With much curiosity, I participated in a national seminar on "Communal harmony and secularism: Indian experiences" in Allahabad last week. I heard very promising papers on the Muslim middle class in Kerala (following up on Ashutosh Varshney's seminal work1), on gender in communal violence (rather surprisingly delivered by a male colleague), and on the ups and downs of Hindu communalism in Kashmir. 2 For those three papers alone it was worth attending the seminar. I also heard, however, a good many opinionated and sloppily presented rants, often by senior faculty who took the opportunity to "float some ideas" at the expense of valuable discussion time. Apart from debates on reservations, Pakistan, and "balance"3 - the major points which emerged for discussion -, the seminar thus provided a revealing glimpse into the thick mainstream of Indian social science. Some observations:

Social science in the Indian province

Social science in the Indian capital

Firstly, hierarchy proved pervasive, and was usually based on status rather than quality of argument. Within half an hour of being on campus, I saw post-docs touching the feet of their former supervisors without receiving blessing (which traditionally should follow suit). I saw seating arrangements which tentatively followed the double hierarchy of seniority and gender: male professors in the middle, female students in the outer ring. I saw a schedule which allowed for as many chairs, co-chairs, "speakers" and discussants as there were actual panelists - in order to accomodate a senior faculty which apparently expects as much. And I saw an audience falling asleep while one of these esteemed "speakers" took his (and our) time to mumble away on a completely unrelated topic for so long that the actual panelists were left with only 5 minutes each in the end. A pity - and the reasond behind today's post's picture...

Secondly, I was surprised at the extent of opinion voiced - often at the expense of empirical analysis. By and large, politics superseded description, and description superseded arguments. One reason for this is undoubtedly the poor methodological training provided in many research degrees, which in turn is often a function of insufficient funding. Insufficient funding continues in that few scholars can afford empirical work, even less so at junior stages of their career. The result is often an over-reliance on normative theoretical tracts (whatever is available in the local library, really) and on personal experience.

Lack of funding can, however, not be the sole reason behind this political bend: on average, papers became more opinionated the higher up a speaker was in terms of hierarchy. Yet: if anyone is able to afford empirical work in India, it is the higher-ups... So in effect those (junior) colleagues who want to do empirical analysis can't for lack of funding - while at least some of those (senior) ones who could do it prefer to rely on their status alone. Of course even outside India, the paper which consists of thorough arguments is rare. Yet in my experience so far, scholars usually replace arguments with plain description and not with normativity - why Indian academic culture instead prefers political statements is a question for further enquiry. Any thoughts?

Lastly, I was surprised at the wide quality gap between the best and the worst papers. On the unqualified side, for instance, I heard an established social scientist opining in all earnesty that dictatorship in Pakistan lies in Muslims' blood - a statement so disturbing in an academic setting that I was rather glad to see that it was immediately countered from the audience. In a similar way, I was also surprised to learn that most Muslim Indians voluntarily seclude themselves from education, that the poor cause riots, and that secularism is unacceptable to India because it is an imported Western concept.4 On the positive side were some very fine papers such as those praised in the beginning, warm hospitality, and engaging discussions with excellent junior scholars.

I thus have to conclude with the very emphasis on plurality and diversity which concluded the seminar itself: there is no such thing as "social science in the Indian province". One rather finds a very wide spectre; to observe this spectre live and in action was in fact as valuable for me as the seminar itself...

  • 1. Varshney, A. (2002). Ethnic conflict and civic life. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
  • 2. My own, rather inferior, paper is here should you be interested
  • 3. i.e. the assumption that blame and praise for all communities should be equal, irrespective of empirical distributions - a view very much confirming my concerns voiced last week...
  • 4. The Vice Chancellor of the University, however, made the very accurate observation that parliamentary democracy is as imported as secularism - yet no such objections are raised in this case. Still, the assumption that the validity of a concept (and I am not talking its pragmatic acceptability here, beware!) somehow depends on its historical geneology was shared by most colleagues...