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The Peer-Review Cartel

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Vijay and I seem to have scoped a vast canvas on which to paint our debate. Rather than each post addressing all the issues of the prior post of the other side (and thereby not allowing us to go deep enough into the foundational framework), I will take one specific item of contention at a time and try to present my position. I am starting with item 4 on my list of themes (which Vijay kindly accepted via a private email as being a reasonable way to proceed), titled, Power and Knowledge in India related studies.

This article is the first of a series to lay the ground work for my positions on this theme. One of the fundamental issues at stake, which I shall argue below, is that the nature of the peer-review process in humanities / liberal arts is creating a knowledge production cartel that gives the Western academy neocolonialist control over the means of production of knowledge. Any critique from outside the elite neo-Brahmin cartel is sidelined (especially if it is seen as a serious enough threat) by invoking the “peer-review” as a silver bullet. One of the most cherished myths of the Western-controlled liberal arts intellectual apparatus is that its peer-review is a fair system. This essay demolishes this myth…

Prof. Wendy Doniger, Prof. Paul Courtright and others have alleged that the criticism I have made of their scholarship is illegitimate because their writings have been peer-reviewed. Therefore, they claim, my writings must be classified as “attacks” on them, and not as fair criticism, because they do not emanate from within the scholarly world.

The implication here is that those who are not licensed by their academic system should not be allowed to argue with their positions, and certainly not as equal partners in dialog. This attitude is, in my view, part of a larger problem in academic discourse, especially in anthropology, sociology and the study of religion, where it is assumed that (i) the non-academician can only be positioned as a native informant, and (ii) the native informant should not talk back.

At a major world conference on academic Religious Studies in Delhi in December, 2003, sponsored by The Infinity Foundation, a few Indian scholars are reported to have closed ranks to emphasize the schism between “we the scholars” and “you the ordinary people.” To defend the monopoly of the Western academic fortress over the discourse on Indian society, one of their central planks has been that peer-reviewed scholarship cannot be criticized by ordinary people.

Clearly, the peer-review process has acquired tremendous symbolic value. It is, after all, what separates an academician’s writings from whatever we ordinary folks might ever produce, and what distinguishes the guild, for which the entrance fees are steep and time-consuming, from the rest of us.

I am glad that scholars have the peer-review system, as this provides a critique of scholarly works by their peers prior to publication, and thereby provides some level of checks and balances. But they should not use it as the final word to close the case on contentious issues, because it is, as I argue below, fallible and often biased in ways that insiders to the guild are not easily able to see.

This essay is particularly critical of the over-confidence in the peer-review process in India-related scholarship. This blind spot in the academy prevents it from much-needed self-reflection. As long as scholars claim immunity from criticism by others, on the grounds of status and authority alone, intellectual deadlocks will continue.

To divert from this issue, some academicians have raised the red flag of censorship to describe the role I have tried to play in contesting them, although I have never called for or endorsed censorship of any kind, but have simply insisted on the right to debate and contest views promulgated by scholars that do not accord with a different and perhaps more grounded perspective.

Sokal’s Hoax

I’d like to begin my critique of the peer-review system by citing Sokal’s Hoax, a famous instance of exposure of the lack of quality controls in liberal arts scholarship. Alan D. Sokal, a well-known physics professor at New York University, played a famous hoax that has become very embarrassing to scholars. Every liberal arts scholar, as well as everyone wishing to argue with them, should study this case and its implications. Unfortunately, many liberal arts professors do not include it in their reading assignments. Here are its highlights.

Prof. Sokal submitted an article titled, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, to a scholarly journal, Social Text, which prided itself on its postmodern and avant-garde point of view. The article was a typical cut-and-paste, tongue-in-cheek construction of a high-flown thesis using scientific jargon and literary theories to claim that quantum physics supports radical left-wing ideas. After it was published, Sokal exposed his hoax in another article published in Lingua Franca. He wrote:

“To test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes…”

Sokal showed how the editors and peer-reviewers of this important academic journal had been easily duped by nonsense that was deliberately fabricated just to test their competence.

He explains the significance of his hoax:

“Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously… I assert that Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations have been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory. Even nonscientist readers might well wonder what in heavens’ name quantum field theory has to do with psychoanalysis; certainly my article gives no reasoned argument to support such a link… I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors ofSocial Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject…”

It is important to understand the seriousness of the hoax in Sokal’s own words:

The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning”‘ adduced to support it… I assemble a pastiche – Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity – held together by vague rhetoric… Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions…

What’s more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article’s overall illogic…

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.’ They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion…

I resorted to parody for a simple pragmatic reason. The targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside. In such a situation, a more direct demonstration of the subculture’s intellectual standards was required. But how can one show that the emperor has no clothes? Satire is by far the best weapon; and the blow that can’t be brushed off is the one that’s self-inflicted. I offered the Social Text editors an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigor. Did they meet the test? I don’t think so. I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I’m a leftist too…”

Sokal concludes:

Social Text‘s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme.”

Sokal angered the whole liberal arts establishment because he had exposed its pretentiousness. But one of his supporters cynically remarked, “What passes for theory in academic circles is the intellectual equivalent of bubble gum, churned out solely in order to keep the otherwise useless at work.”

Alan Sokal played his remarkable hoax to illustrate the point that without better checks and balances in place, patently false information and analysis is being disseminated and accepted as ‘true.’ His hoax shows serious weaknesses in the peer-review process itself. These weaknesses are not restricted to journals such as Social Text. They are pervasive in the academy, and especially in the treatment and understanding of India and its culture, as I will be arguing.

Furthermore, the problem also exists in reverse: Many articles are not published even after they have been critiqued (and even acclaimed) by the world’s foremost authorities in some of the disciplines involved, simply because they undermine reputations of some academic icons.

This essay does not take any stand on either side of the universalism/relativism debate in philosophy that Sokal is involved in. My reason for starting it with the Sokal Hoax is merely to illustrate the fallibility of the peer-review system, in order to convince the reader not to dismiss my thesis simply because it raises the very real possibility that many who pride themselves on having been vetted by “peer-review” are on shaky ground.

Errors despite peer-reviews 

Let me outline some of the major sources of errors in scholarship about India. Each source of error is separate and distinct and, even if a given reader accepts only some of these arguments, it would puncture the largely unquestioned credibility of scholarship in Indology and South Asian Studies.

Not scientifically verifiable or reproducible or universal: 

While I am primarily interested in criticizing the study of India and its culture, there are many overlaps between the issues concerning India Studies and those that apply to liberal arts and the humanities in general. Peer-reviews in these disciplines simply cannot be as rigorous as those in science, because empirical verification is unavailable. The conclusions they claim are not easily provable, especially as universal assertions. The liberal arts use a wide range of fashionable “theories” to reason and to reach scholarly consensus, but this process tends to be heavily political and deeply influenced by cultural biases as shown later.

What they produce should be seen as consensus and not truth. Like any consensus, it becomes in part a matter of who the players are in reaching the consensus, and what forces are at work, including funding and politics. The possibilities for blindness here are increased by this problem of method and verification. 

To illustrate the non-reproducible nature of the work using anthropology as an example, one must note that there is more glamour and recognition for an anthropologist to go to study an obscure community “where no one has gone before.” A “good” anthropologist tends to spend years, possible decades, returning to the same locality to become the Western academy’s expert on it. The result of this ultra-specialization is that this scholar’s work has to be taken at face value, as there is no other expert to contest any findings concerning that specific tribe or community. The native informants from within the community being studied are simply unable to argue back, given the imbalance of power, and nor are they given a translated account of the scholar’s reports published in the West. So there is never any independent verification of the data or interpretations of the scholar, because other experts work in different cultural contexts. One has to depend a great deal on the “reputation” of the scholar, and this becomes a matter for the most part of politics and personality.

This kind of scholarship is non-verifiable and non-reproducible. Western readers often fail to contextualize the narrative as the perspective of an “outsider” that may be skewed in the following ways: (1) The native informant’s vested interests and intentions distort, just like any measurement perturbs the system being measured. (2) The scholar’s understanding, both literally and cognitively, is distorted by the scholar’s private framework. (3) The scholar has a propensity towards conclusions that support the particular political, religious or other institutional frameworks s/he is operating in. (4) The generalizations made lead to stereotypes, given the enormous diversity of the Indian experience.

Arbitrary choice of theories: 

While anthropologists do acknowledge many of the problems in their discipline, less well known, though in my view even more problematic is that the theories used in the research are entirely Western, privileging an embedded worldview. No such theory is value-free or neutral. 

“Being critical is being political…” says one popular introduction to the fashionable theories used in the liberal arts. It goes on to say: “From Marxism onwards, critical theory has been very closely linked to political positions.” So how do these scholars claim objectivity?

Here is the issue: The selection of the theory or theories to be used in a given instance is entirely arbitrary, and may be compared to picking ad hoc tools from a toolbox. The introductory guide makes this clear in its explanation to the newcomer: “The cultural analyst can pick or mix from the catalog of theories to put together synthetic models for whatever the task may happen to be.” 

The proponents of liberal arts proudly claim that they no longer study literature, art or culture in and of themselves; rather, these are “objects” to be processed via specific “theories.” This makes the legitimization and promotion of particular “theories” a very serious business, indeed. Whoever controls the “theories” controls the discourse. Since Sanskrit-based literary theories and hermeneutics got marginalized a long time ago, among many other non-Western paradigms, to be a scholar today one must use Western sanctioned theories.

I want to advance analogies to business here, which, though they do not always apply, can illustrate what is happening in this situation where there are so few serious controls or challenges to the dominant paradigms. In most industries, there is an overabundance of product choices, but very few can be distributed through the available channels, and this critical bottleneck of distribution often determines which products win. If Wal-Mart gives your product shelf-space, that product will make money, and if it rejects your product the chances are increased that it will fail. Critical bottlenecks are inherent in every distribution channel – media, catalogs, retail, sales force, etc., because the product availability vastly exceeds the limited bandwidth of the channel.

Therefore, the important question before us is: Who has the power, and by what authority, to decide which among the theories that are on the market shall belong to the catalog that is approved for scholarly usage? To what extent is popularity (by virtue of trendiness, money and powerful backing) the dominant criterion, analogous to the way internet search engines use the number of hits in their algorithms to rank web sites for a given search? Does this suggest a vicious cycle, whereby usage of the theory by intellectuals promotes that theory to gain market share, a process of assigning value that is not commensurate with merit?

To what extent is the power of funding the application of certain theories (via individual research, book projects, conference/seminar themes, “institutes” and “area studies”) equivalent to web sites being able to buy top spots in search engines, or PR agencies being able to get a new author on the Oprah Show, or a publisher being able to buy a prestigious display spot from Barnes & Noble? Why has the academy not wanted to inquire into such issues pertaining to the way market share is won for liberal arts theories?

The theories most widely taught to undergraduates gain in market share. Consequence: Even without ever “lying” per se, and by merely filtering data through the lens of a trendy theory that emphasizes one aspect of the truth, the power structure can and does fabricate distortions that amount to lies.

The following advice to undergraduate students entering liberal arts theories is given in one popular guide, and this advice explains what drives much of their learning process: “The last thing one wants to be accused of in such situations is being ‘under-theorized’ – that way, low marks lie. The successful student in higher education reaches theoretically-informed conclusions in essays and exams, and can show precisely how the theory informed those conclusions.” Result: From the outset, students are discouraged from being original and empirical because that would be seen as being “under-theorized,” meaning that they did not use enough off-the-shelf theories in the arguments. Does this not run contrary to the ideals of independent, original, out-of-the-box thinking meant to characterize liberal arts education?

To prevent one’s writings from being seen as “under-theorized,” liberal arts students are systematically taught to produce hyperbole, as is evidenced in many discussions. So long as the thesis can be supported using quotes from well-respected sources, the work is considered scholarly.

Therefore, name-dropping often substitutes for substance, and names, pedigrees and institutional affiliations are of utmost importance for this symbolic game. It’s like saying, “Pentium inside” to prove one’s legitimacy. Many desi scholars are hoping to make their career by being able to say “Derrida inside“.

To the liberal arts scholar, knowing theory means being able to resonate with the ideas of the following Westerners: Marx, Freud, Lukacs, Gramsci, Habermas, Jameson, Adorno, Barthes, Bakhtin, Jakobson, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Kristeva, Althusser, among others. (A few desis are vying to be inducted into this Theory Hall-of-Fame.) Theory is sometimes systematized into templates, which explains why their criticisms are so predictable.

Indian writers and journalists, being mostly from English Honors, are awed by those who have mastered this use of “theory.” Many Indians’ menu of theories includes what I called The Anti-India Grand Narrative in an earlier article.

Given this overwhelming power of theories, a peer-review is mainly intended to verify that the theories are being properly applied. It does not have any objective method to determine whether this is the best theory to be applied in the first place, or whether the epistemological categories used are inherently biased, or whether the often secondary and tertiary works being referenced are the best choices, or whether the “data” being adduced is rigorously shown to be valid and reliable. The peer-reviewer has no way to do any of this, and is not expected to have done it.

In particular, the peer review system fails especially where there are not many competing researchers and competing ideologies / political perspectives on a given topic in the academy. In the South Asian Studies community, there are few competing perspectives, and these would rather be a cozy club, and often promote each other by supporting the papers as much as possible.

Here is an important analogy: Microsoft’s success depends heavily upon third-party software developers who use Microsoft’s platform. The platform consists of various development tools that are analogous to liberal arts theories. The more developers use its platform, the stronger Microsoft becomes, because the end users of these third-party products also become Microsoft users by default. Likewise, the end users (i.e., the public) adopting a given perspective become de facto “users” of the theories on which the writer based his/her work. Just as Microsoft invests heavily to train and nurture its “independent” developers, so also the academy invests to train the next generation of thinkers who would use the theories it wishes to propagate. This is a sophisticated system of meme propagation via higher education.

Wendy Doniger is to her students and followers what Microsoft is to its “independent” third-party developers. The stronger the brand-value of Doniger’s “theories” (achieved, in part, by sensationalism), the stronger becomes the franchise of each of her followers. Conversely, the more successful her followers become (as value-added developers and resellers of her work), with tenure-track positions and the ability to license and “peer-review” the work of others, the stronger the mothership gets. Therefore, my criticism of their work is analogous to someone going to Microsoft’s independent developers and pointing out many bugs in Microsoft’s platform. The most vulnerable place for any such system is the mechanism by which it replicates and leverages, i.e. via so-called “independent” third-parties.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s gambit for monopolizing the market is a legitimate aim provided certain ground rules are respected, whereas these scholars claim to be merely revealing and clarifying what is already there, and (would like to) attribute their (Microsoft-like) success to their superior ability to portray reality. The academy would claim that it is deliberately nurturing competing theories, but all these competing theories are within the Western-centric paradigm.

Indian traditions accept that competent authority is a valid pramana (means of knowledge). Western scholars regard a variety of their own thinkers, mostly from the twentieth century, as the competent authorities on the interpretation of any and all texts, cultures, art and symbolism, and of the world in general. There lies the crux of Eurocentrism in the liberal arts:Indian culture is positioned at the wrong end of the lens, namely, as the “object” of inquiry, and not as being capable of providing any of the theories to be used in the study.

The result of all this is the canonization of certain theories in the liberal arts, which very few have the capability and courage to debunk. It thus often takes an outsider, such as Alan Sokal, to truly point out that the emperor has no clothes.

The burden of proof in such a system is shifted upon the shoulders of the side with less credibility, i.e., with less symbolic power. This makes all the difference, because most assertions in this field are unprovable as either true or false; it boils down to who has the burden of proof, and who controls the default (or incumbent) view by sheer force of consensus of the peers. Holding the default consensus is like being entrenched at the great heights of Kargil: The opponent would have to pay a heavy price to try to dislodge.

Compartmentalization of knowledge

As knowledge in a given domain explodes, there tends to be greater specialization and sub-specialization. This compels a given expert to rely upon experts from other specialties even more: Doctors have a referral network of other specialists, and the liberal arts scholars have their favorite experts in other disciplines that they prefer to quote. In both these examples, there is no scientific or objective method to select the specific expert from other fields. However, in the case of medical practice, consumer feedback is a strong external measure, as patients share their experiences, and this mechanism facilitates self-correction. But in the case of the study of India by the West, there is no objective quality control mechanism that would be external to the system itself, especially since no surveys are being done to seek external feedback, and when someone takes the initiative to provide external criticism they are demonized as “attackers.”

The inter-disciplinary work of most liberal arts scholars makes them rely upon specialists outside the scholar’s own field of competence. Therefore, a scholar must cite sources from other fields with high symbolic value (i.e. association with a prestigious educational institution, publishing house and/or funding source). But the choice of highly rated “theories” and experts in other fields is vast, and allows the scholar to pick and choose whatever best makes his case. Never mind that there usually are many opponents to the view being selected – these opposing views are simply ignored. This is where the scholar’s (or advisor’s in the case of a PhD) political capital comes in, as this clout shifts the burden of proof upon anyone who wishes to oppose the thesis. Information overload makes credibility (i.e. brand value) more important than ever.

A good example of this over-reliance upon arbitrary authorities from other specialties is the PhD dissertation awarded to Jeffrey Kripal by Prof. Doniger at the University of Chicago. The dissertation was a Freudian psychoanalysis of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Prof. Kripal admits that he is not qualified as an expert in Freudian psychoanalysis, and yet there was no authoritative supervision from the Psychology Department. Nor do most professional psychoanalysts agree with his thesis. While Freudian psychoanalysis has been largely discredited in Psychology Departments, scholars in Hinduism Studies use the obsolete methodology with impunity, without even being professionally qualified to apply it, and without subjecting their work to peers who are from Psychology Departments. In fact, Prof. Kripal simply ignores opposing theories from the profession of psychoanalysis, and fails to factor that the theories and methodologies he applies are contested ones.

Why is Freud in Hinduism Studies at all? The answer is that this enables the West to study Hindu texts in a manner that does not legitimize it as a religion. While Hindus distinguish between shruti (what has been heard as original, unmediated knowing) and smriti (what is being remembered, constructed or interpreted), in Religious Studies departments both theshruti and smriti traditions are subsumed under the rubric of epics. The Western epics are associated with collective and tribal real or fictional events, and are projections of tribal wishes and instincts. Therefore, Hindu texts are theorized as epics based on myths that represent collective wish-fulfillment. (“Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” in Charles Kaplan and William Anderson (editors) in Criticism: Major Statements, Saint Martin’s Press 1991, p. 427) Seen as myths, Freudian ideology is welcome, because Hinduism need not be considered a religion, but a collection of epics waiting to be made clear by theory-laden Religious Studies PhDs. What anthropology does to study Hindu practices, myth theorizing does to study Hindu texts. Therefore, who needs any adhyatmika experience to research or teach?

Furthermore, Prof. Kripal’s dissertation’s conclusions were based on Bengali texts, making experts in Bengali language and culture yet another relevant external specialty. But Prof. Kripal is unable to converse in Bengali or to respond even to simple Bengali when spoken to him. He has relied mainly on his Bengali-English dictionary. His interpretations (some would say distortions) of Bengali nuances have been contested by native Bengali experts, but their cogent and serious objections have been simply disregarded. This is an example of the misuse of institutional power and symbolic capital of the cartel of celebrity scholars: The “authorities” sponsoring the thesis provided aerial bombardment (through their minions) to quash any opposition on the ground from those who were raised in Bengali culture.

(Imagine, by way of analogy, a Chinese anthropologist who learnt only one year of English in his life, and is sent to America to gather data in a bar, at a football game and at a barbeque, and upon his return to China, becomes promoted as the expert on American culture in their higher education system!)

The greater the specialization of knowledge, the greater is the dependence on the reputations and credibility of third parties that one must utilize from other sub-specialties, and this translates into greater opportunities for the insiders to fix the system in favor of their ideologies. The appointment of chowkidars (gatekeepers) becomes more critical, as they control (i) which scholars and ideologies get patronage, (ii) which ones must be erased and simply ignored, and (iii) which ones must be demonized and used in guilt-by-association slanderous campaigns.

Arbitrary choice of topics and data

Over and above the arbitrary choice of theories to use, there is also a more fundamental arbitrariness: There is arbitrariness in the choice of topics being studied, meaning that some topics do not get coverage while others get over-emphasized, thereby leading to skewed overall portrayals. To use an extreme analogy, imagine if almost all the research about the Clinton Presidency were about the Lewinsky affair and very little about anything else. If such a bizarre state of affairs existed, one would be justified in inquiring into the political affiliations, funding and biases of the scholars involved.

Hinduism Studies scholars have resisted discussing the role of power in shaping their discourse: I have pointed out the massive power asymmetries in Religious Studies against the practicing Hindus (as compared to equivalent insider/outsider ratios in the case of Jewish, Christian and Buddhist Studies, respectively). I was categorically told that because the religion scholars use “objective” methods and approved “theories” – i.e. the hermeneutics based on Judeo-Christian categories – any claim that power was a factor has to be dismissed as an insult to the scholarly integrity.

On the one hand, we have the whole academic discourse about how power shapes knowledge but this is being conveniently excluded by the very same scholars when they put on the South Asian Religious Studies hat, because it would focus the spotlight upon their own uses of power.

The peer-review process usually comes at a much later stage of a project, and by that time, nothing can be done about the overall plan for research. The upfront due diligence is done by one’s dissertation advisor and/or funding agency, and these seem to have failed to effectively raise the issues of topic selection as being illustrated here.

A specific example of omitting relevant data is that South Asian Studies scholars do not adequately bring in statistical comparisons about abuses of Western women when discussing dowry deaths and other cultural evils that are blamed on Hinduism. See, for example, chapter 3 of Uma Narayan’s “Dislocated Cultures,” for data showing that insurance policy related murders of American wives (by guns as opposed to fire) are at a rate as high as dowry murders in India. She writes how she was discouraged from making the comparison, as such a category of crime is not supposed to be applied to Western culture, and the data is simply not tracked. She shows that once a new category of Indian cultural crime gets created (by political process), the data is tracked, and this assumes a life of its own that sustains many scholars’/activists’ livelihood.

Also, scholars have emphasized dowry far less as a problem in Indian Christianity and South Asian Islam, even though it is as prevalent there as in Hinduism.

Another theme that is frequently excluded is Indian dowry’s causal links to modernity and Westernization: After all, the in-laws do not demand a Ganesha statue in gold/silver, and what they demand is a color TV or car or dishwasher. These are cravings for materialism, caused by imitating the West, and are not the result of being a Hindu. Hindu dharma would have a negative correlation with dowry extortion, because it calls for simple living and not materialism or greed.

Scholars have avoided topics about whether the erosion of Hindu values has led to consumerism, causing corruption, stress and ecological damage. Furthermore, they have failed to study how Americans are using practices learnt from Hinduism – such as yoga, meditation and vegetarianism – in medicine, and to lower stress, violence and moral degradation, while, ironically, India’s “progressive” ideologues have marginalized these practices as being primitive and oppressive Brahmin culture.

They have not put the spotlight on Christian Dalit and Muslim Dalit suffering at the hands of higher-caste elements of their own religious communities, with the same intensity as on Hindu Dalit suffering. They have tried to avoid studying the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements in India such as Wahhabism. They have also sidelined the negative effects of certain kinds of aggressive Christian evangelism in causing friction within communities.

While it is trendy to discuss sati in South Asian academic events, it is not as trendy to discuss honor killings in Pakistan, even though Islamic honor killings are often acknowledged to be far more frequent than sati.

When prosecuting India on human rights grounds, scholars have not brought in economic correlates with the same vigor as cultural correlates. Perhaps the fear is that if the social problems are found to be economically caused, this would reduce the glamour of ethnographic studies, and moreover, the solutions would not lie in Hindu-bashing but in economic development.

They have been reluctant to raise certain human rights problems that are being caused by Western culture around the world. For instance, while a serious set of allegations have been made against Henry Kissinger for atrocities in Latin America and other places, this kind of topic is often kept off-limits to the human rights scholarship sponsored by the Ford Foundations, churches and Ivy leagues. The Western origin of many human rights problems is a major area of silence.

The bottom line is this: The selection of research topics is entirely a personal choice of the scholar. The “fashion” is determined by the peer trends and enforced by boundaries of political correctness, and is supported at the discretion of the funding agency. It is outside the scope of any peer-review to question the topic selected.


Cartel-like structure of India Studies

Any industry may be analyzed by segmenting it into producers, distributors and retailers. Knowledge about India is a specialized industry, and one finds that all these segments tend to be controlled by the same coterie of scholars. The producers of knowledge are those who are doing PhDs, along with the researchers in higher education and think tanks. They are the very same individuals who are the gatekeepers in the control of the editorial boards (of journals, books and conferences) that are distribution channels through which the knowledge must pass in order to be certified as legitimate. They are also gatekeepers in the selection of scholars for various posts, including the posts of other gatekeepers. The retailing is done in classrooms by the same scholars and their students. So this is what anti-trust law calls a vertically integrated industry run by a cartel.

Furthermore, these individuals and the institutions involved are highly inter-related via numerous collaborations and inter-dependencies that are virtually impossible to track in a transparent fashion. The networks among them are known only to insiders who are already playing the game, and most of these relationships are conducted at personal levels and through private communications.

A combination of the two factors discussed above makes this industry similar to a cartel, i.e. a concentration of power that has a common vested interest and insufficient genuine competition.

Real competition would most probably have to come from a “home team” of scholars from India that would use both Western and non-Western theories and methods. Additional counter-balancing influences could come from Ralph Nader-like consumer groups scrutinizing for product defects, on behalf of the consumers. The consumers of knowledge about India include students, the media, government and Congress. Unfortunately, there is no effective bridge between the public at large and the small self-perpetuating group of “experts” in academia

Peer-reviewers are not at arm’s-length

There are two levels of abuse: the general blindness of the episteme, as Foucault would put it, and the incestuous power relationships that prevent even people who know better from blowing a whistle. One is an intellectual problem of method and perspective, and the other is a “governance” issue within academics. Both are pernicious, but they are not the same. The former requires the guild to open itself up, while the latter requires dealing with in-house corruption

Wall Street realizes that many of its top corporate symbols have been corrupt, despite independent audits by firms of great prestige, and despite being under the watchful eyes of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) and other regulators, with huge penalties at stake. The recognition of the fallibility of corporate integrity is resulting in massive introspection and overhaul. Needless to say, the standards and practices to ensure transparency and fair competition in the commercial world are constantly under review and improvement.

For instance, the criteria for identifying related-party transactions is highly developed in the business arena, and may be used as a guideline to inquire the extent to which a given scholar-peer duo might be related parties. Besides direct inter-personal relationships and/or professional inter-dependencies, one would also have to consider common funding sources driving scholars’ overall agendas.

In pursuing this inquiry, it becomes clear very soon that the universe of scholars in a small specialty is usually tiny, and hence there tend to be many private relationships. Furthermore, there is no way to track who has what relationship with whom. Nor is there any autonomous watchdog equivalent to the SEC.

Corporate audits are done by independent firms having no other relationship to the client. But scholars and peer-reviewers are typically friends and their relationships include: (i) one party is the other’s former student; (ii) the parties may be co-authors of some academic works; (iii) one party is on an editorial board or academic board in which the other party is being evaluated; (iv) one party is a referee of a grant proposal by someone who is related to the other party as a student, colleague, fellow researcher, etc. Such vested interests commonly exist in different permutations throughout an academician’s career. This makes membership into the club of scholars very critical for one’s survival. Hence, the concept of credibility-by-association becomes central to one’s career management, as discussed later. Once blackballed by the club, a scholar’s career would be permanently doomed. This discourages scholars to embrace original lines of enquiry, especially those that may be politically unpopular or otherwise rock the boat.

Furthermore, corporate auditors are specifically trained and experienced in the audit field as a lifelong career in its own right, whereas most academic peer-reviewers are not professional reviewers per se, and merely do this as a side activity on a casual basis, and sometimes even as a personal favor.

The standards of corporate auditing, which many professional associations monitor and keep updated, simply do not exist for peer-reviewing. Scandals like Enron and WorldCom happen despite all these measures. So one can imagine the level of intellectual corruption that would get exposed if similar due diligence were ever done on the scholarship about India.

In the political arena, competitors and journalists are always eager whistleblowers. Yet, many politicians get away with deception, half-truths and other manipulations. So academicians cannot possibly imagine that their incestuous peer-reviews prevent abuse.

Many other professions have more rigorous self-regulatory standards of transparency and avoidance of conflicts-of-interests. Lawyers have ethical standards and review boards, where complaints can be filed and open inquiries held, with serious potential repercussions. Many professions have ombudsmen to deal with consumer complaints.

Finally, there are consumer activists such as Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group (where I once volunteered) that can and do take on the General Motors of the world on behalf of consumers. Gandhi was a consumer advocate on behalf of the citizens of India against the mighty British. Unfortunately, in the case of South Asian Studies, Hinduism Studies and Post-Colonial Studies, the only critiques are internal and under the control of the same cartel of scholars.

The inconsistency of the system is illustrated by the fact that Prof. Michael Witzel of Harvard seriously disagrees with Prof. Doniger’s translations of Rig-Veda: Clearly, if Witzel had been the peer-reviewer of Doniger’s book, he might not have let those mistranslations get through. What gets through is often arbitrary and politically maneuverable.

The peer-review process should be seen merely as an endorsement by some of one’s colleagues in the same field, no more and no less. It is less rigorous than the audited report of a corporation, and people know that these audited reports (even by the most prestigious firms) are not infallible.

These problems go beyond just academic publishing and apply equally to the way candidates are selected for appointments. The system encourages scholars to manage their careers by latching on to the right affiliations and avoiding the wrong ones. These are largely based on symbolic values, and this encourages cronyism and underground politics.


Portfolio management and the myth of academic freedom:

In his seminal work on the theory of myths, Prof. Bruce Lincoln ends with a chapter addressing a question that he finds many students asking: Is scholarship in the liberal arts an act of myth-making? Lincoln first suggests that it is myth-making when a scholar is driven by personal motives: “All of these exercises in scholarship (=myth + footnotes) suffer from the same problem. …When neither the data nor the criticism of one’s colleagues inhibits desire-driven invention, the situation is ripe for scholarship as myth.” [“Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship,” By Bruce Lincoln, The University of Chicago Press, 1999, p.215.]

But then, Lincoln explains how he reassures his students that the free-market of ideas is self-correcting. However, I disagree with Lincoln, because he does not establish his premise that there is a truly free-market of ideas.

The very nature of scholarship and career management has made it critical for scholars to establish credibility-by-association. This means that one should avoid being seen as linked with “trouble-makers,” i.e. those who raise issues and offer perspectives from outside the guild. One may be combative on “scholarly” matters as defined in a circular way by the cartel, but one must close ranks and be supportive of the establishment. Conversely, establishing an opponent’s guilt-by-association is a common method of policing the borders of the discipline.

So each scholar manages two portfolios of symbols, and these define him/her in front of the peers: (1) A portfolio of high value name-brand scholars and institutions with whom the scholar has some visible links and/or whose works the scholar knows enough to be able to quote – used to establish credibility-by-association. (2) Another portfolio of demonized symbols, including persons, organizations, ideologies and traditions – used to accuse opponents “evil” associations, similar McCarthyism. The latter is the weapon of guilt-by-association. A young scholar must demonstrate competence in both portfolios.

Only after a scholar is secure in a tenured post might s/he have the strength and courage to challenge such a system. Meanwhile, each successful transaction in the use of these two kinds of portfolios furthers this type of sepoy mentality. Managing these two portfolios is a way to earn merit stripes from the system.

Credibility-by-association has led to the practice of closing ranks amongst the inner circle of power when criticized from the outside. Guilt-by-association has led to the practice of blackballing those who break ranks by showing open-mindedness towards outsiders’ criticisms.

Related to credibility-by-association is the notion of protection-by-association. When I first started to engage scholars in this field, I was repeatedly advised that I must “take care of” certain powerful scholars who would be my shield against attacks. But this was never appealing to me, as it would dilute my independence and creativity.

Lack of true Competition

True competition requires having a good Indian home team. But while 300+ scholars in the West specialize in academic Hinduism Studies, the field does not exist in India, because it was deemed to threaten secularism as defined by Indian intellectuals. Furthermore, while almost 500 scholars gather annually at a major conference in Madison specifically on South Asian Studies, the academic programs on South Asian Studies located within South Asia itself are few and sometimes tend to reproduce Western paradigms.

Also, libraries in India are under-funded, sloppily managed, and very few international academic publications about Indian culture, religions and politics are available to India’s own scholars.

So intellectuals living in South Asia depend on whatever latest conclusions, “findings” and “theories” they receive from the West. Those who are selected by a foreign sponsor for a trip return to India with bigger egos and command greater authority as foreign-returned experts. Therefore, they must show loyalty to the trip sponsors in order to be invited regularly. This is how the system invests in nurturing loyalty to it, and how scholars play the career game.

For all these reasons, there is no viable home team on the horizon that would represent Indian culture on the global stage. A major blind spot of scholars is their failure to see that by patronizing made-in-the-West theories, they are promoting the shudrafication of ordinary Indians.

Indian swamis and pandits, no matter their erudition, are unable to form a world-class home team even for Hinduism Studies, because they are not recognized as scholars by the academy: Their training institutes in India are not accredited by the West, and they cannot mouth fashionable theories. Ironically, while most Hindu practitioners regard many swamis and pandits as authorities on the faith, the academy disallows them from participation in the discourse about Hinduism on par with persons classified as scholars. They are rarely invited even as respondents on panels where scholars discuss their specific traditions.

What makes this particularly pernicious in the case of Hinduism is that the Christian preacher also has other venues and institutions than academia to contest the points, while for the Hindu swami there are none.

Furthermore, titles from traditional Hindu institutions and publishing houses have been de-legitimized as equals in the study of Hinduism, even though many of these traditional scholars have a far deeper grounding in Sanskrit texts, in the nuances of the tradition, and in critical thinking about it, than do those with Western degrees. The academy considers the publication record of a scholar as the basis for his/her evaluation, but the publications by scholars from Hindu institutions (various matths, Chinmaya Mission, Ramakrishna Mission, Maharishi, etc.) are not recognized as scholarly. So the entire publishing careers of even luminaries like Sri Aurobindo are worthless in the Western academy’s evaluation, because those journals and publishing houses are simply not recognized.

Western scholars of religion routinely go to India to study from the pandits at various under-funded traditional centers of learning, but the scholar returns to the West as the “owner” of the intellectual property: The distorted interpretations with his/her use of “theory” become the basis to claim “original work.” Essentially, the pandit is treated like a native informant with no standing of his own as a scholar. Despite hand-holding the Western scholar through the primary text, the pandit usually does not get first author credits or even co-author status – but may merit merely a line of acknowledgement in the foreword. That there is virtually no debate in the academy about this long-standing and widely prevalent practice suggests ongoing cultural/racial arrogance, Western triumphalism and a casual disregard of professional ethics pertaining to plagiarism. Many naïve pandits are “bribed” by the Western scholar, not with money, but by pretending to give respect to their tradition as a student or even as a disciple.

Finally, since the Abrahamic religions are history-centric (and, hence, canon-centric), the academic system does not recognize the on-going original enlightenment experiences of persons such as Ramana Maharishi as sources for the study of Hinduism. Their embodied spirituality simply cannot be captured as “text.” These tend to be dismissed as “cults,” or worse, as pathologies, whereas to most Hindus these are exemplars in a tradition that has survived on continual renewals.

If there is a crown jewel of Hinduism, it is its unparalleled ability to spontaneously produce such exemplars in every generation and within every socio-demographic group, who re-contextualize the tradition for the present time. Most of them use spontaneous oral discourses, which their followers may subsequently transcribe or pass on orally. It is this phenomenon that has kept Hinduism pluralistic and constantly changing. But this remains beyond the categories of the history-centric academy.

The discourse received from these “native informants” is not being positioned as their work (theory or narrative) that is orally transmitted to the scholar (who is actually a sort of communication medium or ghost-writer in many instances). Rather, it is published as theoriginal work of the scholar. This is part of the Eurocentric mindset that discovery is what the white people do. That is why Columbus is said to have “discovered” America in 1492, implying that the Native Americans who had lived there for several thousand years had not yet discovered it. Similarly, when herbal medicines are documented by white people, that act of making it into white property constitutes the “discovery,” and the intellectual property rights of the real discoverers are denied on technical grounds. This is why the system wants to control who is an authorized scholar. (Many of the so-called “discoveries” are, in fact, physical conquests to plunder and genocide, or intellectual plagiarism.)

In contrast with the positioning of Hindus in the academy, Christian seminaries have been closely tied with the entire invention of the Western academic system, and are naturally able to produce scholars who are formally recognized by that system. Most of the top liberal arts colleges in America started as seminaries or as church-funded institutions. The church later divested these or spun them off, in light of the market demand for secular education. But just as the way many corporate divestments retain a toe-hold after they spin-off a subsidiary, the church has retained its point-of-presence in the form of “Divinity Schools.” The heavily funded Divinity Schools ensure that the insider view of Christianity remains well-represented in the discourse. The Pew Trust is taking this even further and is quiet open about wanting to fund the Christianization of the secular public space in subtle ways.

Hence, a major method of Eurocentrism is by denying legitimacy to those who are not within the Western institutional control. This excludes both the voices from the diaspora and the many scholars internally produced by Hindu Sampradayas. This is no different than the British denying Gandhi legitimacy (till it became unavoidable), and General Motors ignoring Ralph Nader’s protests as being illegitimate. The Dalai Lama solved this problem by encouraging his disciples to enter Western higher education, and to become well-placed professors who bring his teachings into the discourse.

Unfortunately, the secrecy of many academic proceedings removes scholars further away from the practitioners. (Example: The Hindu-Christian Studies Group at the AAR has a password protected internet discussion list, so as to avoid criticism by the outcaste.)

Given the need to break through these logjams, I am glad that Vijay Prashad accepted my dialog offer. Unfortunately, Wendy Doniger refused to engage in dialog with me, except in a format where I would be the “native informant” reporting to her. It seems that a controlled system cannot deal with competition, except fake competition from within its own ranks or under its own control.

I have made the case here that scholars should have to defend the criticisms of their work, and should not be able to hide behind the cover of peer-reviews as some sort of Holy Grail. It would be interesting to know whether Vijay will continue to close ranks and defend this system, or whether the true intellectual revolutionary in him will be able to see the system as a sophisticated caste system under Western control in which demonology is used as a form of untouchability.


The future of globalization is not in culture X using its dominant power to impose its theories in the representation of culture Y. Instead, Y should use its own frameworks to self-represent and also to theorize about X, such that there is a peer relationship between the cultures and the two representation systems are able to learn from one another as equals.

In the 1980s, I worked on numerous projects as a strategy consultant to AT&T, in what we called dis-intermediation. This meant transforming many industries by squeezing out the traditional intermediaries. For instance, Amazon squeezed traditional intermediaries in book distribution, e-trading squeezed down commissions from stock brokers, e-travel squeezed out travel agents, and so forth. New intermediaries emerged and they made the interactions bi-directional and on a more level playing field.

One of my pet ideas was (and still is) the dis-intermediation of publishing (such as Sulekha is attempting) and of certain academic fields such as anthropology. My collision with Prof. Ann Gold in the 1990s (whom Vijay cites as a glorious example of anthropology) was essentially over my public challenge to experiment with dis-intermediation in her work. I proposed that (i) a neutral team should summarize her 20 years of study of Ghatyali village women (in Rajasthan), and present to the villagers in their own language what she had published about them in USA; (ii) the villagers would then have feedback sessions led by their own community leaders to evaluate how authentic Ann’s depictions of them had been, and also to do reverse-anthropology on Ann and her culture; and (iii) the feedback would be videotaped and presented at subsequent AAR conferences as an evaluation of Ann’s work by the very people she was studying. This would be a review by the peer culture.

I also offered that The Infinity Foundation would pay the expenses incurred, and that we would then try to use video-conferencing to bring people in India and American students into direct dialogs as peers (with simultaneous language translation). All this, I proposed, could be an exciting experiment to firstly validate Ann’s work, and to secondly advance the field to a new plane of equal interactions between cultures. At a later stage, we would also bring Indic representation systems as lenses into discussions with Western theories.

Unlike Sokal’s Hoax, my proposal was entirely above-board, and I honestly feel that it would have served the field of anthropology had Ann not felt so threatened by the novelty of my proposal. I wanted to test a new kind of anthropology as a dialog of cultures rather than as universalizing the West’s theories. Because I was unwilling to accept Ann Gold’s conclusions about Ghatyali women as being the final word, and because I insisted that the real peers must be the women of Ghatyali (regardless of the fact that Ann has a thousand times more money and power), I was hounded for “attacking” her. This is not the place to describe the furor that resulted, other than mentioning that there were some intimidating moments from some of her aggressive friends who closed ranks against me to defend the fortress.

Prior to publishing my essays, I invite feedback and criticism from many scholars. Here is one in particular (from an “Insider” to the establishment) about this essay:

“Though your generalizations about the whole system are right on the money (and somebody does need to be able to speak out with impunity…), as a tactical move it will lead to further closing of the ranks because they are all beginning to feel threatened. The main weapons for the outsider are the hidden cleavages and contradictions (disciplinary, theoretical, institutional, personal, etc.), and a great deal could be achieved by subtly exploiting these without ever losing sight of larger principles and goals.”

I agree that exposing the system’s internal cleavages is important – that is what Gandhi did in his satyagraha. But because I reject the existing orthodoxy of Left and Hindutva (regarding both of them as too ossified and geriatric), my way to gain leverage is by resonating with open-minded liberal thinkers. While such public debates are making many academicians feel threatened, they are also serving to dislocate many young scholars from predefined (institutionalized) trajectories that they might otherwise follow. The role I have selected is to simply formulate and instigate provocative new debates in new frameworks. It will have to be the work of a new generation to take these further. So, in the end, the closing of ranks by the establishment (which is already happening at a frantic rate) will rigidify them into a garrison, making my case even more compelling.

Here is what a Professor of English in one of India’s most prestigious liberal arts universities wrote (under condition of anonymity):

“Indians who wish to publish abroad either have to conform to Western norms of scholarship and politics, or be debarred. The latter, btw, is the case with a lot of us who never make it to the “fashionable” journals. So I think you should call for a REFORM of the peer-review process so as to end the self-perpetuating nature of domination. Otherwise, injustice simply reproduces itself.”

The peer-review process is the cartel’s mutual assurance that they are emperors with clothes. The outsider who sees them naked, naturally, infuriates them. For all those truly interested in the liberal arts project advancing as a field of real knowledge (and I count myself among these, as does Sokal), this criticism will hopefully help them examine the advantages of opening up the academy to a dialogue of peers in the broader community, rather than further closing ranks in defense of the citadel.

While not directed at Vijay’s own work, this thesis is directed at the Western-controlled system that he is a part of. It is an important step to remove one of the main fig leaves being used to defend bad scholarship. It clears the ground to proceed further.

In Part 2 of this essay, I shall specifically address the way many Indian intellectuals (especially leftists) largely operate in service of the Western Grand Narrative, and how this collaboration (now coming apart) has worked for both parties in the past

Published: February 2, 2004