A Conversation with Prof. Shiv Visvanathan – STS scholar and social science nomad

Interviewer: Devika Prakash, Student, Master of Arts in Science and Technology Studies.
Interview questions gathered from the MCTS Student Voices Blog Members and the Students of the MCTS’ two Master’s Programs.

Comment by Devika Prakash:

I often read interviews on the stsgrad mailing list that Joseph Satish does with various STS scholars. Almost all of Joseph’s interview partners so far have been STS scholars situated outside of the Europe-North America academic circles. I found these interviews illuminating in that they provided a perspective outside of the ones I often read in our academic texts. I came across a text by Shiv Visvanathan on Cognitive Justice in the Science and Technology Policy class by Prof. Sebastian Pfotenhauer and thought he might make an excellent interview partner. Visvanathan defines Cognitive Justice as “the constitutional right of different systems of knowledge to exist as part of dialogue and debate,” (2005).

Questions to ask Prof. Visvanathan were collected from members of the MCTS Student Voices blog team and later opened to all students of the MCTS’ two master’s programs. It was pleasantly surprising when the answers Prof. Visvanathan gave to our questions were very different from what I had somehow presumed he would. Some of the scholars and debates he mentioned, I had never heard of. It reminds me that we still need to read and think extensively outside of our comfort zones.

When you started doing STS in the 1970s at DSE [Delhi School of Economics], it was still a fledgling field, right? How did you become an STS scholar and how did you discover it?

See, I have to make a confession, I didn’t know I was doing STS. I was just doing sociology of science. The idea of STS hadn’t yet entered the imagination. There was science policy, which was governmental, and the sociology of science, which was academic. Right? For years, I didn’t even know I was doing STS. I was too marginal, too isolated to discover all of that. So, let’s be candid, I only discovered I was doing STS probably five years down the line. Because there was no such field, and there was only one other person working on sociology of science, and the rest were science policy people, who were very governmental and had a different kind of – they all belonged to the left party groups in a certain kind of way. So, when I went in, I was just an ethnographer trying to understand a laboratory.

And all you had in the Delhi School of Economics Library was one book by Merton and one book by Bernal. So, you had to virtually invent the field for yourself. That was the fun of it.

You kind of sign off your articles by calling yourself sometimes a ‘social science nomad’. Would you still describe yourself as an STS scholar?

Yes. But I call myself a social science nomad for two reasons. All the institutions I work for don’t let me use their trademark because of my political activities. Two, I used to sign off as social science nomad because some of my colleagues got bored of trying to identify which organisation I belong to, because by the time the publication came, I had been dismissed from the previous organisation. It just became a kind of practical way of coping with my career.

And I’m still an STS scholar but in a wider sense. Because I think that westernised STS has been quite narrow in certain imaginations. Especially about democracy, about violence, and many things. So, you can call me a stray STS scholar.

Your most recent book, Theatres of Democracy, is a commentary on Indian democracy and the rise of Hindutva. We see a transition from laboratory studies in your first book in 1985 to a different kind of political commentary in 2016. Does STS influence how you write about politics in India?

Of course. Two things. While I was doing Theatres of Democracy, I was completing a book on thermodynamics and the Indian constitution – which should be out soon. So they were parallel activities. Two, I think the sociology of knowledge and the whole fight for a democratisation of knowledge did influence my work on democracy.

Within the current, global context, what challenges do you see for attaining true cognitive justice? What structures in your opinion propagate the dominant paradigm of modern western science?

Let me put it bluntly, I would like to lead a movement which secedes from the intellectual property system. Let me put it as blatantly as that, because there is no democratisation of knowledge and two, the control of patents seems kind of crude and unethical.

So, within that, I would say that, if you want to look at multiple knowledge systems, and you look at systems of coping, you want to look at how marginal groups interact, I would secede from the intellectual property system altogether.

Our next question relates to that. How do you envision better dialogue between different forms of knowledge – such as indigenous, informal, formal — with more equitable and democratic representation? Is it a similar answer?

No. You’ve got to understand one thing. People generally formulate this answer within a center-periphery model, where the margins look helpless and vulnerable. It’s the margins that want a confident dialogue with the center. It’s the margins, which want a dialogue with the establishment. So vulnerability and a certain cultural confidence go together. And in fact the idea of cognitive justice was suggested to us by tribal groups who wanted a seminar with science policy people and western psychiatrists.

Oh right. What you write about in your paper on cognitive justice – the groups who were suffering from sickle cell anemia.

Yeah. And in fact one of them, who in fact went to JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] for a while, said, “I don’t want any subaltern nonsense. I want something different theoretically.”

When discussing cognitive justice in the classroom, in the past semester, one student — who was herself from a developing country — disagreed with giving space to alternative medicine. So, you know, do you get these kind of reactions and critiques from within and outside the STS community?

Oh yes. I mean people describe you as fundamentalist, nativist, indigenist, whatever the current term of insult is, you get it. What we are arguing is, all of these belong to a dialogue of knowledges. So each belong to the other, and each is incomplete without the other. You know? I think Raimundo Panikkar, who began as a chemist put it brilliantly, he said, “Every dialogue is a pilgrimage where you experience the other to discover yourself.”

Of course there’s quackery, but I’d still think the kind of debates we had in, say, 1923, on indigenous medicine, which Srinivas Murthy wrote about, had tremendous confidence in epistemic sensitivity. You’ve got to be careful that this is not captured by fundamentalism or even by the Ramdevs, you know, who think it’s a kind of panacea for everything. You have to keep it experimental, you have to keep it open, you’ve got to keep it tentative, and you have to maintain the dialogue. So, actually, what this does is, to make sure that no system closes in on itself.

I’m glad you mentioned the last bit, because this is sort of where we were having discussions on living in a world with climate change deniers and alternative facts. And on the other hand, in India, you know, we started out in 1947 having an emphasis on scientific temper, and now there’s a dialogue about western hegemony but it’s held in the hands of those who want to promote native science, like Ayurveda and yoga, as well as continued attacks on established scientific institutions. I personally have trouble balancing these two things.

Let me make one qualification. The BJP doesn’t know anything about Ayurveda. It suggests that yoga is a set of techniques. So it has no understanding of the epistemology of yoga. So please don’t attribute literacy to the government in power when it actually sees all these as technological acts of one-upmanship. Okay? Second, while they see hegemony, this government actually is giving way to western models. After all, look at just the alliance between India and Israel on the defence scene. Okay? So I think one has to be careful. In terms of an epistemic understanding of knowledge problems, this government is quite illiterate. Sorry for putting it so bluntly.

No, not at all. That’s an interesting perspective on it that I hadn’t considered. Thank you for saying that. But, in terms of, you know, climate change denial and alternative facts, how do we –

No, but I think that came – it came a bit before. Because remember the real argument began with Sunita Narain and Anil Agarwal and others saying that climate change is an unequal game. That the responsibility for climate change should be fixed for – uh – to the west. Which is partly true. I think the more interesting game now is climate change is seen as a planetary responsibility. So we assume that we are trustees of the planet. So, if necessary we will have to educate the West on climate change. So the model is more Gandhian. Swadeshi to Swaraj. And I think this is opening up in a very systematic way. In fact it’s very interesting, if you go down to the villages of India, I remember talking to a housewife recently during a recent investigating, and 3-4 of them grinned at me impishly and said, “Any time the government doesn’t understand something, they attribute it to climate change.”

Moving onto a few questions about STS as a field. The fellow students of my master’s program and I, we often ask what role we as STS scholars can play in transdisciplinary projects. How do you think STS scholars can contribute meaningfully?

See, my model of STS is Patrick Geddes. So, what we have here is, first, I think interdisciplinarity is playful. And the playfulness of STS rescues the university from being bureaucratized at a certain level. The attempt to create a playful university, which is also a cosmopolitan university, which is also a plural university, owes a lot to STS – if we follow what we dreamt of. The second kind of thing is, a search for a non-violent science. And Geddes in fact said, that if you were to create the new university, a post-Germanic university, it would be a university that was holistic and oriented to peace. So everything from pluralism to peace can be worked out within a configuration of STS scholars.

Okay. And, I have a really long question from a student. And he was asking how, when man-made or natural disasters strike in least-developed country contexts, people from far flung countries and cultures often struggle with how they can help. His question is when fundamental cultural asymmetries contribute to the disruption of these shared aspirations, and particularly when the health and lives of large populations are at risk, how can the conceptualization and enactment of cognitive justice help towards more successfully sharing tools for vulnerable communities?

See, three things. The disaster victim is not really a part of the theory of citizenship in most third world countries. As a marginal, he is seen as an object of study rather than a subject. He lacks agency. Second, I think you’ve got to understand that the survivor is a person of knowledge. The survivor’s ideas of suffering and knowledge have to be a part of any critical study. Whether you take Bhopal or you take the Orissa cyclone, I’ve worked on a lot of riots and natural disasters. And I have got to say that the role of the survivor as a person of knowledge, as someone who has a certain kind of memory, a certain language of suffering, a certain theory of the body, and a certain idea of how to cope with the aftermath of a disaster is absolutely critical to any notion of cognitive justice. The expert doesn’t have the phenomenological imagination for it.

Ok. Thank you. And my last question is – we are running this blog on STS and we are just setting it up as master’s students. And we were wondering if you had any comments in terms of what direction would we take? On what would be the most meaningful contribution we can make to STS and also to the larger public?

Look, I think a blog like yours should be a conscience for knowledge systems. Whether it’s war, violence, certain kinds of specialized expertise, iatrogeny, all these are important questions and a blog like yours can actually raise the question – the gossip of responsibility, the gossip of ethics in a world where specialization pretends it’s value-neutral. So I think it’ll be quite an exciting time. In fact it can be quite subversive and a lot of fun.


Visvanathan, Shiv. (2005). Knowledge, Justice and Democracy. In Science and Citizens: Globalization and the Challenge of Engagement, eds. Melissa Leach, Ian Scones, Brian Wynne. University of Chicago Press.