that have to do with the Canadian research culture. These recommendations, however, are applicable elsewhere.

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