Last week, I went to New Delhi to attend an ICSSR strategy workshop on improving social science research in India (set up in the wake of this report and shortly before the new budget year starts). After an early morning arrival and the disillusion that the only breakfast option at Connaught Place at such an early hour is McDonalds, I waived down an Auto Rickshaw to proceed straight to the conference hotel - The Ashok, a Government of India enterprise of the surprisingly efficient sort. Somehow, breakfast at McDonalds insulted my Indian sensibilities. But little did I know about the Ashok!

Social science in the Indian province

Social science in the Indian capital

The story began at the outermost gate, where the guards were rather bemused to see a Gora arrive in a humble three-wheeled conveyance. My Auto Rickshaw was not allowed on the driveway, so I got down, paid my 50 Rs, and turned to the guards to ask whether they want to x-ray my suitcase. That the Gora was speaking Hindi turned their bemusement into somewhat more ambivalent bewilderment: surely they wanted to check this fellow rather thoroughly. After five minutes of x-ray, questioning and body search, they were however convinced that I am indeed only an anthropologist.

So the walk began, the walk of intimidation up the sloped driveway, passing the first parking lot, the second parking lot, and the restaurant, to finally arrive at the large marble entrance hall (a short stretch of that walk is depicted in today's picture to the right). A large banner announced that the Ashok and the ICSSR were happy to welcome chief guest Kapil Sibal, honourable Union Minister for Human Resource Development (education). I felt that they were not quite as pleased to see me, however: even though I put on a freshly laundered shirt, jacket, and tie before I got off the train that morning, the Ashok felt unfit to take my small suitcase in storage for the day. I might have been invited to the conference, but I was not their guest. Though, if Sir pleased, Sir could take his breakfast of dry toast and thin coffe in the Coffe Shop, for 900 Rs only.

Well, what should I say: I pleased (if only to buy myself some time out from the intimidating marble lobby). Breakfast was good for people watching: many Chinese businessmen, a few senior bureaucrats and one or two distinguished European professors with their wifes, attending the same workshop (the professors, not necessarily the wifes). The majority of those present were however waiters with different responsibilities, hierarchical status, and familiarity with English. In colloquial Hindi, they sometimes made mocking comments on the attire of the few European engineers around (shorts and all) - and looked very confused when I, too, began to giggle...

Why am I telling you all this? In short: to set the context. The context to what was quite honestly a very insightful, and careful deliberation of challenges faced by contemporary Indian social science researchers. And while I will shortly return to the issue of the context of these deliberations, let me briefly highlight at least three key insights:

1. As elsewhere, Indian social science lacks money. But other than elsewhere, the gap between demand and supply is truly huge: in monetary terms, the ICSSR, for instance, provides a mere 3% of what the natural sciences receives, and can only satisfy a negligable number of PhD or post-doctoral scholarship applications. Moreover, as Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat - current ICSSR and former UGC chairman - pointed out: most of this funding goes de facto to very few excellent institutions. (What he did not point out was that these institutions also dominated the list of participants to this workshop - my own JNU on top of them all.) Despite all this, however, the most honourable chief guest - Minister Kibal - was rather clear in that the government's priority remains primary education, and that no social scientist should expect huge funding boosts for the near future. So far, so expectable.

2. More interesting to me were thus the discussions on how to improve research quality without spending more money. Especially Prof. Pranab Bardhan made the point that Indian social science suffers badly from a "culture of mediocraty" - too many mediocre researchers, who tend to prefer to remain in the company of other mediocre colleagues. While I disagree with the remedies Prof. Bardhan recommended, his diagnosis surely reminded me of my own observations of social science in the Indian province. Over the frequent tea breaks, I repeatedly tried to make one point very clear: to encourage your students - right from undergraduates through to post-docs - to be curious, to argue in pursuit of a clear research question, to challenge existing wisdom (including your own) does not cost more money than asking them to summarize the poor publication record of their supervisors. To encourage analytical argument would thus be a good place to start improving social science research in India - and it would be a strategy which does not bust the budget.

3. But such a culture of curiosity of course needs institutional support to sustain a viable research culture, as both Prof. Partha Chatterjee and Prof. Rajeev Bhargava pointed out. Mind you: support need not (only) mean money, and institutions need not mean separate institutions. You could start, to take but one example, by changing the teaching entrance test for university lecturers - many of which receive a fairly good research training at the few excellent islands (JNU and elsewhere), but have to unlearn many of their skills upon entering state universities. Furthermore, one would also need to link teaching and research more thoroughly throughout the width and breadth of social science institutions - gap years in ICSSR institutes for average college teachers (and researchers) could be a good way of achieving this. With the question of reaching out to the width and breadth comes, however, the issue of "context" back to the fore - and with a vengeance.

In a way because of this context, today's post ended up being more about the Ashok than about Indian social science at large. My own experience of arriving at a five-star-institution with my broken Hindi, getting off a three-wheeled vehicle, and being relegated to a breakfast of dry toast and thin coffee arguably reflects how the majority of Indian social scientists would have felt.1 Broadening the agenda of this workshop to include them might turn out to be the biggest challenge of all - and not just in monetary terms...

  • 1. I am not claiming, of course, that I can speak on their behalf - as a Western young scholar affilliated to not one, but currently three excellent institutions. My argument is rather that the experience as someone alien (foreign, young, unconnected, not quite used to five star hotels) to an established club conveys parallel emotions...