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Not a Goodbye; More a ‘Come Again’: Thoughts on being Research Director at a moment of transition

Posted by Nishant Shah at Jun 15, 2014 02:17 AM |
As I slowly make the news of my transition from being the Research Director at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, to taking up a professorship at the Leuphana University, Lueneburg, Germany, there is a question that I am often asked: “Are you going to start a new research centre?” And the answer, for the most part, is “No.”

Not because I don’t see the value of creating institutional spaces like these or that starting and running CIS has been anything short of a dream, but because I don’t how to. When I tell people I don’t know how CIS came into being, they suspect that I am being either facetious or dismissive. But I am not. If somebody asked me to write an Origin Story for CIS, I would be baffled – or probably sum it up by saying that it happened. There was the germ of an idea, a whole lot of people who responded to it, and like the great Tolkienian epic, it was a story that grew in its telling.

I was 27, when Sunil Abraham, the now Executive Director and I met together in New Delhi, to talk about what a research organisation that represents the public interest at the intersections of Internet & Society would look like. We spent three days in the Delhi heat, coming up with the most fantastic ideas about methods, structures and core areas of interest. It was one of those divine exercises where you build the template for your dream work and then, like a fairy-tale, we had incredible people who came and supported us to make that dream a reality. In six months of that first conversation – I had just turned 28 and was completing the last drafts of my Ph.D. dissertation – CIS got officially registered and with some of the most incredible people, who have been with us, both in their generous affective investment as well as in their intellectual and professional support, we kicked-off a research centre, that has become not only hard to ignore but also significantly important in bringing about scholarly and practice based research around the different facets of how the emergence and widespread reach of the Internet is changing the ways in which we become human, social and political in emerging information societies of the Global South.

In the 7 years since that first conversation started, I have learned so much from CIS and the networks that built around it, that it would be impossible to write an exhaustive account of it. However, as I now take up a new position at the CIS as a member of its board, and continue to collaborate with the on-the-ground teams intellectually, from my new position as a Professor, there are five things I want to dwell upon, more to remind myself of important lessons learned, but also as approaches that the new director and team might want to reference:

  1. Research cannot be individually focused
    One of the things that academic training does is that it promotes the idea of an individual researcher. We write, publish, seek grants and present our work, taking individual credit and building a body of work that is centred on us. True, we collaborate and we participate and we are opening up more distributed modes of learning and research, but at the end of the day, there is still an imagination of a research community that is built of individual scholars who work in a happy symbiosis and synthesis.

    The biggest lesson I learned with the CIS was that research requires collectives – peers, supporters, and critics – that can help materialise a vision. Instead of trying to do ‘my’ research, it was the first time that I was enabling others’ research. I had a say in building the research vision, and establishing protocols of rigour and review, but to have a dream, and then to share it with others, so that it becomes a collective dream was an incredible experience. It was the beginning of a method that I hope informs all my work, where research methods are constantly going to accommodate for and be shaped by collective visions and approaches rather than just the individual as a lone warrior. More than anything else, it reassures us that we are not alone, either in our triumphs or our road-blocks, and it builds a community of thinkers that is more important than just the single authored outputs that we bring out.
  2. Research requires infrastructure
    Institutions are infrastructure. However, our jobs are so segregated, that we don’t always realise the incredible effort that goes into building such institutions and then making them work as efficient infrastructure to support research. It is very rare, in research publications that we thank our everyday office staff, the accounts team that processes the complicated bureaucracies of research funding, the programme managers who create networks and evaluation formats, or the numerous people who perform ‘non-research’ jobs so that we can do the research.

    I had worked in project and programme manager positions before CIS. I had also worked as an independent researcher and consultant before that. But this was the first time I actually took the dual responsibility of not only initiating research but also providing the infrastructure for it. And I know that I am a wiser person for it. The intricate world of fund-raising, managing and developing networks, of implementing and monitoring research projects and contracts, and the need to constantly find sustainable options for the research programmes is something that requires an incredible amount of effort and resources. The researchers often are kept away from this world, or we often just ignore the intense quotidian activities that give us the privilege of doing our work, and my time with CIS taught me not only to appreciate this, but also to recognise these tasks as research.
  3. All research must try and answer the ‘So What?’ question
    Within academic circles, research has inherent value. We do have the freedom to develop new frameworks and ideas that might not have any immediate relevance and might in fact even fail without seeing the light of day. Academia is privileged because as long as we perform our pedagogic tasks, we have the space to experiment and often work on areas that might not benefit anybody outside the disciplines that we are located in.

    At CIS, working at such close quarters with colleagues who are experts in policy and regulation, research became critical for me. It wasn’t research for research’s sake. It was research with a cause. At the same time, making the research relevant was not an exercise in dumbing it down so that it can be reduced to easy implementation. The effort required at making academic and intellectual research accessible, while still retaining its complexity has been a heady experience for me. Since CIS, I have tried to make sure that all research is able to answer the ‘So What?’ question, and every time, it has made the research more robust, more rigorous and having a greater audience and impact than it would otherwise have.
  4. To be a research organisation is to be unafraid
    One of the most fantastic things about being a young research organisations was that we were not afraid to voice our opinions and voice them loud. In the last 6 years, CIS has evolved into a strong voice that is not unanimous, but is still clear. We have had disagreements with established research and policy actors. We have critiqued decisions taken by policy and development institutions when we felt that they were flawed. We have provided a critical commentary to different instruments of law and regulation when necessary. We have challenged academic researchers in their methodology as well as in their disconnect from the ‘real world’. And we did it, because early on, the people who guided us, taught us, that research organisations have to be unafraid.

    Unafraid, not just to ask tough questions of those outside, but also of asking tough questions internally. The team, as it has grown, has been a smorgasbord of disciplinary and stakeholder locations. We don’t necessarily speak the same language. We don’t also, agree on many critical points. But we never tried to be a consensus generation institute. Instead, we learned to coexist and even collaborate in our differences – it was something that external partners often had problems with. How can one set of people work towards critically opposing a phenomenon when others might actually write in favour of some of the aspects of that same phenomenon? How is it possible that some in the institute have great collaborations with a network that the others critique persistently in their work? These tensions, for me, have been generative and I hope that they continue, both in the institution but also in my future work.
  5. Researchers are people too
    This is one of the strangest things to realise, but it is a good lesson to remember. Academia and research work through abstractions. At some point, the researchers become names. They become only a body of work, a certain number of words. But dealing with researchers is to deal with human beings. We have to remember that researchers, while they are often driven and passionate and unable to extricate their lives from their work, do have lives and bodies and socialities that need to be managed. Institutions often get driven by matrices of measurement and politics of promotion and evaluation, at the neglect of the people who actually build it. The constant push at CIS was to recognise that we are all too human in our everyday lives. And to build work environments, relationships and spaces that nurture the people we work with is the primary responsibility of all research.

    These points are probably too vague, but this blog post is already too long. I just wanted to take this opportunity to write some ‘Notes to the self’ about things that have been the most important to me in being the co-founder and Research Director at the Centre for Internet and Society. And now, it is time for me to move on. I want to place myself in an academic setting where I learn, I get some headspace to think and write, and do the one thing that I enjoy the most – teach. Starting 1st October 2014[*] I am stepping down as the Research Director and taking up a professorship in a new and exciting university, designing courses and research agendas at the intersections of internet studies, media studies, culture studies and aesthetic studies, bringing together some of my most passionate areas of interest. However, I continue to be interested and invested in CIS’ institutional growth. I shall be a part of the search committee as we invite a new Research Director in the Bangalore office, I shall be a part of the Board that governs the CIS, and I shall always think of CIS as my home, continuing mentoring and implementing existing collaborations but also building more, especially towards the pedagogic and knowledge production side of things.

    When the final decisions about this transition were made last week, I had thought I would be emotional and heart broken. Instead, I only feel excited. I have a wonderful set of colleagues in Bangalore, and they, in turn, are at the centre of networks of support, love, empathy and trust. CIS will benefit from having a new Research Director who will bring new visions, new methods, new processes and infrastructure to the table, and I hope that as my own academic career grows, I shall find myself returning to CIS in different capacities and roles, both for what I could contribute to it, but also for what I continue to learn from the rich range and variety of activities that it anchors.

[*].For me, this is not a goodbye, but just a change in roles at the CIS. I will continue to use my CIS credentials and email address, and will be found on the existing contact details there for any queries or interactions with and on behalf of the CIS. So no need to change your address books, just yet.


Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.