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Climbing down from ivory tower

Some social science scholarship reaches the general public through popular media, but the reach is limited
Last Updated : 10 May 2022, 00:50 IST

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The opportunity to do research is arguably the most engaging, time-consuming and stressful part of a scholar’s working life. The term ‘Publish or Perish’ is familiar, and it drives thousands of academics in search of tenure or career advancement to produce a copious number of scholarly articles of varying quality: an astonishing 150 million such articles are available on the web, contained within literally hundreds of journals in the social sciences alone.

The journals with such research published or the conferences and meetings where it is shared less formally are available to only a privileged few. Journal access is expensive and is reserved to the elite few who work in institutions that can afford the subscriptions. Despite their limited reach, getting published in a peer-reviewed international journal means prestige, career advancement and, in many Indian universities, cash in the pocket. But the larger objective of social science is to somehow explain the nature of the social world or expand our understanding of it. As such, surely research should have a wider audience.

Some social science scholarship reaches the general public through popular media, but the reach is limited. So, how much of an impact can any research study have through the usual academic channels? Recognizing this concern, many research teams have started publishing more creatively, with alternate forms of outputs aimed at a wider audience. Usually, such public facing outputs are audio-visual in different formats such as exhibitions, photo essays, citizen workshops, short videos or documentaries, comics and so on. Many also involve hands-on or touch-based activities.

What follows is an account of one such attempt at sharing academic research innovatively. A research team from Azim Premji University, with support from the communications team, developed a board game, The Solega Food Game – Food in the Woods, based on their research. It is interesting for two reasons: first, it is both novel and unusual, even as an alternate research output; and second, it appeals to an audience that is far removed from the usual audience for scholarly research – young children.

The Solegas are an ancient tribe living in the BR Hills. The tribe lives in podus or hamlets, with about 50-60 families in each podu. In the forest, they are surrounded by all kinds of animals including tigers, leopards and 200 species of birds. Solegas got their food in three ways: they grew all kinds of millets, vegetables and fruit on their farms; they collected tubers, honey, wild fruits and berries from the forest; they hunted wild animals like boar, deer and rabbits.

In 1974, BR Hills was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary, and in 2011 made a Tiger Reserve. Solegas were moved out of forest and settled in villages on the periphery. This completely changed their life! They could not hunt, and they could only rarely go to the forest to gather fruits and honey. Even the crops they grew changed as wild boars and elephants invade their farms and destroy their crops. All this has changed the tribe’s food habits, which prompted the research team to explore changes in their food system, producer-consumer relationships and the food and nutrition security of Solegas. The Solega Food Game aims to expose children to the traditional foods of Solegas and to the changing agro-ecology of the hills.

A research product like the board game has the potential to reach people who rarely engage with research. It could have a significant impact on general public, and the concerned communities, especially with its Kannada version -- perhaps much more than the academic outputs.

Efforts like these translate research outcomes into formal and informal actions on the ground, while most academic pursuits often end up as recommendations in reports and papers. By democratizing knowledge, the impact of research can be widespread and meaningful. More such outputs will not only connect science and citizens better but also ensure inclusivity in knowledge transfer.

(Shreelata Rao Seshadri works at Ramalingaswami Centre for Equity and Social Determinants of Health, Bengaluru, and Sheetal Patil at Azim Premji University.)

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Published 09 May 2022, 17:23 IST

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