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New Agendas for Social Science Research

The last 20 years have witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of "big questions" as the older certitudes have broken down one by one. Whether it be the nature of development, the structure of politics or the rise of new kinds of social identities, recent events are making it evident that the social sciences are as yet unable to adequately interpret contemporary history. The issue then is one that almost never gets addressed: How do we turn events and questions into a meaningful and researchable agenda?


New Agendas for Social Science Research

Mary E John

The last 20 years have witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of “big questions” as the older certitudes have broken down one by one. Whether it be the nature of development, the structure of politics or the rise of new kinds of social identities, recent events are making it evident that the social sciences are as yet unable to adequately interpret contemporary history. The issue then is one that almost never gets addressed: How do we turn events and questions into a meaningful and researchable agenda?

Mary E John (maryj@cwds.ac.in) is at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.

he occasion of the submission of the report of the Fourth Review Committee entitled Restructuring the Indian Council of Social Science Research to the ICSSR after a period of 20 years is surely an opportunity for reflection. The report itself ranges from offering general comments on the nature of social science research in India and the kinds of institutions involved in the production of such research, to more specific judgments about the different functions of the ICSSR, and how they need to be improved. A basic premise is that the social sciences suffer from major neglect compared to the fields of science and technology, so much so that the ICSSR requires a tenfold increase in public funding if it is to become more effective.

I would like to use this forum to highlight some of the issues raised by the report which belong within a larger debate on the nature and condition of social science research. The authors begin by noting the difficulty of evaluating both the range of institutions currently engaged in social science research of one kind or another, as well as the output they produce. As they point out, social science research is by no means confined to government supported institutions and public sector organisations. The presence of alternate sources of private and international finance has meant that a range of research institutes, private firms and individuals are increasingly engaged in the production of research. Then there is the important fact that not all the products of these researches reach the public domain, specially when they are sponsor-driven. The report, therefore, has confined itself to those institutions and studies about which information could be obtained.

Different Kinds of Research

The report also makes frequent distinctions between the kinds of research that have become typical within the social sciences. On a number of occasions, for instance, the dominance of economics and quantitative analysis is highlighted. This is particularly true within research institutes and international organisations, but is also visible in publication trends. At other places the mushrooming

of sponsored projects and other narrowly conceived researches are critically noted, so much so that even the more well known institutions are not in a position to pursue an agenda of their own. Yet again, the report laments the lack of large questions in the kinds of research they have reviewed, questions offering wider levels of generalisability and a broader picture of contemporary changes and processes.

We do indeed live in a situation where certain kinds of social science research have achieved dominance. I do not think it should be a matter of surprise that disciplines like economics or methods such as quantitative analysis are intrinsic to this dominance. This would have been even more true in the first decades following independence, when economic development was the raison d’etre of the state and therefore governed the horizon of the kinds of social science that required special support.

In my view, the more interesting development in the last decade or so, is that certain disciplines and methods have ventured far beyond their prior boundaries. This is particularly visible in the kinds of analytical data that are now being generated by and for current research. The National Sample Survey Organisation in its last two “thick sample” rounds (in 1999-2000 and 2004-05) has chosen to include the controversial category of the other backward classes (OBCs) in its caste nomenclature, thus making it possible for the first time to disaggregate across a range of interlocking social categories based on caste and religion. No less than the prime minister’s office sponsored a pioneering study on the status of Muslims, whose collective findings published in 2006 have helped create a new socio-religious category of Muslim deprivation. In other words, we are witnessing the extension of economic frames and quantifiable techniques into areas and for groups whose identities and

february 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


histories had left them outside existing definitions of development.

Nature of NFHS

In order to appreciate more fully the nature and consequences of these trends in the social sciences, let me focus briefly on the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). Begun in 1992-93, the NFHS conducted its third round in 2005-06, the results of which made news some months ago.

The first point to note is the range of institutional and financial support that structures it: the NFHS is an illustration of how intertwined national, international and private funding has become. The International Institute of Population Sciences at Mumbai has been designated the nodal agency for conducting the survey by the ministry of health and family welfare, with funding from USAID, DFID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, UNFPA, and the government of India. All the states of the country are covered through representative samples, with the fieldwork being entrusted to partner organisations in each state. The scale of the enterprise demonstrates well the kind of inter-institutional networking that is required for the conduct of such studies. The second notable feature of the NFHS is that its reports are squarely in the public domain – they are not “in house” documents meant only for sponsors. Indeed, these reports could well be offered as a model of the “best practices” in such research. Not just the results but all details of survey methodology are available to the interested public free of charge, with special volumes providing information on the sampling design and the questionnaires used.

The main point I wish to make is that the NFHS has come to epitomise successful social science research that aims for generalisability and “the larger picture”. It is able to do so by applying quantification and survey techniques to a growing range of questions which are themselves not inherently quantitative, which in this case address health within the family. Women (and now men) are asked, in a series of questionnaires that run into 150 pages, about their fertility, family planning and contraception practices, maternal and child health and mortality, nutrition and anaemia

– and also about sexual behaviour, women’s

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

empowerment and domestic violence. One has to read the questionnaire to appreciate the extent to which the lives of the respondents are probed into in order to obtain detailed information on the above issues.

Domestic Violence

The questions related to domestic violence bring this out most vividly: women are asked various questions about the nature of their relationship with their husband, followed by requests for specific information on whether they have been slapped, punched, pushed, or had their arms twisted; whether they have been choked, burned, threatened with a knife or gun, forced to have sexual intercourse, and so on. Women and men were also asked about when these acts of violence were justified. In the entire section, the only issues for the field researcher are those of confidentiality and ensuring privacy.

When the main findings of NFHS III were made public some months ago and picked up by the media, it is significant that very little was said about the major issues of child health and fertility. Instead, it was the data on domestic violence that hogged the headlines, especially in Hindi newspapers. In an explosive rejoinder, a “counter-survey” among women offered by the newspaper Dainik Bhaskar claimed that no women would condone or justify violence as the survey indicated. The NFHS figures, were, quite simply “bogus”.

The reason to dwell on the issue of domestic violence is not to echo the views of the media, except to note in passing the enormous role the media plays today in producing, purveying and giving sanction to research of all kinds. For many women’s activists and scholars, taking domestic violence seriously has, after all, been a long-standing demand. The question is rather, how we need to engage with something like domestic violence and what kinds of knowledge we are likely to produce in the process.

Is a survey the best instrument for the task? What exactly are the answers telling us? Questions about the conditions under which a husband is justified in beating his wife, for instance, are really questions about norms, of what kinds of behaviours respondents believe are socially sanctioned. Respondents are therefore providing normative cues rather than confessions of their own personal experiences. However, in the context of a survey, the intricacies and forms of such knowledges are likely to be misread; at most, field researchers will just be told to be sensitive about questions of this kind.

Within the compulsions and time constraints of producing such studies about an increasingly diverse and complex set of issues, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to explore alternate lines of inquiry. More importantly, if the urge is to enable institutions to engage with “larger questions”, and in efficient and accountable forms (the ICSSR report is concerned precisely with the kinds of institutional arrangements necessary to achieve this), then we are likely to see more and more of the dominant trend that I have been discussing here. That these kinds of research require very large sums by way of support is no longer seen as a hindrance.

Breaking Down of Certainties

If, however, there is good reason to feel that all is not well in the world of social science research, then we should be prepared to acknowledge some problems even in its most successful versions. I believe that the last 20 years have witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of “big questions” as the older certitudes have broken down one by one. Whether it be the nature of development, the structure of politics, the rise of new kinds of social identities, recent events are making it evident that the social sciences are as yet unable to adequately interpret contemporary history. This is not an argument against the need to count and measure. The real issue is at a different level altogether, one that almost never gets addressed: How do we turn events and questions into a meaningful and researchable agenda? Here it is not obvious as to how large or small one’s questions should be, or what kinds of methods and which disciplinary resources should be drawn upon.

There is another reason why we so rarely confront such specific questions of research. It is easy to forget that the bulk of all research in the social sciences (along with the humanities) – whether in India or abroad – takes place in a scattered form by those located in universities. Universities,


however, reproduce themselves primarily through a different mechanism, namely, that of teaching. In such a context, research is something additional, which attaches more closely to the career path of an individual scholar. It then becomes a matter of enhancing the prestige of universities and colleges through promoting the research of their faculty. My point is that major questions of accountability in research are not required for the institutional reproduction of universities, which thus brings the question back to those smaller institutions who are chiefly so engaged. Interestingly, even when such institutions are themselves involved in teaching, this takes the form of teaching those who are to become future researchers, thus placing emphasis once again on the reproduction of research.

Two Kinds of Research

It is therefore not accidental that two kinds of institutional structures are prominent today – universities wherein research is dispersed across individuals as an add-on, and research institutes where the model of quantitative research has worked most successfully for satisfying criteria of output and accountability. We therefore urgently need to recognise the mismatch between the proliferation of issues and problems being thrown up by events around us, and collective agendas to address them. The most challenging task is to provide an enabling institutional environment for the creation of such agendas and to envisage the forms of accountability that must go with it. This calls for more reflection and debate than has been forthcoming so far, whether in the ICSSR Review or elsewhere.

february 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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