The revival of CSSAAME and the mission statement by the editorial collective marks a very impor- tant moment for reenergizing the relation between region as a source of data and a source of theory. As the mission statement declares, regions have always been a source of data and theory, but at least within North American sociocultural anthropology, it has been relatively easy to treat the scholarship in non- Western countries as contributing to data but not to theory. Metropolitan protocols of reading have consigned such scholarship to mere regional traditions while universal theory is seen to be formed primarily within a few Western national traditions. I imagine that no one would feel comfortable today with the words of Edmund Husserl, that European humanity bears within itself an absolute idea rather than being merely an empirical anthropological type like “China” or “India,” or with Hegel’s pronouncement that Eastern philosophy was destitute of thought so that what was considered intellectually substantive “there” was seen as “dry and barren” here. Yet surely one must reconsider the subtle ways in which work done in the South (global or not) tends to become invisible when disciplinary histories are taught or written about. A serious attempt to reconceptualize what counts as theory might be a very interesting exercise at this time.
Are there then robust intellectual traditions within the social sciences and humanities that are being cultivated in these other spaces of intellectual production sustained by more regional or local networks of scholarship? It has been far too easy to reiterate the need to become more attuned to the work of scholars in these other places or to take positions (for or against) the new trend for “internationalizing” universities in North America by establishing campuses in regions that sit over oil wealth or are otherwise ready to absorb these global opportunities. No serious thought, though, has been given to documenting the pressures that our colleagues from universities or research institutions in these regions are facing. What is it that is sustaining thought? What is coming in the way of more robust scholarship? I speak from my experiences in India, for though I live (for much of the year) and work in the United States now, I feel the slow shifts that have happened in the intellectual scene here. I express my concerns here under three broad headings. First, there is the censorship of ideas made possible by government control over research along with a public culture that is increasingly intolerant of differences in interpretation in the name of a feeling ethics. Second, the production of knowledge at different institutional sites might stand in a tense relation to authorized institutional discourses. Third, dangerous developments in the rise of new subdisciplines such as “global health” have had serious consequences for freedom of inquiry as a false consensus is generated over what counts as “success” in policy interventions. I recognize that some of these observations are not based on systematic research — but I put these ideas forward as a plea for more research on these questions.
Forms of Censorship
While the banning of academic books on the grounds of either hurting national, Hindu, or Muslim sensibilities or for promoting enmity among communities has been routinely condemned by intellectuals, less attention has been paid to the general conditions that have made publishers wary of publishing anything that might become controversial. The well- publicized cases of the banning of a 2011 biography on Mahatma Gandhi — on the grounds that the author had suggested that the leader was involved in a possible homoerotic relationship — and of James Laine’s 2003 biography of Shivaji (Shivaji-Hindu King in Islamic India) illustrate the mechanisms of censorship. These bans led to protests, and subsequently the High Court in Maharashtra overturned the ban on Laine’s book. However, the publisher, Oxford University Press, declared that it had no plans to reissue the Indian edition of the book. While I and other OUP authors signed statements against the press, there was almost no analysis of how the stakes of publishing were changing. The typical response from OUP authors was to condemn the state and the press and express satisfaction when one of the top editors of the press was removed from her job. We did not stop to consider that a number of factors — the hooligans ransacking the offices of the press and threatening the stores that sold so- called offensive books, a nonresponsive police force, and the high costs of litigation — were creating the conditions under which even university presses were likely to become much more cautious in what they were publishing. Even worse, authors themselves were beginning to engage in self- censorship. It has now become routine in academic presses to have a manuscript that is considered “risky” to be vetted by a lawyer. Honorable exceptions notwithstanding, this situation is creating the conditions under which the freedom to express oneself without fear of political retribution is shrinking. Yet there are no signs that universities or research institutions are even aware of these perils to freedom of thought. If anything, they are more likely to be complicit in banning reading materials for students that might create controversies, as was the case when a paper by A. K. Ramanujam was withdrawn from the history syllabus of the University of Delhi. The parallel process of yielding to • Mission Statement Responses market pressures to decide what is publishable in the United States is also changing the character of what is authorized as “knowledge.” Despite the greater availability of research findings through open- access journals, other pressures on what kind of publications are considered authoritative during tenure reviews make young people wary of publishing in nonconventional places — or else they pay a heavy price for the decisions to defy the hierarchy of journals and publishing houses that have become routinized within the bureaucratized audit cultures of universities. CSSAAME could carve a very important role for itself in this shrinking space of freedom of thought.
Pluralization of Institutional Spaces
In the Indian context, one discovers the wide variation in institutional spaces within which knowledge is produced when a public crisis looms, as was the case in the 2012 gang rape of a woman in a moving bus in Delhi. Given the large- scale public protests, the government hastily created a legal commission to change the rape law. While the end results were that only an ordinance was issued and most recommendations were ignored, one got to see the formidable scholarship on sexual violence that has been built up through the agency of various nongovernmental organizations dealing with law. The networks of lawyers, activists, artists, and academics that were mobilized to give statements made it clear that years of work had gone into the expert testimonies that were presented. It was also the case that there were very interesting divisions among the groups that were giving testimony on such issues as whether the law should be gender neutral with regard to victims and to perpetrators. The testimonies were also very effective against political demands that the perpetrators of rape be given the death penalty or subjected to chemical castration.
Similar controversies emerged around the Anna Hazare campaign against corruption in 2011, but most of the writing on the issue of corruption showed that very little thought had been given to either conceptual or empirical issues. Sometimes political campaigns will run ahead of the actual evidence on an issue, and this in itself does not pose a major problem. After the 2012 Delhi gang rape, several bloggers raised important issues suchas whether a corruption free society was necessarily a just society; whether there was a moral difference between those who give bribes and those who demand bribes; or whether the movement’s focus on the 2011 Jan Lok Pal Bill, which was designed to monitor and punish those who held high office, was sidetracking the issue of corporate corruption. What seems clear to me is that no specific research agendas followed, so that questions about what kind of empirical findings might anchor the discussion were hardly ever raised.
It seems to me then that although social sciences in India have always been aligned to public issues, the relation between the impetus to generate new research and to engage public discussion is uneven. Thus, for instance, Dalit studies and gender studies gave new orientations to research in both unconventional and conventional places; issues of corruption have generated a lot of empty rhetoric but not solid studies. A whole field of comparative regional analysis on the relation between different kinds of publics and social science research would be illuminating, for if social sciences and Western modernity were twins, then how do these relations configure in the vastly changing political landscapes of the Middle East and South Asia?
Global Public Health: An Example
Finally, I want to briefly take the example of the emergence of global health as a field of study. This is a field defined by the production of numbers and of interventions. Though many successes have been claimed for this discipline (eradication of small pox, increased vaccination rates for chil- dren, access to retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS), it remains largely silent on the difficulties of generating proper data on which interventions are based. Such is the case I suspect for TB and for determining the cause of death among populations that are not regularly surveyed.
I take again the case of India in which scholars interested in global statistics on morbidity and mortality study cause of death from data available in government- run public health centers and then project their findings onto the whole population. However, given that recent research has shown that the majority of visits to health practitioners were to private practitioners, how far can we generalize from data gathered from PHCs or government hospitals? According to recent research reports published in Health Affairs, the average household across rural India has access to 3.2 private providers, 0.3 public providers, and 2.3 public paramedical staff within their village. In rural Madhya Pradesh — one of the poorest states in India — households have access to 7.5 private providers, 0.6 public providers, and 3.04 public paramedical staff. Of those identified as doctors, 65 percent had no formal medical training, and of every 100 visits to health care providers, 8 were to the public sector and 70 to untrained private sector providers. Despite the overwhelming evidence that practitioner markets play a very important role in health delivery, there is not a single systematic study of the heath market prevailing in a single village in India. So what are we to make of data on morbidity patterns or cause of death when most people do not receive a diagnosis and, despite laws on death registration, most people do not produce a medical certificate for a dead person at the time of cremation or burial? I say this on the basis of having visited 260 cremation grounds in Delhi and finding only two in which death certificates were demanded. It is true that some scholars such as Prabhat Jha are working with a massive database for determining cause of death through verbal autopsies, but until these results are made public, we cannot determine how to read pronouncements on policy.
One important response to the poor quality of data has been to find methods such as double- blind trials in behavioral economics that are modeled on clinical trials. While I concede that the data generated through these trials is sound, it can only answer questions that can be put in the framework of a double- blind trial. For instance, does offering a small incentive lead to higher rates of vaccination? Does medication for treatment of intestinal worms lead to increased school attendance? In both cases the answer is yes, but we still do not know why, according to recent data published in British Medical Journal, a large proportion of families (68 percent) refused the vaccination despite the incentive while others (32 percent) were “nudged” into taking their children to receive the vaccination. My own inclination is to ask for a multiplicity of methods rather than a strict hierarchy of evidence, but a discussion across disciplines will have to be generated to break the strong disciplinary boundaries within which research is now confined. The problem of spurious data that is given an authoritative stamp by global institutions raises important issues for universities and research institutions as well as for NGOs and policy makers. I hope CSSAAME will occasionally open itself to discussions of this sort that bridge the divisions among social sciences, humanities, and health sciences.
I am excited by the commitment of the editorial collective of CSSAAME and look forward to new ways of looking at the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa as generators of new questions in social theory and practice.
Banerjee, Abhijit Vinayak, Esther Duflo, Rachel Glennerster, and Dhrura Kothari. “Improving Immunisation Coverage in Rural India: Clustered Randomised Controlled Evaluation of Immunisation Campaigns with and without Incentives.” British Medical Journal 340 (2010).
Das, Jishnu, Alaka Holla, Veena Das, Manoj Mohanan, Diana Tabak, and Brian Chan. “In Urban and Rural India, a Standardized Patient Study Showed Low Levels of Provider Training and Huge Quality Gaps.” Health Affairs (Project Hope) 31 (2012): 2774 – 84.
Jha, Prabhat, Vendhan Gajalakshmi, Prakash C. Gupta, Rajesh Kumar, Prem Mony, Neeraj Dhingra, Richard Peto, and RGI- CGHR Prospective Study Collaborators. “Prospective Study of One Million Deaths in India: Rationale, Design, and Validation Results.” PLoS Medicine 3 (2006): 191 – 200.
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