Category Archives: anthropology

Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),  supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

Social Science Research and Categories

Humans, by nature, seem to have an urge to explain what goes on around them. It is this urge that lead to questions in metaphysics, which eventually turned to natural philosophy and then fragemented to its present day avatars of the various natural and social sciences and the humanities.

Some parts of our experience have turned out to be not very hard to explain — physics was thought finished until Einstein came along, and anyways most of relativity and quantum mechanics are not part of our everyday experience. Chemistry also seems quite well established. Biology is where we start feeling uncomfortable, since evolution by its very nature ensures that we can never know all the facts ever. Even understanding the physics of cells in their entirety has proved to be a challenge to this day. Maybe eventually we’ll get there, but it does not seem it will be as easy or the theory will be as clean as classical mechanics or thermodynamics.

The place we get even more uncomfortable is when we start studying human beings. One of the problems is that if we consider the human being as a box, the things external to the box cannot be left out during analysis. An electron will work in the same way here or in Mars, but humans (indeed, most living beings) are relational entities, and our behavior is dependent on things related to us, human and non-human, material and non-material (like emotions). Due to the fact that we have a memory and try to predict the future, some relations are with entities not even present at this very moment. Thus, it is not simply about data, but the context surrounding the data which matters when studying people or life in general. This is what we mean when we say that we lead meaningful lives.

The normal road that any human explanatory endeavour takes is to observe something, make a hypothesis about what the underlying phenomenon could be, see if it explains observations and the iterate this process. So, if I take a one kg stone and throw it many times and see how fast travels, maybe I can come up with F = ma. Maybe from this somehow I can figure out Newton’s laws as being sufficient to describe it. Newton’s laws don’t exist outside your head — they are simply how you explain what is happening. To paraphrase my professor, the stone does not follow any laws, you laws explain well enough to you what is happening to the stone.

Mathematically, one can think of this as an inversion problem — you are given certain obervables y = f(x), and you have to figure out what x is. All inversion problems have two issues — you do not have sufficient y's observed to make any conclusions, which is easily rectified, or the functionf is not one-one and onto, i.e, there does not exist a unique inverse. Thus we come to a situation where f^{-1}(y) = x_1 = x_2. Very often in the social sciences, this will be the case — any behavior that you observe can have a large variety of possible explanations. The way you would solve this problem if it was mathematically posed was to put constraints on the behavior of f(.) — it cannot do this, it cannot go there, etc., and gradually eliminate the possibilities. The way this is done in the social sciences is to invoke a ‘framework’. For example, an economist believes that we are homo economicus, and suddenly greed is the only motivator for most human actions. Similarly, a Marxist historian believes that all history is the war between classes (which comes from Hegel) and classes are formed mainly due to economic processes (which was Marx’s contribution). Again, a lot of alternative explanations are rubbished, and a smooth (if somewhat long and tedious) explanation comes out.

The way any framework develops in social science is not straightforward — normally critics of one framework write books or theses criticising it. It develops within a particular historical, cultural and social context, and explains best what happens within this context. So, one can probably understand more about 19th century Vienna from Freud’s theories than about human nature — definitely not a place I would like to be in! Similarly, the outrage against Marxist interpretations of Indian history is not because Marxist historians are perverting the truth, it is just that we are not used to seeing ourselves from a economic/classist lens. Unfortunately, Marxists don’t seem to think anything else exists, and that makes the problem even worse.

Any science, by virtue of its attempt at uncovering universal truths, will try and extrapolate from local experience to global analysis. This extrapolation necessarily worries only about what is common to all, and not the particularities. When one civilisation tries to study another, especially one as maddeningly complex as the Indian one, it becomes hard to know what it is exactly that one has learned. To take a trivial example, Europeans were probably the only civilisation that used benches and stools and tables to sit and to eat. Thus, travellers to other civilisations looked upon the practice of sitting on the floor as ‘animal like’. Similarly, change was more the norm in Europe from a very long time, and this makes more conservative civilisations like our own to look upon them as ‘rootless’.

It is because of these problems that any attempt to understand a people must be from their own terms. The end product of such a study must first and foremost be comprehensible to the people that are being studied, else the most important maxim of any science — to explain what humans experience, as opposed to explaining away what we experience — is violated. M. N. Srinivas is someone who comes readily to mind when I bring up this point. Though he attempted to understand all rituals and traditions in terms of their function in holding the social structure aloft (which need not be the case), i.e, from a social anthropology perspective, his analytical categories are very much Indian, and that is what has made his work all the more valuable as a mirror to ourselves.

Epistemic limits of scientific enquiry

Had attended a talk the other day by Dr. Jayant Haritsa from the CSA department, on using textual representations of Carnatic music (Music written as Sa Ri Ga Ma etc.,) to determine what is the ‘Aarohana’ and ‘Avarohana’ (the equivalent of scale in Western music) of a given Raaga or identifying the raaga itself, given another piece of music, outside the ones used to train the identification system. Among other aims than the ones given above, was to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for the raagas, based on the statistics of usage of notes in various compositions, and maybe, provide a better Arohana/Avarohana for the raaga itself than the one received from tradition.

The talk was itself quite interesting and the system seems to do pretty well. In the Q&A session, a lot of concern was generated as to whether the ‘better’ Arohana/Avarohana proposed by the system would capture the ‘mood’ of the raaga, which seems to be an essential part of each raaga. Haritsa was of the opinion that as scientific researchers, we must not take things for granted and must try to question tradition using tools of science.

The essential issue, which one can generalize to things further than just music and its analysis, is the question of what is knowledge and/or Truth. More specifically in this context, one can ask the question as to what type of knowledge can we obtain using the scientific method, and whether this is the only kind which is ‘reliable’, the rest being ‘subjective’  is useless in a more general context, i.e, whether Truth in all its glory is best sought out using the scientific method.

Upfront, one must understand the fundamental premise of the scientific method, even leaving out its reductionist inclinations — Nature is not random: it follows some logic, some pattern which by large number of observations and/or experiments is discovered and this knowledge (from observation/experimentation) eventually can be called Truth. This is not hard to justify: we can see patterns everywhere in Nature and can build quite accurate models of the same. The reliability of scientific knowledge depends hugely on the concept of measurement – representing natural phenomena as cardinal numbers – numbers we can use to say something about the size of the measured phenomenon. No observation or experiment can be called a success/failure if it does not produce some kind of number. For example, Haritsa’s system produces a number per candidate scale for a raaga — higher the number, more likely it is the correct scale.

Immediately, one can see phenomena that the scientific method cannot be used to investigate : Emotions, ethics, likes, dislikes, etc., etc., Not only are these immeasurable (neuroscientists may disagree!) quantities, but they are also incommensurable: a statement like 2.5\times Happiness \geq 0.5\times Sadness makes absolutely no sense. Also, science can give no answers to statements like ‘The world is Maaya’, or ‘What we perceive is not what Is’. These statements belong to the same class of knowledge that the fundamental ‘axiom’ of science belongs to — you cannot prove or disprove them within the logical system that is built upon that axiom.

Now, music is a strange beast. It is highly patterned (scientists like to talk about its ‘mathematical’ structure), but at the same time, its main (probably only) value is in the emotion that it evokes: it is not coincidence that music is an essential part of religious worship, especially of the Bhakti variety. Therefore, no musical education is complete without a good understanding of both the patterns and the emotions (Bhaava) associated with music. Now, scientists are uncomfortable (or dismissive) about things they cannot measure, and musicians are uncomfortable (or dismissive!) of statistical analyses of their art. Therefore, it is not surprising to for each to value one of the two more. Haritsa’s and the audience’s apprehensions merely betrays their respective inclinations.

With the advent of huge computing power, a scientist’s optimism in understanding the universe has understandably increased. It is a common notion that failure of mathematical models is simply due to the ‘exclusion of some variable’ from the model. With more information/data, one can do arbitrarily well. This attitude conveniently ignores the fact that some quantities are not measurable and even if some quantitative representation is possible, they might be incommensurable. This can be seen best in sciences dealing with human tastes and values, like economics, sociology or anthropology. Subjects like econometrics, social psychology seem to be treading a fine line that distinguishes scientific knowledge from gobbledygook. For example, if one surveys 100 students asking them to rate the facilities at the hostel on a scale of 1 to 10, and we conclude that the average score is 8 and so most are satisfied (assume a score greater than 7 implies satisified), we are making two assumptions : we can add the satisfaction of 100 people and divide that number by 100, and that one student’s rating of 7 is the same as another student’s rating of 7. Though there have been arguments justifying such an approach, it is upto the individual to decide how seriously to take such surveys.

The dominant paradigm of our times is that of scientific optimism, and most appeals to emotion or morals are considered ‘woolly’ and ‘unscientific’. But one must realise that unless there is a healthy engagement with both pattern finding and moralising, the Truth can never emerge.

Process, not a product!

My professor showed me this article, profiling d.light. If you notice, the article talks a lot about pricing and technology (It is an article in Forbes, after all..) Prof had forwarded this article to Harish Hande, who brushed it aside saying what is needed is a process not a product. There have been plenty of products, but very few have set in place a process.

But why is it that so many well-meaning companies (with excellent technical expertise) fail where companies like SELCO succeed ? Issue, IMO, is one of outlook. In the West, a price and advertising will actually work. Take the example of a vehicle. You buy a new vehicle and within a few months all your neighborhood mechanics would have figured out the internals and you no longer have to go to the authorised service centre for repairs. Make a vehicle extremely complicated, and you will see that immediately the acceptance will fall in areas far away from qualified mechanics. Spare parts (real or imitation) will begin to appear in stores nearby. In short, it is taken for granted that you can maintain your vehicle without too much support from the company itself.

When one takes up the arduous task of ‘lighting up rural India’, the scenario can hardly be like the urban one described above. Most organizations who work in backward regions have targets that are similar to government ones: how many lights distributed, how many generators installed. Follow up and maintenance is present on the list, but hardly given too much importance, when this should be the most important criterion. Thus, one sees microhydro stations lying unused, broken solar lighting with no one to fix them, and computers collecting dust because no one knows how to use them.

Thus, the successful organizations are the ones which focus on trying to build up a process by which they can sell (shops, financing), maintain and improve (via local feedback). There was an interesting article  sometime ago about Nokia hiring an anthropologist to meet people in developing countries to design phones for their needs and tastes, which is one way of doing it, but the focus there is only on design. But one realises that this is a long, probably life-long commitment. Also, institutional or process design is not a follow-the-dotted-line procedure. It requires both intellectual sophistication and empirical depth to understand grass root realities and also to understand it in a larger framework of thought and bring forth sensible solutions. Unfortunately, we find people with only one of these (Planning Commission, former, politicians, latter (if anything)). Mostly people lack both when they go about trying to do ‘development’. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are very few Harish Handes and SELCOs.

So, if anyone has the next big idea to end global poverty, focus on the process. Technology can always assure the product. Most problems facing underdeveloped regions of the world are not technological, but social or economic.

Review : Religion and Society among the Coorgs in South India

This book is written by one of the foremost social anthropologists in the world during his time, M. N. Srinivas as a Ph.D thesis. Working with the golden generation of anthropology in Britain during the 1940s, he readied the thesis for publication, under the influence of distinguished anthropologists, tracing a lineage back to Emile Durkheim.

As is probably expected of a person under Durkheim’s considerable influence, Srinivas is preoccupied with the question of social structure, and how culture, which is the subject matter of anthropology, either affirms or is used to note the change of a person’s place in the extant social structure. The Durkheimian concept of ‘functional analysis’ or the study of the functions of human behavior in preserving the social structure resonates throughout the book. However one may disagree with the conclusions drawn by Srinivas, the book provides a pretty thorough picture of an interesting people around the 1940s.

Srinivas’ analysis of the social structure of India mainly focuses on the caste system, and certain vertical (i.e, geographically local) organisations, such as the village, family and nad, which is a cluster of villages. Certain ties between people, such as those of caste, tend to emphasize horizontal or geographically widespread relations whereas some others, like those which arise due to division of labor, tend to emphasize vertical relations.

Most of the book concentrates on the various rituals and customs and festivals of the Coorgs, and the role they and other castes play in them. He brings about an interesting correlation between the various customs and rituals, and how they emphasize and tend to preserve the social structure. For example, if a person dies, the mourning period for the relatives increases with increase in intimacy of the relationship shared with the deceased, formalizing what is a purely social bond into a custom or ritual.

People who know Kodavas will inevitably know their clannish behavior, especially with regards to their family (i.e, all sharing a surname). Srinivas spends a lot of time describing the structure and customs within a Coorg joint family, which is the strongest unit of organisation in the Coorg society, far more than any other kind. It is so strong, that a person without a family name (such as a child born out of wedlock) is as good as extinct. Therefore, family members usually try to place an illegitimate child in either parents’ family.

The major theoritical contribution that this work makes to Indian anthropology is the concept of Sanskritisation, which is essentially the way outlying tribes and communities get absorbed into mainline Hinduism, which he calls Sanskritic Hinduism. He describes how the puranas have contributed to the inclusion of various local myths and folklore into the mainstream of Hinduism, performing has a dual function : regionalising Sanskritic Hinduism and globalising local cultures. This, he argues, is a preliminary step which eases the way for complete Sanskritisation of a culture, while retaining its distinct identity, since it’s own deities are now part of or identified with Sanskritic such as Shiva or Brahma or Vishnu. He gives an example of how contemporary educated Coorgs tended to identify village gods with Shiva (Coorg was ruled by Lingayat kings for a considerable amount of time, so Shaivism was popular there when the book was written. This no longer seems to be the fact) and explained the deities’ liking for liquor and meat as a consequence of ‘losing their caste’ while crossing over from Malabar to Coorg. He also documents the occurrence of the origins of Kaveri, a sacred river among Coorgs and generally most of South Indian Hindus, in the Skanda Purana, which eased the way for the integration of Coorgs into mainline Hinduism, since their river deity was now a part of the Hindu pantheon.

Overall, an interesting read, though the attention to detail which is an anthropologist’s forte, tends to be tiresome for someone used to reading engineering definitions and terse prose. The analysis of Hinduism itself is rewarding enough to stick with the book till the end.