How to make academic work relevant?

It costs about a million dollars to produce a Ph.D, in the U.S.

One of my mentors shared this interesting fact, as I was about to finish my doctoral education. While I was trying to finish a decently-written dissertation, this fact kept nagging me. I had to justify that million dollar investment made on me by the state of Virginia ( I went to Virginia Tech, a public school) for my Ph.D. At the same time, I had this nagging suspicion in my mind that academic research, for the most part is not perceived as being relevant outside the confines of academe. Is this a problem that needs fixing? For sure. As demands to increase the ‘efficiency’ of dollars put into the higher education system grow, this question of relevance will become more salient.

Georgetown Uni

Georgetown University, photo credit :

In the market-place of ideas, academic research  (especially in the Social Sciences) stands out as the effete snob. Unless one works in applied research – i.e., STEM or Economics, most people don’t understand what we social scientists do, or how we do it. And sadly, most don’t care.

Should this be the case? How can we change this? How can I justify that million dollar investment, made on me, as a scholar?  I think about this regularly – and have been mulling this over – even as I work on an academic book and two other articles.

Bent Flyvbjerg (2001), a social scientist offers some answers. Here are his key arguments:

  • We must stop pretending that social sciences can emulate the success of natural sciences, in producing ‘predictive theories’.This is not the strength or even focus of social sciences and we must accept that, as a given
  • Social scientists must produce research that matters ‘to groups in the local, national and global communities in which we live, and we must do it in ways that matter; we
    must focus on issues of context, values and power, as advocated by great social scientists from Aristotle and Machiavelli to Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.’
  • Finally, he says we must establish greater dialogic capacity – i.e., communicate our results to the public and solicit feedback and incorporate it in our work. In other words, we must become ‘public scholars’ rather than be cloistered in offices on unreachable university campuses

In other words, what Flyvbjerg is saying is that academics must produce work that speaks to the condition of people around us, it addresses their daily concerns as well as listens to them, carefully and respectfully. To this, I would add a final point : Write in ways that are understandable to the vast majority of non-academics and show genuine empathy for the lives of those around us. Most academics tend to forget this, and write for an academic audience – which is usually those who are peer-reviewing their publications ( ranging from four to five people). ‘The rest of the world be damned’, is their attitude.

If we start to do this, perhaps our work may be taken more seriously by a non-academic audience. And perhaps it may even be relevant to those not within our own narrow disciplines.



Flyvbjerg(2001) Making Social science matter, why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again.  

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Do we need theory?

Of late, I have been having a lot of conversations with people in the nonprofit sector. And one clear divide I am noticing is between those who ‘do’ stuff and those who ‘think’ about stuff and theorize about it. The assumption is that those who can, do and those who don’t, teach. You may have heard this cliché many times over. But is it true? And is it valid? Are all practitioners, heroes; who just show up, to sacrifice their time, energy, reputations and sometimes, their lives just based on how they ‘feel,’ or are they also operating on a model of the world that seems coherent and a narrative of how things work – in other words, a ‘theory.’ I think all of us theorize, to some extent and theorizing is an essential part of the meaning making process.

CW Mills

CW Mills. Source

So, what is theory? It is nothing but a general explanation for a phenomenon at hand, using language and ideas that are mutually agreed upon. In various disciplines, the conventions are particular to that discipline, so theorizing is done in a particular way. For instance, in ‘pure’ sciences, such as Physics or Chemistry, empirically testing a theory is the gold-standard, while in Social Sciences, where such experimentation is not possible – you can’t dissect living people or go back in history to perform a certain thought experiment, with someone who is dead – theorizing happens in other ways[i].

Broadly speaking, one can theorize based on one’s methodological orientation – i.e., if one is a ‘positivist[ii]’, i.e., whether one believes in just empirical data and what it ‘tells us’ about the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, there are those who theorize normatively, i.e., considering the value frameworks involved. While the philosophical debates about what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are complex and I cannot explain them fully here, suffice it to say that knowledge is nothing but ‘agreement’ among competent people.

While grand-theories of the kind that Talcott Parsons and others came up with may not help you understand your own immediate life or your surroundings, other kinds of theorizing; based on sociological analysis of your immediate life may actually be very beneficial. This ‘grand-theory’ is a universalizing effort to understand the whole world or a big portion of it, through one or two key ideas or concepts. One can see this in play when uses words such as ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’ or Enlightenment thinking to understand the lack of democracy in the Middle East, for example. Is it helpful? I am not too sure. And C Wright Mills, the celebrated Sociologist was suspicious of it. Instead, he called for greater ‘empirical based’ theorizing, based on observing the particulars of each case/ society and theorizing for that particular case, while drawing out some general principles[iii].

And this brings me to the important point – why do we need theory and those who theorize, i.e., professors and ‘thinkers’? Wouldn’t just practice based work and tacit knowledge of the phenomenon or industry, be enough? The answer is, no.  I think we need theory for the following three reasons. There are many others, but for now; these three will suffice.

  • It helps us go beyond the immediate situation and help learn general principles, that may be applied in other situations
  • It helps build a body of knowledge, so others can apply it to build an understanding of their world
  • It advances human thinking and our ‘knowledge’ of our own selves and the world around us

So, the next time some hustler, who knows nothing about the field of study/ work you are engaged in tells you that you are wasting time, producing knowledge or ‘learning’ the theories, you know what to tell him/her.

We need hustlers, but we also need theorists. The world would be much poorer without either of them!

[i] For more see Sendberg –


[iii] See The Sociological Imagination ( CW Mills, 1959) for more.

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Three models of immigration – which one will win?

I attended the last lecture of ‘Immigration Law and Policy,’ a class I audited this semester at Georgetown Law School. As someone who is interested in Law, Policy and Immigration issues, I got a lot out of this class. As a wrap up, Prof. Andy Schoenholtz reminded the class that the U.S. has followed (and still follows) three distinct models of immigration.

:Immi article

1. The Virginia Model : This one is based on limited rights for workers. The plantation workers in Virginia did not want to give rights to the slaves who worked on their farms and were not too excited about emancipation. The country fought a war for that and ironically, this debate still continues, despite much legislation and public opinion having changed.

2. The Massachusetts Model : This model, historically wanted only the ‘believers’ aka Puritans. This eventually led to the national origins quota system and it was only finally abolished in 1965 with the Hart-Cellar Act.

3. The Pennsylvania Model : Inspired by the Quakers, who were pluralists and who believed that anyone could adopt ‘American’ values and become American. This system ha been place since 1965, when national origins quota ended.

As a society, America is going through some fundamental changes – both demographically and socilogically. Values are being informed by greater moral pluralism. But it looks like systems of administration and certain legal norms are not keeping pace with these changes. “Why are we at cross-roads? ” Prof. Schoenholtz asked. One answer could be that our society and economy has changed. But the  Congress hasn’t changed laws to keep up with this, he answered.

While congress has spent money, they have failed to address why immigrants come – both legally and illegally. There are 12 million undocumented workers because they haven’t been made ‘legal.’ The reason that Congress hasn’t legalized their status is a reflection of the VA model, he suggested. Also, as he was talking, I was thinking about the issue of power and political expediency. There are political movements that stand to gain by keeping these people outside of the ‘mainstream.’ If they could vote, participate in American society legally, it would hurt their interests. While all of this seems common-sense, it is not perceived.

Amidst the calls for ‘protecting American jobs’ and ‘securing the border’ we tend to forget that humanitarian grounds are forgotten. Historical precedents are lost and talking points take over.  Progress isn’t always linear and there is a risk that the VA model might take over again, if people let the status quo prevail. The real challenge sometimes is to know that the status quo is dangerous. Sometimes, one to question the very basics of what we accept to be fundamental truth to get to the ‘truth’ that is just, honorable and dignified.

Finally, I came across this blog post by Marketing Guru, Seth Godin, who has asked some interesting questions, about ‘Closing the Gate’. His questions are a good way to wrap up this short post :

Do outsiders get the benefit of the doubt?

Do we make it easy for outsiders to become insiders?

Is there a clear and well-lit path to do so?

When we tell someone new, “that not how we do things around here,” do we also encourage them to learn the other way and to try again?

Are we even capable of explaining the status quo, or is the way we do things set merely because we forgot that we could do it better?

Is a day without emotional or organizational growth a good day?


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Should Government be run like a business?

Should government be run like a business? We grappled with this question, during our Master of Public administration (MPA) degree at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in 2011, the year I graduated. It was a question that was as relevant then, as it is today – with a certain presidential candidate arguing that we must just focus on America’s interests and run the show like a business. In this world-view, there is no reason why the goods of government – governance itself – cannot be bought and sold. Afterall, this is a market-based economy. This approach to running government can be best described as New Public Management (NPM), which gained ascendance in the 1970s and 80s.


In part, this view is right. There are benefits to running a government like a business: focusing on market efficiency as the God, with bureaucrats as the angels, serving this deity. Margaret Thatcher, Manmohan Singh, Ronald Reagan are the prophets, who pushed for NPM as an approach to governance and this push has had mixed results, in each of the countries. The market is seen as being all-wise, omnipotent and omniscient.  Especially, if you grew up in India or a developing economy during the 1980s, you could see the rampant nepotism, the corruption that was eating away at the bureaucracy and business sector. NPM did come as a breeze that brought some relief to this desert of non-governance.

I have seen it in work in three countries, where I have lived and interacted (and worked) with the bureaucracies, rather closely – India, U.S.A and the U.A.E.  There is more to NPM than just trains running on time. Passports are issued quickly, business licenses are done more efficiently and life becomes smoother for the ‘consumer.’ A ‘citizen’ is transformed into a ‘consumer’, as many scholars and thinkers have pointed out. This is good, at least, in part. It is good that citizens are taken more seriously, are treated in a dignified manner and their views are considered, beyond just their vote giving potential. Their lives have meaning, beyond just a four year cycle of casting their ballots.

On the other hand, this very philosophy can lead to problems – very severe at times. Consider this: What if efficient decisions come at the expense of a democratic process? What if the department head/ the head of government – President in our case, decides that the most efficient decision is to take all decisions by him/ herself? What about consensus building? What happens to democratic norms and values? These two are often in tension and this is a key reason why some resist this push for ‘business-like’ thinking. Also, what about those consumers who cannot ‘pay’ to be consumers? This philosophy of business also assumes that the cost of doing business is borne by the ‘consumer’. But if the consumer is unable or unwilling to pay, what happens to him? Should he/ she be left out of procuring the goods of governance? Should the government not serve him/her?

These are not theoretical or abstract ideals, but very real ones – and we are witnessing the breakdown of many systems – in education, law enforcement and the like, in many government agencies, where New Public Management has been enforced.  This push for NPM is as much a vision, as its counter-part; Keynesian model of economic development, which has government intervention and spending at the heart of economic management.

The cut in government spending in research, education and healthcare have had disastrous consequences, as the market has not stepped in to correct these differentials.

Want to know the real consequence of this trend? Just look at the drop in funding for basic research. As this article by Eduardo Porter points out foundation ‘points out, the consequences in dropping federal funding for basic research are very real – it could mean lesser innovation in technology and other areas, that have made America great, in the first place. Want to make America great again? It may, ironically, have to start with funding more of federal programs, not by cutting them.

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Are we witnessing the end of ‘community’?

Is the word ‘community’ meaningless? Are we living in the most ‘individualistic’ moment in American history? Given the debates about how unequal we have become, as a country; do we  just need a ‘each man on his own’ mindset or do traditional systems such as family, neighbors have any relevance in our lives? I ask these basic questions in an attempt to map out the contours or individualism and community in America, in 2016. This is by no means an easy task and I don’t mean to provide all answers nor all perspectives.

Diverse generations

Multi-ethnic multi-generation group of people from young children to 95 years old.

Steeped as it is, this debate about individualism and Communitarianism is at the heart of many other larger debates. The most important one is that of what are called ‘Culture wars’ in America. Note my use of the word ‘America’ and not ‘The U.S.’. I’ll come to that in a moment. But indulge me for a bit. Be patient and I promise the rewards will be worth your time.

As several scholars, journalists and pundits have argued and continue to argue, we are witnessing the corrosive impact of individualism. Those who don’t agree point to the ‘communities’ that are cropping up, as it were; driven by technology, mass rapid transit and other new-age mechanisms that are bringing us closer ( and also driving us apart). Note that Face Book is cited as one of the leading causes of divorce, by couples in the U.S.

My intention in this project is to look at how ideas of community and individualism are being impacted through philanthropy – the most ‘American’ of values. The discourse of philanthropy is perhaps the most influential one, in the public sphere. After that of God. Infact, more people give to charity, than go to a place of worship; according to several studies. Perhaps there are some surprises in store for us here: just like Muhammad Ali (the boxer) claimed that he was more famous than Jesus Christ – and there is some grain of truth in that. Or perhaps not!

Using philanthropy as a lens, I will argue that the idea of community is no longer irrelevant – whether you are a liberal or a conservative, this notion is very powerful and is reasserting itself in the public sphere. Even if you throw it out of the window, this idea of community will enter through the door.

The trend towards moral pluralism is manifest in areas such as LGBTQ rights, immigration justice movements, as much as they were for racial equality, during the civil rights movements. One can see how this trend for expanding the idea of ‘who belongs’ to the U.S. is in stark contrast to nativist and extremely individualistic notions of belonging.

I will be posting updates on how this project is progressing and invite you to participate, in any way you want. Write to me, call me or talk to me – I need your inputs!

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More Charity, less Philanthropy?

Do we need more ‘Charity’ (unorganized, personal giving) and less of ‘philanthropy’ (organized, scientific philanthropy)? While scholarship in the last 25 years of so indicates that there is a growing trend towards philanthropy, we are witnessing new arguments that what we need is really more ‘charity’. Bureaucratized and ‘scientific’ ways of giving don’t really work. Don’t believe me? Look at Give Directly, one of the leading proponents of charity. They do claim, however, to be doing ‘scientific’ philanthropy, but in reality, it is direct one-to-one giving, and per one definition, would count as ‘charity.’

Their argument is simple: give the poor money directly, unconditionally and they will figure out how to use it. To the best of their knowledge. There is some wisdom in that. This is not traditional charity or caritas, which focused on ‘character development.’ The assumption in this model of thinking of the individual was that the poor were poor because they were lazy, drunks or just stupid. This is the traditional Christian view of caritas, practiced in the settler colonies in the founding days of America or any traditional society. But there are other ways to imagine how the poor live and work. Poverty is a complex topic, and I will not attempt to analyze it here. But let’s just say that the poor have a bad reputation. Most poor people I know – and have dealt with – are decent, hardworking people. Many of them have not had opportunities to advance, in some cases, they have been dealt with heavy financial blows that keep them poor and in some cases, they are victims of structural issues. So, how does on help the poor, overcome their poverty? There are several possibilities – one is to fund ‘strucutral’ changes in the system and the other is to fund the individual directly.

When it comes to immediate impact and results that can manifest themselves, there is nothing faster than individual giving. While there are limitations (and many assumptions) on how this works, it is a model that seems to have attracted a lot of attention, especially given the criticism of large international NGOs that spend a lot of money, on overheads. As Paul Niehaus, President of GiveDirectly argues in this paper, the donors usually are concerned with ‘warm glow’ or don’t really care about learning what happened after the donations were made. The cost of such learning is high, he argues. “The well-intentioned benefactor has a limited desire to learn. He always prefers to avoid ex-post feedback as this constrains his beliefs.”  This means that the intermediaries – i.e., NGOs create a ‘need’ for the service and attract donations. This is not a case of misleading donors, but one of asymmetric information and also a different theory of change. GiveDirectly offers one model of giving that is direct, (seemingly) impactful and something worth a try. My mom did this for many decades and it seems to have worked – at least in the case of many of my cousins, who have better jobs, education, thanks to my mother’s ‘giving’ directly.

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Man and Superman

By many measures, authoritarianism is on the rise. Both in the U.S. and across Europe. Let’s not even talk about the Middle East, because unfortunately, there is no good news coming from there – at least for now. Globally, are we witnessing a growth of authoritarianism? A cursory glance at the ongoing developments in the U.S., with the rise of someone like Donald Trump indicates that perhaps, it does indicate a preference among people for more order,  growth and discipline, even if it means it is coming from an authoritarian figure.SupermanRoss

Whether it is the rise of the Hindu nationalist parties in India, the stunning victories of the far-right groups in elections in Europe or the growing felt-need among Americans for ‘strong leaders’, this phenomenon is truly global and needs greater analysis.

The historical idea of the Superman comes from many sources. But in the modern era, one can look to Friedrich Nietzsche as the originator or reviver of this ideal. Nietzsche’s idea of Ubermensch as the ideal man or the ‘Oversoul’ that Goethe wrote about. This psychological archetype could be considered to be an almost primordial longing for something that is an ‘ideal type’. A Jungian archetype, if you will. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the character of Superman is a playoff on Jesus Christ and the imagery used to depict him, throughout history[i].  As a Nietzsche scholar says “He also saw the Übermensch as a creator of values and as a self creator, who overcomes himself by sublimating his impulses and passions[ii].”

Recent studies in political psychology have shown that there is a greater affinity for ideas of totalitarianism in the U.S., and the rapid rise of someone like Mr. Donald Trump is an example of this phenomenon.  One of the pioneers of the field of Political Psychology, Prof. Margaret Hermann at the Syracuse University has developed a method to analyze political leadership profiles and to predict how they might react, in given situations. As the school website says, she has done this by identifying personality traits that may be used to determine how they might behave. These traits include “the leaders’ belief in their ability to control what happens; their need for power; their conceptual complexity (viewing the world as black-and-white versus shades of gray); their self-confidence; the degree to which they focus on problem solving versus relationship building; their distrust of others; and how strongly they identify with a group such as party, government, religion, or country[iii].”

Do we need to ‘evolve’ as people? Absolutely yes. Do we need to become better people, and stronger and more focused? Yes, again to that. But do we need to be told how to do that, by some old man – whose promises are not based in reality? I am not too sure. This older, father-figure, which we end up worshipping, may be deceiving us, to gain power. We have seen this in the past and are witnessing it, again.

The question that Americans and those living in this country – which is the only surviving superpower- need to ask is this: Do we need more ‘ordinary men’ than Supermans? Do we need a little less bravado and a bit more sincerity in thought and action? The answer to this will determine whether we will ‘make this country great again.’ As Eva Cybulska argues in her essay and which I have cited here, Nietzsche’s ideal of the Ubermensch is perhaps a ‘toxic vapor that only alienated him from himself and from those who loved him.’ This is also illustrated in the appropriation of this ideal by the Nazis, a move that Nietzsche would have abhorred[iv]. As she suggests, perhaps this ideal is bound to fail as it is ‘often a mask of unacknowledged weakness that parades as power.[v]’ This bravado is also perhaps a mask of much insecurity that lurks beneath. Perhaps, it is not too late to realize this?





[ii]  Cybulska, E. Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A Glance behind the Mask of Hardness. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, Volume 15, Edition 1, May 2015



[v] Cybulsksa, E. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. P. 9

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