Development of Social Sciences in the world was plagued by three factors: (i) the unresolved dichotomy in western and eastern thinking about human nature, culture and society emerging from varying world-views; (ii) the assumed supremacy of western social sciences over the eastern texts; and (iii) the assumed supremacy of physical science knowledge when compared to the social sciences. In India, as elsewhere, Social Science education was considered less important than education in physical science and technology. For instance, national ranking systems even now does not include books published by reputed houses in the criteria for assessment for excellence (comparable to patents in physical sciences). Since the knowledge in Social Sciences grows through analytical texts, to rule out published books as an important output shows basic gaps in understanding the nature of Social Sciences in education policy.
In the last 100 years, there has been tremendous progress in the field of Social Sciences. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their focus on sustainability, equality and unity, for the first time, fore-fronted social science concerns as leading the development of the world. The indiscriminate use of technical solutions for economic growth without adequately considering psychological, social and cultural elements of human organisations and systems had glaringly resulted in short-term gains, but grim losses for the world jeopardising the future. It is this realisation that has resulted in the attention given to inequality as a central concern in the SGDs the realisation that that human systems and organisations, which are in the proper domain of Social Sciences, have to transform towards ensuring universal well-being, and merely scientific and technical solutions are inadequate. Social Sciences are assuming a greater leadership role both because of the burgeoning services sector, and also because of the growing recognition for the need for Sustainable Development and Social Justice. Inspired by a visionary (Swami Vivekananda), the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust fulfilled the advice of Swamiji to Jamsetji Tata to create a Humanistic University in addition to a Science and Technology University, and in 1936 established the Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work to create human service professionals to address the problems faced by people displaced by Great Depression. After Independence, the School was handed over to the Government of India and was renamed as Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Thus, TISS has been a centrallyfunded, public, Deemed to be University. It was a pioneering effort to place Social Science education on par with Physical Sciences, recognising that scholarship and education in the former was vital for a thriving nation. Arising from these noble aspirations, TISS also had another unique character: to stand with the poor and the marginalised. Indeed, it is this intuitive and compassionate character of the Institute that is of great relevance to the current interconnected world of today, as recognised by the SDGs in their focus on poverty.
Since its inception, TISS has been considered to be the most prestigious place for education and research on interdisciplinary areas of Social Sciences in the country and the Asia region. Over a period of time, TISS developed and offered many pioneering courses in applied and trans-disciplinary social sciences. In 2004, when the TISS undertook a fundamental review of its own identity and relevance, the dire and unrecognised need for a critical social science education in the country came to its notice: to foster human rights and development professionals, to provide guidance to policy, and support and empower local communities. At this time, the Institute was already contending with many of the elements of Sustainable Development and Social Justice; and foresaw the larger, more expansive role that Social Sciences would assume in the future. A detailed benchmarking of TISS’s current work against the perspectives and goals of the SGDs show that TISS’s subsequent development is in close synergy to the perspectives of sustainable development and human rights that has informed the Goals.
The Institute’s own work in the past decades has demonstrated that with a concentrated focus, poverty and insecurity can be overcome. In its shift from alleviating poverty to shifting conditions that create poverty, it has worked with a wide spectrum of ideologies ranging from welfarist measures for the most dispossessed to empowerment and rights based entitlements that address systemic causes of inequality. Fostering this criticality of thought about poverty in the Institute’s academic culture is through several mechanisms; one of which is the unique Foundation Course offered to all the Master’s students covering an overview of both Social Science theory and the current human rights and development context in India.
The Institute has through its history stood with the poor and the marginalised. The entire TISS community believe in learning from the inner wisdom of people and communities, even as they contribute their professional knowledge and competence in return. Perhaps, this is the reason that the Institute’s work has been so effective in its work over its history. TISS has grown organically and systemically from this principle of commitment to stand with the poor through the following generic steps: address a need on the ground through participatory and dialogic methods with local communities / key groups and stakeholders; integration of the learning in the classroom as well as generation of new and relevant courses; analysis and advocacy to address underlying causes; and generative dialogues and partnerships with diverse stakeholders to share learning and evolve systemic solutions: government, corporate, media, civil society and people’s movements.
The Institute’s commitment to remain rooted to ground realities is through four key thrust areas: critical pedagogy is grounded in practice; field action projects that reach out the most vulnerable and marginalised populations of the nation, the invisibilised and the silenced; evidence based policy advocacy particularly related to social security, basic entitlements and human rights; and commitment to building partnerships and dialogic platforms that include diverse stakeholders and responsibility holders: local self-governments, peoples’ groups and networks, young people as catalysts for civil society action to address poverty and vulnerabilities, the State and Union Governments, Business and Industry. Embedded in its curriculum is a special, often invisible, lesson that weaves compassion in students, teachers and partners for disadvantaged peoples in a fast moving world in the pursuit of wealth. Over the years the quiet perseverance of TISS graduates working at gut wrenching social issues in key government and corporate organizations as well as civil society and communities have resulted in critical contributions to the nation’s development and social justice.
The knowledge era has not just recast specializations in Social Sciences within the Institute, but transformed the very way knowledge and skills it shares with other State and non-State institutions. TISS has been able to leap frog into this new era with relative ease, because of its grounding in adopting creative, student-centred and participatory pedagogy that creates equal learning spaces. Given its commitment to inclusive education in India in the knowledge era, TISS has responded to this shift internally by applying the principle of knowledge commons as much as is possible in its work. All of TISS programmes and pedagogy are open source material; and course materials are made available through Moodle to people who want to access them. Other key areas of focus include paperless education, library and online digital resources (reading material and technology) that meet national and global standards of excellence across all its campuses. Externally, it has focused on increasing quality and inclusion in three sectors of education: primary, vocational and higher education.
The Institute’s quantum leap in the magnitude of its work in the last 15 years has been in response to several shifts in the larger context arising from the growing importance of social science education in sustainable development concerns. It would not have been possible without the critical importance given to diversity and freedom of thought, expression and association in the Institute. The restructuring process in 2004 firmly established the robust and decentralised structure of Schools and Centres as units of the Institute. The Institute has laid down clear standards and principles, along standard compliance with government regulations (such as 49.5% reservation for SC, ST and OBC students). Beyond this, the Schools and campuses through their Board of Studies are free to generate and conduct its courses, form partnerships within and outside institutes and pursue their specific research priorities. TISS courses are unique in the world, in that they are generated in psychological unity with the poor and marginalised of India and their wisdom; while retaining criticality of thinking about sustainable development and social justice, that is evolving across the world. For instance, while TISS courses draw upon theoretical advances of the West in Social Sciences, it is equally focussed in regional and national realities and is geared towards addressing problems here; because they are close to the concerns of society and communities.
Many of TISS’s courses are futuristic, such as the following: Urban Policy and Governance, Water Policy and Governance, Social Entrepreneurship, Disability Studies and Action, Media and Cultural Studies, Climate Change and Sustainability Studies, Applied Psychology with specialisation in Counselling / Clinical Psychology, Public Health in Social Epidemiology, Sustainable Livelihoods and Natural Resources Governance, Public Policy and Governance, Peace and Conflict Studies, Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development, Sociology and Social Anthropology, Disaster Studies and Women’s Studies. TISS is uniquely positioned in the current world because of its long tradition of working with all levels of social change – from the local community to the boardrooms and government offices. It started as a core need in the country in a small way, and now it is developing national level solutions. In the current context of the burgeoning service and development sector, that requires ethical, thinking, competent and committed workers, even the growing number of students graduating out of the TISS is still far short of the country’s demand.
The TISS has retained its quality of excellence in as an institution of higher education in Social Sciences. TISS has a rank that places it at the top of all universities accredited by the NAAC (3.89 out of 4.00) in the country. Its quiet success and recognition for providing quality research, field action and relevant education as well as expertise in working for sustainable and just development has resulted in several state governments and central Ministries (as well as corporates, people’s movements, and community groups) seeking its partnership for generation and delivery of various programmes over the years, many with significant scale and impact. TISS has over 5000 full-time students largely at the Post Graduate and doctoral level, and over 20000 individuals receiving Skill training positioned in “Work Integrated Training Model” offered in Hub and Spoke Mode across the country.
Several state governments also have invited the Institute to initiate education, research and development work in their own contexts / regions. The result of this invitation has been the establishment of TISS Campuses in Tuljapur (Rural Campus), Guwahati and Hyderabad. In addition, the TISS also works in a concentrated manner of several locations that are remote: Ladakh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and other parts of the country – Chennai, Patna, Ranchi, Delhi, Nagaland and Kerala. Characteristically, these new developments are aimed to provide quality education, research and training in Social Sector that is region specific and have social, ecological and cultural context.