Is Transformative Research Possible?

Sometimes an interview doesn’t go to plan – and that can be a good thing. I met with Dr. Lalit Pande in Almora a few months ago, in order (I thought) to ask some questions about a research project that I wanted to start. Instead, he ended up asking me a series of very difficult questions, opening up a long discussion about our deeper uncertainties regarding the real benefits of social research and its ultimate purpose. He questioned the ethical motivations of researchers and other ‘urban outsiders’ in the region and challenged me to think about whether research could ever create positive social transformations for the people whom it studies.

Dr Pande smiled and sat down with me in the warm morning sun and I began to explain my research interests. After listening patiently for five minutes or so, he glanced around for a moment and took in a deep breath before finally saying ‘In the time you’ve been here, you must have noticed that the values are very different here in India, compared to the West.’ He paused and gave me an inquisitive look before asking ‘So how do you reconcile that?’

Wow. A difficult question – and a loaded one. Depending on one’s ideological orientation, the question could have very different implications. My own perspective had shifted on this issue substantially in recent years. In the early stages, I wanted to understand Indian culture, rather than critique it. Yet, the more I understood, the more critique naturally emerged. There were aspects of Indian culture that I found deeply hierarchical, unjust and worthy of critique.

I was not accustomed to being asked such challenging questions right from the outset of a meeting. I knew then and there that this would not be a typical interview. I cast aside the questions I had prepared and decided to go along with the flow of this conversation.


The Normative Frames of Research

I gave a cautious response to Dr. Pande’s question: acknowledging the difficulties around questions of value: that I had commitments to certain principles, but that it was necessary to understand the social context in which those principles can become operative. ‘Yes!’ he said, energetically ‘because the social context is completely different! People here might think they have some idea of what Western values mean, but they don’t know the social context of the West.’

In asking about the apparent conflict between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ values, Dr. Pande was not motivated by a narrow cultural nationalism (‘Don’t judge our caste system and gender exploitation by your imperialist Western standards!’). As our conversation unfolded, it became apparent that he was clearly committed to principles of equality and opposed to traditional forms of oppression. Rather, his standpoint was one with more affinity to that of post-colonial theory – that while investigating issues of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ one cannot impose a standard that is entirely unsuited to the local social context. To draw an example from my current research, in the study of urbanisation, the normative frames have formed largely through observation of the urbanisation process in ‘the West.’ Studying urbanisation in India, one must be mindful of the fact that India is urbanising at a much later stage in its history – and that there are far greater numbers of people on the move.

Pande’s main concern seemed to be that much of what is said and written about the poor in India (whether in academic, NGO or policy circles) comes from people with very little direct experience of the everyday lives of the poor. People who either think they know ‘development’ because they come from ‘developed countries,’ or think they know India, because they live in an Indian metropolis. In both cases, there is little knowledge of everyday lived realities, and little interest in developing this knowledge. Development models have been imposed condescendingly from the top down, assuming that local people could not possibly know the kind of ‘development’ that they need. This has been done with the best of intentions, but inevitably becomes condescending, given that the people at either end of the development system live such different lives and work in a terrain of highly unequal power relations.

Take, for example, the study of migration. Migration itself is increasingly framed as a problematic phenomenon and the figure of the migrant is often positioned as being at best duped and at worst a deviant from an idealistic Gandhian standard. Where neoliberal capitalism has taught people to chase money, the rural development ‘expert’ tells us that the Gandhian wisdom of harmonious village life offers a better alternative. As Dr Pande pointed out, while India’s rural poor may have some exposure to Gandhi, they have no inclination to restructure their lives around his vision – no more than the average person in the city. Their choices about whether to stay or to leave the village are informed by their more immediate experiences: which include (particularly in the case of the lower castes) the experience of exploitation and having no productive assets.

Whether the ‘outsiders’ of the development system (including development researchers, like me) are proponents of mainstream, neoliberal development or ‘alternative’ systems like Gandhism, their normative frames are often formulated in abstraction from local, lived realities. And Pande found this a source of great frustration. We are, in many ways, informed by values that are not meaningful on the ground, nor can they become meaningful without a profound change in the local social, economic and political environment.


The Uninspiring History of Research in the Uttarakhand Hills

Social researchers do not have a noble history in Uttarakhand. The Chipko movement of the 1970s, in which villagers in the region clung to trees to prevent their felling by contractors, was of tremendous interest to researchers and policy-makers alike. It occurred at a time when the ‘sustainable development’ paradigm was taking form in the corridors of the United Nations and there was a search to find evidence of how the world’s poor had a stake in the struggle for environmental conservation. The hill people’s fight to defend the natural resource base on which they depend for survival seemed to resonate strongly, attracting a great deal of attention (see Shiva, 1989; Weber 1988).

By the early 1990s, the region drew further research attention, as a counter-narrative to the ‘sustainable development’ paradigm emerged. A new wave of researchers noted that the original impetus for the Chipko movement was villagers’ desire to appropriate natural resources for themselves – to start logging, but through local-level cooperatives, rather than corporations from outside the region. These researchers relied on local stories and experiences to illustrate how development, not environmental conservation, was the most urgent need of the poor (see Rangan, 2000; Baumann, 1998; Mawdsley, 1998).

Dr. Pande related this unfolding of perspectives to me and grew visibly exasperated at this point. Whatever the intellectual position of the researcher, he asserted, they simply came, talked to people, and used what they said to back up their own position. The voice of the local people (which may have been contradictory, or may struggle to resonate with any singular ideological vision) was drowned out in an ivory tower debate in which local people had neither the capacity nor inclination to be involved in.

The irony now is that, despite the intense scholarly interest in Chipko, most local people’s lives have changed very little as a result of the movement. Indeed, in some ways, the issues that they were struggling against (destruction of natural resources and lack of employment opportunities for locals) have only become more pronounced. NGO workers, environmental activists and scholars flowed to the region at the time of Chipko to bestow their praise on this ‘great environmental movement.’ The media got caught up in the hype and policy makers were forced to respond. The ultimate outcome of the movement was a ban on all felling of trees at a height above 1000 metres. This was actually a tremendous blow to the livelihoods of local people, who depended on the small-scale felling of trees to support their agriculture and for basic needs such as firewood.

In the time since the ban was announced, people in the middle to upper Himalayas have seen a lot of changes in their communities. They have seen huge mega-projects carried out in the region, particularly hydro-power projects and, to a lesser extent, mining. They have also seen luxury ‘eco-resorts’ constructed in the forests: centres of retreat for the upper middle classes of Delhi and Mumbai. The irony is not lost on the locals. Where these outsiders have been allowed to come in, enjoy the forest and, in the case of mega-projects, cause tremendous ecological destruction, they themselves are not allowed to enter for the purpose of fetching a little fodder and firewood.

The ecological base on which communities depend has been undermined and their capacity to draw on the resources of the forest has been restricted. Thus, it is not surprising that people’s livelihood security has also diminished and many are leaving the villages in search of work elsewhere. Yet wait! The middle class observers have one final, condescending blow to deliver! The scholars and NGO workers want to tell Uttarakhandis that their decision to migrate is also wrong – ‘You’ve become greedy, you’ve been duped into the capitalist ideals of the cash economy. Be good Gandhians – please remain in the village! Who will carry out our conservation work without you? Who will sustain our romanticised images of the “ecologically noble savage”?’

In this light, it’s not surprising that the village people of Almora have developed a healthy dose of suspicion about outsiders – be they researchers, NGO workers, journalists or government representatives. If at any time, they had hoped that these outsiders might bring with them some useful knowledge, some material benefits or some meaning development, these hopes have been lost. The outsiders have brought little of worth.


Ensuring Relevance, Accountability, Truthfulness and Reciprocity

The issues Dr. Pande raised spoke to a long-term concern and lingering doubt that I have always had about my profession: that with respect to research participants, social research is at best useless and at worst exploitative. With my own research, I have always tried to keep in mind the people with whom I worked. Spending a long time in one place, one naturally develops relationships with the people with whom they interact. These relationships help to keep one accountable. Thinking of my friends in the villages of Tehri, I can’t think of misrepresenting them for the sake of an intellectually elegant argument. It helps me remain honest about the messiness of reality. Yet, this sense of accountability to one’s friends can surely not be enough, as it is ultimately contingent on one’s feelings. Should a friendship end, does one become less accountable?

Besides, beyond truthful reporting, what is the alternative to the current social science model, which privileges a detached observer and the production of knowledge that is necessarily too abstract to be of direct relevance to research participants? Pande impressed upon me that whatever work I should conduct in Almora, I should think about how it’s going to help people.

I suppose there are two levels at which social research could be more empowering for the people whom it represents: the level of output and the level of process. In terms of output, I do think most researchers (myself included) could make a greater effort to think more about their research participants/informants when they put together their publications. Academic journals have a painfully slow turnover, and by the time articles are in print, they are so outdated that they are useless to people working on the ground. Publishing articles in forums with a faster turnover, and writing on topics that may bring more attention to people’s needs and struggles can help guide the entire research process towards more social aims.

It may, however, be unrealistic to expect that all research output will be useful to people on the ground. When one is writing about broad processes of social transformation, the benefits are even more diffuse. At best, the research may have a diluted impact on policy-makers and a future generation of development workers. I also suspect that in some cases, the real value of research comes from taking quite a long time to reflect on research findings – holding back from making hasty conclusions to arrive at broad, critical perspectives on how the entire system might be reformed. There is, of course, no reason why researchers cannot attempt to take on both roles, acting as both an engaged advocate in the short-term and a reflective critic in the long-term.

Perhaps a more pressing ethical concern than the research output is the research process. This is where there is the greatest potential for exploitation (for one example, see this horrific documentary on how generations of anthropologists repeatedly exploited and abused members of the Yanomami people in South America). It may also be where there is the greatest potential for transformation, if the researcher comes to recognise their work in communities as an opportunity to also improve things. I am still unsure of good models for how this can or should be carried out. ‘Participatory research’ is often put forward as an alternative, which actively involves local people in the research process, giving them skills that may be useful in making long-term transformations in their communities. As with other forms of ‘participatory development,’ however, I feel that much hinges on how ‘participation’ is put into practice. It should not just be a convenient way for the researcher to gather an army of poorly paid (or unpaid) research assistants. The researcher also needs to be very clear about which members of the community are likely to benefit from ‘participatory research’ – and whether benefits to some might come at the expense of other, more marginal sections of the community. In that sense, it may take years of reflection to ascertain the help that’s really needed. There are always lingering questions regarding what will really help in a sustainable way and who will be the real beneficiaries.

In the meantime, I think sticking by the clichéd mantra ‘do no harm’ seems appropriate. Though it’s been said before, it’s worth repeating, as so many researchers continue to exploit communities through their research. Although they might not express it, research participants often provide their support with some expectation of help in return. I accept that when the researcher has a different cultural background, in which norms of hospitality are different, these expectations can be difficult to read – but surely one can tell when they are taking up an excessive amount of a person’s time and energy and not giving anything back. It’s a simple question of reciprocity. For this reason, I think we have to start by ensuring that there are tangible material benefits for sustained research participation (whilst not getting bogged down in treating every interview as if it were a burden to people – that would just be another form of narcissism). Make an agreement on payment for food and accommodation. Employ a local person as a translator or guide. Involve people in the research process, if they are interested – they may gain some skills or insights or begin to ask challenging questions (which will also open a forum for them to engage with your own research findings in a more meaningful way). Start an English language class in the village. Teach them about your home country. Exposure to the wider world is never a bad thing – and I hold onto this view despite the traditional anthropological concern with ‘corrupting’ pristine, ‘untouched’ communities.


Troubling Questions

It should be clear from the above that I have many lingering questions about how research can be done better. In terms of his engagement with researchers, Dr. Pande was less ambivalent. When our conversation drew to a close, despite the complexity of the issues raised, I still felt the need to ask whether he would be interested in collaborating on a research project in future. ‘It depends,’ he said without hesitation, ‘If you can tell me how it’s going to help people, then something might be possible. If not, then I’m not interested.’ I felt grateful for the frankness of this statement and wish that more NGO workers were so well equipped with such a clear statement of their principles and their conditions for collaboration.

Pande gave me some departing words of advice – namely, to openly acknowledge the ‘troubling questions’ we had discussed, and not rush into quick, easy answers. Therefore, I haven’t set out to provide any absolute solutions in this post, as in fact, I doubt that there are any absolute solutions. These questions should be innately unsettling, and constantly and consciously renegotiated through practice. I’m genuinely interested in continuing to explore the nuances of these issues, however, so perhaps I’ll pose these questions to you.

  • Can/ should social research play a more direct role in processes of social transformation? How can we be part of the movement for a better world?
  • How can researchers strike the right balance between sensitivity to local context, whilst not endorsing the injustices of local hierarchy?
  • How do the biases of the institutions in which our research is framed guide our agendas for research? Is it possible to frame research in terms of more grassroots perspectives and concerns? Would this just raise a different set of issues?
  • Could research output (particularly publications) be more oriented towards improving the lives of the people they study?
  • Could academics be more active in ensuring that the findings of their research lead to meaningful changes at level of policy and social practice? Are there limitations to this?
  • Are there models by which the process of social research could be made more empowering for the people who give up their time and energy to participate? Do you have any good examples of empowering, transformative research that generates a positive, long-term impact?

If you have any thoughts on these questions, or any other aspects of the ethics of social research, please leave your comments in the box below.



Baumann, P. (1998). The persistence of populism in Indian forest policy. Journal of Peasant Studies, 25(4), 96-123.

Mawdsley, E. (1998). After Chipko: From environment to region in Uttaranchal. Journal of Peasant Studies, 25(4), 36-54.

Rangan, H. (2000). Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History. London: Verso.

Shiva, V. (1989). Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books.

Weber, T. (1988). Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement. New Delhi: Viking.

Leave a Reply



  1. Ratna

    Thanks for this. As someone who has worked with activists over the years on a variety of research projects, with varying degrees of success, these questions are never far from my mind. I do believe that requiring an immediate ‘use’ of research can limit the value of what I like to call ‘action-based’ research. And all the activists I know get impatient if the research is not directly on a subject that they are engaged with, even though it may not be irrelevant.
    I was recently reading a book called The Radical Imagination by Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish, and found it very interesting. I wonder if you have read it and what you think of it.


    • trentbrown

      Thankyou very much for your comments, Ratna. I agree that there is a tension between what is “useful” and what is “worthy” in an academic sense. If you are too concerned about being “useful,” you will likely miss the bigger questions about how our ideas of what is “useful” are framed by larger social forces (i.e. the question of “useful, but to what end?”). Yet, I think researchers need to be more reflexive on this point. We often neglect that our seemingly noble academic work also has more immediate “uses” – it’s used to prop up our own egos and professional aspirations, and to make the institutions we serve seem relevant – even if it’s not really doing a lot of concrete good in the world. I think it’s worth keeping in mind how much academic knowledge is embedded within systems of power, as well. We need to recognise our own social position and conceptualise the tensions that emerge when engaging with activists in light of these competing institutional imperatives (essentially, these different ways of using knowledge).

      In response to your question, no, I have not read the book that you mentioned. When I started my PhD in 2009, I read a lot of literature on “movement-relevant research.” That literature had warned me that there are competing demands on scholars and activists, and this can create challenges, if the objective is to produce knowledge of mutual benefit. Looking back, I realise now that I had under-estimated the extent to which that would be the case. Nonetheless, I still aspire to do things differently, and perhaps proceeding with less naivete, it might be possible to forge a better approach… I will certainly try to get a copy of this book you have mentioned and have a look through. It would be great to get some fresh inspiration.

      I am interested to know about your collaborations with activists and the varying degrees of success that you have had. What do you think accounts for more successful collaborations? What about the unsuccessful ones?

  2. Karen Hollweg

    Thank you for posting your report on your interview with Lalit.
    Having known Lalit for decades and having spent time with him and those involved in his Center in Almora, I believe you have captured well his position and the dilemmas that requests like yours to do research there pose.
    As I read your piece, I found myself thinking:
    * Lalit is a master at engaging the people in and around Almora in asking important questions and stating what they want/would like.
    * Instead of an outside researcher doing that, if you want to find that out, how about negotiating an agreement with Lalit that includes your compensating him for doing that and allowing you to observe (i.e. turn the tables) and, in addition to learning from him (i.e., what and how he does that), you could also offer to provide support (I cannot imagine what support services you might provide since I don’t know you or the monetary, intellectual, material, relationships/contacts or other sorts of resources that you may be able to bring to bear).
    * If your goal is to aid the locals in getting answers to their questions and achieve their self-defined goals/objectives, I’m not sure what essential role you may be able to play — but by thinking of the relationship this way, it would become an upside-down kind of issue: not what the locals can learn from you, but what you can learn from them and how you can compensate them for helping you to learn.

    If you choose to engage in this kind of upside-down thinking, I’d like to hear what kind of suggestions/proposals you might offer Lalit et al. My sense is that if you were to pursue this, it may have a transformative influence on your work, and possibly on your colleagues and your field.

    • trentbrown

      Dear Karen,

      Thankyou very much for your reply and suggestions.

      I like the way you flip the idea of the enlightened researcher on its head. Too often we take the condescending attitude that we have something to teach people, and I guess that’s where your ‘upside down’ approach is useful. In sociological and anthropological research, the view that our participants have ‘opinions’ where only WE enlightened researchers do thorough ‘analysis’ is commonplace and deeply flawed.

      Whether or not the kinds of relationships that you have suggested can be forged needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, in my opinion. Lalit is obviously very strongly connected with his community and it would be great to develop an arrangement like the one you have suggested in Almora. In other instances, however, NGO leaders have more of a patron-client relationship with their ‘beneficiaries,’ in which case there would be concerns about the objectivity of data collected, if one relies on them as intermediaries. It’s always tricky.

      In any case, it is worth exploring further. I will let you know how things progress, if this Uttarakhand project gets off the ground.


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