Posts Tagged ‘research’

Worlds collide

Posted: June 15, 2013 in ivory tower musings
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Yesterday, lights flashed. Thunder crashed on all sides. And the cameras rolled.


The Randolph, 14 June

India had come to Oxford. More precisely, to the Randolph Hotel, hub of scone munching and Morse murder mysteries. The encounter was revealing at least as much for its asymmetry as for the conversation.

The Randolph’s ballroom was decked out as if for a wedding, or maybe a post-wedding disco. Chandeliers overhead, rows of white sheets and big synthetic bows over the chairbacks, round dining tables up front for the more illustrious guests. The lights dimly flickered on the stage in alternating pinky-red and blue, like a strip club in the suburbs.

One of my students, a charming French-Algerian, lit up with recognition: ‘Ah! This looks just like the place we circumcised my brother!’

In the anteroom Oxford was gathering, a little nervy in uncharacteristically sharp dress. Over shortbread, the dons eyed the TV billboards around the room. On the screen Oxford talking heads chattered on repeat, the volume down low. Not quite your average lecture. ‘India Day @ Oxford’ was going out live on CNN-IBN and various other channels, thanks to Network 18—which might sound awkwardly like a neo-Nazi outfit, but is in fact a powerful media conglomerate. This was the first in a planned series of biannual collaborations.

Time for the show. Thundering beats! Whirling graphics! Action nouns! And overhead: ‘Right here! Right now!‘ How I wish all seminars began with Fatboy Slim. ‘Put your hands together,’ a staffer hissed. ‘Put your hands together!

It was one of those mornings that demands a lot of italics. We applauded obediently.


This. Is. CNN.

First was the inauguration of a memorial scholarship. The bemused speakers herded around to light candles. There was a nicely British scene between the two Indians: ‘After you, old chap’—’no, after you, I insist’.

BadadabamBOOM. Again the gameshow music. Let the analysis begin.

The discussion topics were both ones which obsess Indian elites. How can India translate its economic progress (if this itself can be sustained) into power on the world stage? And is Indian democracy in crisis? Answering the first was Salman Khurshid, external affairs minister, with the extraordinary hair-eyebrow combination of Alistair Darling.

Alongside him, Chris Patten, Oxford chancellor and last colonial governor of Hong Kong, kicked off proceedings in typically self-deprecating style. ‘Oxford was just named the best—sorry, second-best university in the world. First was CalTech, but that’s just a little boutique place.’

What did we learn? It is a delicate path between academic honesty and diplomacy, especially before the cameras. There was a lot of pleasant Oxford reminiscing, a lot of time-frittering gags, plus the inevitable references to cricket and Britain’s dismal weather.

The usual checklist of worries featured—the growth rate has almost halved, the ‘demographic dividend’ threatens to become a ‘demographic time bomb’, etc—but overall the tone was rather optimistic. We heard  too that India isn’t a world power (whatever one of those is), perhaps because it’s altogether too nice and polite. (On regional integration, the TAPI pipeline reared its utopian head again too.) The external affairs minister, of all people, suggested that foreign policy was very much subordinate to domestic politics: ‘India is like a dancing peacock: it sees its ugly feet, and begins to cry and shed its feathers.’

BJP grand dame Arun Jaitley livened things up in the second half, impatiently dispensing criticism (veiled and otherwise) on all sides. India has become far too cynical. Its population is ‘restless’. Naxalism in tribal areas worsening and all but incurable. Corruption is rife. He fears the concentration of power in the hands of one individual (though of course Narendra Modi doesn’t count). The quality of politicians is declining, he lamented, with caste and surname prized over competence.

Lest you fear this is a purely dystopian vision, he simultaneously assured us that Indian MPs are already the world’s most accountable, and only the BJP or the Congress can be ‘national anchors’ in parliament. He’s only 60, so this means he still has a quarter-century at the top ahead.


Curiouser & curiouser 

BadadabamBOOM. Reviewing the event, one journalist claimed:

The decor was very much Indian – a few sarees flowing down from huge panels on the stage – but the air was very much Oxford – suffused with irony, old boy jokes and a sense of ambition that extended far beyond today’s problems and even pessimism.

Yet overall this was a classic demonstration of the add’n’stir approach to bringing policy and academia together. The politicians emphatically dominated proceedings, with only the odd mini-lecture uneasily slotted between interviews. But if ‘very much Oxford’ ≠ academia, what does it mean?

The answer may have been inadvertently provided by two questions from the floor:

‘I am a Rhodes Scholar. Why don’t you engage us in politics? We are the natural pick. All the other Rhodes Scholars get handpicked for power in their countries.’ —A Rhodes Scholar

‘Oxford stands for merit. When will merit come to India? This affirmative action for the lower castes must end.’ —A Hindu activist

Ah, of course! ‘Oxford’ in the old elitist sense. How wonderfully traditional.

The conclusion is an unsurprising one: academia and politics are tricky to mix. But silly old me—maybe that mixture wasn’t the real point. The event closed with an announcement: Network 18 is about to inaugurate a 24-hour India-focused TV news channel…right here in the UK.


I once asked a young dissertation writer whether her suddenly greyed hair was due to ill health or personal tragedy. She answered: ‘It was the footnotes.’    —Joanna Russ

I know what you’re thinking. Being a PhD student is a glitzy whirlwind of socialising, sizzling oratory, and wittily incisive commentary on things of great global relevance. Well, you’re right. But there is an exception, a giant, maleficent exception: the outer circle of hell that is actually writing academic papers. For one particularly idiotically titled conference paper, then, all of normal, fun, interesting life has been put temporarily on hold—I could almost forget I’m in Delhi except for the UNREMITTINGLY OPPRESSIVE M%☢£♪☦ING HEAT—so you’re about to get a flash of what lies beneath that glamourpuss PhD exterior. Children, look away now. This shizzle just got real.

As you may recall, one of the many valuable public service functions this blog sporadically fulfils is keeping the Olds in the loop about T’internet memes. As I’ve been doing far too much writing this week, I’ll nobly take the opportunity to update y’all in the form of a meta-meme. Warning: if you look at too many of these, you will develop .Gif Autism, and be unable to express yourself except in two-second simulations of startled raccoons. Luckily, there will always be a home for you within academia.









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Apologies for the long delay, dearest Readers—I’ve been busy hobnobbing with some of India’s finest energy geeks and politicos. I’ve yet to fully digest the unevenly electrifying boluses they’ve slipped me, but here are some musings on what’s going well and what’s not.

1. Wooing the elites

‘Will they actually talk to you?’ innocent civilians often ask. Simply gaining access to the elites is the most obvious research hurdle—although it is eminently doable.

As a former Oxford Union president once Facebook-boasted with characteristic douchebaggy flair:

It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.

The researcher of elites, one guide advises, needs many of the characteristics of the social climber: ‘everyone who might possibly know someone, must be contacted and asked if they will give introductions, vouch for one, and otherwise help one’s enterprise.’ (Non-corporate) Brits would undoubtedly cringe at my naked opportunism—I do cringe inwardly, alas, and often wimp out of asking directly—but people in India are fortunately more sympathetic, and friends, acquaintances, and interviewees have often been very helpful. Let’s face it: all elites of all societies operate on this principle, this one just more unabashedly than most.

The barriers to elite access have probably been overrated, too—at least for someone in my position. As wonderfully-named pair Gewirtz & Ozga argue, access is more likely to be granted if the researcher seems ‘perfectly harmless’. As a young, female foreigner, in my interviewees’ eyes I’m about as harmless as a sickly baby koala, and can get away with asking ‘naive’ awkward questions while they play teacher. (Senior politicians and civil servants in Britain would be far more suspicious and hostile, I’m sure.) The exception is business elites, who find me about as appealing as gonorrhoea on toast.

Physical access has been the most demeaning part of the whole process—although only for international conversations. Arriving 15 minutes early at the Australian High Commission, I was told I couldn’t wait outside but had to keep moving. So I sullenly read a book, taking a few steps every couple of minutes as the guards eyed me. At the American embassy the suspicion was probably my own fault: I was inadvertently carrying a highly questionable electronics-filled package. Visions of Gitmo flashed past my eyes.

2. The lost art of conversation 

The single most important technique for successful elite interviews, it is widely agreed, is extensive, customised preparation. True, except several interviewees have asked for almost spontaneous meetings—two hours’ notice on a Saturday for one particularly interesting bureaucrat. A far bigger problem, though, has been what Susan Ostrander called elites’ endearing

tendencies to converse easily, freely, and at great length but not necessarily with the kind of substantive content the research requires.

Try as I might, I just can’t get some of them to shut up and answer my questions, rather than trotting off down entertaining tangents, even when I’ve already outlined my terribly optimistic ‘agenda’ for the meeting. With an embittered sigh, one expert simply advises that it is courting frustration and failure to go in expecting clear answers to particular questions; digressions and overall impressions may be as useful, and are much more likely to be obtained. The most interesting details have emerged so far when interviewees are most relaxed and conversation is flowing freely (so turning on a recorder is also unthinkable). Sigh. Tips on a postcard, please.

3. Are they lying?

Everyone expects those with power to lie. But do they lie more than other people? How does any ethnographer know their informant is ‘telling the truth’? Actually, my experience seems more like that of Julian Brash as he investigated New York City’s business elites and municipal authorities. He began expecting to have to probe the linkages between capitalism and the bureaucracy indirectly and subtly, but was surprised to find many interviewees were open about it. Here too, as Brash suggests,

the powerful operate in a world that is almost completely self-justified, thus rendering obscuration and dishonesty unnecessary.

I am but a gnat on the Indian elites’ windscreen, and most are convinced they’re (trying to) do the right thing.

4. Are elites people too?

Before we hit the field, each research project goes up before NHS death panel-like bureaucrats who assess whether it will die/be cruelly amputated/allowed to struggle onwards towards the light. This committee also rigorously probes the project’s morality (although admittedly they do seem unhealthily fond of making mice innards luminous). This makes sense: anthropologists—who in any case tend to be ethically sensitive types, innately prone to outbreaks of fruitarianism and adopting street puppies—have traditionally worked with vulnerable subjects, seen as requiring protection and empowerment.

But what about when the asymmetry of status, voice, and power between subjects and researcher is reversed? Elites clearly don’t need humble research-lepers to empower them. What are the ethics of interviewing someone who can shield themselves from exposure or criticism, and quite possibly have you deported on a whim? Where is the line between self-censorship and deception? Some argue even obtaining informed consent from such interviewees ‘seems an impossible ideal…an implicit double standard’.

Inevitably, there are researchers who have (arguably) taken this too far (David Mosse’s controversial ‘breach of trust’ in belatedly deciding to write an ethnography, Cultivating development, of his own DFID colleagues; Jennifer L. Pierce’s getting hired as a paralegal at law firms to carry out covert participant observation). In fact, I’ve found most interviewees supportive of critical, political research. As Gewirtz & Ozga found, the powerful understand the purpose of academic research more than most others; indeed, already two have urged me to write a book on specific aspects of Indian energy policy. Elites may be more beautiful and damned than the rest of us, but they also appreciate most the analysis of how power works.