Learning with Tanzanite Group

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Today, we close our sociology classes for the academic year. The group of kids (13-14 year old) with whom I have shared classroom time over the year were introduced to ideas of society, groups, norms and rules, sociological perspectives and institutions in a society. This was meant to be an introductory course. In two sessions with one scheduled this afternoon, the students share their experience (or speak of any topic of their interest) with rest of the school during assembly hour at the end of the day. Two groups presented about their topics of interest last week – one spoke of “crime” in society and how might one understand crime. They ended with some statistics on rate of different types of crime. The other group presented their ideas on “media” – its purpose, types and an example of how opinions presented in the media are shaped.

The idea of a review and sharing session during assembly developed when the principal suggested that we might want to have a review on how a year of sociology curriculum was received by the students. I proposed that instead of a conventional writing based or test-based assessment it might be good to involve the whole school as well as let the students themselves have some reprieve from the test-based methods. Understandably, when I proposed this to students, they were enthusiastic about it. They formed groups on their own, selected topics, went ahead with research on the topic and developed their content for presentation. When I saw them present, I was thrilled with the speed at which they executed this. In the entire year, this was perhaps the most swift and complete participation shown by the group of nine students in the class.

This brings me to the first lesson from the year – work with what interests the students, at all times. And if required, wait, till the students show visible interest in the subject. In other words, coercion does not work if the intent is to drive learning. Simple as it sounds, it took me three years to understand this. The outcome of coercion-free learning is marvelous, if I can use that word. At times the enthusiasm of students has been so infectious that I have stayed high with it for days. This year, with Tanzanite group (Poorna has names for groups not numbers) I have had my dead-poets-society moments. I didn’t want to ride back home after school but get on the bus with them and continue living that teen environment. for the sheer freshness of what I heard from them – no stereotypes, every observation, every question so elemental in its form.

An academic year is such a short time when one is tuned-in so closely with the students. The second lesson has been about the extreme importance of introducing social science with an equal emphasis and rigor as other subjects in the middle school. I say extreme because of the shape in which our contemporary world is in. It is no longer easy to parse through facts, truths, values and opinions that each one of us comes across in our daily lives. Most often, the kids project what they have heard their parents discuss at home or what either of their parent seems to hold true and has at some point shared it with the child. I saw this happening when the class discussed food habits (vegetarian/non-vegetarian), when they investigated the effects of demonetisation in India through interviews and wrote about it and several such discussions. A favorite was discussing sociological perspectives with them and watch them try to get a grip of the idea. In the following weeks, I was told several of them were using perspective as a way of reasoning in their conversations in and outside the school. This was intriguing as well as scary. Intriguing – for the speed at which the understanding was mobilized outside classroom and scary because it becomes crucial that one who is introducing these ideas in classroom does a good job at it. One’s own biases can cause a serious damage to the understanding of young, impressionistic minds. And I grew very conscious of it. We discussed the Russian Revolution and the idea of revolution itself. In their minds it was about violence as a method to bring change. I had to make significant effort in busting that impression that revolution always means violence. I used ideas of Gandhi and Mandela to talk of how revolutionary changes were brought about without violence.

Third lesson was about the use of school as a space to shape and mend things that the collective conscience of the society has felt wrong or problematic. For instance, themes like intolerance, respecting alternative views and reasoning one’s choices. All these played out as we discussed themes from the curriculum. I noticed how kids brought their observations from their daily lives into the class and used it as their views. Sometimes, to make sense of their own experiences we read travelogues – Khushwant Singh’s writing on Delhi, we read ethnographies – Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and we tried discussing these first hand encounters to understand how one can go about making sense of daily experiences that stand out for an individual.

On this last day of the academic year, I think with a comfortable degree of confidence, I can say that the group I spent time with is a bit further up in their understanding of people’s lives and society, know how to be empathetic and are empathetic, and finally are able to think consciously (within their current cognitive abilities) of the choices they make at this stage in their lives.

I can’t thank these kids enough for helping me learn even as they trusted me with their learning. A satisfying year at school. I hope the kids also feel the same.

Indian sociology, if there is one

Last week was spent in listening to some of the best Indian minds in sociology during NIAS’s annual seminar on nation, community and citizenship in contemporary India. It was also a fitting tribute to M N Srinivas in whose honour a panel discussion was organized. The discussions seemed in-line with his own way – stress-testing concepts and original. There were differing opinions on the relevance of concepts, ethnographic method etc. One of Srinivas’ contemporaries present at the occasion was Prof. N. Jayram who had known M N Srinivas for a substantial part of his later academic career.

I have been interested in Srinivas’ work and the development of sociology in India for a while now. The seminar at NIAS brought together a rather large section of Indian sociologists who, undoubtedly, have driven teaching and research in sociology in Indian universities. Over the last three years, I have used excerpts of Srinivas’ The Remembered Village as an preliminary exposure to sociology for students of O and A level studies. I find it a useful sample of classical sociological writing which comes up as a result of long term observations driven by a structured inquiry. I have been interested in knowing what has been the legacy of Srinivas’ work in India and how has it changed the study of Indian society. While I did manage to have some insights into it at the seminar, the more interesting part was Prof. Jayram’s reminiscence of Srinivas. A rich description of sociology in early years of independent India can be found in Srinivas’ interview with Chris Fuller here.

Jayram suggests that there are two things worth noting when we discuss Srinivas today – that he came in at a time when social philosophy transitioned to sociology and that his career spanned colonialism, Indian independence, Nehruvian socialism and nationalism (he passed away in 1999). In terms of the discipline, he  privileged field view and participants , which methodologically many know as participant observation. His approach was of being in the field and getting us “earthworm perspective “(for Jayram the importance of this approach kicked in during his work in diaspora studies in Trinidad). The terms he coined – dominant caste, vertical and horizontal solidarity etc are widely used in analysis of Indian society now. Srinivas emphasized on caste as interest group over caste as a system. This analytical lens becomes immediately useful when one finds that systemic analysis of caste not being helpful in offering any logical analysis of caste dynamics.
Jayram added that Srinivas was strongly influenced by structural functionalism. It was his eclecticism that made his sociology more appealing. When one thinks of it, it is hard to list names of eminently readable sociologists in India. The likes of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ashish Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan etc who appear often in the newspaper columns can hardly be understood by common people (and require re-readings for social science graduates themselves). One could argue that these are not sociologists, but the larger point remains – that Indian academicians don’t quite have the ability to write in an engaging manner. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is Andre Beteille. Whereas, Srinivas did not restrain from communicating his ideas to a general audience. Jayram remarks that Srinivas’ language carried both – the novelist’s imagination and sociologist’s thinking. That is a enviable ability to write! It is said that Srinivas was also influenced by Graham Greene’s prose style.

Another sociologist on the panel and whose papers I have read through MA was Surinder Jodhka. His remarkably sharp, analytical mind is rather unusual in the discipline. Jodhka’s criticism on “Rampura” (village where Srinivas does his field work) as a problem – that it is the idea of a Hinduised India, is reverent yet sharp in pointing out the contention. Jodhka says, the village of Srinivas’ imagination isn’t quite a village reflecting the realities of a village in contemporary India. Jodhka urges that rural is not just one – there are many rurals. Rural India encompases a whole range of possiblities and configurations which get flattened out in the dichotomous references of rural and urban. A more reasonable category, Jodhka insists would be settlement. The last bit of Jodhka’s critique was about the conceptin of an ideal society which in some sense has been about a casteless society. He asserts that  a casteless society is not an answer – a democratic society is! In a way, it is futile to imagine that caste would cease to matter in the future. Evidence suggests that irrespective of material status, caste consciousness has deepened in India. If anything, it matters all the more. Caste based coalitions are now a major determinant of political outcomes as well as in businesses. In such a scenario, imagining a casteless society is delusional. The task of sociology is to acknowledge the realities of the society and then offer a way forward, not by negating them.

In most MA programs, courses in sociology are dominated by published papers from British and US institutions. Most students are at  a loss to even recall two Indian sociologists and their works. Indian sociology with its own approaches and unique knowledge production could certainly be identified in the 1970s and perhaps until late 1990s. After this, I do not quite find works as situated – in method and content, in India, as earlier. This can be a hasty remark, until I find published works on Indian society, which deviate from the methodological and conceptual traditions of the British and US institutions.

 

 

Explorations in Marxist social theory & a book review

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Image Courtesy: Wikimedia (for all)

 

This one will be a longer post than usual, but delights me especially because I could manage to get a somewhat minimal sense of the range of thoughts and ideas in the Marxist lineage, which has been a long going effort. The post includes a discussion of a clutch of the thinkers in a rather cursory form. This is guided along a fantastic anthology of essays titled Against Orthodoxy: Social Theory and Its Discontents by Stanley Aronowitz, that I happened to read as a part of a course on Development and Law. What made me pick this book is that Aronowitz has been a career trade unionist. With over three decades of work as a union member, I felt his commentaries merits a closer read. 

The development paradigm in the twenty-first century is characterized as predominantly capitalist. The processes that will achieve higher incomes, better living conditions and great prosperity for the people are believed to be those that operate in and through capitalism. Developing and less developed countries, it is seen are orienting their economies in a manner that they stand to gain from these processes of capitalism. For instance, export led growth is one such process which has gained widespread currency and for which there are rather strong success stories to learn from in Asia. If capitalism as a paradigm is believed to have occupied the center stage and is likely to stay, what then can be said of the tremendous destruction of environment, countries (as this is being written the failed states of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan continue to contribute headlines of humanitarian crisis every week.) as well as of human lives? How is it that despite the historic devastation of populations (World Wars) as well as planet’s natural resources which happened in twentieth century alone, capitalism still survived and in fact appears to be thriving in the twenty-first century, whereas socialism faded into memory, and in some cases, disgrace?

The above are the kind of questions that Aronowitz’s book Against Orthodoxy grapples with, by the way of his writings over a span of thirty five years from 1972 to 2015. The essays in the book are critiques of social theories and ideas of some of the leading writers of dissident Marxist social theory. The central theme that binds this long running rumination is to understand ‘the system that has produced such devastation as world wars and environmental crisis’ and how does it continue to march on. The essays are united in their problem of subjectivity.

The questions posed by the author emerge from the realm of social theory and in the process of their discussion happen to throw light on major global events and patterns. For instance, he begins by asking if capitalism’s hold on underlying populations is due to its promise, and occasionally fulfillment, of a better life signified by rising levels of consumption? And is the technological revolution of our time manifested in electronically driven communications, entertainments, and fantastic productivity increases so mesmerizing that a few can resist its blandishments? This is where critical social theories from thinkers like Marcuse, Lefebvre, Luckacs, Horkheimer, Gramsci and others are examined to understand how might their ideas assist in understanding these questions better or to even frame the question as the way it was, to begin with.

This collection of essays makes an enriching read to readers with particular interest in Marxist theory and critical social theory. Another burning question that appears to simmer throughout the book is – Is the prospect of fundamental social change so fearful that even when individuals and groups recognize the system’s limitations to fulfill good life, let alone its failures, people hold on to their hopes within the prevailing setup rather than seek alternatives? Or is the radical imagination dried up so that the available past solutions are so discredited that people are forced to live entirely in the present?

It may perhaps be noted that the book does not offer solutions but on how the thinkers included here analyze the problems. The book focuses on major social thinkers within the tradition of historical materialism and dialectical materialism. This is the orthodoxy the book talks of. They agree on the problems but differ among themselves about what is their nature and what is to be done. On the methodological front the book fixes itself intently on historical and dialectical materialism.

The following section offers a snapshot of the thinkers and aspects of their ideas that are discussed in the essays. Marcuse was a critical theorist who saw theory and action as a continuum. He speaks of “technological rationality” in capitalism, while believing that theory must specify material conditions for realization of human liberation.

A fascinating thought that shines through in reading Marcuse is the idea that labour movement’s fate is a barometer of political prospects. This is of tremendous relevance to the contemporary reading of labour movements in developing countries especially. Further, technology is constructed in conceptual sense as a form of social domination. Marcuse points out that individuality no longer mean self- development but instead the relentless pursuit of personal interests. He argues that Marx’s view that as soon as conditions are present, the workers knowledge of their own interests is sufficient for revolutionary action is not true because monopoly capital has found the means to level the proletariat and deprive it of the collective knowledge by which to lead itself.

From a brilliant commentary on Marcuse, Aaronotiwz trains his gaze on sociologists Raymond Williams and Likacs as well as on aspects of methodology. Raymonds, as a pioneer in cultural studies believed in labour movement. He believed it to be “the fundamental cultural institution of the working class and that workers remained “the key to any possible emancipatory social transformation.” On a somewhat parallel note the author notes that one needed a method that was sensitive to history and allowed for the interpretations involved in understanding to evolve.  And in the process, returning to the key question on understating the process of development he proposes that “knowledge about the object of study as well as a broad, deep comprehension of the world” is necessary for the development of understanding.

In another essay Aronowitz explains that Lukacs’ was an attempt to craft a theory in which the subject as much as the object played a formative role in forging history. His argument that the commodity form itself – a category of political economy – transformed relations among people into relations between things. This “thingification” of everday life thereby reified and appeared to make eternal capitalist system itself (this is in some ways derived from Marx’s “fetishism of commodities”). For Lukacs concept of alienation becomes a structural feature of the capitalist system of production and especially of social and political reproduction – here he departs from conventional Marxist theory of ideology.

The everyday life along this exploration of critical social theory enters the inquiry in this book with Lefebvre. The idea of “urbanism” is also credited to Lefebvre. His investigations were directed to the key question of why and how global capitalism, despite a century of unrelieved wars, revolutions, economic crises, and political turmoil in the both “advanced” and developing world, managed to survive. He notes that “whatever happens, alterations in daily life will remain the criterion of change” wherein daily life cannot be defined as a “sub-system” within a larger system. This too appears to be a departure from Marx’s conception of society and its processes.  Daily life is the site of and the crucial condition for the “reproduction of the relations of production”. Its colonization by the state and by economic relations provides the answer to the question of the survival of survival of capitalism in the wake of its horrendous 20th century history. The right to difference is for him a fundamental principle, especially for the effectiveness of the Left’s struggle for democracy.

In the series of essays, everyday life as an inquiry gives way to theory of political organization with which Gramsci’s ideas are explored. This makes a brilliant read for those who are looking forward to an introduction to Gramsci and neo-Marxist political thought.  Gramsci examines the concrete processes of social transformation and particularly how revolutionary forces out to proceed from the present conditions of economic, political and ideological hegemony to a moment when the “historic bloc” of excluded classes and other social formations may contest and win power. In India, one could think of the political party AAP and its electoral win in New Delhi at this juncture. In AAP one can see the observation that “every party is the expression of a social group” fitting well.

Perhaps for the reader of critical social theory and with interests in later thinkers like Horkheimer and Friere the last two essays would make for a high point of this brilliant collection by Aaronowitz.

Horkheimer is quoted by the author which at one level magnificently captures the state of the current state of political Left in India and at another level is a masterstroke in social theory in its prophetic nature –

“the revolution won’t happen with guns, rather it will happen incrementally, year by year, generation by generation. We will gradually infiltrate their educational institutions and their political offices, transforming hem into Marxist entities as we move towards universal egalitarianism”

With Friere the author deals with his ideas in power relationships as well as humanism, which are as rewarding a read as the rest of the book.

In summary, Against Orthodoxy is a book that maps the trend from from Revolution to Radical Democracy and grapples with the question of how capitalism still finds such a widespread acceptance. The book takes on the enterprise of revising and re-contextualizing Marxist theory. Along the course of the essays it points to battle fronts in which Left must venture if it has to combat capitalism arguing that the solutions would emerge if this fine interlinked web of social reality and self-consciousness is examined in enriched forms. The book in its writing style is dense and makes a difficult read but merits effort if one ones to get closer to the heart of Marxist social theory and critical social theory. And finally, it is a treat for readers interested in philosophical enquiry.

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.

Sociology – Is it necessary to take sides?

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The editors of n+1 magazine have gone whacking at the weeds that have grown in sociology as a discipline in their recent issue. Too Much Sociology discusses what is wrong with the nature of knowledge produced by sociology and the way it is used, appropriated or more often, tapped into, by arts, literature, politics and culture critics to their ends. They note that sociology has always rested itself on universalisms and depersonalized individuals with its interpretations encapsulated it into theories like agent-structure, habitus, unfreedom and other such ideas which are now the keywords for the critics in other disciplines like arts, culture and social sciences. The closing question on why does sociology requires one to take a side is something which we must now ask even more assertively to the masquerading social scientists. The editors make a tough note with – “It elaborates rules for a never-ending battle in which there are winners and losers, dominators and dominated, but nonetheless fails to persuade us why we might want to take sides in the first place.”

A year into a graduate program which packs in a major paper in sociology and then keeps it close to the core curriculum, I have experienced the power and curse of sociology at the same time. Sociology in this graduate program in development, is meant to aid a better understanding of people, society and institutions. So I might perhaps be making a rather early observation here, but then, these too serve a purpose – of charting the course of one’s learning.  There is a gradual frustration level that I was building up attending lectures in a course called ‘Categories in Art’ and then more heavily in lectures on theory and philosophy of development. The reasoning offered by instructors in both these courses was much like a plain polarized light which oscillates on a single axis alone. Although enough ‘disclaimers’ were given that the views put forth are one’s own and should be approached with caution, I felt that these did no good to my understanding of the subject. For instance, in categories in arts, the instructor could read only political statements and motivations in works of art. Seriously? Is that all that one can say about works of artists from different tribes and regions of India? Perhaps this was her key concern but that sure doesn’t make a complete appraisal or introduction. It is coloured, perhaps, anthropocentric and if I have to take it further, flawed. The instructor – a trained art historian had a knack of seeing only schemes, collusion and vested interests in dance forms, paintings and literature. While this may certainly be true, what happened to aesthetics? That too if a question is raised, is explained as an acquired, learned, influenced taste or style of the artist. Is there nothing that one can say about the aesthetics of such art? Aesthetics as a theme was for all purposes emasculated out of the arts in this course. (The obvious result – I dropped out of the course.)

Similarly, theory and philosophy of development lectures were a needless, quixotic time travel into ancient Greece and Rome. The farthest it came along the history scale is Hegelian dialectics. And all this to train a mixed bunch of graduate students into development professionals? The instructor would deep dive into the Renaissance period like an earthworm running into the dark end of the tube which was partially subjected to a glowing bulb. No attempts to bring him back to pursue discussion on contemporary works and trends in development practice could liberate the lectures out of the ancient clutches. After several such lectures, I felt that N+1 editors raise a very critical question which in my opinion must be asked – Can we no longer really provide good-faith reasons for our cultural preferences, reasons rooted in private and idiosyncratic experience but articulated in a common language, and therefore also capable of non-coerced, voluntary change?

The two instructors I took lectures from are examples of professors hard coded into the highly technical and often superfluous styles of practicing sociology. And this intellectual muscle flexing is seriously threatening sociology which could be of use to our world without laying conditions on who can participate and who cannot and which is not dominated by such single strands of theory that applies a singular elitist scale of interpretation, projecting that as the universal.

Not sexy enough! Cultural encounters on the cricket field

Cheer Girls & Cheer Queens of the IPL Cricket (Image: www.bollywoodgames.com , www.mazematlo.com

Cheer Girls & Cheer Queens of the IPL Cricket (Image: http://www.bollywoodgames.com , http://www.mazematlo.com

 As long as IPL was about a new format of cricket, entertainment and advertising, it was predictable and of minor interest to me. But I was hooked yesterday when I saw this fascinating encounter of the regular pompom wielding cheer girls of Chennai Super Kings with the elegantly attired (and beautiful) girls performing bharatanatyam-lavani blend ! That is a new battle field opening up for India’s encounter with this televised variety of ‘popular’ and ‘modern’. Modern Art galleries, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali performances on the very visible squares of London and New York and finally Bollywood have been the battle scenes where the classical Indian art forms clashed with the popular styles from around the world. The changes wouldn’t be noticed until a good number of years pass and one wakes up to notice that this ain’t what it was a few years back.

That I call it a clash is not my impression of it. Look at the conversations happening! A Mumbai team fan mocks at his friend who is rooting for Pune for the ‘cheer queens’ the team has. And another calls them Pune Aunties. HT writes, the sari-clad cheerleaders of the Pune Warriors have failed to make an impact on the field. ToI observes, No dirty dancing for Team Pune’s cheer queens. A classical dancer feels that classical dance on the cricket field is an insult to the dance form. Yet, some like me watch it like a curious phenomenon and wish to see more of it. It somehow doesn’t seem to be going down well with the people and we have a mix of reactions. Going by the popular mill it appears that the classical dance performing ‘cheer queens’ are not hot enough. Most immediately turn to and look forward to the conventional cheer girls – the ones with pompoms. Oh, and the cheer queens don’t go with anything like that in hand.

What is it that is not ‘delivered’ by the cheer queens that the cheer girls do? Asked differently, is it the sense of aesthetics that drive these reactions to the cheer girls vs cheer queens performance on the cricket field or the desire to see more skin? Of course the cheer queens have much of their bodies covered and draped in a not so revealing sense than the cheer girls. And if the cheer queens are not finding favour with the audience then what could be the reason? I strongly suspect that aesthetics or culture or anything of that sort is not at play here. More skin equals more entertainment and guarantees more visibility.

In such an environment it will be fascinating to see how these classical dance forms hold ground. For one I think this is a battle which is quite necessary for the Indian dance forms to win if we are to see a resurgence of classical and traditional Indian dance forms to gain some ground in the popular consumption spaces. I see a tension here and of course when I term it as an encounter. But this is not to argue for or against the ‘western’ influences. It is just to closely observe public imagination and impression of art forms of their own region or country. A modest exercise, yet important in the interest of studying culture and society. And how modern India will traverse this terrain.

Sociology of Law & Labour Welfare

I have been studying the building and construction workers in Bangalore as a part of an academic research for over six months now. The study emerges from a simple observation that many of us might have made commuting around in this city – that what explains such poor work, health and social conditions in which the construction workers live? Is there no law which guarantees minimum work and social conditions to them? Turns out there is!

The Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BOCW), 1996 was made to address this situation. This category of workers have worked and lived in appalling conditions forever and the BOCW act was brought into force to improve their situation as a class of workers in the country. Then, did it work to improve their condition should be our next question. This is where we hit the classic Indian condition of having adequate legal provision but little implementation and consequently ineffective law. While this can be analysed in several different ways, I choose to ask a normative question on the understanding of ‘labour welfare’ by the judiciary. This is because the BOCW Act proposes to take care of the workers’ welfare by extending social security benefits to them. These benefits are essentially about financial assistance provided to registered workers under eight different schemes. There are 13,00,000 construction workers in Bangalore according to the Karnataka BOCW Welfare Board estimates. Out of these, 250,000 are registered with the board and therefore deemed as ‘covered’ with social security benefits. Among these registered workers the most popular scheme is financial assistance for education, maternity assistance and funeral assistance in that order!

Sociology of law is a poorly developed discipline in India. Legal analysis often does not account for the social contexts in which the law operates. Its relevance to the contemporary dynamics of labour productivity, migration and their economic contribution makes me consider a sociological enquiry in this issue. The country can no longer afford to neglect its construction workers which forms a substantial part of the unskilled labour force employed in the construction sector and which in fact is the driving force of the sector – not machinery and certainly not capital. A case in point is the Commonwealth Games 2010 in New Delhi. Over Rs.70000 Crores were provided only for improving the city infrastructure and sports facilities. When the work was at peak in mid-May, 2008 to mid-May, 2009, more than one lakh workers were employed in all these projects.

Their welfare must be of immediate concern to the state governments because – first, they are a major group of workers who rank low on human development measures like income, healthcare, education and skills. Second, that the neglect that they have lived through in the 1990s and 2000s which were the famed years of India’s economic success story, has alienated them from considering themselves a part of the society as well as of the growth story which the country so wishes to tout as ‘inclusive’. Here the law is directly linked to social and economic aspects of the construction workers lives. This is also evident in Durkheim’s theorization of the relationship of law to the forms of sociality. He says: “The visible symbol of social solidarity (conceived as a solidarity in fact, that is, a form of solidarity) is the Law,” and adds: ‘Hence we can be sure of finding all the essential varieties of social solidarity reflected in the Law’.

Now, when the law itself doesn’t encompass the values of dignity of labour and welfare as a comprehensive set of enabling conditions that makes a worker feel secure and safe his work environment then what possibilities of him to be reflect even traces of social solidarity. In addition to this the workers are in many cases the flotsam and jetsam of a certain kind of economic growth where it has ceased to be anything beyond an exercise in identifying development by numbers and percentages. All the workers we interviewed during the study were migrants. Therefore, we suggest that there is disconnect in the way the act articulates its goals and has set guidelines for the states to then provide for the welfare of the construction workers. The act discounts the social world that the construction workers inhabit. To interpret their social security as financial assistance is incomplete. Contrast this with the social security bundle of white collar workers which comprise of benefits like provident fund, right to a clean, safe workplace, strict enforcement of building safety compliance, maternity benefits to women employees, crèches, tax sops, food coupons etc. The question of explaining such divergence of benefits between these classes of workers may not concern private enterprises but must in all aspects concern the law.

An enquiry into this law and poor state of welfare of the workers reveals problems on several fronts from economic relationship between employer and the workers to labour rights. What type of change in the status quo is likely to bring about a positive change in the situation and where does one begin thinking about it – are the questions that must be dealt with in order to have a broad based change than a mere sharpening of the act. A divergence from the conventional view which argues that law should not be seen as working through the modern types of courts or police is of significance here.

Reciprocity as a moral norm can make a significant difference to the understanding of construction workers’ relationship with the society at large. Malinowski observes that reciprocity is the binding force in the society. Everyone has to render adequate services to others lest others may withdraw or reduce their service for him. Reciprocity is a key intervening variable (gated link) which through which shared social rules are enabled to yield social stability. On a normative front this appears to be a moral yet practical position that one can take to view labour welfare in the modern society and go about effecting appropriate rules to guarantee a minimal standard of living and work conditions at par with the national average that exists in the country today.

Holy cow, armchair anthropology & attraction of the ‘exotic’

Cows_JamuiA paper I recently read and which I had never known about (although some argue that it has been one of the most well known papers on culture & ecology) amazes me in its method and for the art of stating the obvious.

Marvin Harris’ paper The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle ‘attempts’ to talks of the ecological role of bovine cattle in India. (JSTOR link, gated & I don’t like these folks anymore for the world lost a brilliant young man, Aaron Scwartz, due to their deathly lawsuit.)  By his own admission he bases his argument on’ intensive reading’ and that he has ‘never seen a sacred cow, nor been to India’. This is amazing! Such erudition that he exhibits in the successive pages of the article are all based on having not seen the subject of his article at all. Leave alone that the reference ‘sacred cow’ itself is laughable if you were to ask an Indian. Cows in the hindu belief are sacred aren’t referred to as sacred cow. That which he attempts to do i.e. an ethnographic account is logic defying, for his language itself exudes ignorance of the place and relevance of cows – a) for Hindus and b) in India .

Numbers on cattle production, fodder consumption, efficiency variables etc are relatively easy to access, easier to crunch and layer interpretation on them. So the ecological arguments of the paper form the information bulk. But the rest is banal and not quite about the ‘puzzling inconsistencies’ that he thinks it is. So, the fact that the author has not seen, leave alone experience the sight of watching cows in Indian setting, his subject makes this paper’s assertions very thin. I have a serious problem with this. The second problem is that why on earth is this sort of stuff a part of sociology readings particularly in graduate programs in India. I do not quite care about outside India because some of it can be informative for others to know and that the paper comes out of the western institutions which have encouraged such armchair anthropology in the first place.

He writes,

“Mismanagement of India’s agricultural resources as a result of the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa  especially as it applies to beef cattle, is frequently noted by Indianists and others concerned with the relation between values and behavior. Although different anti-rational, dysfunctional and inutile aspects of the cattle complex are stressed by different authors, many agree that ahimsa is a prime example of how men will diminish their material welfare to obtain spiritual satisfaction in obedience to nonrational or frankly irrational belief.”

With this he identifies the tensions between beliefs and rational thought that characterizes a society’s relationship with production systems. When ecology is seen as a relationship between man and environment mediated by culture, the dynamics of resource use and inter dependencies become evident. The idea of “ahimsa” and cow as a sacred animal evolve from Rig Veda, a Hindu religious text. The practice of not killing cows irrespective of their utility as a resource that is practiced by Hindus then becomes irrational yet necessary as a religious practice. Harris argues that it is not as irrational as it appears. There is a logical sense in such a practice. I admit that such a reasoning is valid and his argument that culture too has a logic and reason behind it. It isn’t quite exotic and strange as it may seem to an outsider. The underlying thought that ideas – how they are formed and how they evolve, have much to do with the way relationships are framed and perceived is a reasonable one.

But, Harris’ opinion that “ahimsa” is an example of how men will diminish their material welfare may not necessarily be subscribed to (and I feel strongly about the haste in coming to this conclusion) because:

  1. Teleologically speaking, material well-being is not how many societies (including the Hindu) see their ultimate goal in life.
  2. The role of cow in the Indian belief system and in the agricultural production system is more complex than the simplistic, instrumental relation that Harris’ frames it as. I mean, he really ought to have traveled to India and experienced a city road with stray cows, a rural farm life, a town life with many well employed families still maintaining a cow shed and things like that. That would sure have made a deeper and richer study. For instance, much of what he says about cows utility Indian children grow up seeing it all around. And consequently they too are able to reason out the utility value of cows and much more than what his paper tries to illuminate. I remember my Grandma explaining me the practices and all that she would do to maintain her stock of 4 cows. It ain’t rocket science, it is deeply rooted in cultural practices which we sure understand better by the mere fact that we are a part of it and live within it.

Our social worlds & sociology

Howrah Bridge, Kolkata

Howrah Bridge, Kolkata

Individuals have always thought about the social worlds they were part of, while the forms of such thought, of course, have varied: cave paintings, stone inscriptions, poetry, plays, philosophy, religious scripture, to name a few. This thought from a sociology professor was then followed with a question on what one would say is distinctive about sociology as an intellectual endeavour for understanding and explaining society?

While I thought about this it occurred to me that it was the first time I engaged in a methodical and scholarly study of sociology. I reflected on the past six months of doing this as a major subject. It was a fantastic experience I think. Especially the fact that I could draw from this acquired knowledge and improve a documentation and appraisal report that my startup was contracted to do. The report was significantly different from our earlier work, courtesy the analytical lens that sociology offered.

Sociology is empirical, objective and value neutral. These some insist are its key features. I have felt that in its contemporary form sociology offers a language to engage with the questions that human beings have tried to articulate and understand. From its early beginnings in the period  known as the ‘age of reason’ (or Enlightenment) in Europe, it has tried to make sense of evolving human relationships and their role in forming a larger world view. It is distinct in its manner of articulating and offering a sort of metalanguage to articulate human imagination – for individuals as well as society on the whole. While other disciplines of enquiry like science and philosophy dealt with exploration of causation, natural phenomena and physical world, sociology concerned itself with human behaviour. This single focus alone contributed a great deal in advancing our understanding of individuals, groups, social structure, relationships between groups and finally how all of this constructs the larger picture of a world in which people organized themselves as nations, as groups with distinct culture, tradition and values.

Until the emergence of this field of enquiry of human behaviour there were perhaps few attempts to understand social facts, human agents, their actions and then find answers to the observed phenomena – like why do individuals behave the way they behave. While this may appear to situate itself in the domain of psychiatry and cognitive science, I find that the lines certainly blur beyond a certain point. (Otherwise why would one deal with ideas of Sigmund Freud, Lacan, Levi Strauss and the likes in sociology? ) For instance, man has always existed in a complex and dynamic relationship with the natural (and social) environment. The relationship with other individuals can likely lead to groupings like – family, clam, tribe, community etc. A relationship with the environment can be about their habitat, food and foraging behaviour, agriculture, resource use etc. These forms of individual and collective behaviour patterns could not have been observed and explained by the traditional disciplines of science alone. It required a new way of looking at things and describing them.

With sociology, for the first time we could attempt an explanation to what our social worlds are, how various forms of thoughts emerge and then what do they mean or convey about us. A progression of such ideas would later help thinkers like Marx, Weber and others to articulate social structure, order and functions.

Bottom line: I am We are thoroughly enjoying the intellectual stimulation offered by liberal arts. @praveenasridhar would agree!

Kikkli Kaleer Di : On cultural revival

A procession commemorating Dr Rakumar, a kannada filmstar in Bangalore

This is a hasty thought, as I listen to this latest bollywood song Kikkli Kaleer Di . This is from Punjabi folklore sung in jest (probably) by children who play this game of holding hands together and swirl around. Kikkli refers to the game and kaleer means ‘a little girl’. The next line goes as pag mere veer di meaning ‘the turban of my brother’. The song in the bollywood film changes this line but retains the lovely traditional flavour of the song. What surprises me is the manner in which this little song with a very specific regional identity comes back to people via the entertainment industry. It is very little known outside Punjab state and perhaps within Punjab too there would be differences in what people understand of it and regions where kids still play this game and sing this song.

Two observations fascinate me about this process:

1. Not all is wrong with the entertainment industry as an agent of cultural standardization: The belief that a standardization of experience and culture is happening in modern societies around the world including Indian society needs further exploration. It appears to be an impression not accounting for processes like this song which brings back diverse folk traditions – songs, dance forms, poems, costumes, etc back to the current times much in a sense of revival. How else would a specific regional folk song like this one be known to a listener in Bangalore? Many such instances from films can be drawn like this song Navrai Majhi from a recent film English Vinglish. This is a marathi folk song pulled out from the marathi heartland and presented in the film. It may not be complete or even retain its original flavour but it certainly succeeds in bring the forms of usage (words & thought) back into modern forms of use. So in a way, entertainment industry contributes to cultural revival. The manner in which it does so appears to be known yet not acknowledged. Isn’t this similar to how arts and culture flourished in the past as well? That there are centres and public forums which promoted and encouraged performances. In our times films is an institutional equivalent of such centres of performing arts of the old times. I’d like to think that way as it holds promise of a constructive exploration of emergent forms of cultural representation and how it contributes to our idea of modernity.

2.Films engineering social thought: This comes from a frame of reference that films reflect a certain possibility of how relationships, social set-up and context might look like. Also that often films are built on ideas or events that have already taken place within that society and these are reflected back as a film to the very same people. This makes an interesting process to examine as this mechanism is subtly shaping social behaviour. In that sense it would be worth exploring how the recent set of films in India have shaped behaviour as well as opinion. For instance, Chakravyuh a recent release, is based on the Maoist insurgency in the central states of India. It brings forth the oddity of State- people relationship and situations in which the oppressed end up taking arms and fight the State, which in their opinion has already taken sides with the market (elites?). Here is a failure of social contract which appears to have gone past resurrection unless the State undergoes a massive transformation in the way it sees the people. Now, this could get a little vague in direction. The engineering part in the film comes out as a non-direct position that the film takes on this issue. Similarly, the language and dance forms in the songs too tend to effect a mild change which in some cases ends up becoming a major force. For instance, the tamil number Why this kolaveri di. The language and construct of reasoning (if the content can be called as that) has permeated conduct of the younger lot in Tamil Nadu in curious ways.

While I find a meta-narrative to this obvious ‘films have a social impact’ sort of theory, I think it can be said that it would be hasty to reject films as just another source of entertainment which has had a rather ruining effect on Indian society. I sure do not subscribe to that school of thought or the critics in the ‘films have had a corrosive effect on the society’ camp.