The political life of information: “Information” and the practice of governance in India

Janaki Srinivasan. The political life of information: “Information” and the practice of governance in India. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisor: AnnaLee Saxenian. University of California, Berkeley. 2011.


Information is increasingly hailed as a tool to achieve good governance. This dissertation challenges claims that naturalize the relationship between information and good governance. I argue that such claims are based on the reification of information as a well-defined object with intrinsic value and have shifted focus away from the relations, materials and practices in which information is embedded. The first goal of the dissertation is to examine the costs of reifying information in the domain of governance. I argue that “information” has to be unpacked and understood as a technique of governing that is involved in making, maintaining and shifting boundaries between a state and its population. The second goal of the dissertation is to examine the benefits of reifying information, where I argue that the reification and flexibility of information as a term have helped it rally support from a diverse range of organizations and individuals. I draw on a modified form of Bayly's “information order” to examine my first concern and address the second using the idea of a “boundary object.” My analysis is based on two cases from India. The first is a set of campaigns led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a political people's movement, that eventually led to a nationwide campaign for a right to government information. The second is a project established by Swaminathan Foundation, an NGO, that provided government information through Information and Communication Technology-based information shops. Based on ten months of fieldwork and archival research, I analyze how information was leveraged as a term, object and rallying point in the two cases.

Addressing my first concern, I show how an information order was deployed as a technique of governing in the two cases. I argue that it helped maintain boundaries between state and population by dictating who could contribute to the creation of official records and rules, who could access documents and who was required to possess documents to make use of public schemes. But the information order was also challenged in both cases. I show that such shifts came about when the blurred nature of the state-population boundary or connections across it were leveraged, albeit differently in the two cases. MKSS organized political campaigns and lobbied with bureaucrats to change the interpretation and implementation of rules. In contrast, information shops strived to be apolitical. I show how an information shop and its operators, nevertheless, became involved in the creation and verification of social facts for the state; were drawn on as valuable resources for petitioning the state, and were deemed irrelevant in arenas where they chose to stay away from politics. By examining ideologically different initiatives, I conclude that the meaning, creation and use of information is situated in the practice of governing and that its circulation is always political irrespective of whether an initiative sees its work as political or not. In addressing my second concern, I show how the reification and flexible meaning of information helped the term act as a boundary object that brought in diverse supporters in both cases. I conclude by identifying the tension between the situatedness of information in practice and the universality of the term information in the two cases.


Last updated:

September 20, 2016