Quick Take: Secular and non-secular perspectives of reality


Reading fiction and non-fiction in parallel did this to me! And the question made a constant machine like humming noise as I watched Ship of Theseus a few days back. What is reality? And why such visible difference in perception of reality by people across different cultures, religion and societies. That reality could be seen from a secular and non-secular lens is an easy and convenient starting point, but little beyond that. And I use secular and non-secular distinction only because I can think of nothing else.

A key distinction between the secular and non-secular perspectives of reality, apart form the role of religion (or one’s faith)  is that secular comprises of all the endevaours, ideas and behavioural forms that are guided (or generated) by ‘human self’ alone. Human agency is an important theme. For instance, “thou shalt not kill” does not originate from the human self or one does not follow it because one thinks it is right but primarily because it comes from the scriptures or it is deemed as the ‘word of god’. In contrast to this “be kind to others” is a thought that originates from a human mind which ‘reasons’ that murder or killing is not moral and one should not do this. The agency is entirely human in this case.

Another way of observing is to say that reality is perceived and related with, in different ways by secular and non-secular folks. One’s view of life and death can serve as a useful example. Those inclined to the secular thought are likely to believe in the scientific reasons for living a healthy life for such a certain number of years and that one dies after that life span die to wasting, ageing and other reasons which science can conveniently explain. Whereas, non-secular view of a Hindu (for instance) who is firm of his faith is likely to view this as a subject of destiny and perhaps his fate to die at a certain age and of a certain cause. And that this is all determined by his ‘karma’ (or the deeds done in one’s life). View on birth could involve invoking the idea of ‘moksha’ (or salvation) that is attained when after a series of birth in different living forms the soul is set free finally.

I’d like to believe that these two perspectives (and likely many more) have a profound bearing on the way all of us as individuals live our lives.




Foucault Redux

Citations (in red box) of Foucault's work on Google Scholar

Citations (in red box) of Foucault’s work on Google Scholar

On Technologies of the Self

Foucault is back! Here at the university, where people just don’t get tired of including a paper or two in every course, from the wide range of topics he has written or lectured on. And it turns out that he is also back in academia going by citation figures of Foucault’s works on Google Scholar. Figures from the past five years suggest a surge in the references made to his papers worldwide. This seems to be an interesting development for it is hard to imagine Foucault as a philosopher, historian or a thinker aligned to any conventional field of thought or academic discipline. Yet, his thoughts on history, sexuality, power, history of ideas, modernity and social criticism are considered as essential reading in sociology, political science, philosophy and history.

His work Technologies of the Self has been an interesting read for several reasons. The prevalent structures of social relationships, identity, behaviour, thought systems and the institutions that govern such forms in the society are a consequence of how individuals construct an idea of themselves with others in the society as well as with their own selves.  The mechanism by which an individual achieves this is referred to as technologies of production of the self by Foucault. These technologies are categorized as –

Technologies of Production – includes social arrangements like family, marriage, tribe and communes. These relationships are produced to create a sense of collective existence and social order under which individuals sustain themselves and prosper.

Technologies of Sign Systems – the relationships created in a society need communicative and signaling mechanisms embedded in the practice of such relationships. These are sign systems which either establish an order or therefore guide a form of behaviour – like husband and wife in a matrimonial relationship. This determines how others should behave with a woman who is a wife of someone else.  Or the sign systems could simple serve the need for expression and communication like language, tattoos and ornamentation.

Technologies of Power – individuals in a society behave and also place themselves in a certain relation to each other. This relation is determined by how much influence one has over the other. The technologies of power include patriarchy in a family structure, chief or headman of a tribe and similar production of roles which imply exercise of a certain coercive influence of an individual over others. Social contract is another production of the self with which individuals realize a sense of security and cohesiveness within a group, society or a nation.

Technologies of Self – the range of impressions, awareness, consciousness and construction of one’s own being leads to a production of an individual’s identity. These mechanisms are technologies of self. For instance, sexuality and an individual’s own idea of it – his sense of the body, its desires, its constitution, aesthetics and form, together determine his image of himself. What he ‘produces’ of himself marks his identity and drives an idea of a personality. This then bears upon his behaviour and his relationship with others.

Technologies of the self is a fairly useful articulation of what ‘being’ can mean and how this comes into effect. Further, this could help understand what well-being could possibly mean. Well-being and the self are complementary and in some sense inextricable from each other. My interest in post-colonial identity formation benefits from Foucault’s conception of the self. Thinking through this lens it could be argued that the post-colonial subject is a consequence of power relationships that existed between t individual and the colonial master. In a post on Tranquebar, I was alluding to this phenomenon when I read a conquest in the practice of modern day religion in this former Dutch colony. Such productions have led to conflicting image of self as a subdued, submissive being, at times. On why some former colonies which are independent nations today behave and operate in the way that they do could be examined through this idea. The sense of identity that a person possesses remains an enormously interesting subject, precisely because there doesn’t seem to be a definite way of seeing onself but is always spontaneously forming itself and each emerging sense of identity is as forceful as the other.

A Story – Contested Realities


The idea of this blog is to be a sound board to how realities play out in our lives. These often  are competing realities emerging out of different narratives . And much of what I have written here are non-fictional accounts, observations and analyses. Diverging from that, here is a fictional account of how realities of two individual’s lives played out by the virtue of they being their own selves and a contest emerging there.  

He is like an absurd story you don’t know what to make of, much like Kafka’s stories which appalls you and excites you in turns. Why would he want to do a certain thing, you wouldn’t know and neither would he. In my attempts to know just who he is, to be able to live with him I have been certain of only one thing – that he is the sort of company you’d want to keep on the road, to nowhere perhaps!

His reading of the world is curiously optimistic. I have lived many splendid journeys with him on the road to be able to tell you that he is prone to excesses of every sort, only to ensure that he doesn’t let go off any opportunity in his life to live moments and experiences to complete satisfaction. You’ll find him reading authors of the romantic age and the beat generation and the variety who had not even the slightest regard for conventions and norms. Those with a mind of their own.

It feels strange to realize that I have taken a break from that road which we travelled, while he continues on his journey. The free wheeler in him goes straight out and does what he wants to do which I have always envied, and in fact felt enraged when he showed no care. His disregard for relationships and responsibilities, I always felt would become a concern very soon. And it did. He walks a high rope without a safety net and it is an intimidating thought for me. Why take my word? Look around him and you will find that almost all his mates from college graduated took regular jobs, settled down and are starting families now. And how about him? As I write this, he is on the same old bike, beating the dirt tracks living another journey he thought is worth taking, than be here… by my side!

From APU Conference 2013 : On right to welfare

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

This morning we are at APU’s Conference 2013 on Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work. The focus seems firmly set on India and here is the list of papers. My colleague and I find the conference note to be high on theoretical quotient with respect to thinking on institutional and legal fronts – about what welfare means in India and its delivery. During the day we hear people working in social security, education, poverty, food, work and a variety of interdisciplinary areas in development like rights based approach to welfare, structural violence and welfare etc.

Besides the range being a little too expansive, we find that it might well be one of the few times in a year that we sit in conferences understanding, debating and learning about new ways of thinking and conceptualization of problems that we see in our work with non-profits and small businesses in the development sector. We experience the issues of equity, access and rights but seldom get to effect changes to remedy the imbalance. Or at times we have not even known how to approach serious issues such as these. The themes –

I. Law and development in India

II. Statutory rights-based approach to welfare

III. Rights and Obligations

Of these we look forward to interesting research on structural violence and welfare by Akhil Gupta, Social Citizenship in India by Niraja Jayal and on India’s new rights agenda by Sanjay Ruparelia.

The conference opened with two fairly accurate observations from Anurag of APU, who trawls the Indian hinterland looking at changes, emerging practices and learning from them to devise effective social action –

1. That there has been a retreat of welfare in India

2.  That there is a lack of engagement between the intellectuals and people on the ground. And  that this is beginning to be a problem .

For us as practitioners, this might yield interesting ways to look at the contests of rights, access and equity and associated problems that we see in out work. And how these could be addressed by businesses or perhaps by our work in data analysis and documentation. If it does yield interesting insights, be sure to find it here.


Understanding Public Policy Research – A schematic

By Keshav (Courtesy: The Hindu)

By Keshav (Courtesy: The Hindu)

Here is a ‘discipline neutral’ way of understanding policy research. This stuff comes out from a course on Introduction to Policy Research that I take this term. Interestingly enough this is the first time that we have a specific course titled as that – Public Policy, as a part of any graduate program in an Indian university. What follows is a way to simplify what policy research is for the uninitiated. It can possibly help in mapping the landscape of the several different kind of policy studies that exist.  This is closer to what we have often done – applied and functional to get going in a space. The policy professor here whose own work looks at Indian politics, policies and processes from an applied perspective, helped folks understand policy research area through the schematic that I’ve cleaned up and represented below.

On public policy, he argues that it is about creating change by making hard choices between competing values. It is about approaching problems and these approaches vary with different interest groups. I am attracted to this explanation because it is not theory heavy and emerge from a gaze set on real world and unlike other insular theories in public policy that I have come across.

The schematic came about from discussion on India’s transition in public policy space and various studies like Rob Jenkins’ on what made the 1991 reforms work in India, Achin Chakrabarty on reform debates and more importantly Pranab Bardhan who articulates the Indian state as “predatory” during the Indira Gandhi period.  The variety of public policy study and practice as seen in the West is relatively new in India and therefore the extra effort in explaining its direction, intention and methods. Public policy study is done in two ways –

1)      Policy Research – which is a post facto analysis of what happened with policy X in place and why.

2)      Public Policy Analysis – which is conducted before or towards developing and implementing a new policy.

And hence the following schematic to understand public policy research –

A schematic to understand policy research (Ref: Srikrishna Ayyangar)

Approaches in policy research (Ref: Srikrishna Ayyangar)

Paving the road to hell with agricultural productivity

Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh . This region in AP witnesses a bumper tomato produce in November, 2012 and effects the prices (adversely) in the nearby cities of Bangalore and Chennai. High volumes of production did not lead to commensurate rise in income of the farmers in this region, as we know.

Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh . This region in AP witnesses a bumper tomato produce in November, 2012 and effects the prices (adversely) in the nearby cities of Bangalore and Chennai. High volumes of production did not lead to commensurate rise in income of the farmers in this region, as we know.

Here is a brief of a new policy study that my colleague Praveena and I begin this month. We are excited about this idea as agriculture and development has been sectors of our interest since long and that a sector fatigue (from our work in water sector) is slowly kicking in. We would sharpen this as we get going on this, but sharing a rough cut of the idea is called for to invite inputs and criticism on this from folks we know and the readers of this blog. 

Paving the road to hell with agricultural productivity: Agri- commodities, International Trade and Development

Focus on increasing agriculture productivity as an intervention in alleviating poverty across the less developed and developing countries, particularly of Africa and Asia has had reverse effect of pushing people further down into economic crisis. We begin a small study this week where we explore the consequences of large agriculture programs which are focused on increasing agricultural productivity of farm sector, for a variety of staple crops, cash crops as well as horticultural crops. The increase in productivity is treated as end in itself. Whereas, in practice, the productivity rise is not realized as increased income for the farmers but works adversely works on pushing the prices of that crop further down. What is proposed is that increased agri productivity will lead to increase in income of the farmers. In practice, what happens is that the increased flow of agri-produce in the market pulls the price down and neutralized the gain of the producer.

There are two problems that we see –

1)      Development programs which focus on increasing agriculture productivity alone are not desirable as they do not alleviate poverty in long term, instead work adversely.

2)      Increased agri-productivity affects less developed and developing economies which earn by exporting these primary goods. When a higher volume of produce hit the international market they push the prices down and lead to lesser earnings by the producing country. This has an aggregate effect of leaving the economy as impoverished as it was earlier, if not worse.

These two problems could be addressed by thinking about development sector programs in agriculture as well as international agri-commodities trade from analyzing existing policies in agriculture and trade sectors.

Our argument is that development sector programs in agriculture, domestic as well as international agri-commodities trade and poverty are linked very closely and in a direct fashion. There is a ripple effect that travels right through this chain and leads to adverse effect on the producers if these programs focus only on productivity increase. This fixation without looking at the policy environment and prevalent trade practices will always lead to poor outcomes as seen in declining international agri-commodity prices by as much as 25% across the board – coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar, in the last decade. From 1980 to 2000, world prices for 18 major export commodities fell by 25% in real terms.  The decline was especially steep for cotton (47%), coffee (64%), rice (61%), cocoa (71%) and sugar (77%)  (World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization 2004: p83).[1]


[1] The commodities crisis and the global trade in agriculture: Problems and proposals, Martin Khor