Redefining social sciences

Interview with S. Parasuraman, Director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Published : Jun 10, 2015 12:30 IST

S. Parasuraman, Director, TISS :" Social science research is fundamental to peace, solidarity and national security."

S. Parasuraman, Director, TISS :" Social science research is fundamental to peace, solidarity and national security."

THE Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) started out in 1936 as the first South Asian institution for professional social work education. In the past decade, it has developed as an institution committed to social sciences education, research, field action and disaster management. As its Director S. Parasuraman says in this interview, “social science is about showing us the mirror”. In a diverse country with a population of 1.2 billion, an uneven yet spectacular economic progress and rapid social changes, the TISS has made itself deeply relevant by its research into social processes and patterns of deprivation and its quest for solutions through knowledge and direct intervention at the community level.

Addressing the 75th Annual Convocation of the TISS on May 12, N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Limited, said: “One of the characteristics of India’s system of higher education… is its lop-sided concentration on engineering and technological education at the expense of the basic sciences and, in a more pronounced way, at the expense of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, which are often treated as soft subjects.” The TISS has been one of the few major educational institutions that have gone some way in addressing this imbalance. S. Parasuraman says in the interview that it is important to understand social processes: “If we do not understand the social processes, we will not be able to anticipate and cope with strifes and conflict that increasingly emerge from disaffection.” In recent years, the TISS has combined its strong research thrust with practical field action and has entered into fruitful collaborations with organisations trying to make a difference in situations of disaster, deprivation and economic and social backwardness. Not the least of the TISS’ achievements has been to produce, year after year, dedicated social work professionals who are willing to accept the challenge of working in the most difficult circumstances in the most backward districts of the country.

In the decade that Professor S. Parasuraman has been its Director, he has reset the course of the institution, reinforcing its commitment to issues of social justice and poverty alleviation. This period has seen the expansion of the TISS to five campuses, including the ones in Guwahati and Hyderabad; an increase in the number of academic programmes, from a few courses to about 54 now; greater opportunities in social work education; and important collaborations with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Mental Health Action Trust (MHAT) in Kerala and The Banyan in Chennai. Today, the TISS’ work covers communities ranging from those living in the cold deserts of Ladakh to tribal people in the remote Nicobar Islands. In a wide-ranging interview, Parasuraman, who steered the transformation in social work education, research and applied work in India, tells Frontline that much more needs to be done.

How can social work education contribute to solutions for emerging social and health problems in India—ageing, social distance, mental illness, disability, homelessness, migration, displacement, inclusive development, and so on? How has the TISS contributed to this aim from a research perspective?

People live in various social, economic and political contexts. Demographic and economic changes are not the same everywhere. It is important, therefore, to understand the context first and then locate people within the context. Only then do we begin to understand what happens to various groups of people who are embedded in diverse contexts. We take research very seriously. It is only through good research that we can contribute to critical issues in the 21st century—such as poverty, vulnerability and human rights. Often, identifying who is vulnerable can be a contested issue, vulnerability being a multi-dimensional concept. For example, being a Dalit and a woman in an ecologically fragile region is a relatively more vulnerable situation compared with being a man in better-developed areas.

Having done the research, one looks at ways of addressing the core issues. Currently, we are working on the issues of elderly people. So we have joined hands with groups working with the elderly across the country. An example is our collaboration with the Pension Parishad, with whom we have conducted research on the condition of elderly people in various parts of the country. We are a knowledge-development institution that provides academic credibility to collaborative research, which ultimately leads to socially useful policies and interventions.

Our work with the government is always very important. We are working with the new government [at the Centre]. There has been some success, such as in the emergent programmes for the elderly in Rajasthan. Rajasthan has developed a higher level of welfare pension and is further bringing the elderly in the ambit of all welfare schemes meant for children.

For instance, the elderly can now avail themselves of the midday meal programme. Since they are considered to be below the poverty line, they are also eligible for provisions under the PDS [public distribution system]. This is a shining example from Rajasthan which other States can emulate.

Let us take the example of the elderly again to demonstrate how we work on multiple dimensions, for which research serves as a starting point. In this case, at one level we are working to create a welfare pension programme, at another we are working for creating improved care for elderly people through our vocational education programme on gerontology. The course brings together both clinical and community care components. The latter is especially important in the context of migration and poverty—when children move away, the elderly are left behind. Not everyone can afford individual care. So we are demonstrating a model of community care in Kerala.

Is community interested at all in caring for the elderly or the marginalised people?

A community care model for the elderly can work. With the panchayat, the responsible authority for disbursing the pension money, as the locus, convergence of programmes can happen. What we are trying to demonstrate is that with the resources that can be mobilised through pension [Rs.1200 in Kerala], coupled with other social welfare benefits, it is possible to organise services for the elderly at the community level. The elderly can be brought to the community care facility where doctors can attend to the group rather than the elderly seeking healthcare individually. The elderly may also spend time in group activities and entertainment at the centre as a protection against neglect and isolation. That is what we are trying to demonstrate in Kerala.

If you are wealthy, you can have individualised care. But for elderly people who lack income and support, it is possible to create community care using state resources. At the same time, we must work with the government to enhance the resources for the elderly so that holistic support can be made available to them.

In India, more often than not, the visible social work practitioner is seen as an activist, a kind of thorn in the flesh, so to speak, be it the Narmada agitation or the many movements across the country. It is always a social activist who takes centre stage and leads agitations. Why does this happen? What other roles can a social worker assume given the fact that there is no great respect for a social worker in India?

The TISS was established in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, when liberalism as an ideology had failed, the world was recovering from the First World War and heading towards the Second. The Indian economy was in ruins. In Mumbai [then Bombay], there was unemployment and deprivation. It was in this context that the idea of establishing a school of social work germinated. The vision was to create human service professionals who would work with people in difficult situations. Social work has always been a profession that is supposed to deal with problems that are created by social, economic and political churnings and which in turn affect the life courses of groups and individuals.

In developed societies, the wealth generated through capitalism is redistributed to care for people who find themselves in difficult conditions. In a feudal society like ours, inherently exploitative situations and appalling living conditions exist for many people—being Dalit, being tribal, being a woman was never easy. Within such a societal frame when you introduce development of a liberal or neoliberal type, problems magnify for the already disadvantaged. It is an old predicament. Do you wait for the appalling conditions to become abysmal to begin social work, or do you anticipate problems and work to minimise adverse effects so that the problem stays manageable?

Most social workers in India tend to work with the absolutely underprivileged people, people in difficult situations. But there are also social workers who think that it is possible to deal with structural issues or to humanise development. When you see people who are dealing with the structural issues and trying to influence developmental issues that are creating impediments to people, then you see the social workers as a “warring tribe”. Our country cannot afford a redistributive model of development, what it follows instead is an Anglo-Saxon one which does not seek structural change, where wealth creation take centre stage but poverty is very acceptable. This process throws ever new challenges for human service professionals.

FEELING THE PULSE OF SOCIETYInclusive development... is it even possible?

What is the prevalent model of development all about? Historically, development is viewed as a process whereby nation states have moved from being largely agricultural to being largely industrial, largely rural to largely urban entities. Along the way, access to and control over the means of production have been reorganised. Some people accumulated wealth and the means of production, while a large number of people lost access to and control over these. Since the fundamental assumption is the investment and productivity of capital, accumulation has taken centre stage.

We have a situation today where one percentage of the world’s population controls over 99 per cent of the world’s wealth. That is where the model of economic development takes us. Some nations believe in better redistribution through welfare. Others are distrustful even of welfare, charity and philanthropy. In such places you leave people where you find them. Here, they may never get access to better education, skills and better employment. They may regress very far away from well-being. Such a model of development cannot be inclusive. It is not meant to be inclusive.

There is a view that social science research is an elitist indulgence in a country where a billion people go hungry. Is that a fair criticism to make?

Why do billions go hungry?

Yes, not because of allocation to social science research...

Billions go hungry because 10 per cent of the population consumes 90 per cent of the resources. And a large majority of people have very little to consume. What social science does is to study what’s happening to social processes and economic processes. It is able to say what the condition is, why it is so, and suggests how you deal with it. It does not matter if a country is rich or poor because social science does not take much resources compared with even basic research in the natural sciences. Social science is about showing us the mirror. Now, the truth is often very uncomfortable, so we tend to think it is unnecessary. But then, we also need to understand the social processes. If we do not understand the social processes, we will not be able to anticipate and cope with the strife and conflicts that increasingly emerge from disaffection. Social science research enables us to feel the pulse of society, chart the change processes and the causes and consequence of change. It is fundamental to peace, solidarity and national security. Viewing social science as a burden is unrealistic.

There seems to be an over-emphasis on rural deprivation compared with urban deprivation. Your own students go more to the rural areas than to urban areas. With the teeming millions flocking to the cities looking to make ends meet, don’t you think you should focus equally on urban deprivation?

Urban studies have always been an important part of work at the TISS. The Centres for Rural Studies and Urban Studies were established in the 1960s to understand the nature of people’s movement from rural to urban areas. Who were the migrants, why were they coming, where were they coming from, and what interconnections remained between urban living and the rural context. Understanding urban and rural contexts in continuum, rather than in isolation, has been integral to our work. We need to explore the factors and processes that push people out of rural areas. Development theory predicts that rural land use and resource patterns eventually change. Simultaneously, people’s skills evolve to match new conditions. We all know that while the Europeans had close to 4,000 years, the industrial revolution and the imperial colonies to make that transition, we are dealing with a situation where time is painfully compressed. While displacement of people from traditional livelihoods is happening at a rapid rate, we lack the capacity to create alternative employment for them. Hence the urgency to understand and intervene in the transformation taking place in rural areas, even as we address the influx of people and spread of deprivation in urban areas.


When you were handed charge of the TISS, you obviously had a set of goals in mind. What were these? How much of that have you been able to achieve? What areas need more work?

Truthfully, I simply had no idea what was waiting for me. I was on a P-5 United Nations posting in Bangkok. My annual salary at my present employment is less than my monthly salary there. So people were laughing at me, saying “this person is crazy”. My employers kept the seat warm for me for six months after I left for the position at the TISS.

In 2004, the only thing people in the selection committee asked of me was whether under my leadership the institution could be transformed, keeping in mind original vision and newer needs. The TISS presented an academic and managerial challenge. At that time, the teaching and research faculties at the TISS were clearly demarcated. Social work faculty were located in the teaching departments, social scientists populated the research units. There were 80 faculty members, and the annual student intake was 125. The institute was doing good work, but was it too little, fragmented and isolated from wider changes in economy and society? The one thing that I believed very strongly in, then and now, is that quality education is the best way to transform the people and the nation. I can say this from personal experience, hailing from a small village where my father was a marginal farmer, where we waited for festivals to have rice cooked at home.

The TISS governing board gave us permission to restructure the institute. We began a process of review and reflection with the Academic Council and the faculty to discuss and rethink the vision and mandate of the institute. From September 2004 until February 2006, all faculties, departments and units engaged in discussions about vision, relevance, mandate and our contribution to the external world. We commissioned two papers to document the critical reflections about the institute’s functioning, the relevance of its courses and contributions, emergent challenges and ways to address these. On the basis of these discussions, older departments and units were reorganised into schools and centres with diverse disciplinary focus. Also during this time, new programmes were introduced and faculty members were recruited. A long process was involved in establishing a relationship with the government. We had to debunk many myths. Everybody thought we were a private institute! Working with the government ministries was extremely important for achieving the goal of working with people.

Our restructured programme and collaborative work with the government improved our academic quality and created diversified employment opportunities for graduating students. This year, we were able to place 1,000 students. We run the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship programme. We are going to run the Prime Minister’s Skill Development Programme. What began as a TISS fellowship experiment is now emulated by many State governments that wish to initiate the Chief Minister’s Rural Development and Skill Development Programmes. Our contribution has been to create possibilities and increase the scope of work in the social sector. In the near future I can envision at least one development worker in every panchayat. Millions of jobs are needed and must be created in the social sector because it is extremely underdeveloped.

Earlier, the institute’s academic programme was focussed mainly on the discipline of social work. We introduced several new multi-disciplinary programmes such as Development Studies, Disaster Management, Public Health and Social Entrepreneurship to address the varied needs of the social sector. It was necessary to develop this expertise in our faculty and programmes in order to demonstrate our commitment to engage with the needs of the contemporary world. Often it was not easy to find resources to initiate new programmes. There is an interesting story around the setting up of the centre for Disaster Management.

FINDING PARTNERSWhat is the rationale behind expanding the way you have done?

We are a country of 1.2 billion people. In early 2000s, only 120 students graduated from the TISS every year. What difference could we make as an institution? Most of our students went to work for industrial houses or NGOs. While all the time what was really needed was social sector professionals. This country continues to need disaster management professionals, public health professionals, and of course social entrepreneurs. We can’t be talking about social and political empowerment without economic empowerment.

Initially, we only had a small campus in Mumbai. Many State governments requested us to create regional campuses. Finally we agreed on Hyderabad and Guwahati because these gave strategic access to the southern and eastern regions. We could disperse the students in different contexts, attract new faculty and create work with regional focus. We made concerted investment in areas where more immediate attention was needed.

As globalisation intensified, mental health became an important area of concern. Ten to 12 per cent of India’s population needs some form of help. For this, we had only psychiatrists with a highly clinical approach to mental illness. But mental health is more than a clinical issue. It is also a social construct. There are socio-economic and political processes that create conditions for people to develop mental illness. Mental health, the way it is conceived and dealt with, is different in different contexts. We wanted to approach mental health from a social perspective and create skills to enable professionals to work with people who were grappling with mental ill health at various levels and contexts. We wish to become very good at what we do, and to meet the challenge of creating professionals in mental health we are collaborating with the best institutions in the country.

All premier institutions seem to think that way...

We have our strengths, but many institutions are also doing cutting-edge work in areas such as mental health. We believe in working closely with such institutions. For instance, can we replicate what Adaikalam [The Banyan’s transit care home for mentally ill destitute women] is doing? What The Banyan is doing? Do we have a theory for it? While we have academic expertise, we must also develop the ability to work with other organisations and institutions. That is something we did less as an institution in the past. In recent times, we have established many such collaborations to meld knowledge and practice, which in turn would enhance both to create better solutions to social problems.

How easy or difficult is this process? Does it fly with academic councils or governing councils? How do you select partners across India? Is not long-term partnering risky, considering that most institutions are individual-centred?

We have to be very careful. We are choosing NGOs that have an accountable and transparent system and who respect the people they work with. They must have demonstrated skills and knowledge in that particular area and they should be willing to share that knowledge with others. We do a lot of assessment to understand whom we are working with. And I am willing to withdraw if preconditions are violated. We don’t work with institutions with profit motive. If service to people in difficult situations is your motive, then we will work with you. We work with groups like Aruna Roy’s MKSS [Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan], Barefoot College, The Banyan. Some like the Childline are established by our own students.


Are you satisfied with the quality of social science research in India?

The quality of social science research is very poor, fundamentally because the research agenda is set by the funding agency. We do the research because they give us the money. Social science research needs to have organic growth. The scholars must be able to establish the agenda, to have strong theoretical and conceptual orientation and framework, and be able to invest time and resources in investigating instead of being driven by sponsored research. Sponsored research is destroying the social sciences.

When James Wolfensohn took over as President of World Bank in 1995, he said, 10 years from now if anyone thinks about sustainable development, they will come to the Bank. Most of the multilateral and bilateral agencies transformed their funding to lend only to those institutions that are aligned with their ideological framework. So now when we talk about sustainable development, we don’t know what it is. When we talk about participation, the question is, whose participation? So basically this is what happened to social science research when the state withdrew and the funding agencies came in with their agendas. If you were for that kind of agenda-research, you had resources. If you had an agenda that was developed organically by the faculty on the basis of the needs of the nation and society, then you had a problem.


Staying with theory itself, there are political parties left of centre which have penetrated academic institutions and have tried to establish themselves very firmly in all areas of academic and institutional functioning. Then you have the rightists who are trying to make inroads. Does this fundamentally affect the working of an institution like the TISS?

Do the institutions have a vision? Do they have clearly defined objectives and an agenda on where they want to invest their resources? Make it public, make it known. Institutions must provide space for the depiction of all persuasions. Don’t limit to one particular ideology or paradigm. Provide the full range understanding of all development paradigms. Allow the organic growth of individual capabilities of the students. If there is clarity about that, then it is always clear on the direction taken. An academic institution should be the space for critical thinking and not dedicated to any one ideology. This is where the institution’s governing board, academic council and faculty need to be vigilant. We have a strong ethics committee to clear research proposals. The faculty and the students and the governing board are watchful of the work of the institute. This is very important. That’s where the TISS culture is very different. Our students can come and question us on specific research proposals. Our faculty have several forums to discuss issues and bring clarity to our work. Our functioning is absolutely transparent.

The TISS is on a path of explosive growth. Why did you want to leave?

The last 11 years as the Director of TISS have been relentless, extremely difficult and tiring. Much of my energy has been spent in worrying about finances. There have been other pressures. I teach a minimum 10 hours a week, guide M.Phil and PhD students and travel three days a week. This has been extraordinarily difficult. It has been an exhilarating but also an exhausting journey. The Governing Board of the TISS with Government of India and Tata Trust nominees and independent experts have been instrumental in shaping its direction. A new leadership with vision, energy and some courage can steer the TISS towards further excellence in the next 10 years.

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