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Declining Simplistic Narratives

New castes and classes have entered the academy in recent years, but we have few suggestions for constructive engagement with the new groups coming into the academy. There has been the intergenerational change as well, which has had its own impact. We need to address these issues if we are to understand the state of social sciences. We need above all to cultivate a critical self-reflexivity - an awareness of who "we" are and where we stand when asking and answering such questions.


the empirical (but not only quantitative)

Declining Simplistic Narratives

signs by which they may be recognised. If something is both important and absent, and if its absence forms the main criterion Satish Deshpande for an evaluation, then it is only fair to

New castes and classes have entered the academy in recent years, but we have few suggestions for constructive engagement with the new groups coming into the academy. There has been the intergenerational change as well, which has had its own impact. We need to address these issues if we are to understand the state of social sciences. We need above all to cultivate a critical self-reflexivity

– an awareness of who “we” are and where we stand when asking and answering such questions.

Satish Deshpande ( in) is at the department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

he American writer and performing artist Garrison Keillor used to have a radio show featuring a Malgudi-like imaginary town called Lake Wobegon, which he repeatedly referred to with the trademark refrain: “where the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are all above average”. Going by the overall tenor of the Fourth Review Committee’s report on the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Indian social science research today is so woebegone that it has become a place where “the institutions are weak, the research looks bad and the researchers are all below average”.

This is not what the review report is really saying, at least not exactly, but even if it were, not many would feel moved to protest. And those that do would limit themselves to the counter-claim that there are at least some and perhaps many good researchers, or some such qualifying proviso. For it takes little effort to evoke a gloomy response where Indian social science – or even higher education in general – are concerned. We know that there is much to be gloomy about; it is the odd case of optimism that requires explanation.

Need for Comparisons

But surely the very ubiquity of poor opinion should give us pause as social scientists and awaken the principled scepticism that counts among the most useful tools of our trade. Because the “decline narrative” is so much a part of the Indian higher education scene today, we need to be careful not to take it at face value, at least not prematurely.1 One may not necessarily disagree with the review report’s verdict that virtually no Indian research institution is “vibrant”. However, it would have been both interesting and instructive had the report provided some comparative descriptions and data on institutions that could indeed be so described. Given the inevitably strong “you know it when you see it” element in notions such as vibrancy, it is all the more necessary to think about provide a contrast class, if only as a brief illustration. This may actually be more important for those who agree with an adverse evaluation than for those who disagree, because it would reveal the amount of care taken in arriving at the judgment.

A second, and more important, concern is the overall solution to the ICSSR’s problems that is suggested by the report. While it is to be commended for its boldness in proposing a radical solution – in effect, the virtual dissolution of the council in its present form – the report seems unduly sanguine about the proposed alternative.

The fact that we have ourselves been responsible for many of the ills that we deplore, including the erosion of auto nomy vis-a-vis the state, is a bitter pill for academics to swallow. If it is our own colleagues who have been complicit in creating or exacerbating problems in the past, how will we ensure that this does not happen again with the proposed Indian Academy of Social Sciences? This may well be one of those rhetorical “who will guard the guards?” questions which cannot really be answered. It would nevertheless have helped to take it seriously and to think about possible safeguards, beyond and different from those implied in the summary of the organisational structure of the proposed Academy on pages 71-72.


Although its mandate is restricted to the ICSSR and its institutes, the report does begin with a broader view. Moreover, it comes at a time when the Eleventh Plan is primed to pump unprecedentedly large sums of money into the higher education sector. And while the Moily Committee’s report may have faded from public memory, the major changes that it has proposed are probably only dormant rather than extinct. The University Grants Commission, too, is initiating bold moves to reinvigorate research in the universities. Foreign universities and other private initiatives are intensifying their efforts to become significant players in the Indian higher education scene. All in all, this is a


good time to be thinking about higher education and research.

Which Priority?

The first question to be tackled is that of priorities, and it is not an easy one. Do we want to ensure the production of good research, or do we want to nurture good research institutions? It may seem strange to pit two seemingly inseparable objectives against each other, but this is indeed the essence of the choice that globalised higher education forces upon us. It is not necessary to debate the meaning of “good” in this particular context; whatever one may mean by it, the point is that the global present tends to stack the odds in a particular way. The key factor here is that good research need not be done in good institutions, specially if it is project-driven. “Virtual” institutions – intellectually empty administrative shells that house a succession of projects, or that function as “field offices” for institutions located elsewhere

– are perfectly capable of producing good research of almost any variety. In fact, they have been doing so for a long time, and are also far better adapted to current intellectual trends and funding fashions.

It is even possible in these global times for a handful of individuals to choose the “independent scholar” route (which used to be mainly an imposed identity in the past). This allows incumbents to exercise intellectual authority while divesting oneself entirely of all institutional responsibility. As with other locations in the intellectual field, this one too has its attendant pros and cons.

Research institutions – as different from research products – suffer from decisive disadvantages in this evolutionary race that is being played out in electronic rather than biological time. We know much more about how to produce good research than about creating and sustaining good institutions. Much of our wisdom about the latter tends to be both retrospective and tautological; institutions work when they do and do not when they do not.

Faced with this difficult terrain, it is easy to be tempted by the robust common sense of simple, strong remedies. Decreasing security of tenure and increasing funding are the most common, and it is understandable that they duly make their appearance in the ICSSR review report as well. Is there enough evidence, however, to establish that the shortcomings of research institutions are due mainly to excessive job security or lack of funds? The answer may seem self-evident in these liberalised times, but the question deserves further scrutiny.

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment: How many good research proposals – not great ideas or dream projects, but worked out proper proposals – do you know of that remained unborn for want of financial support? If you can think of some, try to analyse all the reasons why they never took off. In the hierarchy of numerous problems in social science research, the lack of good research

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proposals has always ranked much higher in recent times than lack of funds per se. And as for the virtues of insecurity, would you or other competent researchers you know prefer a short-term terminal contract to a secure job, even if the former pays more? If you are able to think of any such researchers, count the number that do not fall in the following categories:

(a) freshers looking for their first academic job; (b) retired academics seeking remunerative short-term assignments; (c) faculty members of foreign universities on sabbaticals; or (d) local bureaucrats or university faculty on study leave.

This is not to deny that the state ought to spend much more on social science research, or that our universities and research institutions contain lots of dead wood. But these are not the primary reasons why they fail to be “vibrant”. Every successful institution would have had its share of funding and personnel problems. We need to understand the possible reasons why they manage to prevail despite such difficulties. And what we need even more are good critical descriptions of such success stories that go beyond the nostalgic pleasures of golden age narratives and black box invocations of brilliance.

One of the paradoxes (or is it principles?) of policymaking is that we tend to plan for the extreme end of the spectrum, i e, the best possible outcome. As the saying goes, life is what happens to you while you are busy planning for it. Even though we know that most people and most institutions live most of their lives in normal rather than inspired mode, when making plans we tend to plan only for the latter. But it is the ordinary times between bouts of inspiration that keep individuals and institutions going. Perhaps the key to understanding extraordinary events and brilliant individuals lies in intimate knowledge of the everyday and the average. It is not helpful to describe the average as “not brilliant” or “below expectations”; we need detailed evaluations of the concrete content of the average, for there are better and worse ways of being so.

Lack of Professionalism?

It is often lamented that both researchers and research in India are far less “professional” then they ought to be. There is a

Economic Political Weekly february 2, 2008

well known and largely justified series of complaints: Deadlines are not met, budgets are underspent or overrun, work is shoddy, and so on. Even though struggles with these frustrating features have been such a familiar part of our professional lives, we still seem to lack good, objective (dare one say professional?) descriptions. Useful descriptions of this sort are hard to produce for they lack both the convenience and certainty of numbers as well as the gravity and glamour of important or extraordinary events. At the same time, it is always tempting to slip back into different versions of the “they are like that only” essentialism.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that periods of intellectual effervescence tend to be associated with larger societal moods and movements. But since such things are obviously independent variables we must concentrate on those that we may hope to influence. Perhaps the most critical of these are the elusive mediating factors that allow the channelising of societal energies into realisable intellectual projects. For it is not as though we live in less interesting times than our predecessors. But to understand the possible reasons why the academy remains largely impervious to the tumult around it we need to review recent social trends. Two of these are changes in the social composition of the academy and intergenerational shifts.

New Castes and Classes

It is hardly news today that new castes and classes are entering the world of higher education for the first time. Their entry is overlapping with the unrelated exit of the old elites who now prefer the western academy and tend to migrate there much sooner than they did earlier, i e, at the undergraduate or even high school levels rather than the postgraduate or doctoral levels common until the 1980s. The influx of the non-metropolitan and non-elite entrants is creating frictions in institutions long accustomed to smooth functioning lubricated by social homogeneity. The entry of women in larger numbers is another important process of change with its own distinctive profiles. While the “feminisation” of some elite enclaves of higher education with the entry of upper caste/class women is made much of, it is important to remember that the process is very uneven and far from complete when one looks at social science research as a whole. However, the kinds of friction caused are different because of the different caste/class composition of women entering higher education.

Like the old elite, the new entrants too come in search of credentials and careers rather than causes and vocations. But because of the mismatch between the teaching body and the student body, and because of the changes in the larger environment, it is harder for these institutions to do the mediating work by which at least a few are inspired to choose social research as a “paid vocation”. Once this begins to happen, one can perhaps expect a shift in intellectual agendas and research projects as the new incumbents deploy their mix of acquired and inherited skills. Trying to figure out how institutions can connect with their new publics is clearly a very big challenge. But while much is heard about those who are voting with their visas or succumbing to corporate greed, one hardly comes across any suggestions for constructive engagement with the new groups coming into the academy. One indication of how far we have to go is the rarity of significant collective efforts at working with Indian languages in both teaching and research.

Generational Change

Another unexamined issue is that of generational change. To be more precise, this is actually about different stages in the life cycles of institutions. The generations that entered public institutions including the academy in the 1950s and 1960s were, by sheer historical luck, part of a once-only experience. They were the generation that occupied new, expanding – and “empty” – state structures. Resources were not plentiful and times were tough in many ways. But there was room and to spare at the top. The more successful segment of this generation retained positions of authority, power and emi nence for nearly three decades. Their own predecessors were few and were part of a very different colonial era; whatever the length of the intellectual shadows they cast, they could not “crowd” the younger generation in organisational or career terms.


By contrast, later generations have had to move in a much more resistant medium and share intellectual and institutional space with much larger numbers. Perhaps this is one structural reason why earlier generation intellectuals seem so much more “singular”. How did these contingent facts of national and organisational history influence research agendas and the health of institutions? This is hardly a rhetorical question, for it is not as though either the advantages or the disadvantages were all on one side.

It is questions like these that we need to address afresh if we wish to understand the present and specially the future of social science research in Indian institutions. But what we need above all is to cultivate a critical self-reflexivity – an awareness of who “we” are and where we stand when asking and answering such questions.


1 See ‘Decline and Crisis’, Chapter 1 of P Chatterjee et al, Social Science Research Capacity in South Asia: A Report, SSRC Working Paper Series, Vol 6, Social Science Research Council, New York.

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