Academic dissent often pushes the dissenter into ex¬treme positions. Critiques are presented as new paradigms, and the neo-converts tend to adopt the new concepts with uncritical faith as staunchly as the die-hards refuse to accept that there is anything wrong with the existing theories. When the Gross National Pro¬duct fortress crumbled, the world was presented with the Physical Quality of Life Indi¬cator. Conventional views on technology were sought to be replaced by Intermediate/ Alternate/and Appropriate Technology. Dissatisfaction with existing political and organizational forums such as political parties, trade unions and kisan sabhas gave rise to People’s Organizations and People’s Power. The list can be expanded to include many other ideas and concepts, such as Participatory Research which has been hailed as the new ‘ideology’ for academia.
It is rarely realized that many of the new ideas, while solving some of the existing inconsis¬tencies and contradictions, are themselves beset with equally glaring problems. For instance, years of arduous and expensive research have now shown that while the PQLI captures some characteristics that the GNP does not, inter-¬temporal and inter-sectoral ranking of countries under either system is not very diffe¬rent, We have thus to con¬stantly ask ourselves the ques¬tion, ‘Is the switch worth it?’ The debate is inconclusive, but it does point to the need for some caution.
The Research and Training establishment has convention¬ally operated on a number of assumptions. Prominent among these are the belief in value-free, objective, and neu¬tral research; the belief that research is a specialized acti¬vity that cannot be left to the layman; that the method of the natural sciences can be transported into the world of the social sciences; that human beings and activities can be equated to objects; that compartmentalization and special¬ization lead to a higher truth-value—and so on. None of these assumptions is sustain¬able. The research establish¬ment, the researcher, and research activity are all imbu¬ed with value-premises and political perspectives, and serve specified interests in society which, more often than not, are the ruling forces and strata.
Action or Participatory Re¬search (PR) challenges all these norms. It explicitly rejects the belief in value-free, neutral, and objective research, and consciously builds in the sub¬jective and normative as part of its operative paradigm. Unlike conventional research, PR begins by asking the ques¬tions, Who generates the data and concepts? How? For what purpose? In whose interests? Research, then, is seen as more than just the unbiased seeking of ‘truth’, it is a method and a process of poli¬tical intervention.
The authors of the book have done us all a useful service by bringing together a series of rather perceptive essays on this theme. If the subsequent passages sound critical, it is not because the intent behind such efforts is being question¬ed, but only that a note of caution is being sounded about false euphoria.
The tone of the book is set in the initial introductory piece by Fernandes and Tandon. Having decided to operate in two domains—development activity and social research—the authors present a persu¬asive case. They argue that both activities are charac¬terized by a bureaucratic and hierarchic ‘top-down’ model, in which the decision-making powers are cornered by the top few, and the ‘experts’ assume that they are the only repositories of all knowledge and wisdom. Both Fernandes and Tandon emphasize the necessity of listening to the ‘voiceless’, giving a central importance to the issue of distribution of power in society; and on relying upon ‘ordinary people’ as the single greatest critical resource. They also talk about the technology of social action or research, the type of personnel required and their training, and finally about the issues involved in the measurement of the out¬come.
The authors argue that unless there is a redistribution of both resources and power in favour of those who live by their own productive labour; unless the ostensible benefici¬aries of a development scheme have a major say in the for¬mulating and running of the scheme, in addition to decid¬ing the use pattern of the final output—neither development nor research activity is likely to change the existing patterns of social theorizing and action.
Research, training, and evalu¬ation are, therefore, seen as a process of sharing and joint learning between those who are supposed to know and the ‘ignorant’. A strong appeal is made to internalize the basic value premises underlying the works of Paulo Freire, which indicate how research can lead to a ‘process of liberation’.
The section dealing with the¬oretical perspectives has arti¬cles by Rajesh Tandon, Walter Fernandes, Viji Srinivasan, Kishore Saint, Desmond A, D’Abreo, and the Bandopadhyayas, all essentially, argu¬ing in the same vein. In a sense, it is only Kishore Saint’s paper which is different, be¬cause he is not developing guidelines for the urban middle class activist/researcher. His paper which deals with ‘the evolutionary impulse in the Indian character’ underscores the very valuable point that people are subjects and not objects of change. There are, however, some problems with the paper. While it is true (though not very often recognized) that all peoples have their own culture, history and lifestyle which contribute to a specific dynamic, it is also true that surviving under centuries Of oppression by the rulers (not only the British) produces some very queer tendencies. Saint’s rather naive and optimistic presentation of the existing effervesence in all indigenous communities has to be judged against the con¬ventional viewpoint of the anthropologist who only sees a petty, tired, and defeated people. The truth may lie somewhere in between. If there is” creativity, there are also tendencies of localism, funda¬mentalism and an over-glori¬fication of one’s own past and culture. Tribal and peasant societies have not very easily, and definitely not by relying on only their internal reserv¬oirs, been able to break out of the individualistic and paro¬chial mould which they deve¬loped over centuries as their strategy for survival. Of course, they have a tenacity; otherwise they would have been wiped out. But on their own, they have never been able to produce an alternative human culture. Even China, with all its glorious successes, is still struggling to get out of its peasant orientation.
The other papers also suffer from a similar ‘extreme out¬look’, ‘ though in varying degrees, and betray the same a historical and anti-materialistic outlook into which Saint lapses. This strong criticism, however, cannot take away the rare honesty which charac-terizes all the papers.
The second section of the book deals with five’ case studies which illustrate the general observations made in the earlier sections of the book. The case studies are unfortu¬nately a little pedantic, with the exception of the extremely fresh and sensitive piece by Laxmi Krishnamurthy. This article manages to avoid the holier-than-thou attitude which often creeps into all such writings.
The conclusion is disappoint¬ing. Partly this is due to the specific format of presentation chosen (that of a seminar report), but more because the authors rarely miss a chance to indicate their do’s and don’ts. Neither sermonizing nor moral exhortation help very much in driving home a point; they may instead only irritate.
The book also suffers from minor copy-editing mistakes—wrong spellings and punc¬tuation. The bibliography could have been a little more exhaustive, but then these are minor points. More important is the tendency to use a specia¬lized jargon, something which promoters of participatory research must be particularly careful about. Take, for ins¬tance, the frequent use of the term ‘catalyst’. The dictionary understanding of the word is that the catalyst, while accele¬rating or decelerating the pro¬cess of change itself does not change. Is the interventionist, whether researcher or develop¬ment activist, not supposed to change? But then what is this process all about, if it does not also change the intervention agent? I am sure the authors do not intend that the term be understood in this sense, but then they must be careful. Also terms like ‘dialogic method’, ‘people’s power’ and ‘people’s organization’ lend themselves to multiple interpretations, and need to be used with much greater caution than that exer¬cised by the contributors to this volume. The major drawback of the book is the lack of concern shown about how these terms and concepts have been co-opted. The major promoters of participatory research, training, evaluation, and action are the agencies of the United Nations, whose credi¬bility in this direction is a little doubtful. It is discon¬certing to discover that, more than the local intelligentsia of any country it seems to be the ‘bleeding-hearts’ in the West who today want to pro¬mote people’s power. Of course, all their radical rheto¬ric is reserved for the citizens of the Third World. Just as Appropriate Technology (read simple, labour-intensive tech¬nology) is promoted as a panacea for ‘us’, while ‘they’ continue to do what they are already doing, keeping our tribals down as tribals is also promoted as a genuine concern for local culture. All so often, our genuinely concerned acti¬vists and intelligentsia, in their gratitude to the ‘new west’ get trapped into defending positions which don’t serve our interests.
One would also have wanted some arguments against the common criticisms of the assumptions underlying this paradigm. For instance; PR by its very nature is personal and so is the knowledge and learning generated. This is both its strength as well as its weakness. How does an ‘outsider’ who has not parti¬cipated in the joint learning and sharing activity judge the outcome of this process? We may reject the false criteria of objectivity that positivist research employs, but then some new criteria have to be developed through which the ‘outcomes’ become a little less personalized. Partici-patory research methods add new dimensions to our existing understanding; they cannot be a replacement for existing paradigms.
Another shortcoming often pointed out relates to the difficulties in understanding macro issues and deciding macro strategies for interven¬tion. The participatory techni-ques discussed in the book are not much help in this context. Are we, then, to assume that this method is applicable only at the local/ micro level? If so, how do we move towards an alternate society? Also if the macro theorizing and action are going to continue as they have been for all these years, how long will the ‘participa¬tive ethic’ survive in the small pockets where it is being deve¬loped? Unless these and other questions are answered, I am afraid participatory re¬search and its promoters will continue to be in a minority.
Harsh Sethi is Assistant Director, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.