Category Archives: sociology

Why do people honk so much?

This question seems quite important considering that the sanity of people having to tolerate incessant honking might be somewhat rescued from the edge of the cliff on which it now stands if they understand why. Honking probably served an important public purpose, that of preventing two vehicles from occupying the same space at the same time often, but its usage has gone beyond such mundane considerations to being a reflection into the personality of the owner of the horn itself.

First, one must distinguish between different types of honking:

  • The standard honk, which is used for the important public purpose mentioned above.
  • The stylish honk, which rises above the previous one to include (normally irritating to everyone else) tunes or rhythmic patterns. Normally used to show a possible flair for music and an upbeat mood.
  • The angry honk, longer in duration but bursty in nature, when the owner seems to think (or hope) that the honk will become louder and more irritating to others if used for a longer duration. It is normally used to show disapproval.
  • The frustation honk, normally used in beastly traffic jams, and whose duration is proportional to the feeling of powerlessness that the owner feels. Normally used when the owner wants to make something/someone cry for what he is feeling and the effect is conveniently reproduced by pressing the horn.
  • The celebration honk, used when India wins the World Cup or something like that. It consists of innumerable vehicles on the road honking in unison for an unbearably long period of time. One must thank the Indian team for not doing such a disservice to the road travellers of India often.

There might be a richer variety, but these are what I can think of. If one thinks about it, there is no logical reason why some of these should exist. I have heard a person relentlessly honking at a railway crossing when the gates were closed, and others honking back, probably to make him stop. Don’t think it worked very well. The scene felt like watching wolves howling at the moon. There is no rational reason to honk at a closed railway gate, but then the mistake lies in believing that people are driven by reasoning and solid logic in their day to day conduct.

Driving or sitting in a vehicle under busy conditions is one of those few instances in one’s life when you are shown for what you really are. People who seem nice and sweet suddenly start acting bossy and judgemental, and mousy and mild people, well, continue being so. People who tell you that they don’t feel the need to control everyone or everything show their true colors when they are passengers in a vehicle¬† zipping at 100 kilometers an hour past other vehicles.

All these and other observations point to what seems to be a fundamental feature of the human psyche – the need to assert the Self, to show the world that you exist. As the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran points out, the Self cannot really be defined without reaching out to the Other – who or what you are is shaped by your interactions with others. People who are completely shut off from others, like in the case of autistic children, don’t seem to possess (at least observably) what we would call a normal human personality. The honking at a jaywalker becomes more and more urgent unless she acknowledges your presence by looking directly in your direction. While one can explain this away by saying that you were only hoping to draw her attention to the fact that a possibility exists of her being stuck under your tyres, but sometimes even when there is no reasonable chance of this happening, the honks still persist.

The traffic jam is the ultimate put off, one of the few (well, maybe not few) moments in when you simply don’t matter, and really cannot do anything about it. The effect is similar to what you would evoke if you tried to end a fight by trying to walk away and ignore the other person. On the other hand, a person who is angry at you will try to incite anger in you, knowing fully well that that is the only way any decent fight can result. One needs to know that one’s anger is fully reciprocated and probably some mechanism like the mirror neurons will help maintain the feedback loop, keeping the anger flowing from one to the other. In this light, it would be interesting to see how frustration honks start and spread in a traffic jam.

Almost every facet of our personality – beauty, intelligence, aggression – make sense only in a social context. ‘Setting goals for yourself’ or ‘Not following the herd’ seem to simply be replacing the social with a reflexive analysis, but the mechanism is still the same. Which is why we have Special Interest Groups, debating clubs and Facebook which serve the purpose of ‘mutual admiration’, in the words of J.K. Galbraith. Knowing that you matter matters.

The psychology of ‘pp’

Have you noticed how the details of every book go like this: ‘Book title, 246+xix pp.’ ? However, in no place will you ever find ‘pp’ expanded. I have always tried to figure out what it meant – Google does not give satisfying answers (maybe I’m bad at googling). Printed pages? most likely, but how am I to know? Is it such common knowledge that everyone knows about it and I have my own deficient childhood to blame? If it is something simple, why won’t people expand the blessed acronym?

If you will notice this is not peculiar to the book publishing industry. There seems to be an explosion of ‘specialist words’ – things that only those in the hallowed circles of extremely specialised knowledge have access to them. It is not that there are no substitutes that everyone understands: it is just that some words become so ingrained that their usage is unconscious. Speaking to anyone outside your professional circles freely has become completely impossible. In fact, our capacity to communicate our entire experience to another person has almost completely disappeared. We always have a part of our lives (sometimes called ‘work’) that you cannot share with anyone else, even though it occupies most of our time. Most conversations with more than 3 people eventually degenerates into politician-sportsman-actor bashing.

Whoever thought that English would tend to homogenize cultures got it wrong, or atleast underestimated the power of division of labor to recreate a Babel using English itself. Forget about variants like Hinglish or Kanglish, you have Compglish, Mathglish, Bioglish and people speaking a particular dialect find it extremely hard to understand what the other speaks, and realises too late that a particular joke will fall flat simply because the others don’t speak your language. It may not be long before speakers of different language become an endogamous (bet you need to google that up!) group and split into different species simply because they are more comfortable with their own kind.

The rate at which this ‘speciation’ is happening is amazing: a couple of generations ago, father and son could have arguments because they shared a vocabulary. Forget arguments, nowadays it is almost impossible for our parents to have a decent conversation with us. Earlier there was very little need for people to know another language unless they left their country. Nowadays, you need to learn two or three languages just to get out of the 12 standard, and by the time you are done with a PhD, the only person understanding your humor will be you.

Will it be possible for people to empathise more with others? Will there come a day when it will be impossible to share your lived experience with another human being? How will human bonds endure such restrictions in shared experience, possibly limiting shared experiences to common biological functions? You already notice houses are no longer common areas – there is my room, your room and everybody tacitly respects it, probably after a few embarrassments. We are already replacing humaneness with etiquette. Our notions of forward movement seem to ultimately lead us to ultimate loneliness even in the midst of a crowd. Who cares? after all, Facebook is always there.

What role does money play?

Apart from providing the ability to purchase goods to the one who has some of it, quite a bit. My focus here is more on what effect do economic relations have on social ones.

In a feudal society, where caste is dominant, economic and social relations are quite different. The closest economic relations a land-owner has is with the lower caste workers in his fields. Same with other castes and occupations. However, social relations are usually intra-caste, be it in celebrating festivals or finding a suitable bride/bridegroom. Though the picture is definitely not as simple as described here, (land owners are socially obliged to support an servant during times of need) but definitely not a very bad one either.

Coming to contemporary society, the stratification is somewhat more porous and many examples of a conflation of the two types of relations are seen. Best examples are those of office romances. If not for the monetary benefit that brings people to a common workplace, such relations would have never happened. HR managers portray companies as ‘one big family’, which is a bare-faced attempt to replace kinship relations with economic ones. Before further discussion, it is worth characterizing both kinds of relations.

Primary social relations are usually an end in themselves (intrinsic value), based on emotions and therefore quite strong (since emotions are very strong in humans), and tend to last long (in terms of generations). Economic relations are more the secondary type, having an importance proportional to utility (consequential value), based on rationality and therefore weak (humans are rational? From when?) and tend to last as long the the utility of the relationship lasts. Primary social relations assume no acceptable behavior patterns (a son who is a killer is still a son) whereas secondary relations do expect certain kinds of behavior. Therefore, when entering a secondary relation like an economic relation, a person is expected to behave in a certain way for things to go on smoothly. The norms that govern behavior may be implicit, but they certainly exist.

With this background in mind, a more fruitful analysis of economic-to-social relation shift can be made. One thing is certain: humans are inherently crazy. They get depressed, have deep seated phobias and philias, feel guilt and shame and anger, and generally defy rational explanation. (This is to be taken as a limitation of rationality rather than defects in humans.) Thus, when a person enters an economic relation, she is expected to conduct herself in a rational, predictable manner. Therefore, more often than not, one sees a very small part of a person’s personality when engaged in a secondary relationship. Sure, people get angry and break down at work, but this is the exception to the rule. Only in a primary social relationship will the true craziness of a person come forth. That is why, in my opinion, taking an office romance ‘to the next level’ usually does not work out. Once the bond becomes more and more emotional, things like jealousy and possesiveness appear. A person who is used to seeing the ‘rational’ side of their partner will find it difficult to accept such behavior. ‘You were so different in college’, ‘It was not always like this, you know’ – these are quotes that you will hear in such contexts.

Americans, ever the pioneers in handling wierd situations make sure that pre-nuptial agreements are in place to cater for such exigencies. Little wonder that divorce rates in the USA are close to 50%. Bangalore, which is a place where economic relations are increasingly determining social relations, the same issues are cropping up. Financial freedom is being attributed as one of the causes of increasing divorce rates, which simply drives home the underlying economic tinge to these relations. While economic independence to women is to be highly encouraged, and helps many escape from abusive marriages, saying financial independence increases divorce rates simply says that the marriage was more utilitarian in nature than with intrinsic value to the participants.

Companies nowadays, with the HR development mantra, are making sure that this trend will become more pronounced. Instead of advising employees to spend more time at home with family, a practical view that they take is of accepting that employees will spend more time with their colleagues than at home, and hence make the workplace a second family. Thus, it is not uncommon to see people spending ten times more time with co-workers than with kith and kin and spouse. Whatever value a primary relationship has is dependent on face to face interactions, and this becomes nil in such situations. Marriage has additional functions of sexual satisfaction and taking care of the young, which are also neglected. Considering such factors, it is unsurprising that divorce rates and broken families are on the rise in places which encourage more and more economic engagement in lieu of kinship relations.

Solutions? one cannot ignore work. one cannot ignore family and friends either (family more important here). One must understand the needs of both kinds of relationships and strike a balance that is suitable in a given personal context. Saying that one takes care of one’s family well because the family goes on a trip every year and all family members’ monetary needs are fulfilled is confusing one kind of relationship with another. If the only reason your family loves you is because of the above reasons, then you have serious issues to address!

TGC: Reflections

There was a workshop in IIM-B on Technology, Governance and Citizenship whose description can be read from the former link, rather than reiterating it here. It was, upfront, one of the most varied spectrum of people I have ever come across, ranging from technocrats to art curators and everything in between. A most varied set of people, with a common agenda to understand the dialogues between science, technology and society, and their implications especially in government and governance. The group was very talkative and this resulted in very interesting discussions about how to make politics more scientific and science more political. Since the time I wanted to do interdisciplinary studies in and around science and technology, STS was pointed to as an alternative, and this was a golden opportunity for me to see the whole spectrum of personalities and find at which frequency I resonate. Call it an ethnographic study of sorts, if you like.

One of the main points which kept persistently creeping into discussions was about how STS was not being political enough and why was this and what could be done to resolve this issue. We never managed to find any satisfactory answer to this unfortunately, but I now wonder whether you can find one. One of the organisers lamented that people turn out in numbers to listen to technologists but not to social scientists. Well, people do listen to economists and psychologists, and put their money where their ear is. Sociology and humanities seem to be out of fashion, more likely. But this disconnect is pretty much present and something needs to be done to bridge the gap. It was not always the case that sociologists were apolitical, however. Durkheim, Weber, Russell and Marx are prime examples.( Russell could be called a mathematician, but he was a trenchant critic of society) As any line of thinking matures and becomes a ‘formal’ discipline, such behavior seems to curiously disappear.

One set of behavior patterns that seemed to emerge, however, was the insouciance of the technocrats in implementing technological solutions (“Science is obviously the answer to all problems”, to paraphrase one of them) and the deliberate, measured attempt at doing nothing by the academicians (“Academicians have never achieved anything”, “It is better to watch from the sidelines”) If there was a feeling that people are too ‘boxed-in’ to ever reach out to the other, it was probably because the fault lay on both sides of the divide. Technologists want to do something, and the academicians ostensibly hesitate to, and because of this hesitation technologists dismiss their work as impotent and irrelevant, which is obviously not the case. It is not that technologists slept through all the social scientists discussions. There was a (sociological) post-mortem of an Online Complaint Management System that made one of them request for details for help in implementation of future systems with similar function. Thus, there seems to be some areas of common interest and one must characterize them. At the opposite end, an activist, Leo Saldahna (do read their report on the home page about BMIC), was enthusiastic about implementing District level governance, and an academician commented that in theory, deliberative democracy has been discounted and wondered aloud whether it was just a lot of hype. Intrigued by this comment, I further enquired about this over lunch, and realised that they were talking about two very different things. But making such sweeping ‘theoretical’ statements would just increase the disconnect, since field workers won’t enthusiastically support things that don’t work, and Leo does not come across as a dumb bunny.

Another situation commonly encountered is that sociologists are hesitant to comment about ongoing situations, since they are unsure of what the effects will be. Highly justified. But for a fieldworker, this information is potentially very useful. This brings out a distinction between theories in natural and social sciences: Natural scientists make models to predict future behavior, and social scientists build models for reasons I’m not entirely sure about. In other words, I have no idea why they do it other than for analytical purposes, but they do not analyse rapidly changing situations and come to make decisions, for reasons given above. At the height of the Narmada agitation, I wonder how many people were analysing the situation in terms of post-colonialism or neo-imperialism or epistemic violence perpetrated on the displaced tribals, and how many were talking about future ecological damage and predicting future power generation capabilities and resettlement of displaced tribals. My feeling is the latter group was bigger.

About characterization of common areas of interest, they seem to be more the case-study kind of work rather than the theoretical ones. This reminds me of the only STS related book that I have read, by Bruno LaTour. It is about a method of doing sociological research called Actor-Network-Theory and the Online Complaint Management case seemed to me to be an example of a social situation described as an Actor-Network. The irony is that this methodology originated in STS, and there were very few papers which even mentioned it(One, if my memory serves me right). LaTour castigates sociology for using models which black-box potentially useful information, and for putting words into people’s (people/group under study) mouth, and this phrase (put words into my mouth) came up atleast twice during heated discussions. One wonders whether this inclination is endemic to sociologists. ANT seems like a very promising approach, but as LaTour tries to keep models and the attendant polysyllabic words out of an analysis, it might not help to publish too many papers.

A dissonant voice among ‘elegant’ theoretical discussions was that of Ashwin Mahesh, who consistently spoke of asking questions whose answers are self-evident, which clarifies discussions, and most of the questions being asked at the forum were ‘too large’. While I agree that solutions (what needs to be done) become self-evident, an argument must be made that implementation of solutions (how it needs to be done) may not be all that clear, and will require some ‘theory’ to back normative judgement. This is where, at last analysis, my opinion about the place of social sciences in the wider arena of developmental activity lies.

Lastly, the question of doing something. The answer may lie in two ethical theories: Mill’s argument that none know the whole truth and therefore must not impose one’s views onto others, and Gandhi’s argument that one must hold steadfast by one’s moral attitudes and be an example to others. An even more explicit, simpler statement was made by a person I know: “You have to do what will make you happy. If you can ensure that it is non-destructive, nothing like it. If you cannot, too bad, but do it anyways (since nature is a cycle of creation and destruction)”. Well, doing what makes one happy is a very difficult task indeed, if one thinks about it, but this statement explains both the attitudes of the technologist and the sociologist and does not place either on a pedestal.

Whence the Social Sciences ? – 4: Sociology

Long time, yes, but I have not reneged on my promise to write something every week. Rather, writing has taken place in a different place. You can take a look at the appendix in this to find a more balanced argument regarding Utilitarianism in Economics, if you are inclined to actually to know something as esoteric. I was torn between writing this post or the factors for the rise of capitalism from my latest, exquisite reading, and finally settled down to write this, after keeping it in the pipeline for more than two weeks. Also, you will soon find Microeconomics notes appearing in ‘different place’, after reading all what Economics is not, thought it was time to read what it actually is. Warning, though, basic calculus required, the textbook I’m using is somewhat math-intensive. Macroeconomics, while probably more interesting for the stock market savant, will have to wait. Now, back.

Sociology has had an interesting life. Like the tussle between Capitalism and Socialism/Communism in the sibling discipline, sociology too has had its differences, notably between the liberal schools of the French and English and the German Romantics. (one thing though: the schools in economics agreed over the fact that unconstrained industrialization was the only way up, with the fight being as to who controls the means of production, i.e, the factories, whereas in sociology the divide was more fundamental, like what should sociology study)

The French and the English thinkers, notably Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim, were highly influenced by the Enlightenment, and sought to bring in scientific method into sociology. The Germans, notably Georg Simmel and Max Weber, strove to put the pre-eminence of Man in the study of sociology, i.e, society must be studied as a collection of individuals in relation to others. The west Europeans considered society to be an entity that existed independently from humans, and which followed it’s own logic. The dialectic between these lines of thought has definitely left sociology a much richer subject.

Coming to the liberals, they sought to use the scientific method to discover the laws that govern the functioning of society, which was considered to be an extra-human entity, imposing it’s will onto us poor humans. By this, they hopes, they could ‘enlighten’ the masses about the fact that ‘Resistance is Futile‘, to quote a famous quote. Comte made it very clear that spirit of enquiry and free will are illusions and once people learn the laws of society, they will necessarily get rid of such notions, since trying to go against the laws of society would be equivalent to banging one’s head against a brick wall. Needless to say, the others were not as militant in their views. Spencer used Darwinian notions of evolution (slightly before Darwin propounded them) to assert that society was the ‘survival of the fittest’. This theory was a great hit in the United States, where Spencer became the patron saint of the cult of ‘anything goes in love, war and business’, who readily identified with what seemed to perfectly describe their society in the 19th century.
Durkheim stated that society was sui generis, and society could not be said to consist of individuals. However, sociology benefited by the stress on empiricism that the scientific method brought in, especially by Durkheim (who is considered the founder of modern sociology).

The Germans, influenced as much by Romanticism as by the Enlightenment, tended to stress on the individual more than the society, and how people influenced and were influenced by the set of all people. Though they developed generalizations as well, they were not all encompassing, everything-explaining theories, but were more of the form of a characterisation of the certain types of people or structures of groups of people that were encountered. Weber’s methodology was very influential, and his influence continues to this day. The main contribution of these people was to stop the megalomania of people like Comte from seeping into what was supposed to be a objective scientific enquiry and set certain limits as to what sociology was meant to be.

Overall, if the Enlightenment removed Earth from the centre of the Universe, the sociology almost succeeded in putting Man in its centre.

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.

How watertight can we be ?

Was reading a book that I previously mentioned, about an introduction to the notable sociologists from when the term was coined. Among one of the greatest among these was undoubtedly Max Weber, and a small section of the chapter devoted to him talks about his prophecies of doom, that social organisation would tend to more and more rational organisation in terms of efficiency, run by a scientifically guided bureaucracy.

Thankfully, we do not yet live in an age where managers rule every aspect of our lives, from what we eat to who we sleep with. Though it is obvious that an efficient bureaucracy will lead to maximally efficient organisation of human productive output, it is far from obvious that that is what people want, and far less obvious whether it can really be implemented.

An incident narrated by a friend working in a company in Bangalore comes to mind. A romantically involved couple, both working for the same company, were said to be seen smooching in the office. Now, the reaction was one of complete disbelief and shock at how unprofessional people can be. Looking at it from the other side, can one not question as to why a person in love (with what/who ever) cannot show her/his affection where and when one feels ? The answer would be that the office is a place to act in a certain way, and there are unwritten codes of conduct which govern osculatory behaviour here. Why are certain modes of behaviour permissible and others unprofessional ? Because they cause a disturbance, a distraction from the normal activity of efficient production ? While it definitely not my intention to condone smooching in corridors and cubicles, it is definitely my intention to question why any person is required to curb certain parts of her personality. It is hard to see how such an environment would help in formation of a well rounded personality. Also, one finds a tinge of hypocrisy in such attitudes. One is told not to bring home worries into work and vice versa, but one never hears about people told to leave their happiness at home and wear a surly mask at the workplace. Certain things which are beneficial to production are always welcome, the rest, please excuse, please.

Romantic escapades apart, there are many instances of companies cutting employees off the Internet, and similar restrictions in the name of ‘distractions’. But employees find creative ways to overcome such things where possible, and a purely machine-like worker will hardly ever surface. To the horror of the top brass, people seem to want to waste time in idle chatting, gossip, tales of woe, trip discussions and many other such uneconomic behavior (I almost forgot the coffee machine ;). Nowadays, many companies seem to have recognized (or resigned to) the fact that people do not enter the office in the morning just to work continuously for 8 hours and then get back to their normal lives, and provide a much more liberal atmosphere, where one gets an opportunity to explore other aspects of social behavior and grouping. Far from Max Weber’s tight bureaucratic dystopia, bureaucracy now seems to recognize human inability to divide space and time into watertight compartments, each requiring a kind of behavior that provides maximum efficiency to the task at hand.

Similar to the managerial expectations and frustrations, are our own wishes that sometimes go unfulfilled. We would like a park to be neat and clean and we end up seeing beggars and homeless bums in them. We would like our roads to be clean and free from disturbances but find religious processions and bales of ragi put out for drying. We wish to watch movies undisturbed but end up covering our ears against the cat calls as soon as Bipasha comes onscreen. We want our footpaths wide and safe, but end up walking on the road due to the sudden appearance of a temple overnight on the footpath. Just like human behavior, his cultural creations overflow and confound the best laid plans of the urban planners and middle class.

Just as we want to do things ‘our way’, so do so many others. About time we recognized and respect the non-watertightness that is so natural in the world.