Posted by: Vikram | July 30, 2009

An academic view, what is it worth ?

Its been a year since I started this blog. At this juncture, I would like to recall my mission,

add to our understanding of contemporary India as it goes through a period of rapid change.

The forces changing India are so varied and working towards such different goals that it is often hard to see things clearly. But standing on the shoulders of scholars does give one access to their knowledge and analytical capacities. Academics may have their biases but their work is for salary and satisfaction, not profit.

But on the other hand, academics, with its emphasis on rigor and verifiability makes it very hard for lay-people to comprehend many of the papers published.

No one can deny the dangerous distance between India’s intellectual communities and its emerging middle classes. This blog is a very small attempt to bridge that gap. The relation between a social scientist and a society has to be very different between that of a physics professor and society. Society may not need to know what the latest advancement in quantum physics is but it does need to know why a party was elected or removed from power, why a riot occurred and why people still vote along caste lines.

But in many papers that I have read, I have noticed an even more alarming distance, that between the scholars and the masses. Only four of the seventeen papers I have discussed here, actually had a research component where the author actually spoke to and directly engaged the masses. Far too many papers rely on indirect, unreliable sources (particularly the English media) to gather information and assess sentiment.

In the past social scientists relied (and they still do) on their books, magazine articles and newspaper editorials to make contact with the broader society. But today, technology and especially the internet allow scholars to publish their findings and analysis directly on the web and get feedback from readers. In this regard, social science journals have to take the lead and make their contents publicly available to read and comment on. The EPW has taken the right step in this direction and other journals need to follow.

An academic view of society may only be worth the number of people it actually reaches.

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Responses

  1. Congratulations on completing one year Vikram!

    Thanks Nita

  2. Good points Vikram – but much might depend on the subjects chosen; quantitative surveys and those on public policy, education, economics, and demogaphics would not have a direct interation component. Those focused on politics, political economy, sociology, media studies, migration, poverty, etc. necessitate actual fieldwork among the masses.

    Having just done my fieldwork I realise just how big the disconnect actually is between these groups in India in class terms. I guess it gets reflected in academic output as well. Most of the books I read, though are excellent for being based on meticulous fieldwork amongst their subjects!

    • Conrad, I just feel that a lot of times scholars in India are simply reluctant to ask the common people how they feel. This is particularly true about their analysis of middle and lower class sentiment, I feel.

  3. Sir, the distance between research papers and ground realities are increasing day by day. No one can become scholar with the life of comfort was an old wisdom quote. But one can become lethargic professor in our great doomed universities with the comfort of doing nothing or allegation of plagiarising journals.

    Congrats for 1 year. Just want to thank you that your blog was one of the few blogs which changed my life. Really, I mean it.

    “Yeh safar bahut hai kaThin magar
    nA udaas ho mere hamasafar”

    u take the lead, we are with you in changing India.

    • Thanks yayaver, that means a lot. We all have to do our bit in changing India. And you are right, no one can become a scholar living in comfort. And it is often most difficult for one to confront the most uncomfortable aspects of oneself.

  4. Vikram,my best wishes on completing 1st year.What ever I have read,I must say you have been writing well(I am still learning). Ultimately,content matters and you have done well. All the best.

    • Thank You Chowla Saab, your encouragement and kind words are appreciated.

  5. As you said correctly there should not be a big gap between social scientist and society. Congrats for completing a year in blogging

  6. i cannot agree but less , as always india does have an apathetic attitude towards social science research ( sweeping statement i know)
    1) there were only few funds for data collection. ( most of the funds were US/UK based – here again because the US foundations wanted the data and so collected it — but per se in india few such studies were conducted
    2) data collectors were not well trained.
    3) sometimes i have wondered at the questionnaire itself. ( Qualitative research started mostly at market research bureaus — and seeped into the field.
    there were few indian researchers ( reason: education system does not encourage analysis till you finish your masters ) and the few mostly had ph.d from the US and the Uk. but there were some good ones at TISS –
    socail science research had a “pho-phoo attitude a- and most of the researchers sat in their ivory tower –

    and today things have changed as you say …but i have not kept at it as much as i would have liked

    • Anrosh, I am wondering if the lack of funds for data collection are a reflection of our own cultural biases. Indians in general seem unconcerned with rigour and are more on the artistic side, I might be generalizing though. However the need for good quantitative research is acute and absolute as my previous post shows.

      If things have changed today, it is in large part because of the internet. Indians can now read what the international media and researchers know and think about India, more than anything because our own researchers are not upto the mark.

  7. Congrats on completing one year. Your blog always has some useful and informative posts, and I wish you would continue writing such posts. You could also take a look at Atanu Dey’s blog, which has a lot of interesting information.

    And a special thanks for sharing that link on the refinement of the social science syllabus in India. I am very very glad to know that. Excellent work done by NCERT, after reading that – for the first time I felt confident about India!

    Destination Infinity

  8. as you know most of the data analysis are used for policy making.
    does india proactively do such things ?
    Creating an agenda/ initative — needs departmental permission etc etc — even for pilot projects – as you say rigour is less. and if anything is done it is to attract “phoren” university attention! ( it sounds dreary, but that is how it is)
    they definitely have the brains, but lacks interest and initiative and requires bureaucratic permission ( think UGC). independent universities like TISS and Nirmala niketan , IIT’s HSS deparment a still do something
    if corporations were to understand how it would benefit them they could fund them – i don’t know if infosys or birla or mahindra are into such things. most of the funds that come to TISS are from the UN ( that means US inclined data.)

    I am only familiar with acad institutions in Bombay and so could be a myopic view. and most of my observations are more than a decade old !

    i had written few papers on sustainable development — NO value in India at all then !

  9. Congratulations Vikram 🙂 I couldn’t agree more with your last lines!

  10. Agreed Vikram. Academics use language that sometimes discourage folks from reading. Coming from an arts college (part of the University of Western Sydney), qualitative research benefits our understanding of the way music is used in society. Quantitative data helps me keep the research in perspective (the mix of male/female, upper/middle/lower income groups, etc.), but as someone who collects oral histories (for the current research anyway) the stories people tell and the language they use help me to see if the research means anything to anyone. Could we say that academic approaches are as broad as the field of investigation available, and some heavy reading is good exercise?

    • Absolutely, that would indeed be true of virtually any field of study. Depth does require effort and sophisticated communication. However, opening up social studies journals to the mass public will undoubtedly enrich the social scientist’s view, it will certainly not detract from it.

  11. @ DI and IHM: Thanks. 🙂


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