How to make academic work relevant?

It costs about a million dollars to produce a Ph.D, in the U.S.

One of my mentors shared this interesting fact, as I was about to finish my doctoral education. While I was trying to finish a decently-written dissertation, this fact kept nagging me. I had to justify that million dollar investment made on me by the state of Virginia ( I went to Virginia Tech, a public school) for my Ph.D. At the same time, I had this nagging suspicion in my mind that academic research, for the most part is not perceived as being relevant outside the confines of academe. Is this a problem that needs fixing? For sure. As demands to increase the ‘efficiency’ of dollars put into the higher education system grow, this question of relevance will become more salient.

Georgetown Uni
Georgetown University, photo credit :

In the market-place of ideas, academic research  (especially in the Social Sciences) stands out as the effete snob. Unless one works in applied research – i.e., STEM or Economics, most people don’t understand what we social scientists do, or how we do it. And sadly, most don’t care.

Should this be the case? How can we change this? How can I justify that million dollar investment, made on me, as a scholar?  I think about this regularly – and have been mulling this over – even as I work on an academic book and two other articles.

Bent Flyvbjerg (2001), a social scientist offers some answers. Here are his key arguments:

  • We must stop pretending that social sciences can emulate the success of natural sciences, in producing ‘predictive theories’.This is not the strength or even focus of social sciences and we must accept that, as a given
  • Social scientists must produce research that matters ‘to groups in the local, national and global communities in which we live, and we must do it in ways that matter; we
    must focus on issues of context, values and power, as advocated by great social scientists from Aristotle and Machiavelli to Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.’
  • Finally, he says we must establish greater dialogic capacity – i.e., communicate our results to the public and solicit feedback and incorporate it in our work. In other words, we must become ‘public scholars’ rather than be cloistered in offices on unreachable university campuses

In other words, what Flyvbjerg is saying is that academics must produce work that speaks to the condition of people around us, it addresses their daily concerns as well as listens to them, carefully and respectfully. To this, I would add a final point : Write in ways that are understandable to the vast majority of non-academics and show genuine empathy for the lives of those around us. Most academics tend to forget this, and write for an academic audience – which is usually those who are peer-reviewing their publications ( ranging from four to five people). ‘The rest of the world be damned’, is their attitude.

If we start to do this, perhaps our work may be taken more seriously by a non-academic audience. And perhaps it may even be relevant to those not within our own narrow disciplines.



Flyvbjerg(2001) Making Social science matter, why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again.  

What is ‘Big data’ and does it tell us anything?


Consider this: almost every important story these days is accompanied by a chart, an info graphic or a detailed econometric analysis that even the creators of the graphic don’t fully understand. It is filled with ‘Big data’, the buzz word these days. So, what is ‘Big data’ and why are we so obsessed with it? As a friend pointed out recently, there isn’t anything ‘Big’ about Big data, it just happens to be data, plain and simple. The ‘Big’ is a buzz word, a spectacle created to make it look attractive and sexy, given our obsession with things

big and flashy.Image

If you are remotely engaged in the study of Social Sciences, Nonprofit management or related fields, chances are you are already exposed to the myth that “data can solve all our problems”. Data, Big data, ‘Scientific data’ are all bandied about, as if, just by having access to them, we can magically solve all our problems. Whether it is fixing our national education system(s), healthcare reform or any other pressing social policy issue, somehow data is presented as the Holy Grail. Even in public policy schools, this is taught and one can see the dominance of the ‘positivist’ social sciences, those that rely heavily on quantitative analysis. But the question remains: How much of this is actually true? How can just evaluation metrics and info graphics help us understand complex human realities? Surely, they are helpful and have their place. But this overarching emphasis that we place on numeric, quantifiable data seems misplaced.

Consider education reform. A recent Op-Ed in NY Times points to this debate using the very dichotomy I have brought up for discussion – the one between quantitative, data driven analysis and the more ‘touchy-feely’ qualitative analysis. Stanley Fish, the author says of Derek Bok, Harvard University President and his views on two ways of looking at education reform: “The first is an evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.” The second “rests on a conviction that effective teaching is an art which one can improve over time through personal experience and intuition without any need for data-driven reforms imposed from above.” Bok goes on to point that indeed it is hard to measure the ‘right’ metrics of success in the long term, given this dichotomous framing. This is not just a problem of measurement, but the problem of what to measure, he argues. This is eerily similar to how Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of something, but not its value. Our education system seems to have been reduced to this state of affairs, too. A cynical, quantified, ossified mechanism where at every step, we are asking “What is the output we expect?” either as individuals or a society. The value of education just doesn’t come up in discussions any more.  

All of this is not to suggest that number crunching is pointless. Quite the opposite, I think numerical analysis, large quantitative studies have their place and can be extremely useful and insightful when large populations are to be studied, and there are limited resources. The limitation that these surveys, data points do not go into in-depth information or provide insights that are very deep must be acknowledged at the same time. Going back to the example of education reform, higher education is aggressively moving towards more quantitative analysis and there are several indicators of this. Consider MOOCS for instance. These are growing by the day and their rationale seems to be based around providing access to information, while leaving out the question of ‘learning outcomes’ for future. No one seems to be worrying about these ‘soft’ issues for now. It is all about the number of courses taken or number of students in a course. Outreach has trumped quality of teaching and learning.

A brief detour to look at the history of these ‘paradigm wars,’ as these were known in the 1960s and 70s’, is helpful. Careers were made or destroyed depending on which ‘camp’ one belonged to. The dominance of ‘scientific’ and ‘data’ driven research and analysis came to a peak at that point and it was only with the emergence of alternative theorists, particularly the feminists, post colonialists that they challenged this paradigm of quantitative analysis. As Denzin and Lincoln (2011) say “Critical pedagogy, critical theorists, and feminist analyses fostered struggles to acquire power and cultural capital for the poor, non-whites, women and gays.” They further elaborate that all kinds of research brings with it certain ontological and epistemological commitments. “All research is interpretive: guided by a set of beliefs and feelings about the world and how it should be understood and studied. Some beliefs may be taken for granted, invisible or only assumed, whereas others are highly problematic and controversial. Each paradigm makes particular demands on the researcher, including the questions that are asked and the interpretations that are brought to them.”

What this implies is that even the so called ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ data driven studies are riddled with biases such as what kinds of questions are asked, who is interviewed, what is the survey instrument used and above all – what is studied and who is doing the studying and the analysis. One of the most influential approaches that addresses these questions of knowledge, power and dominance is by Michel Foucault. His Discipline and Punish takes a genealogical look at the emergence of power, dominance and the rise of ‘expertise’. This ‘expertise’ was and still continues to be dominated by those who have access to ‘knowledge’. This specialization, either in the form of medical profession, the legal system or any other systems leads to others being treated as ‘subjects’. A similar logic is at play when we consider the use of public policy measures, governance mechanisms by the government to ‘guard’ and protect as well as oversee its citizens. The entire securitization discourse is a classic example of this phenomenon of ‘expertise’, where a handful of people are deciding the fate of millions or perhaps billions others, all in the name of ‘national security’.

While I am not advocating crystal ball gazing as a strategy, the extremes to which we, as a society are going to gather and interpret certain kinds of data, is hurting us, rather than informing us. Political analysis can be done by means that is not necessarily statistical or numeric. War games and game theory simulations with zero sum outcomes program us to think like robots and unfortunately, much of the current discourse seems to be tuned towards turning us into some form of automatons, with limited capacity for judgment.

             I believe our obsession with certain kinds of data has to do something with our need for control. There is also a great need for certainty and control, that data offers us. With statistics, surveys and some data, we can feel ‘secure’ that we are doing something to ‘fix’ the problem. Indeed many agencies, organization hide behind their ‘progress reports’ and quantitative analysis of how many houses they built, the number of sick cured or other such numbers. Monitoring and Evaluation systems are tell us that the indicators for poverty are actually showing progress. The GDP measures are ticking up, even though the ground realities may be different, with inequality growing as the GDP grows. It all looks good on paper and the annual reports will get a good round of applause. The complicating evidence in the form of human narratives, phenomenological studies and perspectives of the participants involved (often subjects, who end up being just a statistic) are ignored. This is what robust data analysis should bring, coupling both the quantitative and qualitative aspects – to inform us of the ‘truth’, even if there are several versions of it.

            Finally, it may be prudent to remember that data is not just numerical. Even rich qualitative descriptions, historical and archival data are also ‘data’ points and equally valid. Perhaps the solution to many of the problems of evaluation, judging and planning seems to be in balancing this ‘hard’ data with some of the ‘soft’ stuff. Bringing back the human element to our data collection, analysis and usage may be the way for us to get back in touch with our own humanity.




Is philanthropy inherently undemocratic?

I am reading Peter Frumkin’s Strategic Giving, a must read for anyone interested in understanding the current debates in the field of philanthropy and also teaching a course on Governance and civil society in the U.S. Together, these two sources are shaping my ideas about democracy, civic engagement and political theory. I will discuss the somewhat controversial idea that Frumkin raises in his book with a question: Is Philanthropy inherently undemocratic? Frumkin argues that it is so, and I will argue why I don’t agree with this premise. I present three of his ideas and my analysis of the same:

  1. Philanthropy is undemocratic because philanthropists are usually the rich and those with influence, who set the agenda for their work, with virtually no restrictions. It is not based on equal participation – as equal and fair participation is the basis of democratic theory. To quote Frumkin: “One conception of accountability is rooted in democratic theory- whether by vote. Philanthropy is profoundly undemocratic in that donors do not give their recipients the ability to recall them or reverse their behavior and in also that the power elites use their power and wealth to enact their own vision for the public good.”(Pg. 75). Frumkin further points out that: “The biggest fear is that philanthropy does not have adequate accountability mechanisms. Without real way to hold donors accountable, many leaders in the field worry that philanthropy will never have the impetus to improve its performance and become more effective (Pg. 71).

I disagree with Frumkin to the extent that donors, who are often quite vigilant about the activities of the nonprofit can, and often do change their priorities in giving, if they think that the mission of the organization is not being served. In this respect, I believe there is accountability in the sector. While control of agenda and accountability are problems and very real ones, they are not a mirage. There are structures of accountability that keep nonprofits from abusing the trust of the people they serve. While there is no one mechanism that can stop this abuse, I believe that as an overall system, taken together – with IRS, private audits, annual reports, donor vigilance can all keep the nonprofit in check.

2. Frumkin points out that philanthropy is private in scope and in agenda setting and this makes it problematic, since its impact is public. Also, he adds that philanthropy is different from other forms of private consumption in three ways:

a. It has tax breaks associated with it

b. Its impact on others

c. Power symmetries that result when one person or institution gives money to another person or institution

In these respects, philanthropists can act on their own free will and impact the public, through their private initiative. This giving as a very private agenda setting is considered undemocratic.

While this is true and Foundations can set agendas that go directly against government policies – think of George Soros in Eastern Europe for example – inherently, this can be considered democratic, in that it is free speech. While in the U.S. this is protected constitutionally, as long as it does not incite violence or is clearly illegal. The process itself is democratic and is just one of the rights given to a citizen. When it starts to subvert the system significantly, in terms of undermining systems of government or the constitution that is when it becomes undemocratic

3. The question of accountability: Given that philanthropists are not held accountable in the same way as is an elected official is, this can be considered an unaccountable system.

I argue that conversely, if one considers that ultimately the philanthropist is bound by social, legal and cultural norms and also audits by IRS, this system does show some level of accountability – though of a different kind. This is not the direct accountability structure that is prevalent in a participative democracy, but one of indirect checks and balances. While private foundations may have more leeway and freedom in doing what they please, other nonprofits are not as free. Also, one must remember that effectiveness, accountability and legitimacy are the three factors that he mentions as being at the heart of many debates in philanthropy. These are unresolved issues and will perhaps remain so, as long as philanthropists continue to do what they are doing. The question in my mind, is not whether philanthropy is democratic or not, but whether the organizations that philanthropists fund are true to their mission and do what they set out to do- with integrity, compassion and care.



Frumkin Peter. Strategic giving – The Art and Science of Philanthropy. The uni of  Chicago Press. Chicago. 2006





“ I am a devoted follower of Jesus, the man. Not Jesus, the Son of God” – Reza Aslan.

Reza Aslan, Ph.D. is the well-known author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages, and named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. He is on the faculty at the University of California, Riverside, and is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. He is also editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, published by W. W. Norton, and co-editor with Aaron Hahn-Tapper of Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities, published by Palgrave Macmillan.


In this candid interview, he talks about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to be  launched on July 16, 2013.

How did you come about writing this book?

I became a fundamentalist Christian at the age of 15 and intensely read about Jesus and Christianity. This is what led me to become a scholar of religion, early on. What happened is that after I began my academic studies, I left the church altogether and went to the faith of my forefathers, continuing my academic study of the New Testament. I wanted to find out the historical Jesus, the historical context of his actions and the forces that shaped them. The more I did this, the more I became devoted to Jesus, the man and not Jesus, the son of God. And over the next 20 yrs, I researched the historical Jesus, the man, as he was and what his actions mean. The result is the book you see.

What are the sources  you used?

Outside of the gospels, there is no historical source of Jesus. The only mention outside of the Gospel is this throw-away phrase by a Jewish historian, who mentions Jesus, but is not interested in him, but rather his brother – James. He tells about the death of James, at the hands of a high-priest. And you must remember that back in the day, people did not have last names, and you were referred to you from your fathers’ name or village. And he refers to Jesus here as James’ brother. That is how we know that he is referring specifically to Jesus.

My book is unique in that it doesn’t use Gospels as the primary source material. I do rely on Gospels in filling a loose outline of Jesus’s life, but my first source is the history of first century Palestine, an age we know a lot about, thanks to the Roman occupation. The few facts we know about him – that he was a Jew and he started a Jewish movement, whose focus was in establishing a kingdom of God. We also know that he was convicted of crime of sedition and crucified.

My argument is that, if that’s all you know, it is enough to create a biography about a person. Anyone with those characteristics would be a radical, political revolutionary in those times. I draw on the gospels and investigate the context of Jesus’s actions. I make sure to investigate the claims of the gospels, given the context.


Who is your audience? Is it a scholarly work or a popular book?

It is definitely a popular book, though there are 100 pages of footnotes and the book is meant to read like a non-scholarly historical biography. It is meant for people who are interested in his era and are aware of the legends and myths. Jesus is an enormously complex and interesting person.  I am aiming to reach mainstream Christians, those who go to church and see him as the son of god. These believers have heard all these stories, but don’t really know the world in which Jesus lived. These people tend to read the Gospels, as if there is no context to his actions- we must remember that he lived in a turbulent period and the recordings of his actions are contextual and in response to those events. If you truly want to know him, you need to know the world he lived in.

Your biggest surprise in researching the book

The biggest surprise is just how un-extraordinary Jesus was. There were a dozen people during his time, at least a dozen, who walked around claiming to be messiahs. They gathered disciples, exorcised demons and all of them were captured and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. Jesus just happened to be one of them. Many of them were more popular than Jesus, in their lifetimes. But what is fascinating is that only one of those is still called messiah, today. And my question is, why that is? That’s part of what I answer in this book.

Are you expecting any controversy?
For the most part, anyone who thinks of Jesus as God made flesh, is going to be upset with a book that sees him as just human and a historical figure. At the same time, the book is very respectful. I have deep, abiding love for Jesus and I see myself as a follower of Jesus and the very notion of looking at Jesus as a man will find it offensive. Many people won’t read it for this reason. And others will also not read it because I am Muslim, though I have a PhD in religion.

Some will see this as a Muslim attack on Jesus, which it is not. That audience is obviously out. They will be upset regardless. There are some conclusions in the book, some general assumptions that are part of Christian orthodoxy, that are overturned by my analysis. The fact that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem for instance  and did not debate with the learned Rabbis, as he was illiterate. The passion narratives perhaps never occurred. These will be seen as controversial, but based in research of the holy-land.

How long has it taken you to write it?

I have been researching this since my freshman year in college. But in terms of actually researching and writing, it took me four years. That’s about how long it takes me to write a book.

What projects are you currently working on ?

I am working on some film and TV projects and also gearing up for a novel. This is going to be my last non-fiction book.

For more about the book, or to get your copy, see: