A Vote for the Social Sciences in India

The subject and its research tools have come a long way from being a grey area to occupying a role in the political landscape of India.

Posted on 10/30/13
By Yogesh Atal | Via The Hindu
The social sciences have for long shied away from investigating the terrain of political behaviour. This has changed. (Photo by P.V. Sivakumar via The Hindu)
The social sciences have for long shied away from investigating the terrain of political behaviour. This has changed. (Photo by P.V. Sivakumar via The Hindu)

Although the elections are still some time away, a different political climate is being created by various stakeholders. The tone was set with Anna Hazare’s and the nationwide stir against growing corruption in high places and the demand for the setting up of an independent body at the apex to examine cases of money laundering and the misuse of public money. New voices were added to the Opposition and people from different walks of life joined the campaign. Election 2014 is going to be different with the involvement of party-less campaigners against the ruling party, and the emergence of new political outfits with a clean, new and committed leadership.

Middle class as catalyst

With the onslaught of information technology, there is now considerable use of the social media by the rising, educated middle class. They are shedding their indifference to politics and demonstrating their commitment to root out corruption and dethrone the corrupt. Many are coming forward to contest elections and try honest means to seek voter support. It seems the stage of Power Shift predicted by Toffler is ready to replace money and muscle power.

The social sciences have for long shied away from investigating the terrain of political behaviour. Neither have they had adequate theoretical backup, nor dependable tools to participate meaningfully in the analysis of the emerging political culture. Political studies by political scientists and sociologists initially either focused on the functioning of the local-self government or factional politics at the village level. When compared to the study of political behaviour, more scholarship was invested in the study of political philosophy or the comparative study of the constitutions. The year 1967 saw a series of studies on the Indian elections by sociologists, political scientists and psychologists using techniques of survey research. But these studies shied away from making predictions about the result. Since that was still the time of a one-party-dominant system, the outcome was predictable. Of course, the outcome of the elections in 1967 falsified this notion when the ruling party was swept out of power.

Exit polls

In later years, interest in the kind of studies that we did relative to voting behaviour dwindled. Social scientists were expected to predict the outcome of elections. In response to such expectations, some agencies sprung up which recorded huge samples from different parts of the country and analysed responses to answer simple questions. These agencies and institutions vied with each other to make accurate predictions. The technique of exit polls was evolved for the purpose.

Not all predictions came true. It was partly due to the fact that predictions relative to human behaviour are governed by the manner in which people respond. For one thing, people’s responses to the questionnaire may be false — there can be a difference between what people feel, what they say and what they actually do. There can also be distortion caused by the investigator — he may ask the same question to different people in different ways and thus get different responses; or he may wrongly record the response; or, worse, he may himself supply the response without interviewing the respondents in the sample — which is not uncommon. All these influence the reliability of data.

Data analysis

When data is analysed as objectively as possible, and are made public in the form of a prediction there exists other possibilities of distortion. Two opposing logics operate — namely, the logic of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the logic of self-cancelling prophecy. The underlying assumption is that once a prophecy is made, it is within the powers of the listener to act in such a way as either to oblige the soothsayer or to penalise him so that the prophecy is either fulfilled or cancelled. Of course, in the case of exit polls, such a situation did not arise as respondents supplied the information about what they had done — whom had they voted for? But this information can be false. The ban on exit polls imposed later by the Election Commission was based on the premise that the knowledge of survey findings may affect voting behaviour in other constituencies where elections were to be held.

The current elections have brought about a change in the modality. While political parties commissioned such studies and utilised the findings in developing the strategies, the findings were not made public. But this time, each party is conducting its own study and is also making the findings public. And such studies are done more than once — though not following the technique of Panel study — to identify the changes in the preference profile. Such studies are likely to influence voter choice, but releasing their findings is also influencing the election strategies. Apart from influencing the voters in their process of choice making, they are also affecting the strategies of the various contending parties.

The election outcome will ultimately tell us as to how these predictions have shaped voter behavior. Whether they served the function of self-fulfilling or self-cancelling will be difficult to determine. Who will win and make the government will thus depend on how the voter behaves at the polling booth. But that would not be a commentary on the reliability and validity of survey research.

Certainly, social science tools of research are coming in handy, and this augurs well for the social sciences.

This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India. Click here to go to the original.

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