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Autonomy and Ideology

The nature, quality and scope of social science research in India have fallen short of expectations. How can we have free and informed discussion in social sciences and humanities?


Autonomy and Ideology

Ramachandra Guha

The nature, quality and scope of social science research in India have fallen short of expectations. How can we have free and informed discussion in social sciences and humanities?

Ramachandra Guha ( is a historian and columnist living in Bangalore.

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

he report of the fourth Review Committee of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) presents a wide-ranging overview of the state of social science research in India. It collates a great deal of information on the quantity and pattern of research funding, on work done in universities as well as in research institutes, on the publishing records of different disciplines, and on the contributions of scholars based in India and overseas. Valuable as the documentation is, what will be of special interest to scholars are the analytical and prescriptive sections of the report.


On the analytical side, the committee is forthright in its criticisms. “While, the scale and range of social science research in the country have been expanding”, says the committee, “the nature, scope and quality of research output, as well as its contribution to a better understanding of socioeconomic processes and shaping of public policy is widely perceived to have fallen short of expectations and also not commensurate with the resources spent on them”.

The committee deplores the fact that “research is mostly individual-centric on limited and shifting topics”. It goes on:

sustained work on the same theme is limited. Multi-disciplinary research is even more so. No serious effort has been made to develop and pursue long-term insti tutional, or even individual, agendas… There is also reason to be less than satisfied with the quantum and quality of professional publications relative to their professional staff strength.

What are the reasons for this less-thanoptimum state of affairs? One reason is the limitation of individuals or insti tutions, their inability or unwillingness to forge long-term, multi-disciplinary, research programmes and strategies. A second reason identified by the committee is inadequacy of funding. Thus, state governments “have shown little interest in promoting and funding social science research by independent academic institutions”. The central government has been more forthcoming – still, its support of the social sciences and humanities has been niggardly as compared to its support of the natural sciences. All told, “there is a conspicuous reluctance to support open, independent research in social sciences, which does not produce valuable material products and processes like scientific and technological research”.

A third reason pinpointed by the review committee is the lack of autonomy in the functioning of the ICSSR. The ICSSR funds


27 major institutes, and thus plays a key role in directing social science research in the country. The choice of the ICSSR’s chairman, of its member-secretary, of the members of its council, are all subject to approval by the ministry of human resource development. In other words, ministers and secretaries with a limited understanding of social science research have veto powers when it comes to selecting the social scientists who shall run the ICSSR. As the committee observes, “lack of transparency in the process and several instances where the basic principles have been ignored or violated in making these selections have further eroded the capacity of the council to function effectively in promoting its basic objectives”.


What can be done to remedy this state of affairs? Make more money available to social scientists, for one. Thus, the committee recommends that Rs 400 crore of public funds be allocated annually for social science research. This would amount to 10 times the present annual budget of the ICSSR. Some of this money could come from the central government, some from public sector institutions. The latter, says the committee, “could indicate the broad themes on which they would like the council to promote focused research. However, the elaboration of the specific agendas and modalities of implementation should be left to be decided by the council on the basis of advice obtained from eminent scholars in different fields.”

I think the committee is mistaken in discounting the possibility of increased funding from other than public sources. It is true that industries and businesses have a narrowly instrumental view of research. They would commission only such projects as are likely to augment their productivity or profitability. However, the recent surge in the Indian economy has opened up new possibilities for a broad-minded philanthrophy. At least some philanthrophists may sponsor research if they are convinced of the relevance or importance of a “broad theme”, while leaving the specific modalities to the scholars or institutions concerned. In the past, the Tata trusts have played this role; in the future, some of the new, self-made billionaires can be persuaded to follow their example.

The most interesting and probably most radical recommendation of the Review Committee is its call for a reconstitution of the ICSSR. The committee believes (in my view, rightly) that there has been too much interference by politicians and bureaucrats in the funding and directing of social science research in India. “An essential and critical pre-condition to restoring the credibility of the council”, it says, “is to ensure that its governance and management is entrusted to the scholarly community with full financial and functional autonomy to decide and implement its programmes”.

Disputes Regarding Autonomy

In order to ensure the autonomy of social science research, its insulation from the unthinking (or malevolent) interference of politicians and bureaucrats, the committee suggests that the ICSSR should be renamed the Indian Academy of Social Sciences. This academy would be governed by a collegium of fellows, eminent scholars all, representing the different social science disciplines. The committee recommends that initially the collegium consist of the surviving national fellows of the ICSSR along with select foreign scholars. The collegium would be expanded by the induction, through nomination or election, of other (and presumably also younger) social scientists. From this larger body would be constituted an executive committee, which would be more closely involved with the day-to-day functioning of the academy. Instead of a chairman and a member-secretary, the academy would have a president and a full-time chief executive, these chosen by an indepen dent search committee constituted by the president of India.

I wonder if this proposal is at all influenced by the example of the natural sciences. The most prestigious scientific body in the country is the Indian Academy of Sciences. It is a self-governing society with nearly a thousand fellows. Its activities include the publication of scientific journals, the organisation of seminars and workshops, and the awarding of fellowships and prizes. The academy has immense prestige and, more importantly, a near-total autonomy. It is a body of scientists, run by scientists, and for scientists.

The Indian Academy of Sciences, however, plays only a marginal role in the disbursal of funds for research. Most practising scientists in India have their salaries and research expenses met from public funds, these channelled variously through the department of science and technology, the ministry of human resource development, and specific sectoral ministries such as atomic energy, environment, agriculture, industry, and so on. However, as compared to the social scientists, the scientists of India have far greater autonomy in utilising the funds they receive from the state. The most influential and important jobs – such as the directorships of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) institutes or of the Indian Institutes of Technology – are decided by selection committees comprised wholly of scientists. The content of the research programmes and schemes in these institutes is decided by scientists alone. On the other hand, the top jobs in the humanities and social sciences are more prone to political lobbying and influence. These choices influence how research is done down the line. If those directing research are chosen on grounds other than academic competence, then the results – from a purely scholarly point of view – will be less than satisfactory.

I share the committee’s concern with the autonomy of social science research. Its proposal to make the social sciences selfgoverning is admirable. However, the committee ignores altogether the issue of ideology. As compared to the natural sciences, the social sciences are much harder to assess by objective, impersonal, and non-political criteria. The committee outlines how social science in India can be insulated from the pressures and prejudices of politicians. But it finesses the question of how social science in India can be kept free of the fierce ideological rivalries that are such a visible feature of academic life in India.

These ideological rivalries are not so much intellectual as they are political. Scholars quarrel not over method or approach but over the positions taken with regard to the major political debates of the day. Three issues in particular have deeply divided the community of social scientists in India – the role of religion in public affairs; the extent and reach of positive

february 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


discrimination; and the respective roles of the private and public sectors in economic development. Or, put more succinctly “mandir, mandal, and market”.

One would have liked the committee to squarely address these disputes in the context of its own recommendations. How does it propose to insulate the constitution of the collegium of the Indian Academy of Social Sciences from the din and clamour of ideological debate? I am not for a moment suggesting that it is impossible to devise non-ideological criteria for assessing a specific piece of social science research or the career of an individual social scientist. The different social science disciplines have evolved and tested certain protocols by which one can have a reasonable sense of the depth and rigour of a particular piece of research. Still, these assessments would be far more open to dispute and refutation than would be the case with the natural sciences. The task is made harder by the fact that, unlike most natural scientists, many social scientists are public intellectuals, who frequently comment in the press on matters of policy and politics. The positions they take in a newspaper article are naturally less nuanced than those they may articulate in a longer, more considered piece of research aimed at a scholarly audience. It thus becomes easy to pigeonhole individual scholars in ideological terms, as pro or anti mandir, pro or anti mandal, pro or anti market.

The process of electing fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences is based and determined, more or less, by the quality of their scientific research. To be sure, there would be disputes at the margins, accusations that a particular fellow had been promoted by a powerful patron, for example. However, the consitution of a similar body of social scientists would be far more controversial. Each selection would be subject to close scrutiny, to gossip and innuendo, and, even worse, to derision and abuse.

As I said, I do not subscribe to the notion that the quality of social science research is to be judged only in political or ideological terms. There are certainly cases where independent national bodies in the humanities have rewarded excellence in scholarship without being unduly biased by ideological considerations. I think

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

for example of the British Academy and the Academie Francaise, whose members have been and are leftists, liberals, and conservatives but whose political affiliations were scarcely taken into consideration at the time of their election. But I suspect that in contemporary India, the selection of fellows to an academy of this kind would be more contentious, more prone to be viewed through the lens of ideology.

Crisis in Social Sciences?

Many years ago, the American scholar Alvin Gouldner wrote a book called The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. “Crisis” is certainly an over-used word or trope – judging by its ubiquity in popular and scholarly discourse, Indian nationhood has been in “crisis” since August 15, 1947, and global capitalism has been in “crisis” at least since the middle decades of the 19th century. But in this case the term is well merited, for the “crisis” of Indian social science is indeed upon us. It is many years since any new institutes of quality were set up. (Contrast this with the natural sciences, where institutes of excellence are being set up all the time. There are no social science equivalents of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, world-class institutes both, and of recent vintage). Older institutions of renown have declined rapidly in recent years (the fate of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics is well known, but it is by no means exceptional).

The brain drain, once restricted to the sciences, is embracing the social sciences and humanities. Many of the best Indian economists, anthropologists, historians and political scientists now live and work in the US or Europe. It is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit or retain good doctoral students. The rise in private sector salaries has made a career in research much less attractive than it once was. For the sake of living life on one’s own terms, working at what one enjoyed, an individual was willing to accept a lower salary – but not a far lower salary. (Before 1990, the salary of an academic was perhaps one-third that of a middleranking business executive – now, it is one-tenth or one-fifteenth.) And even when one chooses to stay on in the world of research, one’s autonomy and integrity is eroded from above by an interfering administration, and from below by the claims and compulsions of caste-or-religionbased populism.

In this respect the report of the ICSSR Review Committee is timely. It is time that we seriously introspected about the state of social science research in India, its achievements and its failures, its aims and its perversions. It is time that we more honestly judged ourselves against the situation in other countries, not just in the west but also China. In this Asian race we started at an advantage; based on work done by Indian social scientists in the last decades of colonial rule, and in the first decades of independence, we were comfortably ahead of the Chinese in 1969, the year the ICSSR was set up. We maintained this lead at least up to the 1990s. More recently, however, our great neighbour has begun to gain upon us. The Chinese have come to believe that their ambition to achieve “great power” status will require massive investments in knowledge

– knowledge of the social as well as natural world. Although disciplines such as history and anthropology remain constrained by the totalitarian nature of the Chinese political system, disciplines such as economics and international relations have made impressive strides. In these fields, and of course in the natural sciences, there is a reverse brain drain at work, as dozens of Chinese scholars leave their jobs in the west to live and work in their own country.

Finally, it is time that we judged ourselves against our own standards. Like China ours is an ancient civilisation; like China ours is a modern nation state. But unlike China our political system is based not on rule by a single party. Unlike in China, our citizens have the freedom to live where they want and to say what they feel. The ICSSR Review Committee points out that “free, open and informed discussion on social problems from different viewpoints and wider perspectives is vital for the effective functioning of democracy”. But, judging by the evidence that the report contains and the evidence present in the world outside, it is clear that the community of social scientists has not done enough to make such free and informed discussion possible.

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