Seeking self-reflexivity within the global STS community: an interview with Sundar Sarukkai

Joseph Satish Vedanayagam

July 27, 2019 | Reviews

Sundar Sarukkai has been a Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru (India) and was Founder-Director of Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities. He is the author of several books including Translating the World: Science and Language (2002) and The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory (co-authored with Gopal Guru, 2012). He is the Series Editor for Science and Technology Studies (Routledge). He is also a playwright; his latest play Two Fathers brings together Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.

While reviewing the fourth edition of the STS Handbook in Current Science, Sarukkai (standing in middle, image below) discussed the importance of the Handbook for the global South, especially in the context of ‘the inherent prejudices and imbalances in the (STS) field itself’. In this post, Aalok Khandekar (Platform Director, STSinfrastructures) asks Sarukkai what 4S can do to better engage with ‘non-Western’ STS.


Prof. Sundar Sarukkai (middle) with Aalok Khandekar (left)

1. Prof. Sarukkai, in your review of the STS handbook, you discuss the lack of a professionalized STS in India. Why hasn't STS been established to any significant degree as an academic discipline in India? Isn’t this particularly surprising, given that there is such rich thought about the role and relevance of science and technology in India's development for more than a century now?

It is indeed remarkable that India has not produced any meaningful STS programs, either as research programs or as teaching programs offering degrees in STS. There are many reasons for this. One, STS elsewhere has always been generated in collaboration with the humanities and social sciences (HSS). The lack of STS in India is as much a reflection of the weak standing of HSS in India. Secondly, science is not merely a discipline in India, but an ideology related to a vision of modernity and development in opposition to tradition and religion. This has always skewed the social understanding of science since it is burdened with getting rid of religious beliefs as well as social structures like caste. It is this impossible task that has sustained a naive view of science in India. Scientific communities in India have used this image to further their interests without recognizing that not only have they failed in understanding the social complexity of Indian society but have also failed in producing highly creative science. Ironically, the scientific community in India is conservative, supports a polarized nationalist discourse, is against reservation, prejudiced against women, dalits and minorities but yet uses the vague idea of 'scientific temper' to protect their interests. This is why they are suspicious about any STS program; they tend to see any attempt to talk about science through the framework of history, philosophy or sociology as being anti-science.

The absence of STS in India is also reflective of the attempts by the science community to protect itself from any form of accountability. they can get away with this because the government is deeply invested in the scientific community, due to defence interests as well as the overall conservativeness of Indian scientists. Although there is a small group of scientists from elite institutes who take liberal political stands, the broader community of scientists as such has been pro-establishment. Social scientists are the exact opposite. Faculty from HSS departments in premier universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and University of Hyderabad (UoH) have always raised democratic and egalitarian concerns. They have been at the forefront of caste, feminist and other movements that have impacted the Indian social order. Political leaders naturally tend to see this HSS community as antagonistic to their personal agenda. Since higher education is dominantly dependent on State funds, the government has enormous control over which disciplines get supported. Contributing to this were the changes in the education system which promoted professional engineering and medicine courses as well as extensive science curricula in schools at the expense of HSS.

The final nail that shut STS in India was also delivered by the science administrators. When it became imperative to make science accountable to the society, the government did not turn to the social scientists but to retired scientists and science bureaucrats. Since they had connections to the science organizations, they had funding to do these “peripheral” activities which professionals in STS did not have. Thus, we find that the Indian National Science Academy and the Department of Science and Technology creates programs to support science and society, ethics in science etc. These scientists and technocrats do not have any critical understanding of STS but think STS is only about popularising science! The suspicion that outsiders who study science are ‘anti-science’ continues to plague STS work in India today.

The rich science institutes which have funds to run programs on science and society, have ensured that STS professionals are not part of it! And when these institutes had an opportunity to build a proper STS program, they chose to promote people with no training and expertise in STS-related fields.

Ironically, the global STS community has also contributed to this process. STS scholars who used India as a site for their STS work did little to support STS initiatives in India. Their indifference to STS in India or their collaboration with Indian scientists to help their own work only helped to legitimize what was happening to STS in India. The lack of publications from India in STS journals contributed to this malaise since it gave the scientists enough ammunition to say that STS work from India was not worth publishing. The STS global community, as far as I am aware, did little to reach out and establish strong networks within India, Asia and other regions.


2. What, in your view, is the relevance of a field like STS in India today? How can we effectively strategize toward organizing STS in India? What role do you see for 4S in such efforts?

India is among the top three nations in the number of scientists and technocrats. We are in the top two nations, along with China, who consume technologies like the mobile. Yet, as a nation we don’t want to better understand the processes of science and technology, leading to a passive acceptance of S&T. It is paradoxical that despite having excellent scientists, very little path-breaking work is produced here. I believe that the lack of quality science and technological innovation is because of the absence of a vibrant culture of understanding science. Even S&T policy is dictated by scientists and technocrats with little understanding of STS-related disciplines. The scientistic view of S&T is not only harmful to the social fabric of the country but also to the practice of science itself. I believe that a vibrant STS community in India can push Indian science to greater heights and negotiate around the thoughtless use of S&T in India in the name of development.

It is not easy to establish an STS community in India unless there is a critical mass. There has to be a national STS program – with a group of nationally known figures from HSS and also from the natural sciences and engineering – offering MA and PhD programs in STS. In the initial years, this can be a collaborative effort with STS programs in Canada, US and Europe. This is something 4S can help with. 4S could also consider supporting an STS journal published from India.


3. What would it look like to take your critique seriously when we commission the next edition of the STS Handbook?

One way would be to reach out to scholars in India and ask them to contribute. For example, there has been some good work on women and science, and alternate conceptualizations of technology; it would be good for 4S to reach out to these groups. So 4S must be proactively inclusive without saying that very few papers are written in India. The society has a stake in how S&T is understood in places like India, Asia and Africa. These places are going to have a major impact on what kinds of S&T will be accepted globally. This may come about not because of some academic development but more as social and political revolutions. 4S has to look at this future and see how it wants to position itself. Hardly any scholars in the West use or comment on STS material from India because they do not consider it of ‘value’. But, what attains value is also that which gets taken up for circulation among the academic elite and this elite should look for material from elsewhere. Such exclusion practices among STS scholars is also why in the review I said that there should be more self-reflexivity within the STS community.

Practically, 4S could do the following: identify scholars in India, Asia and Africa and initiate a dialogue with them about potential contributions, organize workshops in collaboration with local groups to interest scholars and reflect on themes that are of interest to the next Handbook, create access to journals and books that are not available to the community in Asia and Africa.


The above interview was formatted for Backchannels by Joseph Satish Vedanayagam. Joseph is a PhD student at the Centre for Knowledge, Culture and Innovation Studies, University of Hyderabad, India. His research revolves around the scientific activity of Jesuit priests in independent India. The image is courtesy of Satyavrata Samavedi and Aditi Khandekar.

Published: 07/27/2019