The Crisis of the Database

My friend Manan Ahmed at the University of Chicago is co-organising a panel on digital archiving in South Asia at the Annual Conference on South Asia hosted at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I haven’t been to the conference in three years, and Manan was kind enough to ask me to present something about my work with digital archiving and mapping, though I only just gave him my abstract for my presentation on The Crisis of the Database: Independent Research and Pedagogy in India Before and After the Digital Revolution.

This presentation will examine the recent history of networked research and pedagogic practice by voluntary initiatives, academic organisations and freelance researchers in India, and consider their consequences for organised scholarship in the humanities and social sciences of South Asia.

Over the past five years, the research landscape in India presents a strange paradox. At the moment when new technologies have enabled the emergence of vibrant new spaces such as mailing lists, blogs and wikis, and a remarkable vitality is shown by the formation of new collectives of researchers, media practitioners, and activists, higher education and university research has been sufffered institutional crisis and precipitous decline in India. While previously isolated communities of independent researchers have become increasingly connected, and new technologies promise to lower the barriers to online pedagogy and collaborative research, the response of traditional academic institutions to these changes have been primarily defensive.

As higher education is privatised and vocationalised, organised research in the social science and humanities has become marginalised within India, or has shifted to foreign universities where, it is now widely assumed, serious students must go to receive training in formal research practice. This is a sad commentary on the history of the vast institutional complex in the social sciences built up by the postcolonial state, in which most of today’s senior scholars of South Asia received their training and pursued their careers as historians, sociologists and economists. These developments raise important questions about the future organisation and practice of pedagogy and research both within India, as well as in academic communities concerned with the study of South Asia in America and Europe.

While the crisis of these institutions posed by new forms of mapping, publishing and archiving online is apparent, we are still articulating the institutional forms appropriate to the new research practices and communities forming today. These forms include the emerging structures of collaboration in the era of large distributed databases such as geographic information systems (GIS), archives and repositories of digital texts, images and media; the connection between navigation and management of archives with new techniques of online pedagogy and self-education; and the role of non-academic research groups and institutions in sharing and exchanging data.

This presentation will review the contemporary history of non-governmental organisations concerned with documenting, collecting, and training independent researchers in India on human rights, labour, gender, and the environment, and the legacy of the voluntary sector in organising and networking a vast archives of materials through small documentation centres whose history precedes the emergence of today’s networked technologies. This vibrant sphere of activist archiving and publishing, developed over the past thirty years outside of formal academic structures, is our most significant resource for thinking through the pedagogic consequences of digital technologies in the humanities and social sciences of South Asia.

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