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The Contradictory Spaces of Postcolonial Techno-Science

Postcolonial techno-science as a field of enquiry that crosses geopolitical boundaries as it tracks flows, circuits of scientists, knowledges, machines, and techniques is a critical way of thinking about science and technology and their study that we can endorse with much enthusiasm. But when the postcolonial as a mode of analysis is linked to a fixed site of irreducible knowledge claims, it articulates an ontology that ties knowledge to location as a singular and essential quality of place. Location matters: by refusing to isolate the South from the West in the study of science, one leaves open the possibility of seeing multi-directional influences and channels simultaneously. Postcolonial science studies need a proliferation of historical and sociological accounts of science as practice in order to set a standard against which we can more easily identify "Indian Science" as a discourse that shapes a political struggle that has little to do with science studies, even if it has much to do with India.

The Contradictory Spaces of Postcolonial Techno-Science

Postcolonial techno-science as a field of enquiry that crosses geopolitical boundaries as it tracks flows, circuits of scientists, knowledges, machines, and techniques is a critical way of thinking about science and technology and their study that we can endorse with much enthusiasm. But when the postcolonial as a mode of analysis is linked to a fixed site of irreducible knowledge claims, it articulates an ontology that ties knowledge to location as a singular and essential quality of place. Location matters: by refusing to isolate the South from the West in the study of science, one leaves open the possibility of seeing multi-directional influences and channels simultaneously. Postcolonial science studies need a proliferation of historical and sociological accounts of science as practice in order to set a standard against which we can more easily identify “Indian Science” as a discourse that shapes a political struggle that has little to do with science studies, even if it has much to do with India.



n the special issue of Social Studies of Science on “postcolonial techno-science”, Warwick Anderson argues that a postcolonial approach “offers us a chance of disconcerting conventional accounts of so-called ‘global’ techno-science, revealing and complicating the durable dichotomies, produced under colonial regimes, which underpin many of its practices and hegemonic claims” (2002: 644). Anderson’s appeal is embedded in an understanding of globalisation that seeks to understand both the situatedness of local knowledge practices, and, their movement through space, allowing us to see “local cultures and emergent political economies on the same scale” (645). Particularly valuable (and familiar) for those working in the field of science studies and the developing world is this appreciation that the hermetic separation of science studies in the developing and developed world, a separation that easily maps onto “less developed” and “more developed” science respectively, is not just empirically ill-informed, it is analytically misleading.

However, Anderson also sees in postcolonial analysis the possibility of coming to grips with the alleged universality of Reason. In other words, he identifies the postcolonial as also a site for understanding the clash of knowledges and the formation of alternative modernities. Reason is the gloss for knowledge that is western, a fixed knowable and dominant entity that is counterposed to other, possibly alternative and un-modern knowledge formations characteristic of subaltern or marginal sites in a global political economy. The need for this analytic turn, Anderson muses, is related to “rising concern about corporate globalisation, increased commodification of science, and further alienation and circulation of intellectual property” (644): in other words, the international political economy of unequal exchange. To the extent that postcolonial techno-science may identify and address “local” and incommensurable knowledges built around non-western ontologies, this formulation evokes the invisible knowledge work of subalterns being subsumed into capitalist property relations that will eventually lead to exploitation, expropriation and even extermination. Hence, a postcolonial techno-science approach may also offer, he notes, policy insights into the relationship of contemporary technology and processes of capitalist globalisation, not to mention the possible “disfigurement” of science studies itself.

Is it possible that postcolonial techno-science can be an alternative mode of analysis at the same time as the postcolonial indexes a locational site for alternative, i e, non-western, knowledges? One line of thinking appears to do away with the nation-scale, while the other seeks to reinforce it. Postcolonial techno-science as a field of enquiry that crosses geopolitical boundaries as it tracks flows, transmissions, travels and circuits of scientists, knowledges, machines, and techniques (see Prasad’s article in this review for an example) is a critical way of thinking about science and technology and their study that we can endorse with much enthusiasm. But when the postcolonial as a mode of analysis is linked to a fixed site of irreducible knowledge claims, it articulates an ontology that ties knowledge to location as a singular and essential quality of place. Suturing together these quite different thematics is only possible when postcolonial becomes an index of and reference to the third world – both third world as the prime site of weakness and underdevelopment, but also third world as a place filled with cultural histories of alternative knowledge organised on a national scale. India becomes the home of Indian ‘gyan’/‘vigyan’, or, place becomes a metonym for a unique way of thinking tied to geo-cultural assumptions that can have little – other than ideological – meaning in a hybrid, reflexive and historical social universe.

While I agree that Anderson’s re-scaling of the field of science studies resonates well with scholars working on science studies which take the non-west as their starting point, I also want to propose that his other proposal raises serious analytic concerns which have bedevilled the study of science in the third world for some time. By treating local knowledge primarily in terms of political economy, and to a lesser extent in terms of ethics,1 Anderson fails to see the power of modern science in political terms, as ideology, particularly as a form of social legitimacy and political support for the modern nation state. The proximity of modern nationalism and its ideological reliance on “local knowledge” is too direct to ignore. But exploration of this possibility is crucial for his initial claim (of a critical transnational science studies) to be viable, for in the current conjuncture, the ideological work of alternative knowledge ends up reproducing and reinforcing the national scale over all others, since these are not debates over science, but always about something else.

In other words, “postcolonial techno-science” as a way of doing science studies may not be commensurable with “postcolonial techno-science” as a way of thinking about alternative and local knowledges. One way of seeing this clearly is to focus on the spaces within which “science” is represented and acts. In what follows, I juxtapose contests over western scientific knowledge within contexts of colonial and postcolonial nationalism against accounts of postcolonial scientists “doing” science in relation to their geophysical location, in order to demonstrate that they operate on entirely different spatial scales. Studying the practice of science is a far more productive approach to take if we are to come to grips with modern science in the developing world: to open this nascent field up to questions of ontology is to engage in a completely different, and manifestly political, project, which, by definition, can have only a political resolution.

Science and Nation

Science and technology is, in a material and cultural sense, central to postcolonial visions of third world states and anticolonial movements because of its role in reinforcing colonial and neo-colonial dominance, because the practical realisation of modernity came about foremost through technological transformation, and because it appears unambiguously to mark the (missing) modern, an assumed absence that was at the heart of the colonial project [Adas 1989; Prakash 1999]. Hence, the struggle for political independence was always closely tied to the recognition that the contemporary present marked a form of modernity, even if not always articulated as such. As Meghnad Saha wrote in the opening editorial of the first issue of the Calcutta magazine Science and Culture in 1935: “The call that brings ‘Science and Culture’ into existence is truly the call of the times. For it is obvious to every thinking man that India is now passing through a critical stage in her history, when over the cultural foundations of her ancient and variegated civilisation, structures of a modern design are being built. It is necessary that at such a juncture the possible effects of the increasing application of discoveries in science to our national and social life should receive very careful attention; for if the present is the child of the past, it may with equal emphasis be said that the future will be the child of the present.” (1) Science thus became a key site for the articulation of colonial modernity, ranging from mediating religious discourse, engaging with dominant knowledge formations, or in endorsing claims of the antiquity and validity of Indian knowledge systems [Prakash 1999; Raina 2003]. Modernity, nation, and later, state all pass through and are interpellated in the institutions and cultures of modern western science.

However, colonial and later postcolonial science was always a contradictory formation. Though science presents itself as universal knowledge, it is never able to do so unambiguously in a location distant from its putative origins in western Europe. Science’s conjoint history with colonial and imperial power implies a constant representation of its condition in order to pass as universal knowledge in the colony. These representations would have important implications when colonial science (and scientists) came back to the metropole, when science would get over-written in a nationalist idiom, and also for science in the postcolony, where science was harnessed by the state and would fluctuate between a developmentalist form and a strategic mode, while never fully losing its authoritarian-colonial address. The ambivalence of “postcolonial” science comes from the condition that while science was to be a prime mode of state legitimation, it would simultaneously also always need to legitimate itself, as it was being deployed in a setting where its authority and claims to knowledge were not without contest. This ambivalence is produced from but exceeds what we might call, following Connolly, the identity/difference problem – the gap between the geopolitical origins of science and the need to internalise and institutionalise postcolonial science as an indigenous object [Abraham 2000; Connolly 1994].

The starting point for these complex intersections is the colonial project and its counter-reactions, efforts that seek as a starting point to produce the nation as a sovereign and authentic zone [Chatterjee 1995]. In this frame, science as an intellectual practice was aligned within a political environment seeking to recuperate the epistemologies, artifacts, and biographies of a bygone time that could be coded or represented as scientific. Recuperation was a priority especially under colonialism, where the apparatus of rule combined physical coercion with an authoritative discourse that justified this rule in terms of an essential lack. The lack was civilisation itself, or, more exactly, civilisational knowledge, of which science represented the European mastery of nature.

Anti-colonial nationalist reaction could be expressed in a variety of modes, including the performative, and, more importantly, ontological critique. The link between the process of recuperation and the making of nation – and in the process, the transformation of what is called science – is exemplified in the life and work of physicist and biologist Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858-1937). As has been documented in numerous studies and essays [Nandy 1980; Dasgupta 1999; Chakrabarti 2004], J C Bose did remarkable work on short wave radio transmissions and, especially, their detectors, before pioneering the study of what would come to be called bio-physics through his studies of plant physiology. The performance of nationalism is clearly on display in his wellattended lecture to the prestigious Royal Institution in May 1901. Bose saw this encounter with a western distinguished audience, including Prince Kropotkin and Lord Rayleigh, in terms that far exceeded the content of his lecture. As he wrote to his friend, Rabindranath Tagore, before the lecture: “Only a week is left before my ordeal; on that occasion I will face the test of whether I can raise your banner in the western world” [Mukerji 1983:36]. Bose’s anxiety over his forthcoming “ordeal” explicitly recognised his politically representative character in this context, as an outof-place scientist in the western world, and had little doubt that his performance would reflect directly on the legitimacy of the nationalist call for freedom. Bose would stand in for India: in other words, India was on display and up for measure before this distinguished audience.

But the controversial content of his lecture took the significance of the “banner” much further. Bose would question the obvious

We are grateful to Itty Abraham and Paula Chakravartty for putting together this edition of the Review of Science Studies. –Ed

boundaries of natural science, calling on a cultural understanding of knowledge that saw no obvious distinctions between seemingly distinct entities. Margaret Noble also wrote to Tagore following the meeting: “He demolished easily, so to say, the walls that divided chemistry, physics, and other disciplines from one another. Then the scientific distinctions that characterised the distinctions between the living and the non-living were brushed aside by him, as though these were cobweb (sic)… I fail to express what a thrill I felt, when the traditional Indian message of a grand cosmic unity was restated today in the language of modern times…His individual self seemed to disappear and his nation emerged before our eyes…We realised that at long last India established the excellence of her wisdom before an assembly of western scientists and emerged as the preceptor and not as a disciple, not even as an equal” [Mukherji 1983:38-39].

Among the greatest puzzles for Bose’s biographers are to understand his scientific development, which began brilliantly on terms that were universally accepted, to eventually seek to break down the distinction between organic/living and inorganic/ non-living matter, a concern that is only sensible in nationalcultural terms. For Bose, the intent of these experiments was to show nothing less that “All is One!” or, less obliquely, “it is difficult to draw a line and say ‘here the physical phenomenon ends and physiological begins’ or ‘that is a phenomenon of dead matter and this a vital phenomenon peculiar to the living’; such lines of demarcation do not exist” [Dasgupta 1999:165]. Explaining the genealogy of his thought, Bose would write, “it was when I came upon the mute witness of these self made records [inorganic matter] and perceived in them one phase of a pervading unity that bears within it all things – it was then I understood for the first time a little of the message proclaimed by my ancestors on the banks of the Ganges thirty centuries ago. ‘They who see but one in all the changing manifoldness of this universe, unto them belongs Eternal Truth – unto no one else, unto no one else’” [cited in Mukherji 1983:32, 41]. There is little question that Bose understood and explained his assault on accepted boundaries – between disciplines, between living and non-living, between physics and metaphysics, (and for Noble) between self and nation

– as an index of the uniqueness, and hence, legitimate standing, of Indian scientific thinking. Drawing a direct line of descent between the Upanishads and modern science was for Bose a way of legitimising his cultural and intellectual roots, offering counterevidence to the alleged civilisational “lack” proposed by the colonial regime, and offering an eastern parallel to accounts of western science that claimed their origins in ancient Greek science. At the same time, such work also offered a substantial critique of the limits of modern western science. A metaphysical principle was being inscribed as the hallmark of an authentic Indian way of thinking, in sharp contrast to a western ontology that divided the world into bounded spheres leading to the independent study of the living and non-living, indeed, of physics and metaphysics. However, it should be noted that such a position would not have been considered as far-fetched in western scientific circles as it might appear today. Dasgputa reminds us that Rayleigh, then Cavendish Professor at Cambridge, Oliver Lodge, William Crookes and William Barnett, all distinguished scientists of the day, were also active members of the Society of Psychical Research (1999:115). Bose was also speaking to an audience where these “obvious” distinctions were far less settled than they might appear today, making it possible for them to hear him out without dismissing him out of hand. In passing, we may note that the apparent incongruity of physics and psychical research juxtaposed is a good illustration of what Lawrence Cohen has called the “archaeology of subjugated knowledges within European science” [quoted in Subramaniam 2000].

At least J C Bose can be made sense of within a colonial setting where science’s authority was both fragile and powerful and where the struggle to establish the nation on its own ground was the overriding concern for all colonial intellectuals. What is far more puzzling is to see the intellectual archaeology outlined by him reproduced nearly a century later, 50 years after political independence. The highlights of his London speech are captured in the following quotation, delivered in 2000, by Murali Manohar Joshi, a former physics professor, and former cabinet minister for human resources development, a leading ideologue of Hindutva.

“A significant aspect of Indian epistemology which distinguishes it from the dominant western discourse is the inseparable link between epistemology and ontology and of both with ethics. [...] The second distinguishing characteristic is the absence of binary approaches to the attainment of knowledge, whereby no dichotomy is seen between the empirical, rational, and analytical modes of knowing and the mystical and intuitive modes” [Joshi 2000].

“[Western] Science has proceeded on the assumption that pursuit of science and of technology is a value in itself and cannot be subjected to the social and ethical codes applicable to the rest of humankind. Thus in the name of scientific progress, it justifies development of weapons of mass destruction, rapacious consumption of energy and materials oblivious to the consequential devastation of the environment, appropriation of traditional community owned knowledge to achieve intellectual property rights by individuals and firms [Joshi 2000].

The colonial voice of J C Bose, joined by postcolonial counterparts, including Nandy, Goonatilleke, Sardar and others are directly echoed in this speech by Murali Manohar Joshi. Like nationalist intellectuals during the colonial period, the Hindutva political project seeks legitimacy by calling on “local knowledge”, the geo-appropriate, universally ethically situated knowledge held by its putative ancestors. Like J C Bose and some of his colonial contemporaries, the votaries of Hindutva evoke a stylised, Great-Tradition Hindu past to meet the political demands of the present. Hindutva’s project parallels the anti-colonial movement in that at stake in both is/was a bitter struggle over the right to define the Indian nation, but the similarities end there. True independence, for Joshi as much as for the postcolonial science critics, requires (unlike Bose and the colonial scientists), a rejection of western methods and epistemologies. Such thinking was the hallmark of the early postcolonial Indian state, the secular “Nehruvian” state, against whom this struggle is being waged in the first instance. It is striking to note that it is around questions of science – in this case, making claims to scientifically validated indigenous knowledge – is the site on which to establish the bona fides of a more authentic Indian nation. Through Hindu science and knowledge, long suppressed, the Indian nation will finally be allowed to come into its own, replacing the false gods and cultural betrayals of the Nehruvian interregnum.

Notwithstanding claims to a higher ethical and epistemological mission, the political forces of Hindutva that Joshi represents and leads have alienated religious minorities to a greater extent than at any time in India’s history. The pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 where at least 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered is only the most recent example of the effects of officially sanctioned hate combined with the power to hurt, maim and kill those who fall outside the nation’s new boundaries. The Hindutva effort to reclaim “Vedic” knowledge traditions for current politics, including major revisions of university and school curricula, and their related rejection of modern western science as inappropriate to Indian mores and conditions has come under strong attack from a variety of political and intellectual sources.

One particular strand of criticism comes from pro-modern science critics of patriarchy and customary social practices. Following a once-dominant strand of postcolonial thinking about science, avidly promoted by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, these critics see in modern science and technology a primary means and instrument of positive change in the contemporary third world, via its ability to question and supercede takenfor-granted forms of illegitimate authority. Particularly objectionable to feminist critic Meera Nanda is the tacit alliance between Hindutva and the “anti-realist” and “relativist” epistemologies of the “postmodern/postcolonial” turn; the latter in her telling includes everyone from postcolonial science scholars mentioned above to such respected figures in science studies as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway [Nanda 2004]. Her defence of science takes on all the votaries of “a world without ontological fences”, (2004:142) arguing that what is at stake here is not only the nature of knowledge claims, but the political consequences of that stance

– according to her, the decline of secular forms of political authority in countries like India can be linked, among other causes, to the cumulative effect of postmodern and postcolonial criticism.

Apart from Nanda’s archaic defence of the “facticity of facts” [Fleck 1935, 1979] and other positivist foundations, her faith in the progressive equation of science-secular-modern leads to an uncritical representation of the European Enlightenment, an ahistoric and narrow understanding of secularism [Bhargava 1998], and implicitly to the conclusion that the modern state represents the pinnacle of modernity and rationality. If not for these anti-realists and relativists, she seems to suggest, a modern state ordered on scientific principles would be able to develop unhindered and a secular, modern society would come in to being. But her lack of acknowledgement of either the inter-twined histories of the Enlightenment and colonial societies and the unstable relationship between forms of political authority and science embedded in that relation renders this hope merely wishful. There is no singular relationship between the modern state, science and social liberation as the following example suggests.

David Ownby (2001), a historian of China, tries to explain why the Chinese state finds the Falun Gong movement so dangerous. He notes that in China (as in India), since the 19th century, the central – modernist – dilemma has been how to “remain Chinese while becoming modern”. In both cases, India and China, science was seen as the answer to national weakness and underdevelopment. What was really meant by science was technology, and the common idea was that modern technology would provide the means to modernity – or better, modernisation, which in turn boiled down to military strength and industrial power. In the case of China (unlike India), the state was by definition wedded to and monopolised the meaning of modern western science through its official Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Ownby explains that Falun Gong, unlike some of the other ‘qigong’ movements, has identified itself as a scientific movement as much as a spiritual one. To quote him, “quarks and neutrinos figure…as frequently as Buddhas and bodhisattvas… truth, benevolence and tolerance are [seen as] the physical qualities of the universe.” Falun Gong appears to appeal most to the young and highly educated Chinese living in the US and Canadian diaspora because it offers a contemporary means to return to “age old values”. The threat posed by Falun Gong, in other words, is the assault on the state’s alliance of modernity and science casting into doubt a central tenet of the legitimacy of the Chinese state. For the state, this movement is particularly dangerous, beyond the hundreds of thousands who seem to be members of one or the other qigong sect, because it appears to take away the state’s ability to define, unambiguously, what it means to be scientific and, even more dangerous, what it means to be Chinese.

Again we see the relationship of science and nation expressed in stark terms, although all the terms have their valences reversed. Although Nanda would presumably be on the side of the Chinese state in this struggle given her views of relativist and anti-realist social movements in science, would she also justify their crackdown on its proponents? Falun Gong practitioners have repeatedly faced force, coercion and torture in China for their mix of ideological elements drawn from science as well as spirituality, a dangerous cocktail that argues for other ways of being Chinese than that allowed by the state. The state has little choice, as it sees it, but to seek to eliminate this movement by force for there is no rational ground on which to argue for the superiority of one or the other position. Indeed, to engage in a debate at all would be, for the Chinese state, to lose the battle.

For postcolonial science studies, China and India are important cases, first to set a sharply defined racial contrast to the west, and also because they are old enough and “civilisational” enough to claim to offer alternative ways of being and knowing. Yet, look at these differences. In the case of China, we have a state that claims to be scientific, undermined by the growing attraction of a cult that claims scienticity for itself, resorting to violence in the effort to eradicate this threat. In the case of India we have a political party that seeks to reclaim what it considers its lost heritage swallowed under the power of modern western science. Their main ideologue offers a critique of that object – science

– closely aligned to the visions of “postcolonial critics” of science, and colonial nationalists of a century before. This domestication of science is a necessary step in the remaking of the Indian nation as an exclusionary political project, a project which in turn leads to a new scale of violence against in the nation’s “others”. In the uncritical labelling of China and India, they are both “postcolonial”, though as we have seen, neither could be accused of manifesting a politics of emancipation. These inherent contradictions cast grave doubt on the possibility of imagining another Enlightenment through faith in the “postcolonial” intersection of place, history, and knowledge.

Returning to Anderson’s original formulation, it becomes clear that a postcolonial techno-science that focuses on the “contact zones” of clashing knowledges is dangerously incomplete unless firmly situated in political and institutional context. Due to the complex intersection of science, colonialism, and modernity, postcolonial techno-science can never be only about science. Science helped bring the nation under colonialism into being; now, it is central to the forging of the postcolonial state. As a result, science exists simultaneously as history, as myth, as political slogan, as social category, as technology, as military institution, as modern western knowledge, and, as instrument of change. This excess of postcolonial science stands as a constant reminder that this process is still underway and incomplete. This excess defines postcolonial techno-science and refuses to let it settle into a stable ideological position, making it eminently available, but never complete, as a political instrument. By extension, the manner in which this science is represented and contested is always subordinate to the field on which those political battles are fought – the national scale. The surplus of meaning entailed by science is the source of the continuing political effort by scholars and political figures alike to contain it, to employ science as a source of geo-cultural certainty and stability. This spatial politics of desire is in sharp contrast to the representations of nation that emerge from studies of the actual practice of science, to which I now turn.


Doing Third World Science: Inequality

I want to begin by offering an account of a familiar kind of narrative presented to researchers of the practice of science in India. The scientist I spoke to is male, mid-career and successful by local standards. Let’s call him Roy.2He had received his scientific training completely within India, though he was quite familiar with science being done in the west through not infrequent visits, once or twice for extended periods of time. He liked his present institution a lot because of its physical beauty, and often found himself wandering in the surrounding woodlands as he tried to work out knotty problems. Our discussion ranged over a number of themes, but became particularly vibrant when we talked about the problems of publishing papers in western journals and about third world scientists getting credit for pioneering work that they had published in “obscure” journals in their own countries. He described one of his own experiences in this regard.

Roy began by saying that, some years ago, he had had considerable difficulty in getting a paper published in one of the journals of the American Physical Society because he was drawing on the results of an Indian scientist whose work was quite obscure. The background is as follows. In 1984 a Jones published a paper which developed a common mathematical theme to describe a complex of physical ideas as different as nuclear magnetic resonance to quantum field theory. These “holonomic” theorems came as a surprise to the physics community because of their elegance and because “such a simple and fundamental aspect” had been overlooked for so long. Two Indian scientists noticed this paper and realised that their former colleague, L M Singh, had noticed the problem and developed an answer to it three decades before. They got in touch with Jones and told him about Singh’s work. Jones then published another piece acknowledging Singh’s precedence and translating his earlier insights into “more readable” quantum mechanical language.

Roy, along with a colleague, sought to extend Jones’s work to an even more general level by going back to Singh’s work. They sent their paper to an American journal and were told, following a referee’s report, that the paper was rejected because it “contains nothing which is essentially new”. Roy and his colleague wrote a response to the first referee rebutting his comments. In the meantime, they received the second referee’s report which found the work exciting and recommended it be published at once following minor changes. The editors however decided to go with the first referee’s report and repeated their decision not to publish. The first referee then wrote a long response to their rebuttal. Roy found that the referee had changed his position considerably, going from describing Singh’s work as “lacking physical significance” to a “canonical way of comparing spaces”. They wrote back again defending their paper and finally the editors agreed to publish their paper. Along the way, my discussion with Roy shifted from the difficulties of getting the paper published and the shifting standards that were being applied to this work to two other issues. The first was the problem of publishing in this journal and other venues like it because of the financial burden it imposed on them. The moment the paper was published, for example, the journal asked them for $300 “toward the cost of disseminating the paper” – an amount equal to a month’s salary and which they could not afford. The other was the response of his colleagues when they heard that the American journal was being difficult. Instead of being supportive, they were all hostile to him and his work, because according to Roy, they felt that foreign referees were more likely to be objective and correct. Later, when a long term review of their institution and its work was conducted, it was found that this article was among the most widely cited articles of any published in the history of the institution. At that point, Roy said he felt doubly vindicated. Not only that he had stuck to his guns against the American editors, but also his colleagues would finally have to realise that their slavish response had been shown to be quite unfounded. Indeed, it appeared to me hearing this story many years later, that Roy’s response at exposing his colleagues slavish behaviour was possibly in excess of the pleasure he received from getting his article published. “None of them” he noted, however, came in to apologise for having doubted him in the first place.

This example opens up a number of different trajectories to examine what it means to be a practising scientist in India. First is the ever-present question of embedded economic and professional inequalities within the transnational circuits of “universal western” science. Some scientists in the Global South might command relatively good salaries, well endowed laboratories and plenty of technical support, but may not be able to afford to pay the fees associated with publishing their work abroad. Work being transmitted on an Indian institution’s letterhead is often perceived as being of inferior quality, and sometimes leads to Indian scientists waiting until they are abroad on a visit before publishing research conducted and completed in India. This situation is not unchanging of course; some institutions and many scientists are respected internationally, but this general condition remains the norm for most scientific work coming out of India and similar countries. Second, is the difficulty of establishing the priority and credibility of research conducted by non-western scientists, even when it is demonstrably important and scientifically rigorous. As the (western) editors of a book published a few years later which collected the key articles in this field, including Singh’s, put it, Jones’s work was made possible by “a decade of increasing interest in geometric and topological ideas”, the rise of “geometric gauge theories”, and the development of modern lasers and magnetic resonance. They then went on to note that Singh’s work, done three decades before, was “remarkable” given his “relative isolation” from the “western scientific community”. They end by noting that they have included Singh’s original paper for its “historical value, although the reader will probably find Jones’s account of it far more readable”. The editors’ tepid acknowledgement that Singh was able to identify the problem and find a solution to it, despite “relative isolation” and lack of all the other supporting conditions that made Jones’s own work possible, marks most clearly the provincialism prevailing among western scientific gatekeepers, their sense of the limits of the “normal” scientific community, and their fixed expectations of those who lie beyond it.

The other side of this unequal relationship is to be found in the responses of Roy’s colleagues to his struggle with western editors and journals. The relative weight of international opinion versus solidarity with local colleagues points to the ongoing power of western opinion in the postcolonial world. The alleged objectivity of western editors reflects both the poor state of scientific journals published in India and their weak norms of professional evaluation, reinforcing a continued tendency to respect far more work that is published abroad, not the least for the “recognition” that it brings. In this respect, India is no different from, say, post-Soviet Russia, and the natural sciences hardly different from the social sciences. Postcolonial scholars are well aware of their unequal location on the totem pole of scientific respectability – a product of resources, history and relative power; what is more troubling is the authority still accorded to the views of western scientists in the resolution of local differences. Race rears its head all through this account, though never named as such.

Doing Third World Science: Superiority

Throughout my discussions with Roy, he stuck to one theme consistently. In spite of all these travails and difficulties, he saw himself as an Indian scientist, and was unwilling to ever give up this position and move abroad permanently. As someone who had travelled abroad, he was well aware of the superior material conditions under which science is conducted in the west, but it made no difference to his views. Among other reasons, Roy argued that the quality of his scientific work would not improve substantially if he were abroad. This view, of the preference for living in India in order to fulfil scientific ambitions while achieving professional success, was most vividly demonstrated by an interview I conducted with another scientist, let’s call him Tilak.

One of the few older (over 60) scientists I spoke with, Tilak described his career as follows. After early training in India, he had done a PhD and a postdoctoral fellowship at first rank western universities in the UK and US. Following that experience he had returned to India where he had spent the rest of his career. “No regrets” he said, in response to the obvious (to me) question. He went to explain he had grown to realise that what was possible in working in India, unlike the west, was the complete absence of the normal pressures of scientific competition. Whether it was tenure, publishing, grantsmanship or attracting the best postdoctoral students, familiar markers of success in the west, Tilak, as a permanent employee of a state scientific institution had never had to accommodate his scientific interests to external social or political pressures. He agreed that there were costs associated with this standpoint, especially as the rapidly shifting winds of scientific fashion brought with them commensurate rewards, but this didn’t worry him.

Tilak argued that what was possible in India was to define a broad area of research and work through problems in that area over a long period of time, developing a singular expertise, which was a reward in itself. If the work was good, he felt, it would be noticed eventually and be rewarded in suitable fashion. Not everyone could do this, he agreed, because it took a special dedication and a careful appreciation for the importance of longterm immersion in certain research fields, but it described what he had successfully achieved. He had seen, in the course of his career, the shifting tides of fashion lead to fulsome international recognition of his work. Tilak argued that had he been based in the west he would never have had the luxury of spending long hours on work that only a few people took seriously, and would have been forced to shift to a more socially acceptable research area. The risk he took was in determining the broad research area

  • had this turned out to be an unproductive area, it would have meant the waste of a lifetime of research. Not everyone is willing to take such a risk, he noted, but the conditions in India are such that if “you have the confidence in yourself to do this, you can get away with it”. He also added that this view was more typical of someone like him, a senior scientist who came of age during the 1960s and who had received a broad and ecumenical kind of training. Pointing to younger colleagues sitting nearby, he noted, “they wouldn’t think like this”.
  • Tilak’s career was, like Roy’s, centrally defined by his location within the uneven circuits of world science, but turned on its head. The ability to take an enormous risk in the definition of his area of expertise cannot be separated from the security Tilak received from knowing that his job and position would never be taken away. Undoubtedly, his self-confidence played no small role in allowing him the luxury of ignoring the passage of time and scholarly fashion, but his institutional location is as much a source of strength as his internal resources. For Tilak, the difference between west and the rest was not couched in terms of the absence of resources, but in the absence of competition and pressures to conform to social trends. In fact, being in India and working in Indian institutions allowed Tilak to imply that his science was not far from Merton’s stylised vision of the Elizabethan origins of science: science as an aristocratic search for Truth. India’s distance, real and otherwise, from the heart of science, became a resource for him as a scientist. Going abroad would have meant becoming another kind of scientist – the ones who must obsess about grants, students, and professional competition
  • and thus who have less time as a result to think about science.
  • Doing Third World Science: Controversy, Memory, and Location

    These two examples point to the imbrication of Indian science and scientists with global circuits of knowledge, on the one hand, but also make clear how contradictory the effects of that imbrication might be, on the other. We can complicate the story of the spatial frame of science still further by reference to another interview, where location and memory becomes central to the resolution of a story of scientific controversy in a way that combines elements of both the preceding stories but which is also quite different.

    The third example involves a younger scientist who returned to India after being trained in an American university. Let’s call him Javed. Javed is a biologist who had worked with leading scientists while in the US. He is respected and well connected, and travels often to present his work at international conferences. He was offered a tenure track job in the US following his last postdoctoral position, but chose to go back to India where he was offered the opportunity to set up his own lab with lots of funding. I first interviewed him some years ago, before he left the US, and followed up with interviews after his return to India.

    During his postdoctoral years, Javed found himself in the middle of a heated intellectual debate with a senior scholar in his field. Javed’s work had led him to offer a radically new interpretation of some findings dealing with the movement of molecules and proteins across cell walls. It is worth noting that the experimental medium of his results relied heavily on computer imaging. In other words, the skill of the scientist lay not only in the quality of the experimental material being prepared for observation, and the detail of the results being displayed, but especially in the interpretation of these new visual images. Javed’s understanding of the significance and meanings of these images were hotly contested by a senior scientist whose own theories bore the brunt of his revisionism. When we first discussed this controversy in New York, Javed showed all the signs of being quite beleaguered. He wouldn’t quite come out and say that there were non-scientific reasons for the lack of resolution to the debate, but noted that he had been advised by other senior scholars to drop the debate as the senior scholar could harm his chances of being advancing in the profession. His opponent had allegedly used his institutional power to prevent Javed’s papers from being published, and had prevented Javed from being invited to a major conference where the differences in their views could be explored publicly. Javed had, by his own description, taken to adopting “guerrilla” tactics in order to get his voice heard. He would get up at conferences and confront his opponent, explaining his evidence for all to hear, and demand to be listened to. Still, he didn’t seem to be getting very far and his frustration was fairly visible to see.

    After he accepted his new position in India, I didn’t get a chance to talk with Javed for a while and only caught up with him in the summer of 2000 to have an extended discussion about his work. After some preliminary comments, I asked him how the controversy was going. His reply took me quite by surprise. Instead of describing the last battle in the ongoing conflict I had expected, Javed now told a very different story. He described a situation where the senior scientist and he were working in complementary fashion on the same problem. Javed did acknowledge some initial differences of opinion, but noted that he had realised that the position of the senior scholar was not as incorrect as he had thought, and also that he had something to learn from him. He added that his own findings may have been somewhat overstated. The two had been in correspondence and had found a way of talking about their respective positions with less difference and greater stress on the elements of their research they had in common. The senior scholar in turn now appreciated the new interpretations of Javed and agreed that there was a lot in that viewpoint that usefully questioned his original position. Both had clearly changed their original positions, and had also conducted new, corroboratory experiments in the interim.

    Javed was surprised when I mentioned my recollection of the discussions we had had, noting that he didn’t remember feeling like that, and that he thought what was going on while he was in the US was somewhat different. I didn’t dwell on the disjunction between our respective memories but began to ask what else he had been working on. It turned out that after arriving in India a wholly new set of international connections had opened up for him, especially in Europe, but also in Japan and Latin America. All OECD countries had signed bilateral arrangements with India for scientific collaboration and he had been able to take advantage of these opportunities to widen his set of scientific contacts and collaborations. He was feeling extremely validated professionally though also stressed out from being over-extended, dealing with students, and managing the everyday rigours of life in India.

    Looking back on this encounter, what had changed in the time between my meetings with Javed in the US and India, was, above all, his own location in the circuits of scientific power. The sense of being a junior researcher in an extremely competitive environment had given way to the sense of confidence that came from running his own laboratory and students, and, access to generous funding. The amount of research he had been able to conduct on this problem had greatly increased thanks to the ready availability of scientific labour and additional resources. Some of these new results had led him to modify his position and expand its scope. The new international collaborative possibilities that had opened up for him due to his location in India had additionally given him new allies. The senior American researcher had also changed, once Javed went from being a mere postdoctoral student, to becoming the head of a laboratory. Not only did Javed have a new prestige, but he was also now part of an international circuit of scholars that brought them together through new intermediaries and in new contexts. Javed was no longer a risk to the senior scholar’s position within the American system of funding for science, which had been threatened by Javed’s oppositional and contradictory point of view. One may go further and argue, pace Bruno Latour, that these relocations had even made it possible for the scientific problem to take new shape, changing the nature of the disagreement altogether. The lapses in Javed’s memory are, in my view, indicative of this new geography of interaction. Both have less to be anxious about, hence they can communicate with each other on new terms, altering the nature of the scientific contest. It would seem that the precipitating event that allowed for these transformations was Javed’s move to a periphery of world science, India.

    Location matters. That much we can gauge from these stories. How it matters varies consequentially, as these stories also show. By refusing to isolate the South from the West in the study of science, one leaves open the possibility of seeing multi-directional influences and channels simultaneously. As Homi K Bhabha says in another context: “If [individualism, liberalism or secularism] are immediately, and accurately, recognisable as belonging to the European Enlightenment, we must also consider them in relation to the colonial and imperial enterprise which was an integral part of that same Enlightenment” [Bhabha 1996:208-09]. If the postcolonial project has one great insight to offer, it is the argument for the embeddedness of diverse places in the making of global political and economic structures. Mutuality does not imply equality of course, nonetheless it is important to be reminded of the multiple effects of the uneven flow of ideas and people between north and south and their concerted impact on the modern making of the developed parts of the world. Shifting the physical boundaries of science and setting the model into motion allows us to see the complexity of factors that went into the making of so-called “western science”. Studies of practice practically undo reified notions of the west and western science, offering an empirical response to the critics of western science far more effective than either endless discussions of the authenticity and origins of western and eastern ontologies and epistemologies or assertions of the inherently liberatory potential of a “scientific temper”.

    The three stories of science show how scientists from the same place occupy very different spaces of professional identity. Postcolonial locations thus include relations of weakness and possibility, valences that cannot be known in advance but that are products of historically situated intersections of the political economy of place and unequal location within transnational circuits of knowledge flow. These stories leave the cartographic map unsettled as the presumed stable geopolitical entity called “India” is called into account in different ways. When “India” is set against the uneven circuits of global science, and our attention focuses on everyday scientific practices, it leads to an uneven and unsettled place where location no longer offer a onedimensional and stable reference to knowledge.

    Deliberately juxtaposing debates over “Indian Science” and its postcolonial excess and accounts of scientific practice by scientists living in India exposes an immense gulf between the two most popular staging grounds of Indian science studies. Concepts like postcolonial techno-science cannot help us bridge them: indeed if this article has shown anything, it is the need to keep them as far apart as possible. “Postcolonial” science studies need a proliferation of historical and sociological accounts of science as practice in order to set a standard against which we can more easily identify “Indian Science” as a discourse that shapes a political struggle that has little to do with science studies, even if it has much to do with India.




    [Thanks to Vijay Prashad and Paul Smith for comments on earlier versions

    of this article and also to the participants in the MIT symposium on Indian

    Science, Cambridge, November 2004.]

    1 A genuflection to the work of scholars self-consciously offering a thirdworld perspective on western science, including (albeit in different ways),Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Claude Alvares, Ziauddin Sardar, SusanthaGoonatileke and Sandra Harding.

    2 All names – individuals, institutions and journals have been changed inorder to protect the anonymity of respondents. No interviews were conducted with women. Interviews were conducted in New York, Bangaloreand Madras, 2000, 2001, 2003. There is little doubt that women’s experiences in Indian science radically differ from the accounts portrayed above.For detailed and useful insights into those experiences, see Sur 2001.


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