Recently, I attended a lecture at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on epistemologies of the global south. For those of you who scorn academic speech, it was basically about how people who live in developing countries (the global south) view truth and create knowledge differently (epistemologies). For anyone with an anthropology/social science background, the talk was pretty elementary: it was about how social science is too dominated by western scholars. Many communities in the developing world see the world differently, and those viewpoints need to be captured to produce better scholarship and solve social problems.
But the talk left both my friend and I feeling uncomfortable. Here was a man from Europe, lecturing to an audience of Indian social scientists at one of the best institutions in the country about how their voices needed to be heard on the global stage. Yet, who was talking? The question and answer session revealed that the audience was full of scholars who thought about the issues he was posing on a deeper and more nuanced level.
Spending time in the Indian university setting, especially at a social science based institution, has made me more aware of the big divide between western scholarship and that of developing/non-western countries.
TISS produces a lot of great work and there are many people here with deep knowledge about social problems in India. Yet, these scholars often only publish in Indian journals or do not publish at all. Confined to these publications, it is hard to gain exposure outside of Indian academia.
Then, there are western scholars from the United States and Europe who publish work about India, exploring the same issues, but often getting more “credit” for publishing and presenting their work in the western world.
I have done a lot of reading on alternative systems of medicine in India, and I’ve seen two different conversations that barely acknowledge each other: that of the Indian academics and that of the western academics. I remember one Indian paper even used the world “sketchy” to refer to sociological and anthropological work on Indian alternative medicine produced by scholars in the west.
There are many reasons why Indian scholars may not be publishing in western journals. Anthropology, like any other field, requires scholars to frame their work within existing theories. Many of the major theories are created by dead white men who were involved in colonization.
Why should an Indian scholar, working to boost the cause of the oppressed frame her work through the lens of an oppressor?
To quote the lecturer mentioned at the beginning of this post: “The theories we have developed do not allow most people in the world to conceive of them as their own”
There’s also the general problem of being institutionally excluded from the academic dialogue in the west. Often, I find an article that looks relevant to my research and then click on it only to find that the university does not have access to the article. This happens even with major journals. I find it surprising that even a great institution like TISS has limited access to journals, but it makes sense. Journal access is expensive.
Without proper journal access, it can be hard for an Indian academic to have a full sense of the ongoing debates in social sciences.
Finally, the whole project of people from the west coming to the east to “study the Indians” is itself problematic. It ignores the ability of Indians to construct their own evaluations about their society and its problems. It is a continuation of an ugly history that positions people in the west as “the researcher” and people in non-western countries as the “studied.”
Understanding more about the issues around academics in India has made me rethink my Fulbright grant. At first, I dreamed of producing “original” or “cutting-edge” research. I’ve realized I need to be more humble. There are many people around me with much, much more knowledge than I have. There are people who have explored the issues I am interested in, in much more depth than I will by the end of this grant. The mission of the Fulbright program is “to create mutual understanding amongst people around the world.” I’ve realized that I should rather use this time to listen to the expertise of the people I meet and work with them to elevate their voices on a larger scale.