Home > Liberation Main Page > Index Page September 1996 >.


The Death of Social Science Research

Arvind N. Das

There seems to have been a curious connection between peasant and student activism and officially sponsored social science research in India. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, just when the movements of militant agricultural labourers and poor peasants were finding their loudest echoes in the campuses around the country and vast numbers of students appeared to be restlessly seeking ways to transform society, a number of "institutions of higher learning" were set up through official patronage. Now that the threat from those fronts seems to have abated, the same institutions are languishing, apparently afflicted by terminal illnesses.

Perhaps the most noted of such institutions was the Jawaharlal Nehru University, set up at the height of the Naxalite movement, with the avowed aim of giving at least some radical or potentially radical sections of the intelligentsia a place under the official sun. A well-endowed university, JNU lived up to the expectations of its founders. It provided a controlled environment for the airing of leftist thought, a hot house as it were for inconvenient ideas which could be quarantined within its ivory towers. The virus could thus be checked from spreading and infecting other, more vital parts of the body politic. The ambience of JNU was so deliberately created that it appeared to allow for free debate when it fact it was, largely, an inward-looking, almost incestuous institution engaged in internecine disputes among leftists. The encouragement given by the Establishment to what D.D.Kosambi derisively called "Official Marxists - OM" so tied them to the apron strings of the rulers that the brightest stars among them have ended up merely ghost-writing the budgetary wisdom of the likes of P. Chidambaram and authoring inane documents like the common and agreed minimum programme, an activity that comes naturally to CAMP-followers of capitalism.

JNU at least has had the redeeming feature of the presence of students, a feature that has to some extent stimulated its teachers to carry on research. Other purely research institutions set up at about the same time as JNU have, by and large, not had even this advantage. Indeed, the "professionalisation" of social science research in the early 1970s created an enormous but intellectually under-employed unintelligentsia whose productivity, low to begin with, has, over the years, gone down both quantitatively and qualitatively. And, the prime institution responsible for this state of affairs is the Indian Council for Social Science Research and, to a lesser extent, its "poor cousins" the Indian Council for Historical Research and the Indian Council for Philosophical Research.

ICSSR, and ICHR and ICPR for that matter, were set up with the intention of separating research from teaching, a principle flawed in its very premises. In fact, apart from only a few non-teaching social science institutions like the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune, good research in India always drew from teaching. Even in as specialised an institution as the Indian Statistical Institute at Calcutta, activities like formulation of the Second Five-Year Plan accompanied, and indeed benefitted from, teaching graduate students. The best research in the pre-ICSSR phase was the product and by-product of university teachers, whether at Lucknow - notably in sociology and political economy - or at Bombay - in political sociology and economics. Nevertheless, the foundation of the ICSSR and its sister institutions was based on the false premise that research required an even greater aloofness, a higher and more isolated ivory tower, than was available in universities.

The problem was that these "specialised" research institutions had some resources but lacked a problematique precisely because they were cut off from the mainstream of society. Thus, as long as they could not escape noticing what was happening in society on account of its sheer intensity, they did attempt to get involved in the major discussion regarding the "mode of production" particularly in the context of the on-going agrarian unrest in the 1970s. However, as soon as the force of peasant movements abated somewhat, these specialised researchers either switched on to more arcane concerns or, by and large, lapsed into inactivity. This suited the state fine, since critical social science was hardly what it required in a period when the urge to globalise was strongest in the ruling class and set.

In any event, a very large corpus of researchers in India had been converted into bureaucrats by then through the process of their criticality having been substituted by career security. The ICSSR, for instance, did little research on its own; it did "research management". And even this management was of a very low order, almost proto-capitalist in orientation: it was more about doling out money on a putting-out system and on a patronage-clientelist basis than organising research in a creative way. Thus, the ICSSR mandarins turned into mere dispensers of money, exercising feudal sway over their beneficiaries.

Among the feudatories are the more than two score research institutes funded by the ICSSR. There is one in almost each major state and, appropriately given the nature of the Indian polity and sham federalist culture, half a dozen in Delhi. These institutes replicate the existence and experience of the hegemonic body, the ICSSR. Their grant-in-aid covers maintenance of infrastructure and staff salaries but it does not include even seed money to promote research. Thus, like the ICSSR itself, most of these research institutes have become parasitic, bureaucratic and brain-dead bodies.
Besides, in the last few years, the real value of even those grants has declined on account of inflation. Hence, many of these institutions are unable to buy books, subscribe to journals, upgrade computers and even maintain the infrastructure for research. The currently fashionable philosophy of privatisation, of raising resources for public activities - like social science research - from private donors has pushed many of these institutions into the arms of international agencies and that in turn has resulted in placing extraneous priorities on Indian research bodies. Even those institutions, like the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, which have on their faculty respectable, accomplished and Left-oriented researchers have, as a consequence, had to rely more and more on international consultancy than original, critical social science research.

Other institutions are worse placed. The famous "K.N. Raj Institute", the Centre for Development Studies at Trivandrum has turned into a teaching shop affiliated to the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Chandigarh-based Centre for the Study of Rural and Industrial Development has for long been an omnibus racket. The Centre for Policy Research in Delhi gets legitimacy from the ICSSR and cash from foreign funders and is in essence both a parking lot for retired bureaucrats and lobbyists for the US-oriented globalisers. And, the Giri Institute for Development Studies at Lucknow has witnessed more fist fights and litigation on campus than research output.

The purpose of the state has been served. A large body of researchers who could have troubled the state by asking uncomfortable questions were rendered silent and their interests were diverted towards esoteric exercises in post-modernism. Researchers were cut off from more volatile students. Social scientists were de-politicised. And, the crucial relationship between science and society, vital to the development of theory and evolution of creative praxis was severed. Status quo was protected in the realm of thought as in the material world.

The significance of this is worth reflecting upon. Those involved in social change in general and Marxists in particular have always appreciated the importance of critical research. Indeed, even as Marx proclaimed in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that "Philosophers have interpreted the world in many ways, the point is to change it", he as well as subsequent Marxists not only carried out research of immense theoretical and practical relevance themselves but they also drew upon the works of others including those who belonged to different ideological persuasions. In India, however, the death of social science research through institutional fossilisation has meant a poverty of philosophy which has disastrous consequences for the processes of social transformation.

This is not to say that individual researchers and even some institutions have not carried out significant work. They have and Marxists today must seriously examine new ideas put out like those on Subalternism, cultural and economic globalisation and even on post-modernism. This should be in the spirit of Marx himself: De omnibus disputandum (Question everything) but also through not letting intellectual scepticism get the better of political advance.

It is for this reason that it is worthwhile mourning the death of even conventional social sciences in India.

Home > Liberation Main Page > Index Page September 1996 >.