Professionals without professionalism?
OF the four great professions which emerged initially in the West, university teaching and research was one – law, medicine and ministry being others. Over time most occupations aspire to become professions, so much so that Harold Wilensky wondered in the mid-1960s whether all occupations were becoming professions! In defining professions, a three-set criteria is often invoked: (i) a set of objective attributes, (ii) a set of subjective perceptions by the professionals or the lay public and, (iii) a set of factors which influence the actual functioning of professions including individual motivation, group interest, the system of stratification, and so on.
The general reckoning is that while workers have ‘unions’, professionals have ‘associations’, and professional association is invariably implicated in defining and characterizing professions. Indeed, professionals are expected to demonstrate a commitment to their chosen field of activity by being active participants in their professional associations. The most important function of these associations is facilitating peer-group interaction, which in turn enhances professional knowledge, reinforces professional identity, augments social standing and increases collective bargaining power. The Indian Sociological Society (ISS) as a professional association should be viewed in this context.
The present ISS is a product of the merger of two professional associations: the earlier ISS registered in Bombay in 1951 and the All India Sociological Conference (AISC), an unregistered association which emerged in 1955. The first president of ISS was G.S. Ghurye of the Department of Sociology, Bombay University, who continued as president for 15 years till 1966. The two secretaries of ISS (J.V. Ferreira, 1951-54 and K.M. Kapadia, 1955-66) too came from the same department. Thus during the first 15 years of its existence the ISS functioned from Bombay, although nearly all the active sociologists in the country were its founder members.
However, its general membership was concentrated, although not confined, to western India – Maharashtra and Gujarat. During this period (1951-66), six symposia were held under the auspices of ISS. The Sociological Bulletin, a journal of the ISS, was launched in March 1952 as a biannual publication and has been regularly published since then. The AISC was mainly a conference holding body and it held six conferences between 1955 and 1960, each year with a new president. The first president of AISC was D.P. Mukherji, followed by R.K. Mukherjee, D.N. Majumdar, R.N. Saxena, D.G. Karve and Kali Prasad. It may be noted that the AISC presidency was not only a circulating one but was drawn from cognate disciplines – anthropology, economics and psychology. The AISC did not hold its annual conference from 1961 to 1966. In 1967 the two associations merged and M.N. Srinivas became the first president of this ‘new’ ISS.
The first conference of AISC was held in Dehra Dun in 1955. Counting from this date the ISS held 25 conferences, the last being at Aligarh Muslim University in 1998. Since 1967, presidents, secretaries and the 15 managing committee members (of whom one-third retire every second year) are elected regularly. While the ISS had a nomadic past from 1967 to 1988, its office moving with the secretary, since 1989 it is located at the Institute of Social Science, a non- governmental organization (NGO) situated in South Delhi. In 1998, the ISS acquired a flat of its own which is its current headquarters.
I have noted above that the ISS is a fusion of two associations, a trend contrary to what prevails in other disciplines, which is to split. Several reasons could be adduced for this. First, sociology is a smaller and relatively new discipline in India. Second, ideological polarization is not as marked in sociology as in some other disciplines (e.g. history). Third, the degree of specialization is not as sharp in sociology as in say economics which has separate associations of agricultural and industrial economists. Finally, the ‘split’ in sociology manifests in terms of different associations for anthropology and sociology inspite of the ambiguous disciplinary boundaries between the two disciplines.
The membership of a professional association is necessarily regulated through certain relevant prescribed qualifications. In the case of ISS it is training in sociology and a commitment to the goals of the association. Of the several types of membership – founder member, life member, student member, and annual member – the largest category is life member. A conservative estimate shows that there are at least 10,000 sociology teachers in India distributed among universities, colleges and schools. Apart from them there are those who work in the government, research institutes and NGOs. That is, there are about 15,000 practising sociologists in India. Of these only 1700 or 9 per cent are members of ISS. If membership in professional association is taken as an important indicator of professionalism, evidently only a small minority of Indian sociologists are professionally committed.
As in other democratic associations, professional associations too recruit their leaders through periodic elections. But there is a critical difference between the larger polity and a professional association regarding leadership qualities. In the case of the former any adult with a sound body and mind can aspire to the position of leadership, although only persons with some record of service to the community are acceptable as leaders. In the case of professional associations only scholars of high standing are expected to be elected to positions of leadership.
Generally speaking the elected presidents, the secretaries and managing committee members of ISS were of high professional standing. However, there have been some aberrations. In the fifty-year history of ISS, the presidency was contested only thrice – in 1985, 1998 and 2000. On two occasions, that is, in 1985 and in 2000, the contestants were scholars of high professional standing. But in 1998 one of the two contestants was an unemployed young man. Although equipped with a Ph.D degree in sociology, he had not yet started his career as a sociologist.
However, what surprises one is not the ‘deviant behaviour’ of a ‘misguided youth’ filing his nomination for the highest position in his profession, but the following facts. First, he filed his nominations for presidency, secretaryship and membership of the managing committee. And all the three nominations were proposed and seconded by the same set of persons – full-fledged professors from a university department of sociology. Clearly, neither the candidate nor his sponsors had acted in a professionally responsible vein.
Second, of the 649 valid votes polled for presidency in 1998, 64 votes, that is 10 per cent, were polled by this candidate. Further, of the 1650 eligible voters in 1998 only 650 voted; that is 60 per cent did not vote. This cannot be considered as professionally responsible behaviour. Third, there are instances when those elected to the membership of the managing committee were not only persons of low professional standing but did not even practice sociology. All these are indeed manifestations of a lack of professionalism.
The lack of professionalism that I am referring to is visible in other contexts too. The two main activities of the ISS are publication of Sociological Bulletin and holding of all-India conferences. One must note with satisfaction that the Sociological Bulletin has been published with notable regularity in the past half-a-century, a rare feat when compared with the publication record of other professional associations in India, particularly in the social sciences. But when one explores the ‘inner life’ of the Bulletin the picture is somewhat bleak. The Bulletin is a biannual publication and on an average publishes only a dozen research papers and two dozen book reviews a year. Although there are 15,000 sociologists in India and some 1700 of them are life members of ISS, the Bulletin does not receive even two dozen high quality research papers per year. As for book reviews, I understand from successive editors that it is difficult to persuade many sociologists, particularly senior ones, to review books. And, many of those who do accept are not always responsible enough to send the reviews in time, that is if they send them in at all.
There are a few points to be noted here. First, the English language is a limiting factor for a majority of sociologists in India. A large number of professionally competent sociologists are not comfortable with English as a medium of articulating their ideas. The possibility of publishing through Indian languages should be seriously explored. Hindi, the biggest Indian language, is spoken by more then 350 million people. Even Assamese and Malayalam, the smaller of India’s ‘big’ languages, are spoken by 20 million and 30 million people respectively.
Compared to the national population of Europe, these are substantially large linguistic communities. For example, Finland with less than 10 million population has several sociological journals of professional standing published in Finnish language. Generally, when one publishes in one’s mother tongue the quality and standard of discourse goes up. The Indian experience is exactly the reverse. Publishing through Indian languages is often the refuge of the incompetent. This should change. However, one need not think in either/or terms. One can be competent in more than one language – say English and Tamil or Hindi or Punjabi. This can augment our professional community.
Second, Indian sociologists, particularly those senior and established, are not comfortable about submitting their research papers for peer-review in India. (Although they willingly submit to this process by foreign scholars.) Often they want an invitation to write with an assurance that whatever they submit will be published. The editors often find it difficult to cope with this unprofessional attitude. Not that those who undertake peer-reviews are always impartial and professional. More often than not the ‘background’ of the author, rather than the quality of the research work, assumes primacy.
Third, the tradition of research is not strong in Indian higher education, even in university departments. I suspect that many of our academics rest content with their Ph.D research and even those dissertations are not always published. If and when they do get published, it is often through quite unprofessional and low standard firms, more printers rather than publishers. Understandably, research papers based on one’s Ph.D work rarely find their place in high standard professional journals. And, the handful of competent and committed scholars still look towards the West for recognition and hence publish in western journals.
Finally, and most important, the greatest bottleneck professional journals such as Sociological Bulletin face is the inadequate supply of professionally competent sociologists willing to accept editorial responsibility. Editorship of professional journals is often voluntary work and the recognition accorded to editors is certainly not commensurate to their competence and hard work. The secretaries of the ISS used to be ex-officio editors of the Bulletin till 1988. But in 1989 the ISS succeeded in locating a Managing Editor, M.N. Panini, who served for ten years. I may say with satisfaction from this experiment that the willingness of even a few competent scholars to do voluntary work can go a long way in raising the standard of publication of a professional association; professionalism pays.
Let me now turn to the other major activity of ISS, the holding of all-India sociological conferences. During its existence of fifty years the ISS convened twenty-five conferences; not a bad record. But once again it is the ‘inner dynamics’ of the conference which reveals the level of our professionalism. To begin, it may be noted that it is extremely difficult to get invitations to hold conferences. There is no healthy professional competition among prospective hosts; the office bearers of ISS have often to solicit invitations. Not only that, the hosts expect the ISS to assume the financial burden of the conference, at least partly. Usually professional associations accept only the academic responsibility for conferences, the financial responsibility being that of the host. In fact, conferences are fund-generating events for professional associations. For ISS, conferences have become fund-depleting projects, particularly in the recent past. To add to its woes, there have been instances, rare though, when ISS funds have been lavishly utilized by office bearers.
It is important to recall that till 1986 the office bearers and managing committee members attended ISS meetings, usually one or two in a year, by spending their own funds or through their employing agencies. However, thanks to the financial surplus created by the World Congress of Sociology held in 1986 in New Delhi, it became possible to reimburse the travel expenses to those who attend ISS meetings. Earlier the reimbursement was limited to ordinary second class rail fare. Gradually it was raised to second class AC and finally by mid-1990s the practice of giving air fare to office bearers and those seniors who were invited to conferences became common, resulting in the depletion of ISS funds. The point I want to make is that sacrifice and parsimony were replaced by lavishness. Is this an indication of eroding professionalism? At any rate, when one expends public funds, particularly of professional associations, one has to be extremely cautious.
A professional conference is different from a seminar. While one is invited to the latter, the former is only ‘announced’ by the association and all interested professionals are expected to attend. The ISS conferences are attended by roughly between 300 to 400 scholars, about a quarter of its membership. But the academic heavy-weights seldom attend conferences unless they are specially invited to perform specific functions and paid for. This may be in tune with what is happening in other professional associations in India but presents a contrast to the sociological associations in western countries. For example, I have attended annual conferences of the American Sociological Association twice and seen nearly all top sociologists of the U.S. interacting with fellow sociologists, unencumbered by their ‘professional weight’. For academic seniors in India to attend professional conferences is not a demonstration of their commitment to the profession but a manifestation of their attributed professional prestige.
It is important to refer to the 9th World Congress of Sociology (WCS) hosted by ISS in 1986 in New Delhi, the first of its kind in Asia. The WCS is the quadrennial congress of the International Sociological Association (ISA), the world body of sociologists sponsored by Unesco. By all accounts holding a WCS is a matter of great professional recognition and satisfaction for the national associations which are affiliated to ISA. Indeed, there is intense competition among the affiliating national associations to host WCS. It is a matter of great satisfaction for ISS that the 9th WCS was unanimously acknowledged as a great success. What is more, 1200 Indian delegates, three times the number for ISS conferences, participated, while 1800 foreign participants from 81 countries came for the congress. I was the Secretary General of the congress and worked for 18 months, on an average 12-16 hours every day, for organizing it.
I shall refer to a few instances which demonstrate the pitiable lack of professionalism among Indian sociologists in the context of holding the 9th WCS. An ‘eminent sociologist’ located in Delhi asked me the exact dates of the congress. I thought the intent of the enquiry was to organize his busy schedule so as to participate in the congress. But to my dismay he added: ‘I want to be away from Delhi during those days.’ This need not be construed as callousness, but it is indicative of a utter lack of professionalism.
The second instance relates to an article in The Hindustan Times castigating the congress and its secretary-general because he was elected as member of the ISA executive committee. In the tradition of the ISA it is not unusual to elect the principal organizer to its executive committee. This article was inspired by some of my colleagues. But what was disturbing was not that some ‘sick minds’ were behind it, but that not one of the 1200 Indian delegates came forward to rebut it. However, the then president of the British Sociological Association, who was a participant at the 9th WCS, did rebuke the author of the article, a lawyer-journalist, in writing.
Third, a junior colleague of mine wrote a report on the 9th WCS, which was subsequently published in Sociological Bulletin. But he did not even mention the secretary-general, the lynchpin of the congress, by name or by designation. The rationale of this blackout was that the report was about the ‘academic aspect’ of the congress. I thought it was like writing the Ramayan without mentioning Rama! Finally, allegations about financial embezzlement were hurled at me. A ‘friend’ told me that it was rumoured that the secretary-general had pocketed at least Rs 5 lakh. Of course, I did create a surplus of Rs 10 lakh for ISS. The point I want to make is that when one spends valuable time and works hard for the profession, instead of being rewarded and recognized one is held in contempt, vilified and punished. Such a social milieu cannot produce professionalism. The clever ones keep off professional associations and write books and articles.
One more point before concluding: Two critical resources needed to nurture professionalism are time and money. Both should come as voluntary donations from the professionals. I have already noted above that it is difficult to find professionals in India who are willing to convert part of their scholastic time into associational time. The unwillingness to contribute financially is equally common. When the ISS started in 1951 the life membership was Rs 100, which worked out to be 25 per cent of the monthly starting salary of a lecturer. The life membership was subsequently raised to Rs 250 and then to Rs 500. Recently it was raised to Rs 1000, which works out to be about 10 per cent of the present monthly salary of a lecturer. Yet, there is considerable resistance to the enhancement of life membership at every occasion.
It is important to recall that a life member of ISS is entitled to receive Sociological Bulletin free throughout his life, the annual subscription of which is currently Rs 400. In this era of liberalization, even those professionals who are its eloquent advocates are still not out of the ‘subsidy syndrome’, insisting on free lunches. The persistence of this orientation was pointedly made clear to me in a recent fund raising venture on behalf of ISS.
I referred to the WCS making a surplus of Rs 10 lakh. When the WCS accounts were audited in 1988-89, it was stipulated that if the surplus funds and interests accruing from it were not invested in permanent assets within 10 years, 33 per cent of it would have to be paid as tax. The surplus funds were invested judiciously and grew to Rs 30 lakh by 1998-99. The standing committee appointed by ISS decided to invest the amount in a flat in Delhi, which could become the headquarters of ISS. The downside was that once this was done, the ISS would face financial difficulty in its routine functioning as at present this expenditure is met from the interests accrued from the Rs 30 lakh. (In fact, the artificial affluence of ISS for a temporary period should be traced to these funds.) It was against this background that the fund-raising effort was launched.
The target was to raise Rs 15 lakh which could be placed in fixed deposits, the interest from which would be adequate to run the ISS in a modest way. Of the 1700 members of ISS, it was hoped that at least 1100 would make donations: 100 members paying Rs 5000 each and 1000 members, Rs 1000 each. But only 130 members contributed: 18 members Rs 5000 each and 100 members Rs 1000 each. Some 10 members contributed between Rs 100 and Rs 500 and one contributed Rs 10,000. Admittedly, the fund raising project turned out to be a dismal failure. Professional associations which insist on autonomy should learn to become financially self-reliant. The behaviour of the vast majority of ISS members does not augur well.
Viewed from several angles – be it the willingness and competence to publish and review books in Sociological Bulletin, the proclivity to attend all-India conferences, the attitude towards those who spend considerable time for ISS, or the willingness to make financial contribution to the association – one cannot claim high professionalism among Indian sociologists. Yet it is true that the ISS is among the well-run professional associations, particularly in the social sciences. But there is a need for and the possibility of making tremendous improvements. This article is written not to castigate fellow professionals but to hold a mirror unto them. Maybe the image they see will help change the reality!