The Evolution of the Centre for Social Studies and Humanities

Questions to Nicolas Gravel, Director of CSH, at the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research – France)

The roots of the Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH) date back to the eighties. Initially focused on tracing the history of Indo-Persian cultural history, the Centre has gone through certain interesting twists and turns over the years. How do you assess the evolution of the Centre and its present state?

My assessment is quite favourable. The CSH originated from the transfer to Delhi of the French Archeological mission in Kabul, following the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet Union. It took the center a few years to move from Archeology to Indo-Persian cultural history and, more generally, Area Studies dealing specifically with the Indian subcontinent. But Area Studies have lost momentum in the nineties, and are now widely criticized from a scientific point of view. Indeed, a cultural zone or a geographical area does not in itself defines an object of research. It is in view of this that the CSH has become what it is today: a French research center in social sciences and humanities, based in Delhi. To that extent, it does not differ much from a research center based in Paris, or in Bordeaux. Just like those research centers, CSH hosts scholars who conduct researches in all field of humanities and social sciences (including anthropology, demography, economics, geography, political science, sociology and urban studies). Naturally, many of these researches are dealing with issues that are of particular salience on the Indian subcontinent. Fast urbanization, depletion of natural resources, economic growth, widening inequalities, social mobility and communalism, to mention just a few, are examples of those themes analyzed by CSH researchers.


You and your Centre have displayed a good example of integrating with the regional or local academic and intellectual community. How did you succeed in identifying your scientific and academic partners? And how do you extract this high level of local support and fruitful scientific partnership?

The CSH has been settled in Delhi for thirty years. Over that period, it has developed extremely fruitful partnerships with the best academic institutions of the Indian capital, which happen to be also the best academic institutions of the country. We are particularly proud of our long-term partnership with many departments from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the Delhi University (especially the Delhi School of Economics) and the Indian Statistical Institute. In the recent years, we have also developed connections with the Ashoka university, a new private university that has established itself as one of the most prestigious one in India. We maintain also a steady relation with important research institutions such as the Center for Policy Research (CPR), who is a leader in India on urban issues. These partnerships have been established through some of the researcher’s collaborations with the institutions. But they are very active, and they contribute to make CSH extremely visible in India. Most of our post-doctoral researchers are coming from these institutions. Some of them, like Himanshu, have had an affiliation to CSH for more than 10 years. Their long term stay creates a stability of the research themes that offers a salutary counterweight to the important turnovers of our regular expatriate researchers. CSH is widely recognized as an important research institution in India. In the field of economics, and with only four researchers, the CSH appears as the 22nd most productive research institution in India according to the RePec ranking (see, in the pool of 205 such institutions registered in Repec.


You direct a team that is implicated in several diverse research areas and going by the large number of interesting publications, you have succeeded in creating a productive cooperation with India. However, what do you think, are difficulties, if there are any, in working with India or Indian scientific community?

I do not see any difficulty in working in the Indian academic community, which is nothing else than an important subset of the world academic community. Research is more and more global and international. We are fortunate enough to have partners in India who are engaged in this process of globalization and internationalization of research, and who are international leaders in their field.

And, although each one of the research domains represents a vast body of research, economics and development seems to have drawn more attention in the recent Indian context: what in your opinion has led to this Indian economic emergence compared to either the other Asian countries or for that matter, France?

India has drawn attention in the last 20 years or so because of its spectacular economic growth, that is now outpacing that of China, and that has been one of the largest in the world. And, as we all know, India is now the most populated country in the world! The growth of China and, more recently, that of India is changing the world in a way that we can hardly imagine. In 2017, India has passed over France. It is now the sixth largest economy of the world, even when one converts Rupees into Euros at the prevailing exchange rate. At the end of 2018, India will pass the UK and become the fifth largest economy. Germany will come next. In the next 10 years, France alone, or the UK alone or Germany alone, will be dwarf as compared to China, India, Japan and the US. I’m not sure that all our leaders have entirely realized this. It is difficult to find a unique causal factor to the impressive and steady growth that India has been experiencing in the last 20 years. For one thing, India was coming from quite far, and is still a somewhat poor country on a per capita basis. One important factor that has boosted Indian growth were the liberalization reforms launched by the Rao government in the nineties – under the impetus of the then finance minister Manmohan Singh.


As a specialist of measurement of inequalities, poverty, and social mobility, how do you consider India’s position in terms of challenges in the inevitable globalization and its ramifications?

I mentioned above the impressive growth that India has been experiencing in the last 20 years. While this growth is real, and has contributed to reduce poverty, there are still many challenges that India needs to face. One of them concerns the extreme inequality of the growth process. While India has been the world’s 5th fastest growing economy in 2017 (with a yearly real growth rate of 7.5% according to the IMF), it continues to host one third of the world’s population of extremely poor individuals. According to the 2018 world inequality report of Thomas Piketty and his collaborators, the top 1% earners in India are obtaining 22% of the country’s national income. This income inequality is higher than in China, where the top 1% earner are obtaining “only” 14% of the China’s national income. It is crucial that India find a way to make its growth more equally shared among its citizens.  At CSH, many researchers such as Himanshu, Abhiroop Mukhopadhyay and myself are very much concerned about appraising and quantifying further the high price, in terms of inequality, that India is paying for its growth.


You direct a team that is implicated in several diverse research areas including politics and society; risks and territorial dynamics; economics and development and globalization and regulation. Are there some issues that stand out in the Indian context and which demands more in-depth investigation in collaboration with CNRS?

I mentioned above inequality. I really believe this issue to be an important one. It is important for India of course. But it is also important for the world, and for the human species as a whole. Homo sapiens is a cooperative species, and the success that it has achieved so far – at the detriment of many other species – is largely due to its ability to cooperate at an extent and at a scale that is observed in no other species. Yet cooperation among individuals cannot be sustained if the cooperators believe that the fruits of cooperation are not shared in a satisfactory manner. There are no widely accepted definition of what is means for a sharing to be “satisfactory”. But there is a consensus that the sharing cannot be too unequal. Hence, excessive inequality can really be an impediment to cooperation, and therefore to the future achievement of the human kind. Inequality does not only concern income or other pecuniary variables such as wealth or consumption. It concerns also health, education, housing, sanitation, social status, and social recognition. Discrimination against individuals on the basis of their caste or religion, for instance, is an obvious instance of inequality. The quality of the CSH research on inequalities has been recognized by the European research plateform EqUIP who has awarded to a CSH-led consortium of researchers coming from France, India, Norway and the UK a research grant of some 1 million euros over three years.


CNRS is celebrating the 80th anniversary, and on this occasion, as a social scientist with a specific penchant towards economics, what do you think is the significant contribution of CNRS in this domain over the past decades?

In social sciences just like in any other sciences, the CNRS has been a major player in the French academic landscape. The quality of the French economists who are CNRS researchers is just outstanding, and is clearly on a sharp rise. I was particularly impressed by the quality of the young Chargés de Recherche that were hired by CNRS in the last four or five years. The fact that CNRS is capable of attracting such talented young researchers despite the somewhat modest salaries that it offers reveals a clear attractiveness of the institution.

CNRS has been right to bet on the social sciences. And it has been a clear leader in economics. Indeed, the only two French laureates of the Nobel Prize in economics – Maurice Allais and Jean Tirole – were recipients of the “Gold medal” of the CNRS before becoming Nobel laureates. Hence CNRS has been an active promoter of top level quality in economics just as it has been in the other scientific disciplines.  I noticed however that while the CNRS has awarded its gold medal to anthropologists (Philippe Descola, Maurice Godelier, Leroi-Gourhan, Claude Lévi-Strauss), philosophers (Barbara Cassin, Georges Canguillem), historians (Jacques Legoff, Jean-Pierre Vernant) and economists, it has rarely rewarded the other disciplines of the social sciences. Sociology has only one gold medalist (Pierre Bourdieu), and geography and political science have not received any (with the only exception of the Canadian historio-geographer Raoul Blanchard in the sixties). I am not quite sure, however, how should one interpret this relative inequality among the various disciplines of the social sciences in accessing the very prestigious CNRS gold medals.


You have also succeeded in attracting a large number of young French students and interns to work in your Centre. Do you have any advice to the French youngster keen on doing research in India?

My first advice to give to young researchers would be to come to India, and to CSH! We have been indeed quite successful in attracting to CSH extremely promising young scholars who have had their first post-doctoral position at CSH and who have become, shortly after, CNRS researchers or Maître de conférences. Examples include Bertrand Lefebvre, Stéphanie Tawa-Lama Rewal, Jules Naudet, Rémy de Percegol and Olivier Telle.

I believe that India is one of the most fascinating places in the world to study humans, from whatever angle one wants to consider. In no other country in the world can one find such a diversity of individuals according to so many dimensions as castes, religions, incomes, languages, educations, etc. India’s history is just fascinating. And in India, and especially in Delhi, these phenomena can be studied and analyzed inside an active academic community of an international standard, in which high profile seminars and conferences are abundant.  The insertion of CSH in the Indian academic community makes it THE gateway to any serious social sciences study for which an understanding of India is essential.


Having worked for long spells in India, personally, you are an ‘Indophile’ and professionally, you have developed an intense connectivity with the Indian community; Is it your ‘Indophilie’ that helped your strong scientific interaction or is it your collaboration that led to your affinity for India, or is it both ways?

I am indeed an Indophile. This “indophilie” came from my scientific interaction with several formidable Indian colleagues who initially brought me to India than the other way around. I actually did not know much about India when I first came here in January 2004. I must even confess – not without shame – that I had never heard about the Taj Mahal prior to this and I got a truly emotional shock when I first saw it during my first visit to India. Since then, my indophilie has only been growing.