Whither social science research?

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

A seminar in Chennai deliberates on the directions taken by social science research in the time of globalisation and privatisation and searches for new perspectives.

IS social science research facing a crisis of relevance in the era of "fast food and big bytes"? With successive governments implementing policies of liberalisation and globalisation vigorously in the past decade and several institutions facing a severe resource crunch, it is at least on the retreat. This has caused concern among social scientists, and this concern found expression at a seminar organised by the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in mid-April. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists and demographers and also government officials from all over the country converged in Chennai to deliberate on "Future of Social Sciences: Search for New Perspectives".

Before Independence, social science research was almost entirely confined to a few universities and did not get much financial support. However, this did not deter academic activity. In fact, vigorous studies were undertaken on practically every aspect of society and scholarly public discussions were organised on socio-economic and political issues.

The situation changed after Independence. It came to be accepted that social science research should help achieve development and social justice within the framework of democracy. This new direction created enormous demand for information on various aspects of the economy and society and its analysis and interpretation for use in policy-making. It was in this context that institutions that are funded and largely controlled by the government emerged - the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, the National Institute of Health Administration, the Institute of Applied Manpower Research, the Institute of Agricultural Research Statistics, the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, and so on.

Public policy is influenced by diverse, and often conflicting, views. For competing interests and ideologies to find free expression, which is the essence of democracy, there was the need to set up non-governmental institutions that could collect data and interpret and analyse them. Such institutions were set up by private, profit-oriented consulting organisations, which were funded by corporations or industry associations, and by non-governmental organisations with social concerns, which were funded by private trusts, foreign foundations and bilateral and multilateral funding agencies and public agencies. University faculties and advanced research centres, funded largely by public agencies, also took up social science research.

In the 1950s and 1960s, social science research was concentrated in the metropolitan cities of Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. The Delhi School of Economics and Presidency College, Kolkata, were reputed for research in economics. These institutions captured the larger picture but failed to give the local perspective - which is a major problem, especially in a large and diverse country such as India. At the same time, social science research suffered in university centres because they concentrated primarily on teaching. It was felt that social science research should be moved out of the university system without discontinuing public funding, as in the case of natural sciences, which come under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The process of decentralisation of social science research began in the early 1970s, with the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) setting up institutions across the country. These institutions, which enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, focussed on research and adopted a multi-disciplinary approach. By the late 1990s there were 27 institutions under the ICSSR. They were largely financed by the ICSSR while the governments of the States in which they were located also contributed substantial funds.

These centres were set up with the objective of studying local issues from a multi-disciplinary perspective without losing sight of their core areas of research - the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, focussed on economic history; the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, on the socio-economic problems of Kerala; and the Centre for Social Studies, Surat, on sociology.

A factor that enhanced the stature of these institutions was the involvement of eminent personalities in their establishment and the drawing up of their research agendas. For instance, J.P. Naik and G. Parthasarathy played this role for the ICSSR, K.N. Raj for the CDS, V.K.R.V. Rao and M.N. Srinivas for the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore, and Malcolm S. Adiseshaiah for the MIDS.

These institutions contributed immensely to the understanding of local issues. For example, the 'Kerala model' of development that is discussed extensively by social scientists has its basis in the comprehensive research done by CDS. But excessive concentration on local issues often had the effect of fragmenting work of high quality and isolating the institutions.

Hardly any attempt was made to consolidate their work through interaction or collaboration. The ICSSR did not do much to remedy this anomaly. Fragmentation of research made the work in these institutions excessively empirical, as it deals only with local concerns. Many of the centres lost sight of the larger theoretical issues and social perspectives. In fact, some of them were closely associated with the respective State governments and their research became highly policy-oriented.

Autonomy, the primary objective of these institutions, got eroded. There were three reasons for this. First, the institutions get a large part of their funds from the ICSSR, which depends on the Centre for finances. Using this leverage factor, the government of the day has tried to influence ICSSR institutions in such a way as to suit its ideological orientation. A case in point is the recent controversy over the attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government to saffronise social science research and fill institutions such as the ICSSR and the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) with persons subscribing to the ideology of Hindutva. ICSSR Chairman Prof. M.L. Sondhi, a BJP supporter himself, recently sought the Prime Minister's intervention to end the "siege" of the Council by seven of its members (belonging to the BJP) who have attempted to "interrupt the scholarly activities in the ICSSR" and are "radically changing its course and forcing it into intellectual obscurantism." He said that he would not allow his political affiliation to cast a shadow over academic objectivity.

Secondly, State governments that are involved in funding ICSSR institutions that are located in their territory interfere with the research work. They often take the narrow view that social science should be essentially policy-oriented, and put covert and overt pressure to take the research in a direction that would suit their interests and objectives.

Thirdly, many ICSSR institutions are facing a deep financial crisis. According to Dr. K. Nagaraj, Professor at the MIDS, funding social science research does not seem to be a priority for the Central and State governments. As a result, many institutions try to tap alternative sources of funding, such as United Nations organisations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Often, these funding agencies set the agenda for research which the ICSSR institutions are forced to follow if they are to survive. Thus ends their autonomy with regard to the areas of their work.

According to Dr. A. Vaidyanathan, Professor Emeritus, MIDS, considerable public funds are available but they do not reach these institutions mainly because of systemic failures. The lack of transparency and a coherent distribution policy are the major problems, he says.

Restoring the autonomy of ICSSR institutions is an imperative to revive the relevance of social science research. This will enable the institutions to work not just on short-term policy-oriented issues but on long-term socio-economic issues without the interference of either the state or the funding agencies. A regular flow of 'free' finances from the state will help achieve this objective.

The question of finances, according to Vaidyanathan, also raises the question of accountability of these institutions in terms of the quantity and quality of research they take up. One way of ensuring accountability is to encourage interaction among them. Besides putting an end to the fragmentation of research, such interaction would help them come out of their isolation.

In this context, five ICSSR institutions based in South India - the MIDS, the CDS, the ISEC, the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (Hyderabad) and the Centre for Multi-Disciplinary Development Research (Dharwad) - agreed at the seminar to interact and collaborate among themselves.

Another major topic of discussion at the seminar was the crisis now faced by every social science discipline. According to Dr. B.K. Agarwala, Professor of Philosophy, Lucknow University, the crisis is primarily because the old convictions about four major areas of inquiry - the nation-state, markets, democracy and political institutions - are undergoing a change. For instance, the nation-state is getting marginalised by multinational corporations on account of the policies of globalisation and liberalisation pursued by the government and the markets are being manoeuvred by advertisements which play a major role in influencing the preferences of consumers. With corporate bodies dominating the scene, individual players no longer seem significant in the market, democracy or society. Old certainties with which research is pursued have been questioned, particularly after the crisis in socialist societies. On the other hand, the triumphalism of capitalism and globalisation has also proved to be short-lived. These changes call for a rethinking on the approaches and perspectives of social science research.

Dr. C.T. Kurien, Chairman, MIDS, said that there was the need for an urgent reappraisal of the way social scientists understood society and social realities, particularly in the light of the changes occurring in the economy and society. Dr. K.S. Singh, former Director-General of the Anthropological Survey of India, said that the deepening inequity of knowledge needed immediate attention. In the context of a globalising world, it was important to situate social science research in the multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious identity of the people, which was India's strength, he said.

According to Prof. Amiya Bagchi, former Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, the development of the capabilities of human beings would not yield results if the fruits of economic growth were not well distributed.

Dr. V.K. Natraj, Director, MIDS, said that the crisis was primarily rooted in the gradual separation of teaching from research, which not only pushed one away from the other but also gave way to a hierarchical system - research in the ICSSR institutions is considered to be superior to post-graduate teaching in universities, which is placed above graduate teaching in colleges. Natraj blamed social scientists for their "collective failure" to communicate their "indispensability or utility" to the outside world.

According to Dr. D.P. Pattanayak, former Director of the Central Institute of Languages, Mysore, social science research should be people-oriented, and hence the need to study society from various perspectives. Dr. Janaki Nair, Fellow, ISEC, regretted that some areas on which considerable empirical work is available are not even integrated as social science disciplines. Citing Women's Studies, she said they are marginalised and treated as the appendages of economics, sociology or anthropology.

With the financial crunch narrowing the focus of social science research and making it project- or market-oriented, the emphasis of research has shifted from a broader, liberal approach to the "technical" aspects of the field. Unless this trend is reversed, research institutions would end up providing low-end technical manpower to the West without any strong base in theoretical perspectives in specific fields and a liberal orientation. This can have serious implications for the development of the polity and society. While this is the general trend all over the world, some influential intellectual voices in the West keep emphasising the need for a larger perspective in education and research. The absence of such voices has deepened the crisis in social science research in India.


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