Jean Drèze is a familiar name for social science students and researchers. His contributions unarguably have helped improve the state of social programmes in India and have motivated several students to take up social research. In 2013, he co-authored a book with Amartya Sen on the importance of public programmes in achieving social development.
Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone (2017, Permanent Black) is his second solo-authored book after No.1 Clapham Road:The Diary of a Squat (1990, Peaceprint, published under a pseudonym) on homelessness in London. It is divided into 10 sections: drought and hunger; poverty; school meals; healthcare; child development; employment guarantee; food security; corporate power; war and peace; and a set of miscellaneous essays.
This book is a collection of his previously published essays, mostly in The Hindu, with a fresh general introduction, and a section-wise commentary, which sets the context. This review engages only with this fresh material.
Create a good society
Drèze's vision, like most of the current and future readers of the book, is to "create a good society". As he writes, this warrants the abolition of caste and patriarchy. Such a vision requires a progress in "ethics and social norms". He titles his approach "research for action". This reminds me of Karl Marx, who wrote in the Theses on Feuerbach that: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."
Many public policy measures try to create policies with 'appropriate incentives' as if they are god.
It is indeed commendable that Drèze, along with Reetika Khera and others, have been able to conduct field surveys with student volunteers. Moreover, he has participated in several village meetings, public hearings, and social audits.
Drèze's underscoring of "ethics and social norms" is extremely important today. Many public policy measures try to create policies with 'appropriate incentives' as if they are god. What we truly lack, to use Adam Smith's phrase, is good "moral sentiments"—sympathy, compassion, friendship, and care. These cannot and shouldn't be quantified or reduced to monetary terms. Nor can they be incentivised. It is here that 'experience' plays a significant role. Looking at theory and quantitative secondary data is insufficient to capture most of social reality. It is precisely this reason that has led to the critique on men writing about patriarchy and Brahmins writing about Dalits. Not only is the lived experience missing in these instances but also can it never be obtained.
Study literature to understand society better
Drèze rightly criticises the quantitative fetish found in the community of economists and development studies researchers. And, as if they weren't enough, the public policy specialists have joined this quantitative bandwagon, or rather the bullet train, as it were. This is not to suggest that we abandon quantitative analysis altogether but rather to use it with great care.
I completely endorse Drèze's recommendation to study literature as a way to understand a society better. He lists the following authors in his book as people who ought to be studied: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Daya Pawar, Laxman Gaikwad, Om Prakash Valmiki, and Shantabai Kamble. In fact, I strongly think that the economics students would benefit with a compulsory course on 'Literature for Economists' alongside 'Mathematics for Economists' in the curriculum.
Engage with publicly available data
There is not much that Drèze writes on economic theory, except his approval of game theory, which is not really a theory but a mathematical 'method' of studying conflict and cooperation. I will go further and argue that there is much to be learnt from the theories of economists such as Smith, Marx, Keynes, Kalecki, and Sraffa. A deep understanding of methods, in all its plurality—complexity theory, experiments, field work, game theory, instrumental variables estimation, lived experience, ratio and proportion, regression analysis, and textual analysis—is much needed along with a similar understanding of various theories.
Another important learning from Drèze's book is the need to engage with publicly available data, reports, and legislation. For instance, some of the legislation/programmes mentioned in this book are the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), National Food Security Act (NFSA), and Right to Information Act (RTI). As voters, we too should be reasonably aware of their key provisions.
Research for action
Many students pursue social sciences with the intention of making a change in the society. Currently, there is a palpable sense of disappointment and disillusionment among these students. Perhaps, Drèze's approach of "research for action" is one solution. At the very least, such research should be recognised and encouraged by academics and the society at large (particularly, parents). Of course, not everyone might have the means or the luck to pursue this course of action. However, this shouldn't deter anyone from pursuing good research, which can be in the realms of theory, history, methods, action, or some combination of the four.
To me, the central takeaways from Drèze's book are that as members, and analysts, of Indian society, we must be sensible in our approach to theory and methods by bringing in pluralism in these two areas. More importantly, solidarity warrants collective discussion, engagement, and action, which also aids in the progress of our "ethics and social norms".
However, I felt that the book is expensive at Rs. 795 (hardback), one hopes for a paperback edition priced at Rs. 250 to be available soon. Although all but one are previously published essays, Drèze's introductory chapter and section-wise commentary provide readers with a peek into his valuable philosophy. I hope the book is translated into the many regional languages of India.
(I acknowledge Abhigna A. S. for her editorial inputs and Aashish Gupta for alerting me to Drèze's 1990 book.)
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