Social Science, Epistemology, and Future Directions in Research

4 Oct

There is a schism that runs right in the middle of social science divvying up the field between the critical theorists and the positivists. Positivists aspire to model the success in natural science and hence tend to focus on the causality and statistical proof, according to Dr. Tang at the National Taiwan University. Critical school, on the other hand, starts from some starts from some philosophical axioms, for example, “social good” or “justice for all” or “maximizing social good.”

The approach by critical theorists is riven with difficulties due to the multiplicity of the philosophical starting points around which one can build theories. As one would expect, critical theory today has myriad “schools,” each based on different philosophical assumptions and each with, if one may say, their own geometry and calculus which works only in their own universe. Positivists circumvent the epistemological and other philosophical issues that dog the critical theorists by relying on the natural science model of doing research that stresses on coming up with a falsifiable hypothesis that can then tested either via experimentation or observation (within a representative randomized sample). Given the difficulty of defining and measuring useful variables in social science, positivists rely upon their own methodological axioms though a lot of research is currently underway to help refine the methodology.

The dichotomy in the field brings one to question how social science should ideally be conducted. The answer depends on what one expects from social science. One may argue that social science has ceded its primary responsibility of trying to resolve the dispute between different philosophical paradigms and wrestling with issues pertaining to the nature and future of society. Without the moral or philosophical grounding, a lot of research may seem like monkey work – repetitive and commercial applications aside utterly aimless. On the other hand, one may argue that quantitative work often illuminates how humans and society works and it is first important to understand both of them before we move on to the task of circumscribing their behavior in philosophy. I would argue that social science’s aims need to be a hybrid of both of the strands. Social science needs to continue to grasp with the important epistemological and philosophical questions that underpin our existence and provide direction in a way to where research is headed. At the same time, social science needs to be more pro-active in understanding humans and society.

Uncivil Rights Leader

18 Aug

Andrew Young, respected civil rights leader, was hired expressly to improve Walmart’s public image.

“In the Sentinel interview, Young was asked about whether he was concerned Walmart causes smaller, mom-and-pop stores to close.

“Well, I think they should; they ran the `mom and pop’ stores out of my neighborhood,” the paper quoted Young as saying. “But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First, it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs; very few black people own these stores.”

Washington Post

Muslim Issues, Humanitarian Issues

4 Aug

The latest Lebanese crisis—I cringe at using the word crisis for it seems news organizations use it all too frequently to condense all human suffering and all other news into this pointless pithy—has been covered in the Arab media as a predominantly Muslim affair where a Jewish state is attacking Muslims. While the thrust of the statement remains true, the fact of the matter is that what is happening in Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis, a human tragedy if you will and has little or nothing to do with people there being Muslims or non-Muslims. The portrayal is all the more bankrupt given the fact that Lebanon has about 40% Christian population. Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Lebanon or Bosnia are and should be treated as a humanitarian crisis and not as Muslim crisis by the Arab media. There is a subtext in all the coverage in the Arab media that a Saudi resident or an Arab should feel more about the Lebanese than say someone sitting in EU. There is subtle and not too subtle racism that accentuates the us vs. them schism that has opened up between the world and Islam as a whole. There are mitigating reasons that are offered including the fact that Arab press is deliberately framing it as a Muslim issue to demand action from their ostensibly Muslim governments but then again I think it is giving too much credit to the Arab media for this deep-rooted problem that finds its face in all major Muslim media from Indonesia to Pakistan.

Of course, the Western media can’t go scot-free either. Western media outlets eager to portray Hezbollah as a Shiite militia backed by Iran and eager to portray Lebanese as a bunch of ‘enemy terrorists’ have overlooked the fact that “Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982” NY Times

Roger Pape, in his NY Times op-ed piece, adds,

“Evidence of the broad nature of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation can be seen in the identity of its suicide attackers. Hezbollah conducted a broad campaign of suicide bombings against American, French and Israeli targets from 1982 to 1986. Altogether, these attacks, which included the infamous bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983, involved 41 suicide terrorists.

In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures, and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birthplaces and other personal data for 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.”

Reforming the College Application Process

1 Aug

College application process in the US is overrun by blatant self-serving marketing and cronyism. We must reform the application process to change the way students look at education.

The Graduate Application Process

While US-based schools uniformly ask for a “Statement of Purpose” and occasionally a personal biography to mention things which “may not have been covered otherwise,” UK based schools like LSE only ask for a formal thesis proposal from their Ph.D. applicants. The subjectivity introduced by essays like the “Statement of Purpose” gives the admissions committee enough elbow room to fit in candidates whose backgrounds may otherwise be suspect. LSE’s demands only a formal thesis proposal, which includes research design and bibliography, and gives a better understanding of a student’s intellectual ability to handle research than say 3-4 pages of carefully crafted spiel to please the head honcho of the department or to whoever holds the key to your admission.

On to undergraduate application process

Today an application to a top-echelon school passes through many rounds of editing before it reaches the desk of the admissions officer. There are numerous websites and books dedicated to the craft of writing a successful admissions essay. The key to a successful admissions essay is to have “an angle” around which you weave your life story and tell the admissions officer why your life has led you to ‘this’ particular program at this college. Of course, the logic and events are sham or nip-tucked to give them the exaggerated appearance that is needed for the storyline. The sham stories give admissions officers a poor idea of student’s interests and capabilities especially because they can so easily be spun around to sound and say what is wanted. In writing dishonest essays, students also fail to analyze if they really want to join a particular school or a program. Still, by far the more insidious effect of the growing importance of the extra-curricular activities in the college application process is that today high-school students are hustling to get into multiple extracurricular activities at the expense of studying. It may also be argued that the admissions essays unfairly favor the rich students who can carefully tend to the admissions essay with the help of online services. It is this thing, which is, in fact, unique to the US, that it rewards entrepreneurship and salesmanship over scholarship.

Cure?

The application process at undergraduate level should highlight the importance of academic achievement in schools and pay little or scant attention to frivolities like admission essays.

What Now? After the Bomb Blasts

12 Jul

Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the serial bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai. The number is insignificant in a country of a billion, but deliberately planned massacres have this cruel meaninglessness to them that rile up the hearts of even the Stoics.

The immediate Indian response to the blasts has been muted as the government has refused to pin down the attack on Pakistan supported (or at least based) militant groups before corroborating evidence documenting such comes to the fore, against the norm. The response has been markedly different from the theatrical over-the-top response of the BJP led government, which deployed troops at the border after the attack on the Indian parliament.

The muted response comes amidst strong pressure on Indian government to take “strong measures.” While a casual observer may take this to be a sign of pussyfooting, there is a pragmatic rationale behind toning down the response. The elbow room that India has when it comes to Pakistan is very limited given that outright conventional war is not an option and that hostile rhetoric will only play into the hands of right-wing elements in Pakistan. The argument in more abstract terms can be understood as follows: Negotiation without leverage is a failed enterprise and any efforts to create leverage through hostile rhetoric are likely to backfire.

Pakistan government’s negotiating stance is likely to be governed by the fact that working with India to dismantle terrorist infrastructure is likely to be reasonably costly, given it is likely to be destabilizing in the short term, and politically costly given efforts are going to seen as towing the line of India. For Indian government, incentives to use this “opportunity” to address some of the issues at the root of the conflict, if not terrorist attacks, is likely to be non-existent given the following – any latent or explicit demands made by people conducting terrorist attacks are automatically seen as lacking legitimacy, sources and explanations of terrorism are seen to be external, and any attempt to deal with demands of terrorists is likely to provoke a backlash.

What is clear is that problem understood thus is likely to thwart dealing with issues that are likely to be rewarding in the longer-term. Both Pakistan and India would clearly benefit from not hiding behind temporary exigencies and dealing with problems head-on. In the long term, Pakistan would benefit from tackling the terrorist infrastructure, though it may lose some leverage in Kashmir, which is probably fine. Similarly, India would likely gain by addressing Kashmir which will likely strengthen the hands of moderates in Pakistan. Political entrepreneurship can do much to reframe the problem. After all, considerable entrepreneurship (pandering) is behind the current understanding of the problem as a zero-sum game.

India Said, Pakistan Said

11 Jul

The New York Times in its article on Mumbai blasts and Kashmir Grenade attacks, ended the story with the following, “New Delhi has continued to accuse Pakistan of training, arming and funding the militants. Islamabad insists it only offers the rebels diplomatic and moral support.”

It is amazing to see that a simple relatively incontestable fact that Islamabad arms and trains militants is hedged by words like “accuses” and the ‘accusation’ followed by a rebuttal by Pakistani Government. There is absolutely no doubt, and this comes from reports from numerous non-partisan experts and numerous stories from Pakistani, BBC and other credible international journalists that Pakistan engages in all of these practices. This form of equivocation which borders on he said/she said kind of journalism in which even the most basic facts are shown as contestable do a great disservice.

‘Objectivity’ doesn’t imply (and certainly doesn’t demand) equivocation, or getting government hacks on either side to comment on issues. Compare this instance to how reporting is done say on 9/11, where the press doesn’t go out of its way to highlight ludicrous claims made by the opposition. And rightly so.

From Satellites to Streets

11 Jul

There has been a tremendous growth in satellite-guided navigation systems and secondary applications relying on GIS systems, like finding shops near the place you are, etc. However, it remains opaque to me why we are using satellites to beam this information when we can easily embed RFID/or similar chips on road signs for pennies. Road signs need to move from the ‘dumb’ painted visual boards era to electronic tag era, where signs beam out information on a set frequency (or answer when queried) to which a variety of devices may be tuned in.

Indeed it would be wonderful to have “rich” devices, connected to the Internet, where people can leave our comments, just like message boards, or blogs. This will remove the need for expensive satellite signal reception boxes or the cost of maintaining satellites. The concept is not limited to road signs and can include any and everything from shops to homes to chips informing the car where the curbs are so that it stays in the lane.

Possibilities are endless. And we must start now.

In India, Reforms Don’t Reach the Rural Areas

6 Jul

Pankaj Mishra, writing for the New York Times, takes on the myth of “New India,”

“Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country’s $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and that, as the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it, even if it sustains its current high growth rates, India will not catch up with high-income countries until 2106.

Nor is India rising very fast on the report’s Human Development Index, where it ranks 127, just two rungs above Myanmar and more than 70 below Cuba and Mexico. Despite a recent reduction in poverty levels, nearly 380 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day.

Malnutrition affects half of all children in India, and there is little sign that they are being helped by the country’s market reforms, which have focused on creating private wealth rather than expanding access to health care and education. Despite the country’s growing economy, 2.5 million Indian children die annually, accounting for one out of every five child deaths worldwide; and facilities for primary education have collapsed in large parts of the country (the official literacy rate of 61 percent includes many who can barely write their names). In the countryside, where 70 percent of India’s population lives, the government has reported that about 100,000 farmers committed suicide between 1993 and 2003. ”

A related article in the BBC talks about how the recent economic growth in India and China has meant little reprieve for those living in the rural areas.

What Does it Mean to be Literate in India?

3 Jul

A country hailed internationally for its engineers is also home to about a third of world’s illiterates (UNESCO, 2000).

Indian government defines literacy as the ability to read and write, which is similar to UNICEF’s definition. The 2001 census put India’s literacy rate at 65.4%, leaving over 250 million (counting only people older than 7) people who can’t read and write. The female literacy levels were worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”

While these figures are bad enough, the picture looks distinctly worse when one surveys the literacy attainment of people classified as literate.

“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat – confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.

  1. Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.
  2. Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of the text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
    of the next line immediately below.
  3. Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.
  4. Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves.

….

“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people—literate according to the Census—can read the headlines of a newspaper?

If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10–15% would be fully literate.”

Source: Brij Kothari and others

In short, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving important things like health and access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But where to invest? Brij Kothari believes that literacy can be increased by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS)—subtitling the lyrics of popular song-based television programs like Chitramala in the same language as the audio. Initial tests of SLS in Gujarat have been successful. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and watch a bunch of it.

Counterpoint
Voice technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and auto-correction make the ability to write and read the written word increasingly optional. Thus, one way to move forward is to make such technologies more widely available. Another way would be to make essential information more broadly available in a non-textual format. Until now, these ideas have been considered as fallback options. But to continue to think of them as that would be a mistake. They may simply reflect the future of humanity.

p.s. An article on inequality in achievement in maths in India: India Shining, Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement (pdf) by Jishnu Das et al.

What Does It Mean for India to have South Asian States on the Failed States Index?

9 May

A joint survey by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace on ‘Failed States’ was unveiled recently. The “Failed States Index” puts Pakistan at number nine, or in other words, Pakistan is seen as the ninth most likely country to fail.

The survey, which is based on “data from more than 11,000 publicly available sources collected from July to December 2005” and tracks 12 socio-economic and political factors, puts Pakistan one rank above Afghanistan. That is reason enough to doubt the results of the survey.

2005 was a traumatic year for Pakistan with insurgency gaining ground in the west, a massive earthquake that destroyed parts of north-west, continued sectarian violence in Karachi, and the continued rule of the West’s favorite military ruler—General Pervez Musharraf. All these factors were enough to cause Pakistan to lose ground from its relatively safe 34th position last year to the shaky 9th this year. The report itself counts the earthquake as the chief reason for the decline.

It seems that India’s neighborhood is getting very unstable. Burma, Bangladesh, and Nepal are consecutively placed at 18, 19, and 20 respectively. If the data from the current year were to be included, I believe Nepal would likely make it to the top 10. Sri Lanka, of course, is simmering again and is likely to lose ground from its current ranking of 25.

The surrounding instability in the neighborhood may affect India critically if one or more countries see a prolonged conflagration. Let me refine the hypothesis a bit. There is encouraging evidence that a country can withstand chaos in the neighborhood. Take for example South Africa, which borders Zimbabwe and has seen a massive flow of immigrants from the country. But India’s case is a bit different. For instance, Nepal’s resurgent Maoist movement may find support in the beleaguered northeast areas of India and the impoverished villages around Himalayan region. And this may cause unrest in India. Prolonged problems in Bangladesh may set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India. There is already widespread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in parts of North-east and any increase in immigration is likely to set off violent demonstrations.

While the prognosis for long-term stability in South Asia seems bad, things aren’t particularly hot for East Asia either. Among the other countries that saw a precipitous rise in the rankings over the past year include China, which on the basis of its “87,000” peasant strikes lost 10 points to clock in at 57th.