Nishant Shah

The “Forced Marriage” Between the Humanities and Social Sciences: A Perspective from India

Nishant Shah, director of the Centre for the Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and co-editor of Digital AlterNatives with a Cause?, sat down in March with UCHRI´s David Theo Goldberg for a freewheeling discussion of the rocky relationship between social sciences and the humanities, “those people who do these foofy things with affect, with art and with liberal arts and cultural production and what we feel and things like that.”

“In the 90s there was this growing buzz about interdiscplinarity,”says Shah. “It was necessary suddenly for social scientists to find humanist values, and it was kind of necessary for humanities to find social currency, to explain why we are necessary in the kind of work that we do.”

Shah explains that in India this process also fueled a clear hierarchy in knowledge production, with political science at the top, social sciences dealing with identity politics in the middle, and the humanities at the bottom.

He describes the trajectory of this process in India, beginning with an initial emphasis on unpacking inequalities and fighting for greater access to rights and services. In India, Shah explains, this has fueled the growth of a massive infrastructure devoted to outreach and increasing the presence of the underrepresented in politics and policymaking. Stage two, prevalent in the 1980s and 90s, focused on capacity building and skills training, followed by strategies for building stakeholders and greater inclusion into the processes of being human, which in India translated into affirmative action programs.

In the process, Shah argues, a social science model of the rights-bearing citizen gained traction over other, more humanistic (“foofy”) models, and humanists increasingly must frame and justify their research on terrain staked out by social scientists and policymakers

Thus, he suggests, while humanists are leading the way in addressing questions of the personal and affective – those things that make us human – those questions must be addressed in terms of a rights-bearing citizen and in ways that the state can deal with.

This can lead to strange outcomes, Shah admits. For example, the National Right to Information Act, passed in India in 2005, supersedes the right to food. “So you many be hungry but you will have information about why you are hungry.”

“Hungry for information?” quips Goldberg.


For Shah, new media offers one strategy for breaking the stranglehold of the rights-bearing citizen model and helping us to think more deeply about what it really means to be human.

“The digital has opened a new space for us to look at how people are trying to connect with each other, belong to each other find commonalities, in terms of how people just feel, what are the new axes of discrimination or exclusion which might not be articulated in the state´s vocabulary but might form new kinds of communities which are globally distributed yet consolidated at the same time.”

Watch the Full Perspectives Interview with Nishant Shah



The Centre for Internet and Society

Digital AlterNatives with a Cause?

About the author

Jennifer is UCHRI's Associate Director for Research Development and External Relations. When she's not working to make $#!+ happen for the humanities, she's either lounging poolside, hanging with her pugs, or - what else? - writing. She's the author of Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood (Columbia UP, 2007) and is currently working on her first novel, a historical noir titled The File on Margot Black.