Anthropologist Das driven by a burning curiosity

Her work has explored health care for the poor in India, poor quality of care that arises from collapse of public health facilities, influence of pharmaceutical companies

This article is part of the Provost's Project on Innovation series

Veena Das was 24 years old when she wrote her first book, on the subject of 13th-century mythological Sanskrit texts. She'd completed her Ph.D. two years prior, and the work, which she describes as "confident and a bit brash," called into question some of the basic tenets in her dissertation adviser's field. But he supported her, and though it took a few years, Das eventually saw the book published by Oxford University Press in 1976. Now, 35 years later, it is being republished as an Oxford Classic and is being translated into Korean. Other of her works have been translated widely in European and Asian languages.

The story embodies much of how Das, a Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of anthropology, views innovative thinking: Be patient, and don't be afraid to be bold.

"I think it's important for one to struggle to find his or her own voice," she says. "It's important that you don't simply reproduce the voices of others. Often that is what people talk about as originality. But I don't think originality is just saying something that is totally new. It's taking a different angle from which you look at something. You have a burning curiosity about something, and that's what drives you."

That drive started young for Das, who grew up in a family displaced by the 1947 Partition of India. She educated herself using the public libraries in Delhi, graduated from Indraprastha College in 1964, and earned her master's and Ph.D. from the Delhi School of Economics in 1970. She has been in the U.S. at Johns Hopkins for more than a decade now. And though she doesn't think of herself as a contrarian, her life's work perhaps suggests otherwise. Das' recent anthropological work, for instance, has explored health care for the poor in India, and the poor quality of care that arises from both the collapse of public health facilities and the influence of pharmaceutical companies on the medical markets that are composed of a wide variety of practitioners. It's a problem that she believes requires the innovative application of disciplines not normally applied to health care delivery. Addressing what she describes as one of those questions "that really press upon you" has led her to collaborate with members of many disciplines—not just health practitioners but economists, sociologists, and others—to think differently about the assumptions their disciplines bring to the discussion. For instance, the traditional view of the issue is one of access to health care by the poor; in reality, Das says, there are plenty of health care providers, but the problem lies in the assumption that it is simple to fix the system by allocating triage functions to primary providers. This approach does not work because of the way medical markets have been shaped by the easy availability and proliferation of pharmaceuticals.

"There are powerful interests in this," she says. "There are modes of thought that have to be confronted. There are ideologies that have to be confronted. So collaboration of the kind we developed emerges because there is indeed a demand for real-time thinking, but there's no magical formula that we can offer to fix the problems. You really need to think with like-minded people who are willing to put their own kinds of theories to the test but are also deeply interested in finding out what the facts of the case are."

Das has spent the last 11 years at Johns Hopkins University, a place where, she says, she finds a cross-disciplinary environment full of creative thinkers as well as a welcoming space in which to work with them—an important part of her view of innovation. But universities as institutions also run the risk of becoming dangerous threats to themselves, she warns, when they react to demands to prove their own worth by injecting too much planning and too many barriers on radical, innovative thought. As a research university, Johns Hopkins has a responsibility to explore the relationship between research and teaching and how the relationship produces ideas, she says. Her view of the challenges faced by the university echo her own experience as a young graduate publishing her first book: Allow new and difficult ways of thinking time to ferment, and eventually important ideas will emerge.

"For me genuine critique is strongly related to addressing the problems in the world," she says, noting that the key focus at a research university is "finding out what the facts of the matter are." The danger is when universities lose sight of their own unique missions in following a one-size-fits-all standard. "It also worries me that things like this National Research Council ranking—which really weigh upon trustees and weigh upon the idea of reputation—are very ill-conceived because by definition they have to quantify according to pretty simple kinds of methods and standards." What rankings cannot accommodate is long time frames and the researcher's unique need for patience, an attribute that has been so important in her own life's work. "We know," she observes with a smile, "that some of the most innovative things sometimes do not actually get published immediately."