Dialogue April-June, 2011, Volume 12 No. 4
Indian Social Sciences: Historicity and Changes
It may be rewarding to observe how
the colonial history of India under the British rule, for its own purposes of
administration or as a part of the colonial ideology which went through
continual debates (such as the British utilitarians and others) set institutions
and processes which involved research, data collections and theorizing about the
nature of the Indian society and its civilization. Institutions were also set up
to generate data in non-social science domains, such as, geology, geography,
archaeology and several other physical features of India. Most of these have
been of immense significance for both socio-historical and physical planning and
development after India gained freedom. These research bodies have provided a
foundation of data from where to build further data base. However, for the
British, their colonial interests had the primacy over development policies. As
we scan through the ideological orientations in the colonial writings of the
early twentieth century about India , we find attempts to adduce data which
portray India, its social structure and culture comprising social entities, such
as caste, language, ethnicities and religion etc. as fragmented isolates rather
than forming a system with social, cultural and economic linkages. It clearly
illustrates the colonial ideology to deny India the historicity of a
civilization and society with diversity but also integrative linkages which
entitled it to emerge as an independent nation-state and freedom from the
colonial subjugation. Hence we witness how colonial ideology provides us an apt
first illustration of the ‘social conditioning’ of social science researches and
its uses to serve partisan interests.
The nature of this ‘social conditioning’ had to undergo radical changes in the organization of research and its ideology following India’s Independence. This ideology had evolved through the national movement for freedom. The organizational structure of research which the British had left behind had to be re-orientated and augmented in pursuit of the national goals of planned social and economic transformation. Thus, state emerges as a prime-mover in matters of defining the normative objectives and the financial and institutional input for research. The challenges confronting the newly liberated nation were manifold, but these could be subsumed under two main categories: evolving policies for bringing about structural social and economic transformation in the society to put it on to the course towards industrial, social and cultural modernization in keeping with the challenges of global industrial, political and social changes, and in this process to innovate upon the institutional and social base of society to help consolidation and formation of a modern nation-state. Primary role to achieve these goals rested with the state but the significance of people’s participation and of the existing structures and institutions of the political economy also could not be avoided. This has eventually led to the dynamics of the roles of the state, people (civil society) and the market in matters of social policies including the course of research in India.
State, Market and Civil Society:
Social science discourses have since its very inception been governed by two overlapping orientations: first, generation of critical societal selfawareness through deeper explorations of the changes in the social structural and cultural challenges with which a society is historically confronted, and secondly, devising methodology and techniques of research to empirically establish the factual dimensions of social and cultural processes and to formulate policies to deal with the challenges encountered by the society. Most critical debates on the role and relevance of social sciences belong to either of these two issues. At the dawn of Indian independence for historical reason state had to undertake the pre-eminent role in sponsoring as well as institutionalizing the research funding and organizations. On the initiative of the state, the Planning Commission sponsored numerous field studies through its Research Programme Committee in social sciences related to development planning as well as for precise understanding of the social, political and economic processes which played a crucial role in it. Studies were conducted in fields such as demography, urban planning, community development in rural and urban areas, panchayat institutions in villages, agriculture and agrarian developments, polity and its institutional frame works etc. These studies led to both generating the bench-mark data useful for implementation of policies and also in understanding of the basic social and cultural processes of the society. With a few exceptions, in normative and ideological sense as well as in terms of the choices of methods and techniques this phase of research in social sciences roughly spanning from 1950 to 1970 had a consensual character. This consensus was reflected by a general agreement implicit in the objectives and approaches enunciated in most of these researches which were commensurate with those of the state.
During this ensuing period of two decades, the fruits of the state effort to achieve the goals of development started showing results. These were by and large substantial, such as the ‘green revolution’ in agriculture, institutionalization of the panchayat system on a new foundation of norms and rules essentially democratic rather than feudal in character and similarly the role of leadership, party politics and voting behaviour in the functioning of democracy. Yet, these and other successes of the state in the development planning also gave rise to social and economic contradictions and sense of anxiety with regard to goals of egalitarianism and equity which led to issues of structural asymmetry. By the 1970’s period, the divisions not only sharpened the class contradictions in society but also broke the consensus among the social scientists about both the policies of development pursued by the state as well as the theoretical models and methods used by them. This inaugurated the emergence of a new phase which could be termed as a period of growth of ‘critical social science’ in India. Its main features were: first, the departure from the utilitarian paradigm, a paradigm based on a motivational theory of choice making of goals for people for their economic and social development which the state and the planners thought was best (rational) for them, and which was assumed they would accept since their choices were commensurate with such goals since they were ‘rational’. The failure of this theoretical assumption surfaced clearly in the implementation of the policies of population control which prevailed during the early decades of planning. The emphasis was on distribution of devices for controlling birth rate and distribution of financial and other incentives to the target groups to control population growth. This approach neglected the social structural realities of the target groups who belonged mostly to the poorest segments of society where the rate of child mortality due to lack of nutrition and health care was highest. In such cases, where mortality rate in many cases ranged up to ninety percent, it was rational and prudent for the poor to have more children as few would survive. Here the rationality of the planners was rendered faulty in comparison that of the poorer families. The crucial issue at stake here was not that of motivation but of the creation of structural resources to overcome the problems of nutrition and health care etc. to bring down the rate of child mortality. A policy accepted later which succeeded eminently in states like Kerala.
The second factor for the espousal of critical perspective was the emergence of social structural asymmetries and tensions in many sectors of society resulting from the development policies, even from policies which reflected success such as in the field of agriculture known as ‘green revolution’. This growth did create a financially well off rural middle class, but it was confined to peasants who had sizeable land holdings. The benefits did not reach out to the peasants with smaller holdings who out numbered among peasantry or to other poorer segments of rural population. Social and economic contradictions of development policies surfaced and had to be recognized. It also spilled over to the domains of politics, inter-caste relationships and a variety of social and economic contradictions. Consequently, new theoretical models, such as Marxist and neo-Marxist approaches, structuralist and conflict theories began to gain wider acceptance among social scientist. Thirdly, this phase inaugurated a new sensitivity which led most social science researches to begin to question the models of development sponsored by the state. The relationship between the social scientists and the state agencies sponsoring researches became more dialectical and dialogical in nature. This was particularly relevant in cases of ethnographic- sociological methods of inquiry. This sensitivity in social research and its discourses gave preference to, what came to be known as participatory method in social research.
The growth of identities had yet another consequence for both the substantive as well as the epistemological or ideological foundations in the new discourses in social sciences. The rapid growth in several new domains such as the Dalit, feminist and ethnic models of social science discourses led to innovative uses of conceptual categories and methodologies. Many of these models put a question mark on the ideological and epistemological premises on which, according to them most discourses in the academic researches were so far grounded. They emphasized the biases also in the notion of Indian tradition and its philosophical- empistemic assumptions implicit in such studies which took for granted the historical and cultural constructions of the Indian society and culture which reflected the ideology of the dominant classes, be they of Brahamanic origin or feudal-class biased or anchored in the ideologies of patriarchy (particularly reflected in the critique of the gender oriented social science discourses). A spate in alternate or even counter-ideological or epistemic uses of substantive and methodological choices in social research emerged as a consequence of these developments. For instance, Dr. Ambedkar’s construction of the nature of the Hindu society and its tradition, which clearly offered an alternate (or even counter-ideological) view on the past of the Indian society and its cultural traditions gained rapid legitimacy in the emerging epistemology of the social sciences.
Media and Market:
These developments in the social science discourses also coincided with a process of enlargement of the humanitarian as well as the developmental involvements of the state in public affairs. It also slowly initiated, at multiple levels the process of synergetic relationship between the state, the civil society and the academia. Two remarkable new entrants, however, into this process have been the media and the market. Well up to the end of the nineteen seventies, when the state was the major player, the electronic media were under full state control (with channels and programmes being beamed by its own centres), the private sector industries were under protection and control of the state (under its policies of economic and technological autonomy and import substitution etc.) and market being almost closed, the researches about the business of market advertisement of consumer goods and services were miniscule indeed. The major turning point came as a result of two factors primarily: first, the technologies of communication underwent a revolutionary change and leapt into the arenas which influenced the institutions and products of research and its discourses. Secondly, owing to global changes in economy and the realization that India was countenancing both economic crises as well as was increasingly being rendered uncompetitive and isolated in world market, stultifying its growth potential, the need for opening the economy, building up slowly since 1978, came to fruition from 1991 onwards. This initiated a new era in social science not without, however, generating several internal contradictions.
Changes in Communication Technology:
The changes in India’s economic reform policies coincided with revolutionary changes that were already taking place in the realm of information technologies.
The breakthrough made in satellite technology and its impact upon communication systems and tools inaugurated many changes which have had enduring and far reaching impact upon almost all aspects of human life. Communication technologies such as internet, telephony (cellular phones and its multi-media linkages) and computerization of the systems of management and governance etc, have brought about radical and unforeseen changes in a variety of dimensions of our economic, social, cultural and political life. It has ensured the indispensable pressure on the established institutions and their processes of functioning. The changes that it has initiated are now no longer localized or bounded by social categories such as class, caste, gender, religion or age etc. which traditionally functioned as factors of control over authority, information or knowledge systems (such as libraries and archives and repositories of records and manuscripts etc.), access to opportunities of social mobility and market-participation which are available through instant communication. It has also changed the mode of work, cutting across the distinctions of skilled and unskilled labour. Now it is possible for a professional as well as a unskilled or semi-skilled worker (a gardener, a plumber or taxi driver etc.) to be in instant contact with their patrons or customers. The people have been empowered by these changes to a degree that could not have been anticipated before.
The discourses in social sciences have not remained unaffected by these developments. The impact could be witnessed at several levels: first, social scientists are today face to face with new social structural and ideological phenomena which the information technologies have ushered in, such as global network of linkages in social interactions and the birth of dialogical communities or virtual communities, emergence of communication space for dialectics and contestations about ideologies and normative discourses with a variety of orientations, even those disruptive for the institutionalized system of state and civil society through the media of websites, bloggings and internet-telephony. A systematic study of these new social and cultural realities now constitutes an integral part of the cognitive, theoretical and methodological adumbrations in social sciences. This is reflected in the rapid institutionalization of media research organizations and establishment of institutes and research centers both in the non-state and state-funded bodies such as the universities and colleges. This has gained momentum primarily because of expansion of the role of media, both print and electronics offering employment opportunities. The print media, particularly newspapers, journals and magazines have gained a wider market owing to the growth in literacy, urbanization, the rise of middle classes, to proliferation of information technologies and even multimedia linkages in production and communication of their products. The recent surveys of newspapers and magazines in India clearly illustrate the ascendance of the regional-language newspapers often surpassing the circulation of the English medium counterparts. This has also added a new dimension to the role of media in influencing and articulating of the identities and aspirations of the people at the local and regional levels. This harmonizes well with the growth in regional politics and localization of culture and economy. The same trend can be seen in case of the electronic media, such as the radio and television. The number of channels has proliferated, reinforcing regional social, cultural and political values. This has led to the entry of local as well as the national level economic, political and cultural interest-groups into the television industry, which control the organization and its products. Media are thus turning increasingly into an arena for manufacturing as well as manipulating information, a variety of cultural symbols and projection of political and economic interest by groups, institutions (such as the state, political parties and corporate sector groups etc.).
These developments have coincided with rapid growth and institutionalization of communication research and its emergence as a separate discipline. New epistemic discourses have evolved with specificity of communication as an independent phenomenon having an ontological existence of its own. Similarly, its significance as a ‘master process’ basic to all social discourses has been also demonstrated both theoretically as well as substantively. Communication as a theme of study is now recognized as an independent discipline anchored into a methodology and espistemology of its own (see, Singh Yogendra: 2007 in Chattopadhyaya and Singh ed. 2007). A consequence of these changes is the rapid growth of research institute and centres on the one hand and on the other legitimation of communication both as relevant domain of knowledge and skill for a variety of employment opportunities thrown up by print media, electronic media, the corporate groups, the states, political parties and other interest groups pursuing their cultural and ethnic identities. The rapid pace of development and modernization in society has offered a new space for creative or adaptive synergy between goals of promotion of communication pedagogy with pursuit of interests and identities across a broad spectrum of our social and cultural life. It is reflected in the modalities in which communication knowledge and the special skills that it provides have been legitimated.
Communication researches and its establishments have now passed on from the past monopoly of sponsorship and control by government agencies. Corporate groups, entrepreneurs related to media and other interest groups tend to now institute their own research centres. Media research has by itself been now corporatized and numerous entrepreneurial ventures undertaking research projects from their customers (institutions and a variety of interest group entities) have sprung up in most parts of the country. This also includes the non-governmental voluntary associations. At this stage, the role of market in contribution to researches which also have implications for influencing the nature of changes in social science discourses has increasingly come to the forefront. The growth of markets in India for several decades was deeply embedded into the economic and trade policies of the state. Most capitalist enterprises of the time were catering mainly to the domestic consumer market in a secure environment of a fiscal and trade policy which aimed at import substitution which foreclosed competition from outside markets in respect both of product and technology of production. For this reason, the quality of Indian products lagged behind in most consumer sectors and the state’s policy of giving patronage to entrepreneurs through determining quota of productions and entitlement to it through licensing policies (often on a selective basis) rendered the incentive to improve quality of products and investment in technology rather non-functional. Some social scientists have even described this period of industrial policy as one of capitalism through state patronage.
Under these circumstances, since the producers of consumer goods had a near monopoly on the quality of products and the state determined its quantity, most competitions were internal, there did not exist as much of a need for the private enterprises to invest in market research and its promotion. The level of such investment, therefore, was bound to be of a limited extent. This situation completely changed since 1991 when radical economic reform policies were introduced and India slowly became a player in industrial and consumer products at the international level of market and capital exposure as well as to import of technologies of production. The competition became international both in terms of threats and opportunities to expand the market and quality of products manufactured within India. Many international companies now also entered into this venture. This has led to two major consequences: first, there has been a proliferation and expansion of market researches as never before. Secondly, the quality and depth of such researches has undergone very substantial changes. The need to understand cultural patterns and styles of life of consumer population with a diversity that we witness in India in terms of regions, religions, ethnicities and castes and classes the need for formulating more sophisticated models and paradigms of market research are required. This realization has led to substantial increment in investment in funds, personnel and organizational structure for research. With the expansion of the economy, the predominance of the state in guiding market processes has ceased to be as effective and the entrepreneurial skills required now for production processes, its management and organization and up-gradation etc. necessitate trained high quality management skills and marketing skills, apart from continual up-grading of technology.
The realization of this need has impacted upon the nature and quality of personnel needed for market research. It has been diversified in terms of disciplinary coverage, manpower, substantive domains of research and in formulation of conceptual and methodological tools. It has ushered in the need for rethinking in many of the epistemological assumptions which traditional academic pedagogy had handed down to the team. It naturally has generated disciplinary tensions and pressures for multi-disciplinarity in formulation of research strategies. The need for establishing full time research organizations for such purposes has led to investment in such establishments with optimization of both and skills. Earlier, the establishment of such institutes or research organization used to the exception rather than a necessity.
How have these changes in the institutional and epistemological horizons of social science researches impacted upon its discourses in India? As we have indicated, the significant institutional changes in this domain have, rather sequentially been reflected by the dynamics in the role of the state, the non-governmental organizations and the corporate sector (market) in addition to the traditional academic institutions such as the universities, colleges and institutes. Each of these institutional segments has its own historicity and also varying levels of strategic significance, commitment and responsibility to society. State has pre-eminent role and responsibilities, and in fact, could not be treated at the same level as the other institutions. It has sovereign control and is responsible for the total well being and security of all the citizens of the nation. Nevertheless, the objectives of security and well being of its citizens calls for operationalization of projects and institutional structures based on credible information and data. Historically, for this reason state has remained the most powerful source both for collection and processing of data in diverse fields of its concerns. Its beginnings go far back to the colonial times. Since then, however, its scope and institutional base has expanded manifold. In terms of scale, coverage, systemic controls and resources it surpasses all other segments of concern for research. The nature of the aggregate data that state agencies of research have generated and continue to update is essential for any credible formulation of propositions in regard both to factual and prescriptive aspects of social and economic policies for the nation as a whole.
Despite this pre-eminence, there are several points of convergence among the various segments, such as the NGOs, the market and the academia with those of the state, There may also exist areas of dissonance among these on account of the contested nature of the premises on which the conceptual foundation and operationalization of research projects has been undertaken. This dialectics between dissonance and convergence of objectives of research and data collection and its uses constitutes an important aspect of research traditions and priorities of the academic community in contradistinction to that of the state agencies, the market and the non-governmental organizations.
Some Critical Issues:
The nature of this dialectic is located in the historical process through which the research traditions and its discourses have evolved through time. The academic institutional and epistemic foundations of social sciences are anchored in broader and deeper critique of the logico- philosophical and normative issues in social science discourses. Most of these problems as they have evolved in social sciences have led to theoretical differentiations. For instance, in sociology theories such as dialectical and historical materialism (emanating from Marxist roots in philosophy), functionalism and phenomenology etc. claim their legitimation in their epistemological formulations and the manner in which they look at the nature of reality. Similar differentiations in theoretical premises could be found in economics and other social sciences. But the history of the growth in the social sciences can not be understood entirely from the perspectives on which the philosophical premises have been formulated. Without investigation of the factual nature of social phenomena to which theoretical models refer to in their premises, all such attempts would remain merely axiomatic set of logical deductions. The reference to the facticity of the social phenomena has invariably its roots in goals or objectives of research and recognition of the problems which social science theory aims at understanding and explaning for solution.
Ramkrishna Mukherjee calls them issues about ‘what is’, ‘why it is’ and ‘what will it be’ and these questions invariably carry the value load of ‘what should it be’. In philosophical terms, the question ‘what is’ refers to the ontology of social facts, ‘why it is’ to search for its scientific explanation, ‘what will it be’ to anticipated nature of change and ‘what should it be’ defined its ethical and normative validity and significance for society. We have noted how in our country a consensus did exist between the normative and operational goals of state sponsored researches and the goals of researches pursued by the social scientists for well over a period of two decades following independence. This consensus turned into criticism of state social and economic policies by the end of the nineteen seventies on account of contradictions that these policies generated in society particularly reflected in asymmetric nature of development, growth in social and economic inequalities and several other failures. These factors contributed to preference in social science studies for the uses of critical theoretical models, instead of the former preference for the ‘functionalist’ approaches. More and more studies began to be conducted which were premised on the Marxist theoretical orientations, others used theories which were variations on these such as phenomenology, reflexive critical theories. The processes of social and economic developments even though skewed in terms of inclusiveness did have many consequences which remained positive. Its examples are: the revival of agriculture through ‘green revolution’, extension in the sphere of political empowerment of the lower, marginalized and backward castes, communities and ethnicities through their participation in democratic institutions such as periodic elections at the national, state and district to village levels. This led to the growth in political consciousness, on the one hand, and on the other, to a new self-awareness among these group about their identities. Consequently, from nineteen seventies onward new streams of both substantive and theoretical researches followed, such as the ‘Dalit’ social science, the gender studies and studies of ethnicities. These were followed soon by studies reflecting concerns for human rights, ecological issues of preservation and sustainable development etc. Impetus to these also came from the rise of a variety of old and new social movements which necessitated the use of new theoretical sensitivity and substantive concerns in social science researches.
All these developments widened the social science discourses; not only the state but other institutions such as the NGOs and corporate sectors increased their presence in sponsoring social researches. As the pace of the economic growth and its global linkages increased following the new economic policies the scope for market entering into the field of social research grew manifold. These altered not only the scope of the substantive concerns in research but also its institutional foundation. A variety of firms or private consultancies to undertake researches for the corporate sector, NGOs and institutions related to them have emerged. These provide professional services to undertake researches commensurate with the objectives of the patrons and provide necessary data and findings of research. Market as an institution in the social science discourse has thus emerged. It has, however, limitations in regard to the focus upon methods of research and its prblematique. Mostly, survey methods for collection of data are used with occasional case studies. Since most researches have specific operational goals either for the comprehension of the nature of the market or seek bench-mark data for development projects funded for such specific purposes, these researches mostly tend to remain narrow in terms of self-selectivity of theoretical and methodological preferences. This has increasingly led to contradictions in the goals and relationships between the academic researches (located in universities, institutes of research and colleges) and the operational researches being sponsored through the market forces. This is not to deny that such contradictions should not be indispensable. There exist numerous examples of path breaking researches in social science using survey methods which have inaugurated innovative discourses in social sciences. As its example one could mention the emergence of the Critical School of Research in social sciences following the second world war in Germany and USA which provide us a creative blend of empirical survey method of research techniques with a theoretical depth that its impact was soon felt globally and led to a paradigmatic revolution in social sciences. The celebrated classics that such researches generated, to a mention a few of them are: The Authoritarian Personality, The Roots of Prejudice and the Open and Closed Minds.
Nevertheless, the presence of market driven discourse in researches in social sciences does deflect the orientation in researches on a wider scale because of its advantages in funding, choices in methods which C. Wright Mills called the supremacy of the ‘abstracted empiricism’ which turn into massive scales of research organizations and bureaucracy in research and its dissociation from normative concerns critical to the wellbeing of the society as a whole. Being anchored in pragmatic ideology, short term gains of profit-optimization has priority in such researches. Under certain circumstances, market oriented researches could even be used as instruments of subversion of the public welfare in preference for the interests of the corporate sector or in some cases of the NGOs and the state. In the West, particularly the USA, which has had a long history of such market driven institutionalization of researches several such instances have occurred. To some extent one may find a convergence of orientations in the objectives and methods of researches sponsored by the state, market and the civil society or NGOs. This refers particularly to the researches where intention is to collect data that may help in working out policies for specific and ‘here and now’ solution of problems. In the case of the state it refers to strategic or tactical social development goals, for the NGOs, the interest is focused upon action research for resolution of specific problems and for the market , the goal is to optimize profit with the data collected for market intelligence and related issues. None of these orientations address the basic issues of epistemology related to the constructions of conceptual categories and theories which may augment long term objectives of scientific research through acts of discovery and innovation of ideas.
This lacuna in instrumental or operational researches in contrast to the basic or fundamental researches is not, however, intrinsic to them but arises more often because of their institutional organization in addition to the objectives of research as defined by the institutions. Otherwise, as we mentioned above, we find any number of empirical goal-oriented researches for formulation of specific policies of immediate concern which also yielded discoveries of new conceptual categories and theoretical insight into the nature of social realities. The researches during the Second World War conducted by a team of social scientists to optimize the role and efficiency of the army soldiers published in the American Soldier series illustrates it forcefully. Apart from offering relevant data on how to strengthen and augment the efficiency and morale of soldiers in combat situation, the surveys threw light on the nature of group formation and membership, a theory of aspiration which led to the concept of ‘ reference group’ and methodological tools of ‘latent structure analysis’ by Paul Lazersfeld a member of the research team. The researches undertaken by Theodor Adorno, and his team which included Habermas and Horkheimer among others known as the Critical School of Research were in most cases empirical with extensive uses of statistical models and scalar analysis to explore concept like ‘authoritarianism’, ideological fanaticism and prejudice etc. but were theoretically embedded into a paradigm which integrated the theoretical insights drawn from the Freudian theory, Marxism, dialectical philosophy, phenomenology and theories of history. The agenda of research was to diagnose and explain the European cultural crisis perpetrated by the Nazi and Fascist movements, precursors to the Second World War which resulted into racial ‘holocaust’ and cult of authoritarianism and violence.
The concerns in social research arising out of the goals defined by the state, market, the civil society and the academia are, therefore, not intrinsically at variance or in contradistinction. Their objectives, and, therefore, the choice of their tools of research and normative and motivational preferences can be anticipated to be different by the very logic of their institutional orientation. Yet, each of these institutional affiliations of the research organization or origin does offer possibilities of creative fusion of meta-theoretical and normative concerns which may be relevant for promoting both instrumental and fundamental goals of research. The formidable problem that social scientist face in undertaking such fusion or integration of perspectives and discoveries which apart from serving the needs of immediate utilitarian concerns has also the ability of throwing up conceptual categories and substantive insights of a general explanatory character rests in the lack of transparency and access to data. In this context, the state as well as the corporate market sectors which have resources and generate massive socially significant data on a large scale not possible for an individual scholar ever to generate, are not made accessible for analytical treatment. Each of them has to offer its own strategic reasons. Policies would have to be evolved to make such data available to academic institutions and individual scholars, if not immediately then after a time span which are considered feasible. Moreover, common forums for dialogue among the researchers from these various institutional sponsors of research may contribute to integration of social science discourses. This would enrich the foundations of social science research as well as its conceptual and methodological tools and superstructures which would have an enduring and cumulative significance for creativity and innovation.