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Social Science Research in India: Concerns and Proposals

The ICSSR is not responsible for the torpidity of social science research in India. Viewed from a perspective on research in economics, this article identifies two concerns (the inability to speak truth to power and the lack of autonomy) and makes three proposals (on apprenticeship, rank and leadership of institutions).


imbibe from fellow practitioners and the

Social Science Research in
body of literature in her discipline, and,

above all, to “learn by doing” research.

India: Concerns and Proposals

The supreme forum, in the context, is the seminar, but this medium as a forge of ideas animated by the live presentation of Pulapre Balakrishnan serious work-in-progress is notably absent

The ICSSR is not responsible for the torpidity of social science research in India. Viewed from a perspective on research in economics, this article identifies two concerns (the inability to speak truth to power and the lack of autonomy) and makes three proposals (on apprenticeship, rank and leadership of institutions).

Pulapre Balakrishnan ( is at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

hough the Fourth Review Committee constituted by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) was largely concerned with restructuring the ICSSR I shall focus on what its report has to say on social science research in India, for this ultimately is the issue.

The report has much to say on “the functioning of the ICSSR” itself that is of interest, for instance how the “rigid conditions and bureaucratic procedures attached to funding restrict the scope for and serious scholarly research” (p 63). However, I for one consider the role of the accountant secondary to the malaise that afflicts social science research in India currently.

I shall also ignore the report’s overemphasis on “research methodology” and the discussion of schemes to propagate it. The pre-occupation with methodology is largely peculiar to social science research in India. Though something of Shaw’s scepticism “Those who can do, those who can’t teach!”, drives my recalcitrance, that is far from all of it. The first staging post in the life of a young academic is to have produced some evidence of creativity. Not only can the route to this not be taught, to even attempt to do so takes away from the spirit of independent research. On the other hand, the young need to be fitted out with the basic tools of analysis. For the economist, these comprise economic theory, mathematics and statistics. No doubt these must be taught early in the student’s career. But “research methodology”, in my book at least is something the apprentice is expected to in India by comparison with the rest of the world. Instead we have talks, which have a role alright but are poor substitutes.

Focus on Economics

The report is right to identify a lack of “vibrancy” in the country’s social science arena, but to seek its solution largely in the restructuring of the ICSSR is rather like barking up the wrong tree. In elaborating upon this view below I will have to, however, confine myself to examples from my own discipline, economics, as it is the only social science I am familiar with.

1 Two Concerns

The following two sections discuss two concerns regarding the current state of social science research in India.

1.1 How the Plot Was Lost

Why do I ignore the report’s “findings” on the functioning of the ICSSR? It does not come from a sense of its being wrong. Far from it. Consider, for instance, the observation:

Our consultations with a large cross section of social scientists across the country revealed a broad consensus that currently excessive importance is being given to sponsored research on specific issues conceived in a narrow perspective; and that, in order to counter this, it is necessary to promote and support independent analytical and empirical research. There is a near unanimous view that the council can and should be enabled to play a bigger and more proactive role in improving the range and quality of social science research in the country (from ‘Summary of Recommendations’, p 65).

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While the observation is not without merit, my own assessment of the situation is that the ICSSR can affect the remedy only so far. Apart from a brief spell when a central government bureaucrat was its secretary – a major lapse in itself – the ICSSR has mostly taken a hands-off position vis-à-vis its research institutes, the site of research in India over which it has most control potentially. It has mostly remained the accountant. That a valuable freedom and autonomy, experienced at least by default, was not creatively adapted reflects entirely on the recipient and not the fund giver.

In some ways, social science researchers in India have rather a good deal. They have relatively few institutional responsibilities as many of the institutes have very little teaching to be done, or none at all. Compared to social scientists in the IITS and IIMs there is next to no administrative responsibility either. This frees up a great deal of research time, a luxury that researchers in the university system do not have. Much more to the point, researchers do not have to clear their research agendas with any body in advance, which is exactly as it should be but which is not the case always globally or at times outside the ICSSR system even in India. This is a substantial intellectual freedom indeed. So the principal issue to account for is why this quite considerable freedom does not great translated into high-quality research. The answer is not difficult to find.

There is no philosophy, stated or unstated, guiding the institutions of the country where social science research is conducted. I find two questions relevant here:

  • (1) Should the research undertaken be guided by a concern for addressing larger issues related to theory such as whether “rules rather than discretion constitute the best macroeconomic policy” or should it be guided by problems that cry out for immediate resolution, such as the acute infrastructure deficit in our cities?
  • (2) Should the cue for all or even most of the research undertaken come entirely from the programmes of the government of the day, whether at the national or the sub-national level? For instance, should the institutional effort be devoted to championing the merits of ushering in capital-account convertibility (“now”) or validating,
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    through “research”, the politics of some extant populist economic programme?

    In the absence of any thought having gone into what needs to get undertaken, the fact remains that as of now few expectations are placed upon the recipients of public funds for social science research. By and large, as the location of social science research has progressively moved away from New Delhi to the peripheries of this country, a desirable development per se, the agenda for “research” has often tended to get more closely identified with the political agenda of the sub-national state. This has inevitably taken away from the goal of an independent social science. After all, you cannot aspire to “whisper into the ears of princes” and entertain the dream of ever “speaking the truth to power”. It would hardly matter if individuals wish to be closely associated with party politics, in fact, that would be their inalienable right. However, where the leadership steers an institution down a predictably partisan path it surely loses credibility as an intellectual site.

    Maintaining Credibility

    In economics, a commitment to vigorous empirical research is the surest way to maintain one’s independence and credibility for empirical research ensures that you “say it as it is”. I would like to illustrate this, the outstanding example of which is the role of K N Raj who had founded the Centre for Development Studies at Thiruvananthapuram over three decades ago. Despite having taken very considerable assistance from the state government, and identifying closely with most aspects of Kerala’s development experience, Raj had maintained a fierce independence from the Malayali political establishment and Kerala’s vested interests, thus reserving the right to differ from them it at any stage. By comparison some other institutions in southern India that had started at the same time with a leadership beholden to the ruling political party were less fortunate. The embrace maimed their research and struck at their credibility. On the other hand, for a period of at least 10 years the CDS had remained a major site of independent social science research in India, the hallmark of which was outstanding empirical research. The high commitment to quality was also reflected in the stature of its flagship MPhil programme, a feature of which was original dissertations on issues of national importance. While this has proved to be a difficult act to follow, it demonstrates that world-class social science research is possible in India, and, more to the point, that finance is not the constraint. Thus we find a commitment to intellectual accomplishment is sine qua non and a commitment to non-bureaucratic rationality in governance essential.

    From another era, we have the example of the Indian Statistical Institute at Calcutta under the leadership of P C Mahalanobis. Even as he was steering the Second Five-Year Plan, “PCM” was outspoken on the dysfunctional nature of the administrative system in India and what he would refer to as “premature welfarism” in the economic policy, both of which were, in his view, holding back India’s progress.

    Role of Hired Guns

    Interestingly, today economic advisers are mostly expected to play the role of hired guns, irrespective of the ideological complexion of the government. If it is unfortunate for an individual to find himself in this situation, it is disastrous for the country if its public institutions as a whole are thus hijacked.

    In a large and diverse country such as India it is important that its disparate regions get studied. Therefore the geographical location of social science research is important. However, it is disappointing that even when much of the research in the state level research institutes is not playing second fiddle to the (state) government of the day, it is uninspired and unremarkable. It needs to be hammered out that though the states of India have contributed to the development of the state level institutes, it is in the interest of Indian society that their social science institutions maintain an arms-length relationship with the government.

    Parochial Research

    One way to bring this about is to avoid excessive focus on the problems of the region concerned and to commit part of an institution’s research time to the problems of humanity at large. I mean, we should also be researching topics such as the role of


    special interests in shaping economic in the United States or the role of the state vis-à-vis the movement for democracy in China. Social science research in India is far too tame and parochial, and even when Foucault is invoked it is more in letter than in spirit, for there seldom is recognition of the centrality of the rapports de force. In the age of the net and a restless, ever-ready-to-migrate, youth it seriously runs the danger of becoming irrelevant in their eyes. The report is right to alert us to its tenuous future.

    Lest any of this be interpreted to imply that subservience to the powers that be is an attribute of institutions in the periphery of this country, I hasten to say that those in the metropolis are far from immune to the condition. On the contrary they often are the trend setters. Currently, Chinese whispers in the Indian capital put about how favourable “expert advice” on issues ranging from SEZs to “FDI in Retail” can be had by the government for a consulting fee from state-sponsored economicsresearch outfits in the metropolis. Even if public monies were not deployed in supporting some of these, we may want to reflect on this pathetic state of affairs.

    Finally, the report rightly mentions social science research done outside the ICSSR framework, notably in the IITs and the IIMs. It is significant that about four decades ago these institutions had attracted fresh doctorates from the world’s best centres of research in economics (that had included some in India), and they had continued to publish in the most prestigious journals in the profession. This is difficult to visualise today as the IIMs have downgraded social science research for, having remodelled themselves on US business schools, they have privileged management development programmes so-called. This is only a different kind of politics from that which had prevailed in the ICSSR institutions two decades ago.

    It is useful to remember that when the first IIMs were set up, in the early 1960s, they were consciously termed institutes of “management” as opposed to schools of “business administration”, out of the conviction that management has responsibility for more than just the prospects of business. Of course, part of what we see in the IIMs is a worldwide trend whereby, as identified by the management consultant John Kay, the MBA has been recast as ABM, that is to furthering the American business model. However, the IIMs outdo one another in being cheerleaders for corporate globalisation even as western business schools have remained more circumspect.


    The desirability of the US-centredness of the IIMs has been queried by Ajit Balakrishnan, an innovative entrepreneur with global reach currently the chairman of the board of governors of IIM, Calcutta. Given its provenance, the query cannot be dismissed too lightly. This tragic makeover of the IIMs contains a larger message. The autonomy so necessary for a social science practice of any value must be tout court, encompasssing not just the political establishment but vested interests of every kind.

    In this degeneration of our social science research institutions into dens of torpidity, the ICSSR has had little or no direct role to play, and I believe the report overplays its significance in this regard. Via the reality of overlapping generations in a workplace the direction and character of an institution is set largely by the early leadership, which in turn appoints the first round of its successors. Thus the fact that some of our social science institutions demonstrate neither intellectual calibre nor political backbone has something to do with the fact that either the founders did not have these attributes or that appointments they had made in good faith let them down badly. In any case, there is a serious failure of judgment to be seen all around here, and someone has to take the blame.

    In my view, the ICSSR is blameless as it has mostly taken a hands-off approach to appointments of faculty.

    On the other hand, the origins of this malaise can be traced to the nature of the foundation of many of these institutions. Among the founders many have had grand national or international careers and had even contributed generously to the initial plant and machinery, but retirement plans for individuals, however honourable, cannot be a substitute for a plan for intellectual creativity. Many of these founders have also had an influence that has extended well beyond what could have been justified in grounds of capability. But to lay all blame for the lack of “vitality” identified in the report at the feet of the founder is more than just biting the hand that had once fed, it would be to ignore the ultimate agent, the researcher himself. For is not the researcher meant to be a self-starter? An institution’s pedigree can constrain the individual researcher only thus far.

    Speaking Truth to Power

    This brings us back to the question of what are the expectations of a social science researcher in India and how this is to be conveyed to him or her. For a start, I believe that it would be useful to bring to their attention Edward Said’s ‘Representations of the Intellectual’. Readers will recognise the late Said as a professor of English Literature who was actively involved in the struggle for a Palestinian homeland when he was not turning in a radical reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Said’s idea of an intellectual was that of an “exile”, an “amateur” and one who would “speak the truth to power”. The idea of exile is

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    february 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


    brought up to motivate the premise that an intellectual ought to place herself at an angle to society so that she is able to see it warts and all.

    The idea of being an amateur is not to be interpreted literally. It only says that the intellectual ought not to tie himself up in knots claiming that his work is too technical for exposition to the non-specialist. He ought to have the ability to communicate as an amateur, a demanding task but absolutely essential. As for “speaking the truth to power” it is too obvious to require explanation here. It is difficult not to be struck by this simple code even if one were to disagree with it. In any case, it is easy to see that mostly social science as practised in India today does barely squeal in the face of power, leave alone speak the truth to it.

    The writer Mahasweta Devi in Bengal and the poetess Sugathakumari in Kerala, who have recently spoken out against the destruction of livelihoods and the plunder of natural capital, respectively, speak for their people more often than the publiclypaid social scientist. There is something tragic here, as more than any other intellectual activity social science is meant to hold a mirror to society. Neither the bureaucratic style of functioning of the ICSSR, nor the paucity of funding have any explanatory power when confronted with this monumental failure. As social science researchers we should accept our responsibility in the matter. As a clearly mandated leadership structure is imposed on the ICSSR institutes, clearly some of the responsibility lies with their leadership. The ICSSR’s only culpability is not conveying to the heads of institutes enough that their role might extend to a little more than the task of slavishly enforcing service rules and moni toring adherence to colonial-era procedures.

    At a higher plane, the mystery of quietism among putatively so “argumentative” a people is not surprising at all. It stems from the valorisation over all of partypolitical affiliation, which once accepted implies that argument has little relevance as positions are known in advance, having been driven to ossification by a form of terror some decades ago. Indeed, once political affiliation is accepted as the supreme virtue in the social scientist arena

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    not much argument is possible. It would be redundant anyhow.

    1.2 How Autonomous Is Social Science Practice?

    A science writer in India has suggested that scientific knowledge and practice in India was closer to global standards at independence than it is today. As example, he gave us the uplifting story, narrated by Stephen Hawking, of how the young “Chandra”, having only just completed his undergraduate studies, had proposed “the Chandrashekar limit” on the boat from Madras to London enroute to Cambridge for his doctoral work. It is very likely that it was more than just the exceptionally clear skies over the Arabian Sea that had led Chandra to this; his exposure at the Presidency College, Madras must also count for a little.

    How much of this story is true or only reflective of the lofty ideal of supporting the underdog we may never know, but in any case it is irrelevant here. The anecdote was meant to serve as a pointer to a widening gap between science practice in India and abroad. However, as a social scientist I make use of it only to draw attention to the science writer’s unspoken premise of the universal applicability, in all dimensions, of the natural sciences.

    Virtue of Detachment

    In my view, as far as the social sciences are concerned, a certain degree of detachment from the global mainstream may be a virtue. Take the practice of economics. Here the west, having solved their most pressing economic problems of food, clothing and shelter, are no longer interested in these issues. Faced with a deluge of capital and fearing an influx of economic refugees, the west’s principal concern is to maintain the steady rise in living standards it has enjoyed for over five decades now without sacrificing their cultural separateness. Academic economics mirrors this fully with its focus on technologically-driven growth, as labour is in short supply, and global opportunities for its surplus capital, attended to by a benign environment of low inflation. The mathematically complete but theoretically unremarkable “endogenous growth” theory reflects precisely this conjuncture in the history of the western world. It has limited relevance for India, which not only is not on the technological frontier, but also is yet to face up to its minimal health, educational and infrastructural capabilities, the remedying of which require specific interventions that need overcoming both fiscal and political economy challenges.

    While it is indeed important for Indian social science to stay abreast of these theoretical developments, I fear that many our students embarking on research careers are so overwhelmed by the econo mic theory and econometric ammunition coming out of the west that they are unable to sift the wheat from the chaff. This is a further symptom of the failure of leadership in the social sciences in India. As the situation in which India finds itself today is unique in the history of the nations of the world it appears central that researchers here hold their head above the currents of social science as practised in the west today. Seeking to explain every turn in India’s recent experience in terms of the economic theory currently dominant in the west today is rather like sighting Lenin in south Arcot in Tamil Nadu, being the project of establishing a universal applicability for The Development of Capitalism in Russia, a pastime for some in the India of the late 1970s but not particularly helpful to an understanding of its agriculture. We want first to wean ourselves away from this addiction to exotic theory.

    Loss of Initiative

    But the problem runs a little deeper than merely the lack of originality. It is not only that much of India’s social science research slavishly following western practice often results in irrelevant stuff (if not nonsense), but that on many issues of vital importance for India we have lost the initiative as the discourse largely plays out accordingly to predilections held in the west.

    To take an example from economics again, as it is the only area that I can speak of, consider the story of economic growth in India. The first widely noted note of caution in attributing the quickening of the economy to the reforms of 1991 came from Bradford de Long who pointed out, impressively using the simplest of methods, that the growth rate in India had actually accelerated during the 1980s. Rodrik and


    Subramanian attempted a political economy explanation of this observation, though not very successfully. And now Kunal Sen has summarised the debate rather nicely. All these researchers are located in the west.

    No matter that the acceleration had been observed by K N Raj in an article in Seminar as early as 1979, that in an article in The Hindu on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the reforms of July 1991 I had wagered that the acceleration in the 1980s dwarfs the acceleration in the 1990s, that Deepak Nayyar does a magisterial survey of growth in 20th century India in his Kingsley Martin Lecture at Cambridge, and that M Parameswaran and I have more recently, in this journal, provided the building blocks to understanding the observed relationship between growth and reforms in India, the fact remains that the terms of the debate have been set by economists outside India.

    This is symptomatic of the state of social science research in India today, at least in economics. It has resulted from a culture in Indian social science that underplays the pursuit of knowledge in relation to displaying the totems of party politics. More money is not the solution to this state of affairs. Indeed, beware of agencies bearing gifts, for he who pays the piper calls the tune!

    2 Three Brief Proposals

    Having engaged with some of the issues raised by the ICSSR Review Committee I end with three proposals.

    (1) Streamline the Apprenticeship: An issue flagged repeatedly by the Committee is the poor quality of the input into the academic research programmes in the ICSSR institutes. Considering this and from an independent assessment of the content of a generic MPhil, it appears advisable to integrate the MPhil and the PhD programmes. Once this has been achieved, the MPhil will cease to exist and the PhD will remain the only research degree in the social science stream. It should very likely discourage the hangers-on currently attracted by the generous funding and a relatively easily got research degree awaiting them at the end of two years.

    The PhD programme may commence with exhaustive course-work lasting up to

    32 two years during which period the student would be expected to finalise his research problem. With the proliferation of research output, a course component to the PhD is crucial for the student to access the literature. The course work would also take care of the Committee’s concern with “research methodology”, though I must emphasise strongly, yet again, that the idea of teaching someone to do research should be viewed as strictly “No, No!”.

    The integration of the MPhil and the PhD will streamline the academic research path, by taking away an additional layer of effort and economise on scarce administrative and even more scarce supervisory resources. Till such time as the research institutes can provide high-quality taught courses, their research programmes may be frozen. This would make no serious dent on social science research in India. On the other hand, if pursued honestly it would place such research on an altogether higher footing in the future. It appears that serious thought has not always gone into the way the academic research programme in the institutes, or even in the universities, were put together.

    (2) Abolish Rank: Outside the university system, where the rank of full professor was originally meant to convey a uniquely high distinction, there appears to be little case for a hierarchical structure with its panoply of “scale of pay, service rules and allowances”. These colonial era relics are a fundamental impediment to the egalitarian implications of excellence which alone must rank as the measure of the member of the institution. They introduce a virtual hierarchy where intellectual accomplishment alone must count and, more crucially, should be held up as its own reward. Moreover, abolishing rank, will eliminate the constant jockeying for “promotion”. That rank and privilege continue to be valued in so self-consciously political a cohort is indeed a mystery.

    If our institutions are to survive in a world competing for mental ability, they had better reinvent themselves as ultraliberal socially, i e, dump hierarchy, and ultra-demanding intellectually, i e, recognise individual worth. Currently, they practise the very opposite, i e, they are socially conservative and professionally undemanding. The pre-eminent question at the induction of a researcher into an organisation should be whether the individual may be expected to value freedom enough to use it creatively.

    (3) Elect the Leader: If there is a weakness in the ICSSR’s institutional apparatus it is in the absence of internal participation in the process by which appointments to the heads of institutions are made. Incredible appointments in the past have left these institutions rudderless and subject to decay. In India today the potential symbo lism of a credible intellectual as head of house is seriously underestimated. Leaders, of course, derive strength from the institution even as they give direction to it. However, a certain potential auto nomy exists and the imaginative leader is meant to use it for the advancement of the intellectual project that is social science research.

    The leader is not meant to be an agent of the ICSSR or even the institutional board, and must be seen to maintain an autonomy. Above all, the leader must exude intellectual vitality and political independence, and demonstrate a commitment to the future of the profession if not the institution itself. In India neither is considered necessary by power-hungry academics or their patrons. Here the IC-SSR does have some explaining to do, after all, in that it has not only tolerated poor leadership, but also it has never attempted to correct this even by so much as signaling that the show should improve. It appears to have been happy with the run-ofthe-mill Rajan who keeps the accounts and enshrines the procedure.

    Actually the ICSSR’s hands were tied as its own record in the matter was not so great. As late as the 1980s it had political managers as head. Currently both the chair and the secretary are lifelong academics and it is hoped that this practice would now get locked into place. Here, the Committee’s proposal that we go in for an Academy would certainly address the obnoxious practice of political appointments and make it a thing of the past. However, in my view, it is the local-level head of institute rather than the grand overall head of social science research in India who is likely to be the more important

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    because of her proximity to the action, and my proposal relates to this position.

    A tentative approach to the question of leadership in India’s ICSSR institutions is to elect the head by a transparent process. And it is necessary to go the whole hog. The position must be advertised, and each candidate proposed and seconded by a member of the institute. The precise distribution of the votes must be revealed of course. This was done with much effect with respect to the student union in my college in Madras and I do not see why it should not work elsewhere. Open elections may be expected to have the effect of discouraging indifferent academics from putting themselves forward or power mongers from pushing them in that direction. Both have a field day under today’s nontransparent arrangement.

    Choosing a head by election signals that it cannot be the reward for loyalty demonstrated by mere presence in an institution for long enough. Perhaps more importantly it would leave the successful candidate free of obligation to any section and thus unconstrained in the pursuit of his or her task. In any case, the present arrangement of imposing heads on the small bodies, which are the ICSSR institutes only breeds sullen acceptance. On the other hand, the norms of democracy would require acceptance of the verdict of a free and fair election.

    To conclude, while the Report of the Fourth Review Committee of the icssr is to be welcomed and debated, it is important not to spend too much time in debating the “state of social science research” in India, as opposed to getting on with the business of revitalising it. To illustrate with an example from the public sphere, if our objective is to expand the diversity of the institutions of our governance, we should pursue it by appointing women, dalits and Muslims to top positions in the administration and the police. Similarly, if we want a vigorous and independent social science practice in this country, we should appoint credible academics to leadership positions. In the context, as I have tried to establish here, the future of social science research in India will depend more on the structures of everyday governance of the institutions that enable it than whether we will soon have a thoroughly modern “Academy”, though to the extent that the proposed arrangement may breed accomplished and fearless social scientists it would not be unwelcome.

    Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

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