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 function$f$ 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.

The difficulty of being an ‘Indian’ in India.

As a working definition of an ‘Indian’, “A person rooted in tradition, but eager to learn and absorb from other cultures” will do as well as any other. The number of people in this category is quite small, but surveying the present political and economic landscape one can see that this species is being driven toward extinction like many other non-human ones in India.

To begin, one must differentiate this definition from the more schizophrenic prescription that Vivekananda had for Indians to develop, that Indians learn from the West about the material world and they learn from India about the spiritual world. Considering the recurrent crises in economies modelled after the Western ones and the Climate issue that is a direct consequence of such an arrangement, to claim that economics is something that we should learn from the West can defnitely be challenged. Anyone travelling across India will tell you that most Indians are as spiritual as the investment banker on Wall Street. Therefore, whatever else one accepts from Vivekananda, this particular prescription must not be accepted. Rather, a more subtle approach which also recognizes and appreciates local economic arrangements and great thinkers from the West is in order.

The reason I call Vivekananda’s prescription schizophrenic follows from my previous post – material arrangements cannot be divorced from non-material ones. For example, a culture that does not allow cruelty to animals cannot advance anatomical knowledge through dissection of live animals – some other means will have to be found. A culture that treats some people as untouchable cannot provide equal opportunity to all. Thus, whole hearted appreciation of western material arrangements can lead one quite far away from one’s cultural roots, leading to what has been called as ‘anxiety nationalism‘, made famous by bands of thugs known as Shiv Sena or Rama Sene. It can also lead to complete westernization, but these are too busy shopping in malls to be politically active, so they are not very relevant to this discussion.

The intellectual scene here seems to be dominated by what one can call ‘Instant Nirvana’ intellectuals – those that read a couple of (propagandist?) books or blogs and claim to have understood the realities of India today, forming what is known as an epistemic community – their world view, shaped by few leaders of the community, is infallible and any opposition to it can only be due to delusion of the opponent. A good example is of people who seem to suffer from the ‘persecution complex’ – Babur tried to destroy Indian culture, therefore all Muslims are bad, and therefore we need to acquire nuclear weapons. One cannot really follow the logic, but similar arguments will be used against Chinese, Christians, anyone who does not worship at a temple anywhere in the world. Another example is of those who see Indian history as a systematic oppression of everyone by the Brahmins – We know from Marx and other great people that all history is about someone oppressing someone else, bourgeois culture is symbolic of this oppression, India is ‘of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins’.

Like most ideology, both these examples are both true and false – unless one understands that, there is no dialogue, only rhetoric and finger pointing. Here lies the problem for someone who wants to see the whole elephant rather than only some of its parts – say one is true, you are branded a Communalist. Say the same for the other, you are branded a Marxist. There are a couple of reasons that I feel have led to such a sad state of affairs.

The first is the domination of Indian political language by non-Indian terms – Anyone or thing is either Left or Right, Communalist or Marxist, Middle, upper or lower class, neoliberal or Maoist, Libertarian or Statist. One can always appeal to Samuel Huntington, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley or if one has different tastes, Marx, Foucault or Bakunin are always present. All one needs to do is look at the newspapers – the immense epistemic void in our political vocabulary will be immediately evident. There is even a Dalit group called the ‘Dalit Panthers of India’, reminiscent of the Black Panthers of the USA. This, of course, is not to deride people who have made contributions to the understanding of India from their own perspective, but just that understanding India from an Indian’s perspective seem to be contributing very little to the public sphere (another western term, sigh!!).

Not that we have not done anything in understanding ourselves – M. N. Srinivas, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt, Krishna Kumar are names that immediately come to mind. The problem may just be that of language – almost all of the Indian intellectual sphere is dominated by English speakers who cannot (will not?) read intellectuals who write in the vernacular. As Ramachandra Guha laments in a recent article, the multilingual intellectual is a rare species in India. Unless the language and epistemic barriers are broken, one sees little hope for furthering mutual understanding and respect. Are there political and economic frameworks that have been generated within India, which can by used to analyse a country that always frustrates external analysis ? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else I guess.

The second is the pseudo war-like situation that we find ourselves in nowadays – Opposing intellectual groups are fighting to imprint upon the populace their imagination of India. Thus, if you are not for us, you are against us. There are giants like M. K. Gandhi who are claimed by most groups for their own due to the fact that none really understand him well, but lesser mortals are forced to take sides, else a side will be chosen for them. War always has a homogenizing influence on society – unity, after all, is strength. Thus the preponderance of rhetoric from all groups, rather than meaningful dialogue. We cannot even have sane dialogues within the country, and we want to further dialogue with Pakistan!! Hypocrisy is nowhere are colorful as in India. Easiest way to see this is to see programmes like the ‘Big Fight’, which is the standard intellectual fodder (gulp!) for most Indians. The point of people to get onto such programmes is to abuse and condescend rather than understand.

These are some issues that one can immediately see, without too much analysis or reflection. Maybe there are more. But the fundamental constraint stays – unless you understand yourself from within, and understand yourself from another’s perspective, without getting carried away by either in any field – economics, politics, science etc. etc., there is really no hope for a truly ‘Indian’ identity.

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.