Saturday, April 29, 2000

Activism and Academic Angst

Activism and Academic Angst
Nandini Sundar
SINCE the 1967 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, the issue of ethical anthropology or action research has been central to debates within the discipline. In that meeting, several anthropologists like Kathleen Gough and Gerald Berreman wanted to pass a resolution condemning the Vietnam war, while others like Margaret Mead opposed it. Mead argued famously that political resolutions were not in the professional interests of anthropology. The floor, however, was swayed by Michael Harner who declared that ‘Genocide is not in the professional interests of anthropology,’ and the resolution was passed (Gough 1990: 1705).
Now that proactive social science is no longer confined to the Left, especially but not only in India, several people are beginning to rethink their earlier assumptions on how social science should engage with practical politics. The ICHR’s recent decision to recall two volumes of the Towards Freedom project by Professors Panikkar and Sarkar, or the move to tailor textbooks and exam questions to the prejudices of the party in power are both excellent examples of social science research being defined in terms of ‘political correctness’. One of the charges frequently levelled by the Right in its effort to appropriate the bureaucratic posts that supervise and fund research is that these posts were formerly bastions of the Left, who used them to push its own version of secular democratic history. Historical Materialism, according to our honourable Hindu historians, was then politically correct and now needs to be corrected politically.

It is worthwhile in this context to remind ourselves of the legacy of much of this proactive social science on the Left, broadly defined. My argument here is that leftist preoccupations with the political underpinnings of their research are qualitatively different from those of the Right, not because of the soundness of their ideology per se but because they have generated new directions and methods in social science research. I write here from the perspective of my own discipline – what is regarded as anthropology in the US or UK and the twinned discipline of sociology/anthropology in India.
As a result of decolonisation and other radical movements in the ’60s and ’70s, there emerged a great deal of self questioning in all disciplines, reflected in journals like the New Left Review, or Economic and Political Weekly, to name two popular ones. These concerns led to a variety of theoretical shifts and new trends in the social sciences. In anthropology, this was reflected in newly developing fields such as feminist anthropology, Marxist anthropology which discovered class in age-sets and non-industrial societies, anthropological political economy which studied the contribution of imperialism in the formation of class, community and culture, and more recently, political ecology. Although conservative economists like Milton Friedman have been important to the disciplinary mainstream of economics, one is hard put to think of a single right-wing anthropologist who has pushed the discipline rightwards in a major way, or who has produced entirely new arenas of study. At best, debates have taken place over the symbolic versus material factors underlying social cohesion, or between so-called post-modernists and political economists, but much of this has been within a broadly democratic consensus. Of course, in the Indian context, the old Indological work on caste and religion continues, but there are also plenty of countervailing studies.
Apart from the effloresence of fields, political engagement on the Left has resulted in three broad directions of research: (i) an increasing focus on the impact of colonialism in shaping many apparently sociologically given categories such as caste or tribe. This was accompanied by an examination of the ‘invention of tradition’ which accompanied nationalist movements seeking to create ancient traditions for themselves; (ii) the trend towards ‘reflexive anthropology’. By focusing on their own ancestors, anthropologists looked at the complicity of their own discipline in the invention of traditions, as also at the way in which the writing of ethnography distanced and marginalised the ‘other’; (iii) the activist approach going under the names of ‘development anthropology’, applied anthropology, or ‘action research’.
Academic interventions under each of these headings have been useful in challenging the status quo, both in real life and in the discipline. They have produced new and exciting ways of doing research – the use of history and literary criticism for example, or multi-sited ethnography instead of the single village, caste or religion study that dominated anthropology earlier. Yet, even within this iconoclastic tradition, there is the danger of new gods being installed, of political activism coming full circle and boomeranging on its protagonists. Below, I focus on two such dilemmas: the role of anthropologists in attacking essentialisms and invented traditions, and second, the role of social scientists in development studies. Ultimately, my argument is that one is brought back to the question of what counts as good research, or productive research, given the current standards of the discipline.
A favourite ‘essentialism’ that has long been the staple of anthropological attack is the notion of tribe. So long as anthropologists were attacking the notion of tribe developed by colonial anthropologists, they could unambiguously describe themselves as politically correct. For instance, in pointing out that tribes were not small bounded homogenous units, that they had no basis in race, that they were involved in diverse occupations, and had enjoyed political power based on internal stratification etc., anthropologists were challenging conceptions that had helped to sustain colonial rule. Pointing to the commonalities between adivasis and other groups around them could be part of a legitimate anti-colonial project in the face of attempts to preserve adivasi areas as legitimate objects for colonial paternalism.
However, the same kinds of arguments against the indigeneity of ‘tribal’ or adivasi populations in India, or against the theory of Aryan conquest, or against the idea that adivasi religions in central India are not sharply distinguished from folk Hinduism, often seems to support the Hindu fundamentalist argument which claims adivasis as ‘backward Hindus’. They also come into conflict with adivasi movements which have adopted categories of indigeneity as part of their claims to the land. The claim that adivasis were first displaced by Aryans is a useful rejoinder when Hindutva forces attempt to claim some sort of historic victimisation or displacement. In a world where categories are created through reference to multiple publics in multiple contexts, the claim to have a deep connection to the environment is often a useful political tool to employ in the face of obdurate states intent on preserving their control over resources. In such contexts, anthropological critiques, both of certain categories like indigenous peoples or certain environmental movements, are doubly problematic.
In fact, much of the research on marginalised groups like adivasis or on social movements came about due to a desire to engage with political action, and do pro-active research. But in the process, anthropologists or sociologists have often highlighted the manner in which these groups construct identities, and the global sources of their self-descriptions, e.g. in North American environmentalism. As Peter Brosius has pointed out in a recent discussion in Current Anthropology (1999), there is a certain irony in the fact that critiques of essentialism which began as critiques of structures that perpetuate inequality have ended up turning against those who are challenging this inequality. Perhaps there is a need to make a distinction between the essentialism of the oppressor and the oppressed.
On the other hand, one might argue that any essentialism, especially one based on identity, is dangerous, regardless of who is claiming that identity. Certain categories, especially those involving identity and exclusion such as ‘indigenous’ lend themselves more easily to passion. They also enjoy better circulation in a globalised world where donor lending and military action have increasingly intervened to defend identities defined in religious or ethnic terms at the expense of identities based on other attributes such as class.
In other aspects, however, it is less easy to feel certain about the correctness of one’s stand. For example, movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan or the fishworkers’ movement are often criticised for claiming that adivasis or fishworkers want to preserve an environmentally friendly lifestyle, when in fact the adivasis and fishworkers themselves want all the attributes of an unsustainable lifestyle. This is pointed to as evidence of the essentialism of these movements and their leaders, or at best the use of ‘strategic essentialism’ in some political interest (see for example Baviskar 1997, Gupta, 1999). Yet, there is no corresponding focus on the essentialism of the market, or on the power of the hegemonic discourse which makes people reject their earlier lifestyles as backward. If movement leaders put words into the mouths of their followers, so do the state and market, and much more successfully at that, through all the advertising and official power at their service.
Opposing romantic essentialism or strategic essentialism to some authentic identity as described by a social scientist is problematic in that all identities are relational and contingent upon particular discourses and contexts. At various times people may want to drink Pepsi and drive around in fast cars, or watch Madhuri Dixit films on TV, without, however, wanting to lose out on their ancestral homes or destroy their traditional fishing grounds. To claim that environmentalism is an ideology foisted by activists on adivasis or fisherpeople because it appeals to international audiences ignores the local material context of this ideology. In his discussion of what fisherfolk hope to protect when they demand their ‘right to nature’ (Gupta 1999: 2316-7), Gupta assumes that their only concern is bettering their own livelihoods, which could be served by everyone being given assistance to acquire trawlers. However, as Aparna Sundar shows, the opposition to trawlers fishing in the monsoon is not because of envy, but because ordinary fishers and not just their leaders have an ecological understanding of the sea and its resources: ‘When I suggested that the solution might be assistance for all fishers to acquire trawlers, I was told, "And will there be enough fish for that? The government encourages us to ‘develop’, to buy trawlers. But can we all do so? Can everyone own a plane or even fly in one"?’ (Sundar 1999: 105-106). Of course, not every adivasi or fisher is an environmentalist. As in every society, there are class differences among them; some are more aware and articulate or just plain interested compared to others. Certainly, however, not all the voicing of environmentalism is due to outside activists, as the state would like to claim.
Calling something or someone ‘essentialist’ has become the favoured form of abuse in the social sciences these days, a superior variant to the older ‘stereotype’. Yet, perhaps, we need to pause in our wholesale attack on essentialism and examine the context in which we make the critique. An argument that is commonly made is that the anthropologist or sociologist has a professional duty to her discipline, which requires the production of truth, however unpalatable to the activists with and on whom she has done her research. This, however, often tends to be a rather self-serving argument, defining the ‘truth’ as whatever the anthropologist wants it to be. If one claims to be writing the truth about a people or a movement, that writing should be accessible to the people concerned to present their own version of truth. This is of course not a simple issue – some like the pseudo-Hindus of Benaras may refuse to recognise truths about themselves in a film like Water – but it is at least worth trying. It is also productive of better research. In many cases our ‘truth’ is based on short term research, which we ourselves may want to revise later in the light of disagreements or new evidence.
Just as the critique of essentialism has come full circle, raising several uncomfortable questions for social scientists, the emphasis on action research that has been so much a part of the anthropological critique since the 1970s has rebounded on the academy. The need to promote multivocality or dialogue within participant observation or the need to rethink ways in which anthropologists could help and repay people with whom they lived and studied led to the promotion of advocacy and development anthropology. The latter had the additional benefit of creating full time employment as anthropologists promoted themselves as virtuous ‘bottom up’ members of ‘top down’ teams.
Increasingly, however, the idea of proactive research is being taken away from the universities and placed within the domain of NGOs and consultants. Research that directly feeds into development projects is seen as action research. From the point of view of society or funders, there are many advantages to research being funded outside universities. For one, NGOs are often able to identify new issues, when academics are bound by the conventions of their field or by whatever theory is fashionable at the moment. Environment comes to mind, for instance, as a good example of a field where academic research has piggybacked on activist research. Other examples include feminist research, philanthropy and urban planning. NGOs are also often quicker to produce results and in a form that can be used by practitioners.
At the same time, there are several dangers in letting donors and NGOs define what is proactive research, and simultaneously define the proactive as the politically correct. First, research that is ostensibly done in collaboration with the subjects in pursuit of a particular agenda is glorified with the name participatory research, without questioning whether the agenda itself, such as joint forest management or family planning, is something that was developed in participatory fashion. Second, once a subject becomes fashionable, there is a tendency for people to jump on the bandwagon and produce endless case studies, many of which have limited value. Certainly, very little justifies the amount of funding that goes into such case studies with consultants charging fees that range from 2500-3000 a day. Third, the amount of money that goes into so-called research consultancies also undermines research that goes on in universities. It is hard for universities with comparatively limited resources to retain people, and besides, the pressure of having to compete with such organisations for funds means that much research in universities also tends to become project oriented, short term and driven solely by whether or not there are any policy implications. Finally, what tends to happen as a result of such donor driven research is an excessive focus on the poor as against a focus on the rich, on the presence or absence of social capital among the poor instead of how the practice of capitalism impedes development in a systematic manner.
Clearly, there is a need for research, whether inside or outside universities and unless universities and academic institutions clean up their act first, they are in no position to complain. Perhaps the first step towards proactive research, then, would be to direct attention to one’s own institutional setting. Teachers who don’t take classes, the practice of Ph.D supervisors hiring their own students as soon as they become heads of department, and all the myriad sins practised by academics need to be studied and written about. There was no protest, for instance, when a national research institute in Bangalore used the excuse that the rules did not permit someone without an MA in sociology from becoming a professor of sociology simply in order to keep someone out and appoint an internal candidate. Never mind that the person excluded just happened to be India’s leading environmental sociologist. Such egregious nepotism, not by Hindutva activists or Marxists, but simply middle of the road, unremarkable academics, is exactly the sort of thing that lays the ground for far more dangerous ideological nepotism. Only if one tackles this will one be in a position to tackle the problem of political correctness in the Academy and ensure that research is judged by intellectual merit and not just by who is in a position of power at any given time.

Nandini Sundar

* This article originated in a panel discussion initiated by Majid Siddiqui on the ‘pro-active and the politically correct’ at the India International Centre in February. I am grateful to Majid and other participants in the discussion for their insights.


A. Baviskar, ‘Tribal Politics and Discourses of Environmentalism’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (31), 1997, 195-223.
P. Brosisu, ‘Analyses and Interventions: Athropological Engagements with Environmentalism’, Current Anthropology 40(3), June 1999, 277-309.
K. Gough, ‘Anthropology and Imperialism Revisited’, Economic and Political Weekly, 4 August 1990, 1705-1708.
D. Gupta, ‘Survivors or Survivals: Reconciling Citizenship and Cultural Particularisms’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(33), 14 August 1999, 2313-2323.
A. Sundar, Sea-Changes: Organising around the Fishery in a South Indian Community, in J. Barker et al., Street-level Democracy: Political Settings at the Margins of Global Power, Kumarian Press, Hartford, CT, 1999, 79-114.