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Research in Engaged Social Sciences: A Few Concerns

Research in Engaged Social Sciences: A Few Concerns

An informed market for theoretical research, a good doctoral programme, cross-deputation of teachers and researchers, proper incentives, adequate funding, the availability of data in the public realm, and competent administration are some of the necessary conditions for the generation of quality research in the social sciences. Bilingual research makes no sense in today's world.

DISCUSSION

Research in Engaged Social Sciences: A Few Concerns

Nilanjan Ghosh

projects. A university researcher is interested in working on game theory and asymmetric deterrence models. Another econometrician working on empirical econometric frameworks claims his studies will be useful for forecasting, sensitivity analysis, and impact studies. There will

An informed market for theoretical research, a good doctoral programme, crossdeputation of teachers and researchers, proper incentives, adequate funding, the availability of data in the public realm, and competent administration are some of the necessary conditions for the generation of quality research in the social sciences. Bilingual research makes no sense in today’s world.

The opinions expressed are personal. The author acknowledges helpful comments and inputs from Satyajit Chattopadhyay on the previous draft.

Nilanjan Ghosh (nilanjan.ghosh@maerindia. com) is with the MCX Academia of Economic Research, Mumbai.

Economic & Political Weekly january 26, 2008

A
propos the article, ‘Research Programmes for Engaged Social Sciences’ by Mukhopadhyay et al (EPW, December 1, 2007), one wishes to point out that though the report on the state of social science has been well drafted, it has, in a way, opened a Pandora’s box. The deliberations at the meeting not only fail to touch upon many pertinent points, but also evoke several questions on some of the suggestions made.

One agrees that social science research is increasingly dependent on project funding. This is not an Indian phenomenon, but has a worldwide occurrence. Industry, governments, and multilaterals are interested in specific questions that are of immediate concern to them. As rightly argued by Mukhopadhyay et al (2007), there is “…also a need to raise questions and develop theories”, which might not be possible “…under conditions of projectbased research alone”. They have thus suggested broad research programmes that are built around specific issues and which will discuss matters of theoretical import, apart from matters of immediate concerns. They suggest a core group that will manage this research programme and examine in detail whether a project is consistent with the overall aims of the programme and whether it can be funded. This is quite agreeable because “…knowledge generated by these programmes would be of use to all those who engage with the social sciences”.

Our concern is whether such programmes will find a financier or a sponsor. Mukhopadhyay et al feel that these programmes can find financial support from the government, private sources, or private-public partnerships as this will be beneficial to them. It is, however, doubtful whether fundamental research in social sciences can really find substantial funds. Let us compare two situations in two be a galore of projects available for the latter as the industry, government, and NGOs in India feel that there is a need for the latter’s skill more than the fundamental theoretical research happening in game theory, or with Kuhn’s definition of “paradigm”. It is amply clear that sponsoring fundamental research in India is low on the list of priorities of financiers, possibly because of the inherent myopia not only on their part, but also on the part of the universities and institutions teaching social research methods.

Mukhopadhyay et al, have clearly missed out the point that even in universities and institutions where social research methods are being taught, there probably is no component on how to conduct theoretical research. The research modules are confined to empirical research only, and get divided into qualitative and quantitative research methods. Probably, teachers take little or no cognisance of these modules, but they fail to realise that theoretical research can lead to a better appreciation of the social norms and can be linked to market needs. Hence, theoretical research that models the social phenomena in India is rare – not only because of lack of training, but also because of the lack of an informed market on this issue.

Cross-Deputation of Teachers and Researchers

Cross-fertilisation and exchange of ideas between teachers and researchers is absolutely imperative in today’s education, and is important for breeding researchers of the future. The article has dealt with this exchange of ideas in a manner that seems to be conforming neither to principles of research nor to those of teaching. Research and teaching are largely independent, specialised activities that need to concur to augment each other qualitatively. Academicians have either excellent research abilities or excellent teaching abilities,

DISCUSSION

and those excelling in a combination of these skills are rare. Rather, it has often been argued in Indian academia that the best of teachers are not the best of researchers, and vice versa. However, the assumptions in the article are otherwise. It assumes that both researchers and teachers have equal abilities and can slip into each other’s shoes quite easily. But such an assumption is not valid, and such cross-deputations will not only be ineffective, but will breed inefficiency in an otherwise problem-inflicted system.

Research Proclivity in India

One can safely assume that references to teaching institutes in the article are to universities and institutes of higher learning. Motivation for research in many of these institutes is low. Even in the top tier management institutes, research is often looked upon as “consultancy” because that fetches money. Moreover, teaching in management development programmes is more remunerative than doing research in social sciences.

Richard Atkinson, former president of the University of California, Los Angeles, states that universities must be dedicated to the search for truth. Such an ideal should operate with its two subsidiary operating principles – academic freedom and open inquiry – that one needs to focus on and remember as one contemplates the future of a research university. However, the view that in organisations talented individuals should be given the freedom, security, and support to pursue ideas to their logical conclusions is widely, although not universally, held. That the creation and dissemination of knowledge enhances the greater good is generally accepted, but the argument that universities should be supported primarily to perform this function requires regular reiteration [Ghosh 2006]. In many institutes of higher learning in India, even the best of researchers are often “forced” to teach, as teaching is the prime activity in such institutions.

Chatterjea (2007) argues that the best universities worldwide attract outstanding faculty by carefully creating a high salary package, low teaching load, support for PhD students, generous research budgets and facilities, creation of an academic centre to support research, etc. A contrasting picture however prevails in the highly bureaucratic Indian universities. They have little flexibility – the professors get paid according to the same salary scale, no matter what they contribute in terms of research, teaching, and academic service. Moreover, Indian educational institutions suffer from resource crunch and poor academic administration, and are plagued by many other problems.

The Problem with Compensation

By ignoring the above conditions and merely offering better compensation to national-level professors will not solve any problem. Mukhopadhyay et al also suggest that compensation be given to those young scientists who have established their research credentials. Importantly, they do not mention what type of compensation

january 26, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

DISCUSSION

they are thinking of. If they are pointing at monetary compensation, then in that case the prevailing ones cannot match those offered by the corporate sector. The report of the Fourth Indian Council of Social Science Research Review Committee revealed that a third of the books published by the top eight academic publishers were written by foreigners or NRIs, while a fifth of the rest was accounted for by independent researchers [Mukhopadhyay et al 2007]; the reasons for which can be easily attributed to low monetary incentives for research for the Indian academia. Monetary compensation is a major problem in the Indian academic scenario. This needs to be given serious thought in the context of social science research because instances of researchers leaving academics are plenty, and the problem will only aggravate as sectoral wage differentials become more acute and more and more social scientists find research jobs in the corporate and the NGO set-up.

Doctoral Programme

The doctoral programme is critical in breeding researchers in social sciences. There are two approaches to doctoral studies in India. The first is the Europeaninfluenced PhD, which is prevalent in continental Europe, the United Kingdom, and many Commonwealth universities, where doctoral students start doing research from the day their doctoral programme commences. This has been the traditional approach to doctoral education in India. The second approach is the Americaninfluenced PhD. It is a relatively recent development and is gaining ground in India. Under this approach students take courses in general and special areas, pass appropriate qualifying examinations, and then start research and write their thesis [Chatterjea 2007]. In many places in India, the doctoral programmes in social sciences lay emphasis on courses like research methodology, but rarely have courses on communication skills. A course in communication skills is very important for learning how to disseminate research findings. Even courses like research methodology need to be reviewed with equal emphasis on quantitative and qualitative techniques, and should also include modules

Economic & Political Weekly january 26, 2008

on how to approach theoretical research and write research proposals.

Capacity building really happens at the doctoral level, and not at the mature levels of scholasticism. Hence, there is an urgent need to strengthen doctoral programmes at various levels and at the requisite courses. This is possible under the University Grants Commission’s funding framework and the framework of the donor agencies as well.

Bilingual Research

At no point in time, bilingual research really makes any sense in today’s world. It is a time-consuming process, which unnecessarily increases transaction costs. Social science research should always be in English because in an increasingly globalised world English is an accepted medium of communication. Social scientists, and even those at the periphery, have to realise that. The sooner they do that the better if they wish to disseminate their findings globally and integrate with the rest of the world. Interestingly, this proposal of bilingual research has come at a time when countries which conducted their research in their national languages are steadily shifting to English and getting their research published in international journals. It would be pertinent to point out that according to a recent issue of the Union of International Associations’ Yearbook, there are about 12,500 international organisations in the world and a sample showed that 85 per cent of these made official use of English; that more than half of the world’s technical and scientific periodicals are in English; and that English is the medium for 80 per cent of the information stored in the world’s computers. Thus, it would be suicidal to follow the old jingoistic ways of looking at language where research must be communicated in the regional or national languages. Not only are there problems in finding English equivalents of many technical terms, but it is also a sheer wastage of valuable time and energy in trying to find out what is communicated in the regional and national languages.

Data Availability

One is in agreement with the concern shown about the availability and authenticity of data. This concern has been raised by agricultural economists and health sector researchers in the consultation forum, as stated in the article. However, the problem of data availability and authenticity in India is ubiquitous across all the disciplines of social sciences. There has been a point in time when a lot of governmental data had been “classified”, resulting in negligible public access to such information. Now, though a lot of it can be accessed officially under the RTI Act, yet apprehensions among social scientists about the veracity of these data have not yet gone. There is no doubt that the data need to be put in a sharable database, but the article has missed out the fact that vital information and data from the government need to be placed in the public domain for augmentation of research programmes.

Concluding Remarks

Mukhopadhyay et al have indeed brought to the fore a debate that has long been resting in the closet. They deserve to be congratulated for that. There is no doubt that technology like satellite imagery for data collection, creation of a sharable database of information, establishing and institutionalising a social science network, and putting in place an online mechanism of research for a wider audience will only help the cause of social science. Yet, some of the other points need to be reviewed for practical considerations, efficiency, and emerging global trends in research, as argued in this article.

References

Chatterjea, Arkadev (2007): ‘Doctoral Education’ in Kaushik Basu (ed), The Oxford Companion to Economics in India, 111-14.

Crystal, David (2004): The Language Revolution, Polity Press, p 11.

Ghosh, Nilanjan (2006): ‘The Future of Research in Research Universities: A Love and Survival Story’, TERI Newswire, August 31, http://www.englishlanguage.com/english/facts/stats

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