Melding theory with practice

Print edition : June 26, 2015

R. Ramakumar.

PROFESSOR R. Ramakumar, one of the youngest professors at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, recently took charge as Dean, School of Development Studies. An agricultural economist, he was invited to the TISS by its Director, S. Parasuraman. Ramakumar’s work on microcredit, rural poverty and agricultural workers is among the most quoted scholarly works in India. In conversation with Frontline:

In development studies, is there an undue emphasis on rural deprivation as compared with urban deprivation?

Well, if you ask it that way, I’d say in a country like India it would be a natural bias and not an artificial bias. Because you have the majority of people living in the rural areas, and because rural poverty is much higher than urban poverty, you would naturally expect in a course like development studies a bias of that nature to come in. I’d say it is inevitable.

But to the near-exclusion of urban deprivation?

That is not true because we have courses on urban studies and urban development. It is not that urban development is neglected, but I’d say every subject has scope to further improve itself. What we have done in development studies is that students can actually go out of the school and take courses. We are the only school that allows every student to take four credits outside the school. We are open to things like that. It is also partly because we don’t have the expertise. We need faculty to teach as well. So I’d admit that might be part of the reason why that kind of impression is created. Probably because lot of our visible writings are also about rural areas. That is also there. It is interesting that you asked me that question. It sets me thinking about it.

The interplay between theory and practice and the way things have been going on now at the TISS—the pace of expansion of the place is so fast. Do you feel the same pressure in development studies?

No. Actually we have taken care not to grow at the rate that the TISS is growing. In the sense that... our school offers only two M.A. programmes whereas many schools offer much more with smaller faculty. We have had suggestions in the past, we still have suggestions on what programmes to add. But we have to be careful. We do not want to start one for the sake of it. Once we are convinced about it, once we have a concrete concept note in front of us, once we have the faculty who can actually teach it…. We have, for instance, one suggestion that is in front of us, something relating to public policy. That is a suggestion that is on our table. We are beginning to discuss that proposal. Maybe in two or three years, something will happen. If at all something happens, it will happen on that front.

The coexistence of theory and practice in almost the same footing in the TISS is rather unique in an Indian academic setting. Basically, universities are supposed to do theory rather than practice. The TISS does both. How easy or difficult is that?

It is not a question of easy or difficult. That’s the way to go. Even if it’s difficult that’s the way universities should try. In fact, about 20 years back, the TISS was known as a place with very little theory and a whole lot of practice. Then, theory came in; development studies, for instance. We teach what capitalism is. We teach students development and its theoretical constructs and at the same time we also allow students to go for internships, field work, which allows them to test some of the theories that they have learnt on the field. There are many people, who in class say, ‘what’s the point of theory it’s about doing it in the field’. But in going to the field they miss the larger picture [if they are not strong on theory]. If the larger picture was factored into their analysis, they would have been better informed. I am not saying that there has to be a balance. I think theory reinforces practice, practice reinforces theory, and there is no rigid compartmentalisation of theory and practice.

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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