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.

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

  • 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...