“Theorization vs Doing… which is your cup of tea?” , I ask myself

I have taken a 12 week policy course to understand policy and the craft of policy making and analysis in a structured manner. A secondary purpose of this course was also to understand if I can really engage with theory as I engage with practice.

Engaging with practice or doing things on work along with relevant reading and research comes more naturally to me than  first reading, understanding and then doing. I have been lucky at work with colleagues whose strengths lie with the later approach. Both methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. But one thing that I no more question is the relevance of theory to practice.

But what kind of theory is useful is something I always dwell upon. The process of engaging with theory is fascinating. Theories paint a neat and beautiful picture most of the times. They make you hopeful and optimistic about solving a problem. And the process of theorization most of the times assume many things and concentrate on few parameters or factors that affect the problem and try solving the problem with these factors in mind alone.

One of the books that lays down beautifully the approach to policy analysis is  Eugene Bardach ‘s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving. 

It helps understand how to look at a problem and solve it methodically step by step. But every step I read, in my mind I have examples of following some of the steps ( myself or someone else) and failing at achieving expected outcomes. And in real world most of these structured approaches do not guarantee achievement of aspired outcome. And my questions in most classes are the sort that do not get answered satisfactorily. This  leads to a conclusion that, in spite of all these beautiful methods, every situation is unique and every outcome of a situation is as uncertain and unpredictable when prepared for or  unprepared for. Especially in the policy making/ analyis exercise. This is more so in the Indian context.

But to my relief reading the papers from 1959 and 1979 respectively  ; The Science of “muddling through” and Still muddling, Not yet done ;  by Charles E Lindblom seem to answer my angst. Lindblom’s incremental approach to  theorizing  policy and decision making more real.

The concept mostly used in policy analysis is a Rational- Comprehensive approach, What  Bardach suggests can be comfortably placed under this approach.

Characteristics of  Rational- Comprehensive approach are [1]:

  1. Clarification of values or objectives distinct from and usually prerequisite to empirical analysis of alternative policies.
  2. Policy-formulation is therefore approached through means-end analysis: First the ends are isolated, then the means to achieve them are sought.
  3. The test of a “good” policy is that it can be shown to be the most appropriate means to desired ends.
  4.  Analysis is comprehensive; every important relevant factor is taken into account.
  5. Theory is often heavily relied upon. 

Whereas what actually happens is intertwined evaluation and analysis. This can be better understood using the Successive Limited Comparisons approach as suggested in Lindblom’s paper.

Characteristics of Successive Limited Comparisons approach are [1]:

  1. Selection of value goals and empirical analysis of the needed action are not distinct from one an- other but are closely intertwined.
  2. Since means and ends are not distinct, means-end analysis is often inappropriate or limited.
  3. The test of a “good” policy is typically that vari- ous analysts find themselves directly agreeing on a policy (without their agreeing that it is the most appropriate means to an agreed objective).
  4. A succession of comparisons greatly reduces or eliminates reliance on theory. 
  5. Analysis is drastically limited:
      • Important possible outcomes are neglected.
      • Important alternative potential policies are neglected.
      • Important affected values are neglected

If theorization draws from reality like what Lindblom does it looks like my cup of tea, atleast for now! If not I will stick to doing rather than theorizing.

Signing off, as I muddle through my dilemma of “to theorize or not to”… 🙂

1. The Science of “Muddling Through” , Charles E. Lindblom, Public Administration Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1959), pp. 79-88,Published by: Wiley



A just society – Who is responsible for its existence and functioning?

I am passionate about certain ideas, one of them is – ‘a just society where there is enough space and tolerance for all ( human beings and others ) in the world to coexist’. These ideas have been the reasons for making many important decisions in my life.  My career shifts , the areas I work in and design of work – non work life all are based on these ideas.

On a dinner table conversation yesterday  I find myself in between a argument where the ‘ideas’ and my beliefs that I am passionate about are questioned. And the person questioning has good reasons why he thinks its not something an individual can strive for or even responsible for. And I have my life and the journey until now precisely based on the belief that – an individual can work on these ideas and facilitate the journey of the society towards becoming more just.

This being the context, I here try to articulate what is the idea of a just society and who is responsible for its functioning as a just society.And answer who is responsible for it – is it the system ( loosely made up of governments and the state) or the individuals.

When one of the friends, A, talk about making an ethical choice on goods ( food, clothes , furniture etc) bought for needs/ wants of our life is made, another ,B , retorts – there are systems in place to take of all those matters and “I do not want to live in an eternal paranoia , which may not even be true”.

My response to B with context building goes as below:

What industrial revolution of the 1800s has hastened the process of change on this planet that is unprecedented. It is made possible to produce and manufacture goods of scales at phenomenal speed. This has given rise to a crisis situation that none of us on this planet have any knowledge about and there is no history of this situation to learn from. The crisis situation has manifested in many forms, to state a few – deforestation and high  utilisation rates of natural resources and exploitation of vulnerable communities.

How is a system (government + bureaucratic institutions) responsible to this kind of crisis situations? Assuming that we live in a country where the systems are perfectly functional, what should they do? The systems should make policies and decisions that benefit majority of the stakeholders and hurts the least. The other responsibility of the system is to be the watchdog and regulator so that there is very little exploitation of the weaker stakeholders by the stronger one.

But the conditions in which today’s crisis happen are happening in a dynamic web with too many factors influencing it. The pace of change of systems is far lacking to the pace of change of things in todays world. Therefore the responsibility to build a just society also falls on the individuals who make the society itself.

Its individuals that participate and raise objections to the system that help it change to meet the needs of the times. It is individuals who perceive the loopholes and point fingers and take steps to change the loop holes that make the systems better.

The entire argument here is too simplistic because of the assumptions made. If we look at a situation realistically, all of us will agree on one thing that the systems of governance and regulation are not at efficient.  In such situations participation and owning up to situations and reacting on an individual level becomes an imperative. Finishing on a very rhetorical note:

Little drops of water
Make the mighty ocean

Photography – Breaking the mould

The past two days have been a delight for the artist within. I have spent a whole day walking through Tate Britain‘s collection of art works from 1500s until present day and another day with looking at works of modern art from across Europe and the americas in Tate Modern. The experience in both places have been wonderful. These galleries hold huge collections of arts of the periods and the regions they are dedicated to.  You love art or not, everyone loves beautiful sights. One must to go to these museums just to experience that sight of those beauty from centuries. And the best part about these museums is the guided tour around the place provided by the volunteers. That helps one understand the context, the reasons and the times when these museums were initiated and the times the art works were made.

The walks and time spent in the galleries of these museums is not enough for me. There were many comparisons, thoughts , observations going on within. A thought and a marvel that recurred as I walked from one gallery to another was about photography, its advent and its contribution to fine arts.

Photography is classified as one of the fine arts along with drawing, painting, sculpting etc. But the entire scene of fine arts have gone through a revolution with the invention of cameras. Life of photography and the techniques- to capture light and capture images from chemical mediums to digital mediums is another fascinating journey. But its undeniable what this field of arts have done to the others. Its contribution to others is enormous. If you look at the collections in Tate Britain and Tate Modern there is stark change in the style of paintings and expressions. There seems to be a sudden shift in how an artist expressed himself. And to me that sudden shift in expression was made possible by photography.

Wivenhoe Park by COntable

Before photographic techniques were found, artists mostly painted scenes, portraits and situations to document stories.  If you look at the collection of 1500s in Tate Britain, every painting has a story to tell. Every detail of a painting had a reason – what dress a person is wearing, the number of rings they wore in their hands portrayed etc, all of it was trying to say something of those times. Many art works commissioned were to tell those stories in one single frame. The art works of Turner, Constable and others of those times are so important in that respect. They helped us see what it would be like in their times.

The field of waterloo by Turner

With the carrival of photography, the responsibility of documentation to a great extent was lifted off from the artist.  This provided the kind of freedom that artists in the past did not have. The sublime art of Turner’s times now gave way to the abstract art of the modern times. In a way, my journey as an artist have been like that of classical art to that of modern art. I did not have a camera of my own until I was 19 years old. I had basic training in classical painting and drawing techniques- water colors, oil on canvas etc. I used tomake landscapes with oil on canvas and portraits of faces with pencil or charcoal on paper. After the point when I had a camera of my own, I started to experiment with color, papers and different medias simply expressing what I felt on those papers. The need to document and capture moments of importance is now taken care of by my camera.  Photography bestowed me with that mental freedom.

Weeping woman by Piccaso

I have always been able to relate to Pablo Piccaso’s or Jacksonn Pollocks work without knowing why. And lately my interaction with colors look like the way Gerhard Richter’s play with colors. In an interview Richter says ( i paraphrase it here) – colors are so beautiful to simply be with, i simply play with them until I feel satisfied. The rage and agony Piccaso must have felt painting the weeping woman, or the surging emotions that Pollock felt while slapping and dripping colors on his canvas or the delight of playing with colors that Richter felt is what I could connect with.  This to me was a contribution of photography to fine art.

One of the paintings of Gerhard Richter exhibited at Tate Modern


V&A museum – Art and its perception across generations

One of the Jammel Prize exhibits. An artist trying to make the arabic calligraphy modern yet not too modern.

One of the Jammel Prize exhibits. An artist trying to make the arabic calligraphy modern yet not too modern.

I visit many magnificent museums, exhibitions, places of architectural importance all the time while on work. I take zillions of photos and I edit none. I write detailed notes and I never write/ publish it.

Today I am spending my entire day at this V&A museum in London. The first thing I did while here is go through the Jameel Prize winners exhibit. And then took the introductory tour through the museum. And I am typing this post taking a break from my museum tour. I think I won’t be able to write anything coherant by the end of the day as I will have too many things to say and won’t know what to write and share. So I took this break after a brief interaction with another museum visitor at the V&A cafe.

There are many things wonderful I can say about the V&A museum. Can I say something which has already not been told by some celebrated art critic or an appreciator?I don’t think so. Neither do I have the language or the skill to do it. All I could talk about is my experience and observation on what happens around the art exhibits here.

Observation 1:

A hanging exhibit of all the band instruments used by the coal miners

A hanging exhibit of all the band instruments used by the coal miners crushed and flattened. More symbolic of what happened to the mines during the Thatcher era.

When I arrived at the museum, I was early by few minutes, there were many people waiting in front of the entrance. Right across V&A museum is the Natural history Museum and the Science museum. These also had people waiting in front of the gates. That is a nice sight. I have liked the attitude people have  for history and art in this country. I can not stop myself from comparing what it is in India. If few more of us cared for art and finer things our cities, towns and villages will be a different place.

Observation 2:

Somnathapura temple , Karnataka, India

Somnathapura temple , Karnataka, India

There were two groups of school children running around the museum. All of them were taken around by their school teachers I think. Don’t know who those adults were. But while taking the introductory tour, I came across one of the bunches, who sat in front of on of the art pieces and a teacher/ volunteer was explaining them about it for more than 15 minutes.  I have gone to museums, planetariums and science exhibitions as a child, but dont remember anyone taking me through the works like this. Recently while on a trip to one of the most beautiful Keshawa temple of Hoysala architecture in  Somnathpura ,there were children from local school brought to the place. They were introduced to the sculptures  but not as well as it could have be done.

Experience of the place:

V&A Cafe, designed in the William Morris times.

V&A Cafe, designed in the William Morris times.

My experience of the place has been good. Its a huge museum.  In the words of  this lovely lady, Edda Luise Irvine, who took us around doing the introductory tour : ” it will take me another life time to see, understand and appreciate every one of the millions of exhibit  in the museum” . Indeed! But the thing that I liked about this place is the fact that I could relate to the space. The design of the museum.  Although most of the exhibits are centuries old, there is something relatable. This could be because of the fact that the reception area and some spaces  have exhibits like – this huge glass chandelier (made of glass weighing some 1700 kilo grams with thousands of pieces of glass) hanging at the entrance and  a huge copper wire art work by Omer Arbel  in the middle of ceramic sculptures from 18th and 19th century.


An art exhibit with light bulbs hanging off copper wire. It is called the 28.280 by Omer Arbel

Glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly. This was installed in 1999.

Glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly. This was installed in 1999.

Interestingly while having a cup of tea in the cafe, one of the fellow tourist (must be in her 60s) shares how things in the museum have changed. She had visited this place when she was a teenager. . And her quibble was – “The museum was so much better in those days”. And that is what we always do isn’t it? If I came 40 years from now, my quibble will be similar to hers, isn’t it?. The reasons for which I found this place more acceptable were the same why she did not like it.  There is this inherent resistance to change and acceptance of new things. And that to me is intriguing. Places like these bring that aspect of us out so well.

With that thought, I shall resume my tour again.

Bottom of the Pyramid – I question it again



I have been a great fan of C. K Prahalad and his idea of markets at BOP. I was intrdouced to this idea some 10 years ago in a college library. With the book came a CD with videos from the case study. I was overwhelmed, moved to tears seeing some of the case studies.

But with spending a lot more time in rural communities, and reading about the financial sector it feels that the idea of BOP is NOT so much about providing access to things ( health & hygiene products, banks) that most people at BOP did not have access to due to their limited cash situations and lack of legitimate identity.  At the risk of sounding radical I would like to call it something else. It is a way to drain the little resources they have to benefit the large corporations.

I never thought about it like this before, I rather was very happy about it. I was happy that, we have found a way to raise people from their poverties in a dignified manner. But except for few so called BOP initiatives, most of them are a lot to “harness” that market only. The case study of Aravind eye hospital in Prahalad’s book is one case where the activity is for the betterment of the poor. But if you look at it closely, Aravind Eye hospital is not considering the poor as its “market”. The model it has adapted is that of a cross-subsidy. 30% of the rich will pay for the 70% of the poor. And if the poor wish to contribute he may, it is not at all mandatory. Here the access to a valuable service of eye checkup and cataract removal is made available for free to them.

But can this be compared to the HUL’s idea of making Rs 1 sachet’s of its shampoo and smaller toothpaste tubes and make them available to the poor. Or can micro-finance with such exorbitant rates of interest be touted as a solution? Although some of them are fulfilling a need that always existed, I wonder if the needs was manufactured by these large firms producing those products.

The idea of manufactured need and making things aspirational have a spiralling effect on other elements of people’s life. About that another day.