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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 35, New Delhi, August 14, 2021

The Earthly Fragrance of Social Science | Avijit Pathak

Friday 13 August 2021, by Avijit Pathak



by Avijit Pathak

Social Scientist in South Asia:

Personal Narratives, Social Forces and Negotiations

Achla Pritam Tandon, Gopi Devdutt Tripathy and Rashi Bhargava (eds.)

Routledge India

2021 - 274 Pages

ISBN 9781032045924

more information

Available on Taylor & Francis eBooks

As a humble student, I have never felt comfortable with what I regard as soulless academic enterprise. And I loathe the fetish of ‘objectivity’—the ‘science’ that seeks to separate the knower from the known, or the self of the researcher from her quest for knowledge. Moreover, I am not particularly apologetic about the experience of self-churning in the process of knowing the world. For instance, a sociologist or a historian is not a ‘neutral’ machine that just collects ‘hard’ empirical data, and manufactures research papers with all sorts of ‘methodological’ discipline; instead, she/he is also a historically embedded being with politico-ethical or spiritual sensibilities. The complex and curved trajectory of life we pass through does have an impact on what we choose to study and how we study.

What I like about this book is that it acknowledges this truth. And hence, this edited volume enables the reader to see the authors as humane/reflexive/vulnerable beings. Yes, the editors of the volume are pretty clear about their mission. ‘The use of personal narratives as a methodological tool’, as they argue, ‘is crucial’. Hence, as a curious reader, when I begin to read these essays, I also feel the process of self-churning or politico-ethical reflections the authors have passed through. Take, for instance, Kavita A Sharma’s essay ‘Biography and Social Forces’. Yes, I knew her as a great academic or quite an influential figure. However, in this essay, I also hear the tales of her pain and loss, her spiritual turn, and the beginning of a ‘new horizon and wider perspective’. I began to see a real/living person with pain and loss, or new longing and quest. The death of her husband in 2014, the process of ‘learning Vedic chanting’, or ‘listening to the lectures of Swami Chinmayananda’, and ‘writing books on Mahabharata’—yes, these revelations demystify the idea of abstract, objective and soulless knowledge. A social scientist has not come from another planet. She too is humane with deep experiences and emotions. And ‘personal narratives’ do shape our academic trajectories.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Ghazala Jamil reflects on her ‘self’ embedded in ‘social’. I begin to see the process of her growing up at a time when the trauma of partition still haunted her father, and the ghettoization of space and communalization of consciousness caused intense anxiety among the minorities. It is difficult to dissociate her worldview from this biographical trajectory. Let me quote her:

I was a very patriotic child and would hold Jinnah responsible, while my father used to take the position that Jinnah was afraid that Muslims would not be treated fairly in independent India and if only Jawaharlal Nehru had taken the trouble to allay this insecurity, India would not have been partitioned. Neither of us would budge from our position. When Babri Masjid was demolished and riots ensued in this country, I reflected on my position and felt as if I had been personally betrayed by my country into losing my argument with my father.

On Teaching: Hope, Angst and Experimentation

A university ought to reconcile engaged teaching and meaningful research. And it is good that in this volume I see the articulations of some of our finest teachers. As teaching is a continual journey—a spirit of communion and self-discovery, a great teacher doesn’t just disseminate the bundles of information and bookish knowledge; she/he activates the conscience of the learner. Hence, with absolute empathy, I understand what Gargi Chakravartty means when she says: ‘I am still a traveller, and the path is arduous’. She is a gifted historian; and she is a politically awakened and ethically sensitive teacher. Her essay reminds us of the different turning points in the socio-political history of postcolonial India. From hope to despair, or from cultural syncretism to orthodox religious nationalism—she has seen, felt and experienced this journey of the turbulent nation. Yet, what fascinates me is her courage to strive for the light amid this darkness. She is continually evolving… Look at the spirit of being a teacher.

My profession as a teacher made me move forward and not stagnate with regressive conservative ideas and acted as a stimulant to my mental growth....From Gandhism to Marxism or from nationalism to internationalism and universalism, from religious ritualism to spiritualism as a philosophy, just to mention a few, there has been a change of mind and in the reasoning process to accept new concepts, ideas and imaginations. In that sense, even as a social scientist, I remain a perpetual student, a learner forever.

The spirit of being a teacher manifests itself once again in Manosh Chowdhury’s essay “ Of tactic and tenacity: tale of a teacher’’. As I read his essay, I feel his creative rebelliousness, his argumentative mind, his ability to inspire his students through the magic of his words, and his courage to break the barrier between the teacher and the taught. No wonder, ‘dogmatic professionals’ of Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh were not very easy with him. He was often castigated as ‘someone who could easily spoil the kids’. Yet, this ‘obvious orator, an endless talker, a harsh discussant, within the classroom and more often beyond’, to use Chowdhury’s own words, kept the ‘power greedy, conformist, statist people at a loss.’

Mohammad Talib’s essay reminds us of yet another innovative pedagogic experimentation at Jamia Millia Islamia during 1990 – 2000. Yes, I agree with Talib when he says that sociology cannot be taught as just a ‘textualized entity without an opportunity for a guided encounter’. It is important to break the ‘monopoly of textual knowledge’, and take sociology to the field and examine ‘the extent of its applicability and relevance’. It was this understanding that gave birth to ‘participatory sociology’ as a course for Jamia students. We are told that a course of this kind brought immense joy and enthusiasm amongst students; and even the faculty got a ‘partial respite from the drudgery of a teacher’s monologue in the classroom.’ Yet, for diverse and complex reasons this experimental course was eventually withdrawn. The question Talib has raised continues to haunt me:

Why do self-directed initiatives seeking to break the existing modes of pedagogy and curriculum in sociology/social anthropology turn into an uphill task, institutionally speaking?

Vinay Kumar Srivastava’s nuanced essay is likely to inspire every teacher who wishes to teach sociological theories in Indian classrooms. Likewise, S.S. Sivkumar’s stylist essay reveals the possibility of teaching economics meaningfully and creatively. And I also understand N. Sukumar’s angst. Possibly, in a caste-ridden society like ours, many of our university intellectuals, despite their radical theories, stigmatize those who belong to the marginalized castes and groups, and do not carry the kind of ‘cultural capital’ the privileged classes are endowed with. Is it the reason why Sukumar critiques his own university, and says without the slightest hesitation that Delhi University failed to reflect on Dalit Bahujan philosophy, issues of social justice and identity politics? While he devised a course on ‘human dignity’ for M. Phil students, some senior teachers, as he says, ‘threw a tantrum about it’. Did they see him as a ‘quota appointee’, and question his teaching abilities?

While I understand this angst, it is also important to say that there are limits to reductionism. Not every ‘forward caste’ professor is necessarily a casteist; and not every ‘Dalit’ professor is necessarily an emancipator. Life is not like this simple mathematics. Sometimes, a reductionist philosophy leads to simplification. And I see it even in Sukumar’s otherwise perceptive essay when he fails to resist the temptation of constructing a duality—‘public Ambedkar’ vs. ‘Sarkari Gandhi’. For appreciating Ambedkar, Gandhi need not be demonized. And even though the state might try to appropriate and falsify Gandhi, real/living/vulnerable/ambiguous/inspirational Gandhi exists amongst many. Likewise, there is a new danger: even the Hindu Right has begun to appropriate Ambedkar!

                      The Spectrum of Possibilities

The book is likely to arouse the attention of a spectrum of readers. The reason is that with its nineteen essays, it covers diverse themes, and allows us to travel with, say, a cultural theorist like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or a sociologist like Maitrayee Chaudhuri. Likewise, feel the range of issues the book has raised. While Imrana Quadeer urges us to build the bridge between the ‘art of medicine’ and ‘science of society’, and reminds us of how ‘concepts of political economy, caste, class, gender, culture, social perceptions, motivation and social organization became integral to understanding public health’, Sukrita Paul Kumar pleads for the ‘legitimacy’ of partition literature, and the role of subjective experience in academic as well as creative writing, sensitizes us, and makes us understand the meaning of the social landscape that the likes of Bhisham Sahni and Kamaleshwar portrayed through their literary creations. While Savyasaachi’s rigorous piece is an inspiring text for every young researcher who seeks to do her ‘field work’ with perseverance, and art of continual learning/unlearning, the way Anuradha Shah Veeravalli has reflected on the sociology of knowledge, and raised deeply penetrating issues relating to colonialism, modernity and svaraj is immensely inspiring. Likewise, Chandan Kumar Sharma’s ‘engagements in a periphery’, the tales of Nirmal Kumar’s unfinished and unending journey, Nida Kirmani’s reflections on the meaning of being a ‘border-crossing academic’, and Shonaleeka Kaul’s personal and professional ‘journeys in history’ have enriched the volume.

As I reflect on this wide spectrum of thoughts and reflections, I feel the editors are quite right in their observation. To quote from the thoughtful Introduction they have written to introduce and contextualize this volume:

These accounts have no conventional flavor to them, as each of the contributors was asked to interpret the task as they wanted, hence the diverse forms of writing about the incidents woven into an academic account. However, one thing is clear: each of the contributors was conscious or made to be conscious of the self which gets reflected in the authorial “I” in each of their chapters.

Is it self-indulgence? Does it indicate the danger of losing ‘objectivity’ or the rigour of ‘structural analysis’? In this context, Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s reminder needs to be listened to. Let me quote from her essay ‘Self, society, and social science knowledge’:

Today, reflexivity is invoked in almost every qualitative research book or article and has been posited and accepted as a method qualitative researchers can and should use to both explore and expose the politics of representation, represent difference better, and so on. Its pervasive presence has in turn led to important questions to be asked. One of the most noticeable trends to come out of a use of reflexivity is increased attention to researcher’s subjectivity in the research process—a focus on who I am, who I have been, who I think I am, and how I feel affects data collection and analysis. Such thinking, influenced by poststructural theory, has yielded further questions about a researcher’s ability to represent and know another... 

True, this danger cannot be ruled out. Yet, as I have already indicated, the essays in this volume, far from being a celebration of uncontrolled subjectivity, seek to build a bridge between the self and the world, and covey a significant message—doing social science is not like solving a differential equation; it is a interpretative art that is potentially capable of transcending the duality of ‘objectivity’ vs. ‘subjectivity’.
A book of this kind, I have no hesitation in saying, ought to be read by young students, researchers, teachers and all those who celebrate education as awakened intelligence.

Author: Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU

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