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Social Science Research in India in a Medium-term Perspective

A recent two-day international conference organised by the Indian Council for Social Science Research saw extended discussions by a host of social scientists and institutional representatives on the role and challenges confronting Indian social science. It was felt that fi scal strengthening of social science research needed to go hand in hand with appropriate institutional strategies and policy reform. The announcement of a series of new initiatives by the Ministry of Human Resource Development appeared to signal a larger role for the social sciences in India.





Social Science Research in India in a Medium-term Perspective

Ravi Srivastava

A recent two-day international conference organised by the Indian Council for Social Science Research saw extended discussions by a host of social scientists and institutional representatives on the role and challenges confronting Indian social science. It was felt that fiscal strengthening of social science research needed to go hand in hand with appropriate institutional strategies and policy reform. The announcement of a series of new initiatives by the Ministry of Human Resource Development appeared to signal a larger role for the social sciences in India.

Ravi Srivastava ( is with the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 17, 2012

he Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) organised a two-day international conference on social science research in India on 6 and 7 February 2012, focusing on the challenges it faces and the role of the ICSSR. The background note to the conference focused on six main themes. Briefl y, these themes related to an assessment of (i) the role, relevance and challenges confronting the social sciences in the emerging global scenario; (ii) Indian s ocial sciences vis-à-vis the state of social science research in other emerging societies and economies of the world; (iii) how social science research could meet the emerging priorities of strengthening teaching and research in India; (iv) the manner in which such research could be linked to the policy concerns of a diverse, democratic and developing country like India; (v) the emerging concerns of Indian social sciences in relation to funding, institution building, priorities setting, knowledge perspectives and building communities of scholars; and (vi) the role of the ICSSR in the light of relevant international experience.

The conference was held in the context of the report of a committee set up

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by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and chaired by Deepak Nayyar in 2011 (henceforth Nayyar Committee), to review the functioning of the ICSSR as well as the institutes supported by it, and to make recommendations so that the “Council be

comes a relevant catalyst towards improving the quality of research in social sciences” (p 1).1

It might be recalled that in the past, the ICSSR itself had set up independent committees to review its role, functioning and constraints. The last review committee set up by the ICSSR, the fourth such, and chaired by A Vaidyanathan, had submitted its report to the council. These reports had gathered dust since most of their recommendations were in the domain of the government rather than the council. The Nayyar Committee, by contrast, was set up by the government itself, suggesting some change in attitude towards social science research. Undoubtedly, one of the motivations of the conference was to refocus the attention of the government and other stakeholders on the state of the social sciences and on the corrective measures that needed to be taken.

Quality of Social Science Research

The issue of quality of social science research in India was posed at the very outset of the conference by Pranab Bardhan in his keynote address to stimulate and provoke discussion on this subject. Based on his survey of a few leading i nternational journals in economics and


sociology, Bardhan argued that Indian economists and sociologists contributed to a very tiny proportion of papers in these journals and this compared unfavourably to papers, say, by Chinese social scientists. According to him, Indian social science institutions tended to settle at various levels of equilibrium with virtually no movement over time from lower to higher levels. The net result was the well-known fact that none of the Indian institutions figured in the top 200 institutions internationally. In contrast, some of the best Chinese institutions had been able to scale-up research and had upgraded their international ranking over time.

Inaugurating the conference after Bardhan’s keynote address, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal departed from his prepared text and argued that comparisons regarding “quality” were not meaningful when void of context. He pointed to the vastly different funding levels and infrastructure in India and the United States (US), and the very different institutional strategies pursued in China, many of which were not feasible in India. There was not much agreement on Bardhan’s assessment of the “abysmal” quality of Indian social science research. Partha Chatterjee and Jan Breman pointed out that Indian research addressed a different “public” and was more engaged with social reality than its counterpart in the global North. This also infl uenced how and where researchers chose to publish. Several speakers underscored the fact that citation indices had very poor coverage of journals in India and in the global South.

The general view was that Indian s ocial sciences needed to develop strong and independent quality benchmarks. Peer review systems, despite their limitations, could form the bedrock of such benchmarks. Adrian Alsop, director for Research and International Strategy at the United Kingdom’s (UK) Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) pointed out that peer review systems had emerged as an international benchmark for quality and excellence. Alsop mentioned five features of research that researchers and institutions needed to keep in mind. These were quality, mak-that research capacity was one of the ing a difference, independence, ethics key determinants of quality and this caand transparency. pacity was very low when judged against

There was general agreement that, the size of the higher education sector. whatever the parameters used, the There were many reasons for this, inquality of research was uneven across cluding the quality of education at all institutions, regions, and even cities. A levels and the lack of a research culture great deal of research was concentrated in higher education. Stating that nearly in a few institutions and in a few loca-half of the three lakh teachers in higher tions in India. In this context, the issue education did not have a research degree of promoting excellence through sup-(PhD or even MPhil), he suggested that port to select well-performing institu-the aim of the research system should tions came up in several presentations. be to build adequate research capa city The German programme was outlined by throughout the system, while promoting Axel Michaels of Heidelberg University. quality and excellence selectively. Alsop pointed out that 50% of ESRC research funding went to 12 universities

Neglect of Teaching

in the UK. He argued that a few big Ghanshyam Shah and some other speakworld class performers were much to be ers pointed out that the malaise of poor preferred to a large number of second-research quality also lay in the neglect of rate institutions. social science departments in the univer-

However, S K Thorat, chairman of sities. Nearly 50% of teaching positions ICSSR and former chairman of the Uni-in universities were vacant. The increaversity Grants Commission (UGC) pointed sed load of teaching an increasing out that while in the west, a certain level number of students was met by ad hoc of quality could be presumed to exist teaching faculty or by overburdening the throughout the system, in India, the basic existing staff, not leaving time for them ingredients of quality needed to be sup-to read and reflect. In the given milieu, ported system-wide, while also support-they do not have the time and aptitude to ing excellence through competitive peer grasp available research findings in their review processes. Srivastava suggested disciplines, not to speak of undertaking

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march 17, 2012 vol xlviI no 11


research. The processes of improving quality of teaching and research needed to be undertaken simultaneously, not only in metropolitan cities but also in the universities and colleges in taluka towns.

Other speakers, notably Yogendra Yadav, said that attention needed to be paid to social science teaching in regional languages and to research in these languages. While it was not denied that researchers would need to know and have access to knowledge materials in English, there was also need to address requirements of quality texts in regional languages as well as encourage research through these languages. Jayati Ghosh pointed out that the increasing privatisation and corporatisation of research was creating a distorted incentive structure in research and a large proportion of both internal (governmental) and external funding compromised the integrity and independence of research.

The Direction(s) of Research

A fair amount of attention in the conference was focused on the role and relevance of social science research, challenges in the current context, and approaches. A general view that emerged was that social reality was changing rapidly and in unforeseen ways and social scientists needed to engage with it, evolving suitable frameworks and methods for study.

Ghanshyam Shah felt that social science theories developed in the 20th century – whether social, economic, democratic system theories, formulated with different perspectives – have at the most limited explanatory capacity in the current context. They need to be revisited and their premises and postulates need to be interrogated. Partha Chatterjee and C P Chandrasekhar and various others pointed to the tendency towards homogenisation of structures in teaching and research originating from metropolitan centres. Often these are adopted without practical engagement. Chandrasekhar cautioned Indian social scientists against importing methods and analyses that have failed in their original contexts.

Ashwani Saith, and several other speakers, said that it was important to

Economic Political Weekly

march 17, 2012

encourage the social sciences to be critical and to counter hegemonic voices. Jan Breman in his presentation was of the view that there was tension in the development of social science research from its very beginnings. Was its role an instrument of policy or one that encouraged critical theorising and challenged hegemonic assumptions? He felt that Indian social sciences could not be built on western paradigms and assumptions; neo-liberalism had disembedded the economy from society at the global level and the “great transformation” from an agrarian to an industrial society envisaged by Polanyi had been thwarted in postcolonial societies, necessitating a new development paradigm and new modes of thinking.

Jan Breman also reflected on the extent to which disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences were important and argued for a historicised multidisciplinary approach in which the different s ocial sciences disciplines could collaborate closely. There was some debate on whether, and to what extent, Indian social sciences could be developed on entirely fresh and non-western paradigms but it was generally accepted that Indian social sciences could be based on pluralistic approaches and encourage i ndependence, tolerance, and rigour.

There was an extended discussion on the current societal challenges which social scientists needed to engage with, and the nature of this engagement, in the presentations by Pranab Bardhan, Ghanshyam Shah, Sonalde Desai, Prabhat Patnaik and Jayati Ghosh, among others. Prabhat Patnaik argued that economists and perhaps also other social scientists should be engaged in analysing the effects of the structural crisis of capitalism, which had manifested itself in the food crisis in developing countries and unemployment in the western world and lately in the form of the economic crisis of 2008 onwards.

Many of the speakers dwelt on the relationship of social science research with public policy. Social scientists were constantly engaged with praxis, and hence also policy. As Thorat pointed out, the absence of sound research led to policy formulation based on conjectures or

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ad hoc assumptions. But many speakers spoke of the value of independent research in relation to policy. Moreover, Ghanshyam Shah, in his presentation, argued that public policy could not be reduced merely to state and government policy for governance, though, this was of course important. He argued that public policy relates to society as a whole, and involves cultural, social, economic, and ecological aspects. Various dimensions of policy originate and/or are debated in the public sphere. Social science research plays a catalysing role in the process. A researcher should not be a ccountable to the policymaker or the sponsor for the nature of her/his fi ndings. But that did not mean that a researcher was accountable to no one. Any research required well-argued theoretical ground ing and methodological rigour and openness to critical examination by the fellow social scientists, more so when it received support from public funds.

Financial Issues and Institutional Strategies

At the current time, the two main institutions responsible for funding of social science research in India were the UGC and the ICSSR. The UGC’s mandate was to provide plan funds to a class of universities and colleges which fulfi lled c ertain criteria and became eligible for such funding (under 12(B) of the UGC Act). Non-plan funds are also provided to certain central institutions. Individuals in these institutions also became eligible for funding. On the other hand, individuals working in a whole range of university and non-university institutions (even research NGOs fulfi lling certain criteria) were eligible for ICSSR grants, but the ICSSR extended institutional support only to 26 research institutes, often called the ICSSR institutes. However, in their case, ICSSR covered only a portion of their salary and nonsalary budgets. Government departments in the centre and states, international agencies and donors, and the private corporate sector have also been funding such research.

Speakers referred to the limitations and constraints on each of these sources pointed out by the Fourth ICSSR Review


Committee chaired by A Vaidyanathan as well as by the Nayyar Committee. The UGC and the ICSSR were the only apex institutions undertaking measures both for research promotion and capacity building. But only a small proportion of the UGC’s budget supported social science research. On the other hand, the ICSSR’s small budget was mainly absorbed in meeting administrative costs and funding the ICSSR institutes, leaving very few resources available for building capacity in the larger system, though this was a core mandate of the council.

Unsurprisingly, there was a broad consensus in the conference on the signifi cant underfunding of social science research in India. Thorat outlined the conclusions of the Nayyar Committee, which had felt that the budget of the council needed to be stepped up 20 times to be in line with science-based disciplines. Ravi Srivastava said that the Nayyar Committee had derived resource requirements normatively, i e, in comparison with the level of funding for scientifi c research. But a subgroup set up by the MHRD to work out the financial requirements for the three councils – the ICSSR, the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (ICPR) had derived the fi nancial requirements for social science research over the next five years from the point of view of strengthening capacity and improving quality. It had budgeted for an expansion of doctoral and postdoctoral support, research in both responsive and strategic modes, a higher level of international collaboration and a 100% level of basic support to the ICSSR institutes, estimating the overall fi nancial requirements for supporting the research “software” to be about Rs 9,500 crore. He said that while budgetary resources could be galvanised by the ICSSR from government departments and the Planning Commission through memoranda of understanding (MOUs) establishing arms-length relationships (a point also made by Abhijit Sen of the Planning Commission), its core budget needed to expand to guarantee independent funding for capacity building and research support. Bakul Dholakia (a member of the Nayyar Committee) said that the committee was strongly of the view that the core salary and non-salary requirements of the ICSSR institutes should be met by budgetary support from the ICSSR so that the institutes could devote greater attention to high value research.

There was considerable scope for learning from international experience regarding institutional strategies, responses and processes, while dovetailing these to the requirements of Indian social sciences. Alsop summarised the ESRC and international institutional strategies and challenges in terms of the following objectives: deciding between responsive and strategic funding and on the degree of concentration and selectivity; transcending disciplinary boundaries; developing human capacity and d eveloping data resources.

Partha Chatterjee summed up the mood of the conference in his concluding valedictory address when he stated that underfunding of social science research and the ICSSR was indeed a key issue, but that addressing this by itself did not guarantee a commensurate i ncrease in research capacity. He, and many other speakers, including Zoya Hasan and T S Papola, pointed out that the gulf between teaching and research needed to be bridged on both sides of the divide. There needed to be debureaucratisation of funding structures and a strengthening of the culture of research in institutions. Dholakia felt that the fragmentation of social science and humanities councils was unproductive.

It was clear that in the views of the speakers, fiscal strengthening of social science research needed to go hand in hand with learning from experience, development of appropriate institutional strategies and suitable policy reform to invigorate social science research at a countrywide level.

Concluding Notes

The stated purpose of the conference was for the ICSSR to use the discussions for setting its own agenda over the m edium term. An unstated purpose appeared to be to sensitise and infl uence government and other stakeholders to the role and relevance of social science research in India and its constraints.

To a great extent, the conference did seem to have achieved these objectives. The participation was large and included more than 300 Indian social scientists of different vintages, nearly a score of participants from abroad, almost all the major stakeholders and the principal actors in the MHRD and central government, and ICSSR’s counterpart agencies from abroad. The discussions should provide a rich agenda for developing an appropriate institutional strategy.

An immediate concrete outcome of this conference was the announcement by Kapil Sibal, in his inaugural address, of several measures to support the strengthening of social science research and teaching, pending concrete followup of the recommendations of the Nayyar Committee by his ministry.

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He announced the setting up of 10 national awards in the social sciences on the lines of the S S Bhatnagar Award for scientific research; a Teaching Capacity Recharge Initiative with the objective of bringing back social science scholars from other countries, particularly those who went abroad to study and have completed their PhD in the recent past. Other initiatives included a National Programme for Capacity Building of Teachers in Social Sciences, under which publication and translation of good quality teaching material and “readers” will be supported and a virtual resource centre set up; setting up of a virtual National Social Science Research Innovation Centre under the ICSSR in order to make advanced research resources available to researchers, and promote training and capacity building in new and frontier research methodologies in the social sciences, through strengthening of existing institutions. Although there was not


-much discussion at the conference of these announcements, they appeared to signal an acknowledgement of the larger role for the social sciences and social science research in India.


1 The other members were Bakul Dholakia and Kirit Parikh. See “Report of the Committee Constituted by the Government of India to Review the Functioning of ICSSR”, New Delhi, 28 June 2011. Accessed on 1 March 2012: http:// les/mhrd/fi les/Final-Report-ICSSR.pdf .





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