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The Monopoly of Knowledge: Rakshita Swamy

April 26, 2013

This is a Guest Post by RAKSHITA SWAMY

I recently was reading a PhD dissertation that was aiming to deconstruct the movement that eventually led to the passing of India’s historic Right to Information Act. The study involved unpacking recent agendas of good governance and placing the RTI Act in the center of this reform agenda. By attempting to stitch the narrative of the role played by different factors, the convergence of which led to the eventual passing of the Act, the author tried to compare one version of the narrative, with the other, thereby pronouncing a judgment on what actually may be the “truth”. It was while reading this particular piece of scholarly research, funded by one of the leading Universities of the world, that I was struck by the thought of what purpose we imagine academic research in the field of social science to actually serve. Does it serve to throw light on aspects that are not discussed enough? Or is it meant to pose one set of facts versus the other, and facilitate the reader in coming to a conclusion on what actually can be deemed as a fact. Can research emanating within the broad field of poverty alleviation, development and instrumentalities of governance ever seek to really influence policy making, or even public action? This essay makes a fledgling beginning in attempting to answer this question.  

There is a common thread running through most primary anthropological research within the paradigm of development, and that is, the running risk of perception of knowledge as an end in itself. Such research inherently has the concept of extraction embedded within it. It necessarily involves the act of negotiating access with “communities” that are the topic of research; engagement with members of the community; pursuing deeper engagement in order to ensure greater credibility of observations, gradually retreating from the temporary universe of existence, theorizing and reflecting  on observations noted and eventually arriving at a heavily ‘caveat-ized’ conclusion. Field research therefore, rests on the imbalanced proportion of ‘give and take’ where the researcher gains more from the community than what he/she can offer to the community in return.

Research also happens to be just one of the sets within the larger universe of the framework of knowledge creation, where one can most starkly observe our perceptions of what qualifies as expertise, and who the repositories of this expertise deserve to be. This is most definitely a phenomenon not restricted to academic researchers alone and extends to the society at large. But it is within research, that the outcome of this perspective comes out the clearest. Most often, researchers are prone to absorbing the information and observations around them through pre-determined “logical” and “rational” ideological and psychological constructs of their/our minds. We hear from “them”, comprehend their opinions and thoughts within our minds that are trained to think and analyze information in the way elite, urban and privileged schools and universities train them to, and offer a conclusion arising out of our cycle of reason and rationality, which may or may never resonate with the truth lived by “them”. Evidently, the industry of research, like any other industry, survives on the basis of the difference between “us” and “them.

In my personal professional involvement with grassroot political action, I have been stumped by the wisdom and intelligence of the many rural poor, who are claimed to be represented by researchers in the nature of statistics and anecdotes. One of the starkest episodes of internalization of how they perceive the intervention of researchers, came from an often narrated story by an activist, Shankar Singh (Shankar ji), arguable one of my wittiest and compassionate friends (and teachers).  The story goes like this: a man walks into a wide pasture and encounters a shepherd. He walks towards the shepherd, and announces to him, “Standing here, I can calculate the total number of sheep that are grazing around in the pasture”. The shepherd replied, “Sure, go ahead. If you give me the correct answer, you can even take one home as a present.” The man proceeds to position himself on the flat ground on the pasture, and unpacks his laptop, wiring devices, screens and a rubber bound note pad. After a period of profuse concentration and calculation, he announces with great pride to the shepherd, “The total number of sheep on this pasture is 110.”  The shepherd replies, “You are correct”. Subsequent to the exercise, the man packs up his gadgets and proceeds to leave with his present. While he is leaving, the shepherd calls out to him and says, “Should I tell you who you are?” The man apologized profusely for not introducing himself before, but allows the shepherd to take a guess about his identity. The shepherd replies, “You are a researcher”. The man exclaimed, “How did you come to know”? The shepherd replies, “I knew you were a researcher because 1) You came without me asking you to come here 2) You gave me the information that I already had and 3) what you are tagging along with you as a present, is not a sheep but my pet dog”. This story manages to beautifully encapsulate all the pitfalls of anthropological research, in a nutshell.

One of the most fundamental lessons that I have learnt in my limited professional tenure so far has been the responsibility of the self to reverse the roles envisaged in knowledge creation. It is important to redefine who the “expert” is. There are signs of this redefinition being somewhat institutionalized. A case in example are the Community Resource Persons (CRPs) working on issues of domestic violence and gender discrimination in Andhra Pradesh through the Indira Kranthi Patham Programme of the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), Government of Andhra Pradesh. The CRPs are responsible for creating awareness about gender rights within the community and pursue cases of discrimination (physical, economic, emotional) with State functionaries so as to create an environment wherein rural women are ensured a life of dignity and mutual respect. The CRPs are not experts on matters of gender violence who are recruited from Universities or the likes, but are the very members of the community who have faced the ugly manifestations of patriarchy and dominance, regularly enforced by public institutions and personal bonds. Qualification to be a CRP does not rest on degrees earned or dissertation professed on. It rests on experience, sensitivity and empathy. It is heartening to see that the CRPs are now guest trainers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, where freshly recruited IAS officers who are on to become the next generation of Collectors, Secretaries, Directors and Commissioners are trained in the crucial task of responsible and sensitive governance, thereby stamping the success of knowledge reversal!

 

Another living example of institutionalized knowledge reversal is the Barefoot College where being “illiterate” and “rural” earns you an immediate qualification of entry for enrolling into being trained as a solar engineer. Illiterate grandmothers from the village are trained to be solar engineers who eventually head out to solar electrify their own villages. Given their low levels of literacy and limited access, these grandmothers may appear to be an unlikely candidate for any training to affect change. The Barefoot College not only appreciates the difference between being educated and being literate, but also sees the creative potential in the former. It has shown how grandmothers can be agents of change through their inherent local qualities and commitment to contribute to the village they are a part of, unlike the educated youth who would be aiming at migrating out of the village as soon as they could. However, cases in point that have internalized the required reversal in the flow of knowledge, are too few and sparse.

Is all research deemed to be fatalistically redundant? Does research ever serve a purpose? It is important to point out here some examples of research that have benefited the greater public good enormously. And to our encouragement, there are many. In the most recent example, a human rights report titled “Alleged Perpetrators: Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir” documents research undertaken through reading and analyzing official documents of the States to trace the narrative of each case study of forced disappearances, arrests, illegal detentions amongst other forms of torture.  As an outcome of a research exercise, the report provides an excellent basis for a host of concerned parties to demand accountability and truth from a non-responsive state based on credible and verifiable evidence. In another example, the Gender Learning Report generated by the members of the community network of Kudambashree Mission (Kerala) documents and displays how women look at themselves as agents of change and unpacks constructs of gender and empowerment for themselves. This is then shared with local administration and line department officials to sensitize them to local realities thereby helping in the roll out of gender sensitive implementation of development interventions. It is observed that research that is characterized by felt experience, is one that is most capable of inducing change in the direction that is most required. Within the context of role reversals, there is need to re-evaluate the purpose served by independent evaluations, analysis, pontifications in the field of primary social science and anthropological research in influencing policy decisions.

 

An important observation to make here, is that the above nature of research is one that is emanating from felt experience and not from the view of a commentator. The problem arises when researcher being objective and emanating from a ‘third-party’, is treated as a virtue more than a mere characteristic. The presence of researchers who are not a part of the history of the processes that they aim to deconstruct, qualifies them to be the perfect candidates for the position of a commentator. It is unfortunate that the construct of policy academia is designed to position the objective commentator on a higher moral ground.

James D Scott, in his book, ‘Seeing like a State’  gives a fitting tribute and appreciation to the power and scope of ‘metis’ i.e. the practical and experiential knowledge, practical skills and common sense that guide decisions of the people that formal epistemic knowledge techniques aim to study/impose. Scott describes the range of social policy schemes rolled out in the early 80’s and 90’s in Russia, Brazil and Tanzania amongst others, that have failed due to their reliance on “scientific” and top down assessments of what needs to be done, rather than an openness and respect for local knowledge and learnings in shaping policy changes. Scott’s impactful insight serves to be the most fitting conclusion to this exercise :“ Many forms of high modernism have replaced a valuable collaboration between two dialects of knowledge with an “imperial” scientific view, which dismisses practical know how as insignificant at best and as dangerous superstition at worst. The relation between scientific knowledge and practical knowledge is a part of a political struggle for institutional hegemony by experts and their institutions”.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2013 11:04 AM

    The participatory research ‘paradigm’ (if one may call it that, and which I vaguely understand to be fundamentally used in anthropology) questions the role of (other nomothetic) social science research/ers as self assigned experts “gain[ing] more from the community than what he/she can…return”_ important questions of how ‘objectivity’ is ostensibly built into academic engagement, and how it could be detrimental to any loyalty to the research subjects themselves. But does community-integrity/autonomy constitute a (desirable) fixed given (through self definitions(of the situation) or does the researcher need to isolate structural (coercive) elements impinging on (say) a certain Gram Sabha decision/resolution?
    Who then can claim greater representational legitimacy or is entitled to make truth claims?_ NGO workers in the field, bureaucrats, researchers (of various hues), the revolutionaries, the subjects themselves? Is it the author’s case that local practice usually ends in wisdom, whereas research ends up with s’thing like ‘epistemic casuistry’ (possibly varying in salience)?

  2. April 26, 2013 11:11 AM

    Thanks

  3. April 26, 2013 11:22 PM

    ‘Evidently, the industry of research, like any other industry, survives on the basis of the difference between “us” and “them”.’

    Very true. Only: anthropology has, since the last three decades, tried to grapple with its colonial baggage, with certain ethnocentric assumptions which were intimately tied to anthropological knowledge-production, and projects which tend to further the us-and-them divide. The post-colonial turn in anthropology, and its conversation with post-Marxism and cultural Marxism (along with many ideas I may have missed out here) have enabled anthropology to question, critique and, to an extent, reject many meta-narratives of ethnocentricism. The role of anthropology as being party to certain nationalist, or nation-building agendas, too, has been interrogated. In fact, a bulk of names in anthropology, such as Talal Asad, Johann Fabians, Nicholas Dirks, Eric Wolf, Bruno Latour that come to mind when we’re discussing these issues. And this is why, I think it is erroneous to assume that (social) research, especially in the critical social sciences, still suffers from that fundamental flaw. In fact, it is the social sciences that often provide critiques of paradigms of development, progress (and research, too).

    The larger problem, in my opinion, is the economics. Most research projects are funded by corporations, foundations, and governments, who often look for reports that gratify their interventions (as a plea for more funding). The ethics and economics of research, therefore, are as problematic as the assumptions the author discusses. There is no question that there is a divide between the space of academic research and that funded by the corporations and governments – and that this divide tends to be exacerbated when we account for the stake holders, many of them, usually from the margins of societies. At the same time, I would like to quote one of my teachers who said that it is the vocation of the social sciences to better the human condition. At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, I think it’s vital that sociology and anthropology are provided the critical space to destabilise the dominant assumptions of development, governance, democracy, research and so and so forth. Most research tends to falter, or not fulfil its potential because it never reaches that critical space of dialogue. I agree that the academy is quite inward looking; but most of its analysis is often wrongly accused of merely being academic prose, or critiques, which do not offer any “solutions”.

    Expertise is another problematic area. While the tradition of anthropology was based on scholars who studied particular societies, produced monographs on them, and became experts regarding the same, the same is far less true today. The “exotic”, or the “other” is something anthropology will have to deal with; I daresay the foundation of the discipline is based on that lens. But I think it’s wrong to assume that the story quoted by the author manages to “beautifully encapsulate all the pitfalls of anthropological research”. That statement, to put it politely, is a daft generalisation. The author’s celebration of knowledge from below is something contemporary anthropology is quite often complicit in. They do tend to romanticise recalcitrance, dissent, anarchy – which is perfectly fine; at least anthropology does not harbour any qualms about being apolitical. Anthropology recognises the political nature of what it studies, and the fact that the discipline itself is laden with politics. But, at present, it is anthropology that proffers some of the more thorough critiques of the sciences and even the social sciences.

    At the end of the day, having studied anthropology for the last three years, I could not tell you what anthropology is: it is vast, complex, and often contradictory. But one thing I know for sure: it is not what this piece makes it out to be.

    So, keep calm and do anthropology.

  4. Amit Sharma permalink
    May 29, 2013 7:21 PM

    Dear Rakshita,
    Nice article. Even the name of Shankar ji brings a smile on my face. Please bear with my nitpicking, but the name of the author is James C. Scott.

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