Review of Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Instrumental Lives: An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory, Vivek Kant

Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Instrumental Lives: An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory presents an important study at the intersection of contemporary issues in Science and Technology Studies (STS), instrumentation and knowledge, and Indian Science and Technology (S&T) practice. The book provides an “intimate biography” of a laboratory in the physics department of an Indian University … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Kant, Vivek. 2020. “Review of Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Instrumental Lives: An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (3): 9-12.

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Instrumental Lives: An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory
Pankaj Sekhsaria
Routledge Focus on Modern Subjects
148 pp.

Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Instrumental Lives: An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory presents an important study at the intersection of contemporary issues in Science and Technology Studies (STS), instrumentation and knowledge, and Indian Science and Technology (S&T) practice. The book provides an “intimate biography” of a laboratory in the physics department of an Indian University. Sekhsaria’s modus operandi is the “lab ethnographic approach”—a mainstay of STS—in which he analyzes the concept of “technological jugaad.”

Sekhsaria’s “intimate biography” focuses on C.V. Dharmadhikari at Savitribai Phule University in  Pune, India. The book critically engages with subtle aspects of Dharmadhikari’s career linking local challenges and contingencies of scientific practice, and the instrument design of the Scanning Tunnel Microscope (STM), with broader themes of innovation and India’s post-colonial S&T narratives.

This short book consists of a foreword, eight chapters and accompanying annexures that bring to life the world of the STM in India and C. V. Dharmadhikari’s contribution. Sekhsaria begins by introducing the world of STM in Pune in Chapter 1. He then outlines the global history of STM and situates the Dharmadhikari’s STM journey in Pune (Chapter 2) as well as in broader S&T narratives in modern India (Chapter 3). Based on these S&T narratives, Sekhsaria lends contextual insights that help make sense of Dharmadhikari as a scientist and the development of STM as an instrument in Pune (26).

Technological Jugaad

Sekhsaria makes three key claims. First, the dominant mode of S&T narratives in India has been positivist resulting in a lack of critical studies of science. Second, the social and political movements that had emerged were often targeted against the state and the scientific establishment. Third, contemporary engagement with post-colonial framings are often linked with market demands and neo-liberal economics.

These claims are very important in recognizing the intellectual space that Sekhsaria’s book occupies in S&T narratives in India. Specifically, the book takes an outward view starting from particularities of the lab while recognizing the broader forces that act inwardly from the outside of academic precincts. This dialectic results in formation of new knowledge in the form of instruments such as the STM, as well as a unique mix of C.V. Dharmadhikari and his associates’ practices in their material, scientific and technological contexts.

Sekhsaria brings forth the concept of “technological jugaad” as a lynchpin in understanding the sphere surrounding STM in Pune (Chapter 4). Jugaad is a word found in many North Indian languages. While jugaad does not have a precise English translation, it denotes a particular means of creative improvisation—of putting things together in ways that enable certain outcomes not imagined before. Sekhsaria recognizes that activities in the laboratory do not follow a particular mode of systematic innovation but more of a subtle but profoundly creative improvisation with materials—“reconfiguring materiality” (37). This chapter demonstrates the jugaad in the creation of the STM as well as in other dimensions of laboratory activities over the years. In other words, we learn that contrary to a more systematic image of science and design “technological jugaad” is routine. Not surprisingly, Sekhsaria notes that there is a “significant paradox” (34)—the creative improvisatory dimension of “technological jugaad” is lost in the dominant S&T innovation narratives in India.

The paradox is created because in everyday imaginations of the scientific laboratory, the scientist is depicted as proceeding in methodological and highly systematic manner. In actuality, as Sekhsaria shows, the work done in the laboratory is often ad hoc and creatively improvisory in nature. While this aspect may be recognizable to STS scholars who would relate these insights to, for example, an older ethnomethodogically-oriented study by Michael Lynch (Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science, 1985), Sekhsaria’s book still manages to bring in a new viewpoint to S&T narratives in India through his careful positioning of his work (Section 3.4) and a detailed and rich understanding of C.V. Dharmadhikari’s “technological jugaad” in chapter 5.

Geographies of Science

A few important aspects are brought into relief in Dharmadhikari’s “technological jugaad.” There is the spatial rootedness of the lab and its practices in an academic environment in Pune—“embedded in local geography.” In addition, the instruments and the research surrounding them straddled the line between the world of academics and commercialization. Finally, the notion of problem solving and creating knowledge systems lay in the realm of intellectual property of the commons bounded by disparate sets of liminalities ranging from law, regulations, and standardization.

Based on the discussions and unravelling of “technological jugaad,” Sekhsaria presents a few implications for innovation policy by linking Dharmadhikari’s journey to “cultures of innovation” (Chapters 6 and 7). Sekhsaria promulgates a “middle space” that links the global innovation policies with the local creative improvisations involved in creating innovation from bottom-up. Sekhsaria ends the book with a research agenda for the future that incorporates: 1) engaging with the lab; 2) understanding jugaad more fully; and, 3) detailing the etymological exploration of jugaad and its associated family of words to support the subtleties of the innovation process from everyday S&T academic practice.

Making Connections

The book explores a singular case study that is used for further implications for innovation. As such, Sekhsaria does not explicitly engage with the innovation studies literature broadly. He recognizes Michael Gibbons and colleagues’ (1994) “Mode 2” approach to knowledge and offers it as a background. However, a gap exists in the inductive leap from the case study to the linking of innovation concepts. The scope and depth of the study and the inductive leap towards innovation policy is rather large. Sekhsaria could have connected his study of Dharmadhikari’s work with existing models of innovation that explicitly involve the universities and discuss their role in making of Indian innovation schemes.

Innovation frameworks such as Donald Schön’s Pasteur’s Quadrant (1997) or Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff’s (2003) Triple Helix of university–industry–government relations, among others, could have been used by Sekhsaria and developed further to provide a broader canopy. Sekhsaria currently lists Leydesdorff’s Triple Helix model but this model has not been used to bring about the subtleties of the innovation process in this singular case study. If such an approach had been adopted, it would have helped to ground the concepts and insights provided by Shaekhsaria towards a more phased understanding of innovation from the lab to the national innovation schemes. Thus, the inductive leap from the lab to the policy would have been clearer.

The book also lacks an in-depth engagement with literature related to laboratory studies in STS. Sekhsaria highlights the use of Shanon Traweek’s study on physics, Cyrus Mody’s Instrumental Community, Harry Collins’ study on the TEA-laser, as well as Knorr-Certina’s emphasis on knowledge from laboratory studies. However, a larger number of existing studies could have been pertinent in this case. Michael Lynch’s 1985 study on laboratory practices offers a gateway to somewhat more recent work on the study of technological practices and meaning making—such as Kathryn Henderson’s On Line and On Paper (1998),  Louis Bucciarelli’s Designing Engineers (1994), and Dominique Vinck’s (editor) Everyday Engineering (2003)—that links the cognitive and social basis of knowledge in practice. Explicit use of these and other comparable materials from the STS literature would have helped to dexterously ground Dharmadhikari’s work in light of previous literature of technological practice.

Sheksharia has tried to link the ethnographic study in the existing literature, but a more detailed work would have helped in terms of linking the actual practices with a future research agenda (85). Sekhsaria gives the example (85-86) of Professor K.L. Chopra, former head of the physics department of Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, New Delhi. Professor Chopra has commented on the nature of technological jugaad and notes the instrument making insights that were required for his group’s research work. Based on these comments, Sekhsaria notes that the improvisory nature of instrument making may not be limited to one lab. He further raises questions for a more detailed followup. Based on the insights gained from Sekhsaria and existing STS research, a conjecture can be made that the questions he raises can be made more pointed in terms of how the microcosm of the scientific lab can be situated in discussions of national innovation schemes.

Despite its limitations, Sekhsaria’s book is an important contribution towards the growth of STS and innovation in India in terms of local narratives of S&T. Instrumental Lives heralds a new wave of S&T studies that if taken forward seriously will provide a major alternative to existing positivist narratives in India. In the future, policy makers can take their cues from academic scholarship, such as Sekhsaria’s, towards more inclusive, sustainable and sensitive S&T policies in India.

Contact details: Vivek Kant, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay,

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