Saturday, June 13, 2015

Everyday interactions, communication, and domestic work: A narrative account from field notes

Ashish is a twenty-one year old boy of privilege, studying in one of those engineering colleges in India that his MNC Executive father placed him in by paying a large donation to the college. His upper caste dad of course was more than happy to chart out the destiny of his only child, the heir to the upper caste throne of the family. After all, this is the entitlement his dad had experienced all his life. Someone to cook, someone else to clean, someone to drive the car, and someone else to polish the shoes. Ashish had grown up seeing his dad have high expectations from those that served him.

After all, a servant has to be kept in his place. Ashish had grown up seeing his parents manage this role so well, dictating, abusing, blaming, and disciplining. 

Having grown up in a family of four, and being the only boy in the family that his parents so desperately wanted for many years so they could earn their legitimacy, Ashish has a strong sense of who he is in the world.

He has not had to work for anything. His dad has rolled in the dough whenever needed, finding connections and seeking networks. And his mother has ensured that he gets all the comforts he demands.  The world has been created to please Ashish. His mother ensured that Ashish got what he wanted.

Ashish, an upper caste, upper class boy of privilege knows that the world has been created to respond to his demands. Others exist to cater to his orders and to follow the instructions he issues. Ashish knows his place in the world. The place of privilege.

Ashish also knows his place in the family hierarchy. His needs are the command of his family. After all, he is the heir to all the property that his great grandfather had amassed.

He can command respect and is entitled to it. He can dictate his wants, expensive watches, mobile phones, e-toys, you name it. He can also tell people what to do. When things don't happen the way he wants them to, he can throw a tantrum and all will be aligned.

His sense of entitled respect is particularly strong when it comes to how he treats the twenty-six year old Narayani, who came to work in his household when she was sixteen years old. Narayani, the oldest daughter of a landless laborer from Narayanganj, came to the Roy family to work so she could support her ailing father and make some money to send her brothers to school. Narayani has four brothers and she knew at an early age it was up to her whether they could get an education. 

Ashish and Narayani live in the same space, within the same four walls, but experience entirely different parameters and rules of communication. This is the sort of inequality that marks the material sites of India, where caste, class, and gender come to intersect so dramatically in defining the norms of communication.

While Ashish sits in his room, playing his video games and orders Narayani around, she wakes up at 5:00 in the morning to prepare the breakfast that Asish will take to college and goes to bed past midnight after cleaning up the kitchen and utensils at the end of the days work.

Ashish, our twenty-one year old, also knows that he can hurl abuses at Narayani whenever it pleases him. When he is in a bad mood, he can accuse Narayani of not preparing his milk properly. When he does not want to eat the meal, he can turn to his mother, who in turn can go about abusing Narayani for not having prepared the meal.  He can make up whatever he wants to abuse at Narayani. He can accuse her of lying. When his earphones go missing, he can ask his mom to search through Narayani's suitcase. When he makes a mistake, he can pass the blame on Narayani.

You see, Ashish is always right, whatever he does. And he owns Narayani. His family owns Narayani.

Privilege is so integral to Ashish's life that he knows exactly how he is supposed to behave with Narayani. His social science texts in college, his readings in sociology, are just that, readings to be memorized from the texts. For Narayani, however, the markers of the sociological concepts Ashish reads about in his texts are everyday parts of lived experiences.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Listening in the culture-centered approach: An invitation to conversation

One of the elements I often discuss when sharing the framework of the culture-centered approach (CCA) is the role of listening in opening up the space for communication. As a research device thus, listening performs a meta-theoretical function. It teaches us about the processes of communication capacity building even as it creates spaces for diverse voices, articulating multiplicities of understandings and solutions.

This two-step framework is particularly salient when we as researchers work with communities at the margins. Listening is not simply about creating the spaces for those in the margins to voice their meanings but is also about questioning what we know about listening. Because our understandings of communication are situated at the intersections of culture and structure, the interpretations of listening are also contextual.

So what are some ideas that we can work with when considering the processes of listening?

At one level, to introduce a framework of listening into the research process suggests that the process has to always be open-ended as a conversation, with openings for revising what one does as a researcher, questioning the tools, frameworks and concepts, and being tentative about what one comes up with. To listen is to recognize the limits of the methods one is trained in, being open to revisions in how one approaches the research design.

For instance, in working in a rural community in Bangladesh, my research through the archives might suggest that the main problem in this community is the lack of motivation to remain healthy among community members. As a researcher then, I might go about designing solutions on the basis of this assumption, framing my survey questions on the basis of this understanding from the secondary literature. Yet, in doing so, I run the risk of bypassing the real problems experienced and voiced by community members in the context of their lived experiences.

To listen suggests that one ought to question the hypotheses and conceptual nets one begins with as a  researcher, thus creating a framework for interactions and iterations. This iterative process also means that the research journey is layered, working through multiple meaning frameworks and with multiple actors with the goal of solving the problems as envisioned by the marginalized.

CCA thus is an invitation to multiple participants  to  a conversation, anchored in the voices of those who voices have historically been unheard.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Your white guns, Your white sham, and Your senseless violence

Your white guns targeted
at the black, brown, colored
seas of protest will someday
be held accountable in a court
of justice, asked to recount the
number of dead, recount the
stories of violence that make
up your White ideas of liberty
and freedom and democracy.

Your white guns  and your sham
of democracy, civility, and citizenship,
will be judged in a court
of brown, black, colored peoples.
You will have to do the recounting
You will have to recite the names
Standing there, you will be asked
to do the explaining for the
black lives lost to your senseless violence.

Your white ideas of justice
Will be turned upside down for
their hypocrisies and farcical performances
You will be asked to describe
the violence that runs through your being
Through your police, through your military
The fundamentalism you inspire, to account for
The guns you make, and the armies
you send around the globe masked as democracy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The fantasy of "objective" distance and White privilege

This is an often repeated scenario: A White male professor asks a graduate student from China "Aren't you biased, given that you are doing this study on Chinese netizens?" "Tell me why should this be generalizable."

This stance is reflective of the power of Whiteness to erase its own location and specificity as a universal, while simultaneously turning the "other" as the subject of investigation. Objective distance is therefore something that needs to be performed when studying the exotic "other" located elsewhere.

The fact is that most of our journals are inundated with White American scholars making a large number of grandiose claims about human behavior on the basis of studies conducted on White subjects in the classroom. In the sense of these claim made by the White man then, almost all of communication scholarship is fundamentally flawed (or at least large parts are).

The scripted retort voiced by the Chinese student to the White powerful male professor in my world of fantasy is this "Prof., my study of Chinese netizens is nearly not as biased as your entire body of work on public deliberation based on American populations of college students from the mostly White Midwest. Moreover, you build your entire body of work from other similar White scholars running other similar studies on other White convenient samples. So no Prof, at least I am beginning with a more diverse framework by attempting to work with theories developed in the White context and applying in the context of China. I have exposure to other ways of knowing and thinking, which you in your hubris and arrogance, don't. So actually no, I am much less biased than you are."

Yet, the power of Whiteness lies in precisely erasing the locational specificity of these studies and the inherent biases that come with White scholars making claims about human behavior from studying White subjects. The power of Whiteness lies in turning articulations grounded in White American realities into articulations about human behavior.

The power of Whiteness lies in the sheer power of colonial knowledge production processes that leave the sites of power unquestioned. In most instances, scholars from India, China, or Singapore are all too eager to please these White scholars and play by their standards.

This is perhaps one of the most prevalent scams of communication research.

As our discipline becomes more global in scope, let's have the foresight and the courage for calling out on this scam. This is essential to equalizing spaces of knowledge production.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The fantasy of an apolitical social science as instrument of neoliberal hegemony



In a recent piece documenting the experiences of migrant labor amid market reforms in China, I was reminded by one of the reviewers that social scientific work should stay away from "politics."

In another conversation with a graduate student conducting an ethnographic study of cellphone penetration in an indigenous context, I was reminded of a note from a reviewer who urged her to stay away from advocacy because she referred to her data from the field that challenged the hegemony of transnational corporations in the mobile phone sector. As an aside, the reviewer who made this comment often did work for mobile phone companies as a consultant or as a collaborator.

In each of these instances, critique directed at the broader corporatized context of neoliberal governance and its local manifestations is seen by these traditional social scientists as being overtly political, polemical, and/or advocacy. Thus "politics" stands in as a referent to critique of the hegemonic structures that constitute academic aspirations and the accepted processes of knowledge production in the mainstream. The supposed apolitical position of the social sciences in the traditional framework is contrasted with the seemingly political nature of critical work, thus delineating the realms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the arena of claims making.

The role of the social sciences in this traditional worldview is to stay away from critique, working through data and theory to make specific articulations, albeit situated within the configurations of the dominant structures. So it would be just fine with me reporting from ethnographic work on meanings of health with migrant construction workers; but when this ethnography is tied to a critique of the broader structures of neoliberal organizing that constitute global migration patterns, it becomes non-academic.

What is particularly salient about this worldview is its taken-for-granted assumption about the natural state of things that appear as data and as objects of theorizing within the social science. Such a position remains oblivious to the politics of its own position, thus seemingly producing de-contextualized (read neutral/objective) knowledge that is universal, supposedly being free from the power of political and economic structures.  The power of this position of the social sciences in maintaining an objective distance is shaped by the broader power of the structures of knowledge production.

The study of cellphones in an indigenous community is almost always political, and to ignore this political frame is itself a political position, a polemic, a stance of advocacy. The power however in such stances of advocacy within the dominant structures of social science is in erasing the very nature of advocacy embodied in a study of say, cell phones. For a social scientist who is on the payroll of cellphone companies to study cellphone penetration is not only a political position, but a position that is rife with all forms of conflicts of interest. Yet, the social sciences have been so re-organized that it is the critique of such a position that is framed as polemic, thus leaving unchallenged the political economy of the social sciences as sites of knowledge production serving power structures.

Similarly, to suggest that discussions of neoliberal reforms in examining migrant work is political is itself a political position. To assume that the natural state of occurrence of migration and migratory exploitation as normalized features of structures is a political position. Such a political position retains its power by denying the oppressive nature of social structures. In such a political position, the facade of neutrality forecloses possibilities for interrogating the organizing of global structures that produce oppressive forms of migration.

Any social scientific argument, whether it is theoretically derived based on abstractions, or is empirically guided based on data, is fundamentally intertwined with the politics of knowledge production. To deny this politics is a discursive move that retains power in the hands of the status quo and frames the social sciences as instruments of control in the hands of the power elite.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Theory and practice: What academia offers the world of practice

In one of my recent posts, I discussed the overarching framework of Whiteness that shapes communication practice and the ways in which Whiteness lies at the heart of the prevalent norms of communication, civility, politeness, and interaction.

My post was misread as being racist by a senior industry practitioner who took my reference to Whiteness as a marker of racism, as an indicator that I was somehow racially marginalizing members of the White community. He cited his commitment to racial harmony to chastise me.

In such instances of disagreement, engaging in dialogue offers an opportunity for working through arguments, finding spaces of common grand and articulating spaces of departure.  In these instances of disagreements with practitioners who often have the economic power of the well-heeled purse-string or the enticement of the coveted industry partnerships, it is vital to revisit theorizing as the everyday practice of academia. Moreover, it is vital to look at such disagreements as creative points of conversation between theory and practice rather than simply caving in to the economic power of the practitioner.

The moments of departure between theory and practice hold much creative possibilities. However, to sustain such possibilities calls for active commitment of academics to understanding the nature of the academic mission, grasping the relationship between theory and practice, and committing to protecting the academic value of free speech.

I have usually found such instances to be incredibly powerful as they point toward the limits of conversation, suggesting the scope of dialogic possibilities and impossibilities. These disagreements are also the creative entry points for imagination.

I have also felt that such difference between theoretical frameworks and practices of communication are representative of broader gaps between the worlds of theory and practice. That an analysis of "Whiteness" might be seen as racism by a senior communication practitioner suggests the need for vital dialogue between theory and practice, especially because issues of race, gender, class and erasure lie at the heart of communication practice. These gaps also suggest that academic work remains incomplete in reaching out to the world of practice, in touching those spaces where such conversations are very much needed. Also, such gaps suggest the continued need of informing theory through practice, and guiding practice through theory.

The exchange presented above reminded me of the need for communication scholars to critically interrogate practice, but more importantly to work hard at finding avenues for sharing this work with practitioners with the goal of generating vital dialogue.

Our critical insights, without the connection to practice, do very little in impacting the nature of the world. The critical theorist, often hidden behind claims made in obscure journals, does little in impacting the world of practice. That the idea of "Whiteness" has little resonance with a practitioner means that the work of educating practice has to be taken seriously.

Unless as an academic I find entry points to have these conversations with practitioners, especially the tough conversations that work through disagreements, I am not really doing my job well. This means that one has to work hard to find those spaces for conversations and mutual education. Just as I expect to learn about the shifting nature of practice, as an academic, I need to learn to hold my ground so I can hold practitioners accountable to read academic work and to think through the value of this work. The commitment in other words has to be mutual.

Through a series of posts, I sought to engage the practitioner, working through descriptions of Whiteness, the meaning of Whiteness, and the ways in which White privilege plays out structurally in terms of shaping global norms, ideals, and aspirations.

I argued that rather than being an attack on an individual on the basis of race, Whiteness studies seek to document the ways in which taken-for-granted assumptions regarding what is normal and what is left out shape the normative structures of communication. The conversation was difficult but one we needed to have. Our job then as academics is to find the language through which we can open up spaces for such conversations.

Practitioners too have a great deal of responsibility to foster such spaces of dialogue.

In instances when the work of the academe pointing to racial, class-based, gender-based injustices percolates into the world of practice, making our practitioner colleagues uncomfortable, there are multiple opportunities for making an impact by creating the platforms for communication.

Now, practitioners, who often because of their success with economic resources, have the power over university decision-making processes to respond to these difficult conversations by wanting to silence them. These conversations can be difficult and therefore can easily be confused as being uncivil in tone, accompanied by the gut response among practitioners of wanting to censor such inconvenient conversations. This act of silencing is particularly the case for disenfranchised voices which have to break from the existing framework of communication in order to be heard. You have stories of donors and trustees, who after having been angered by a public comment of a faculty member at a University, have threatened to withdraw support from the university unless the faculty member is fired.

Such pressures exerted by practitioners who are in valuable positions in universities as trustees, donors, advisory board members etc. reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of academic culture with an openness for multiple competing discourses and arguments. Much like my earlier note about Whiteness, the conflation between Whiteness as a concept and the notion of my supposed racism emerges out of a lack of understanding of the academic idea of Whiteness.

In such instances, to cower to the pressures exerted by practitioners often on the basis of incomplete information and theoretically-uninformed gut responses is to sacrifice the very fundamentals of academe as spaces of critique and analysis. When university leaders bow to such pressures, they demonstrate their failure at leadership. Such acts of bowing down to donor pressure and trustee opinions demonstrate the lack of leadership, the lack of courage, and the lack of academic integrity.

As is demonstrated by communication research in the critical tradition, academe can indeed provide a valuable position of entry for practice. To enable the leadership role of academe in this conversation means that university leaders need to put their commitments behind notions of academic freedom. To enable these conversations, spaces need to be fostered actively.

These are also the precise moments of intervention for us as scholars of communication.

Pointing out the instances of communication manipulation, communicative inversions, and communicative erasure can offer points of engaging practice, suggesting pathways for imagining new forms of practice that creatively foster opportunities for working toward other worlds.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The hypocrisy of the New York Times Editorial "Modi's Dangerous Silence:" The limits of White liberalism

The limits of White liberalism are embodied in the hypocrisies and double standards in White articulations of liberty and freedom.

The rhetoric of this version of liberalism is emboldened in its double standards.

As the father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, was eschewing the virtues of liberty, he was justifying the English occupation of India.

The recent New York Times Editorial on "Modi's Dangerous Silence" is another reflection of this double standard.

As I have noted elsewhere, the ascendance of the Hindu Right in India needs to be critiqued with vigor and full force to secure the space of multifaith syncretism that forms an integral part of an Indian articulation of nationhood.

However, for the New York Times  to criticize the Hindu Right's efforts of mass conversion as dangerous reflects the kind of double standard that is integral to White liberalism.

Mass conversions after all are the mantra of the White-Western way of life.

From the Christian crusades to the more contemporary crusades carried out under the facades of democracy promotion and development, mass conversions have played key roles in the assertion of hegemony of the Western way of life as a global universal. For the New York Times to refer to conversions as violent, there also needs to be a deeper engagement with the contemporary practices of conversion that are integral to Christian and Islamic missions. Critique needs to be directed toward the many missionary activities that are supported by the US state in its assertion of US hegemony. 

The New York Times article criticizes "the mass conversion to Hinduism of Christians and Muslims who have been coerced or promised money," observing that "Mr. Modi’s continued silence before such troubling intolerance increasingly gives the impression that he either cannot or does not wish to control the fringe elements of the Hindu nationalist right."

The problem with the position of the New York Times is embodied in its uncritical stance toward the violence of conversion, often through coercion and other times through the promise of money and services, that has been and continues to be carried out by Christian missionaries in indigenous communities in India and by Islamic efforts of conversion across marginalized spaces in rural and urban India. If the New York Times considers the act of conversion through coercion or through the promise of money to be fundamentally violent, it needs to take a critical stance toward many of the Catholic missions that lie at the heart of missionary services across underserved communities in India. If the New York Times considers conversion with some implicit promise of benefits as troubling, it needs to complicate its understanding of Mother Teresa and "Missionaries of Charity," whose fundamental mission of "uplifting the burden of the soul" is carried out through acts of conversion.

To target the under-served  and marginalized with the carrot of conversion is fundamentally an act of violence.

Many of the indigenous communities I have worked with in rural India are targets of such violence not just by the outfits of the Hindu Right, but also by the various missionary groups that masquerade the violence of conversion in the language of altruism. The act of violence is carried out through a facade of altruism offered by organized religion.

The Times article goes on to note: "In January, up to 100 Christians in West Bengal “reconverted” to Hinduism. Hard-line Hindu nationalist groups, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), make no secret of their support for a “homecoming” campaign designed to “return” non-Hindus to the fold."

Indeed such criticism of the VHP and RSS-orchestrated "homecoming" campaigns needs to be situated amid criticisms of Islamic conversions and Christian missionary activities that carry out violence through various forms of service delivery. The poverty of the disenfranchised becomes a golden opportunity for carrying out the violence of conversion.

I invite the New York Times to join its call to Narendra Modi for breaking his silence with a similar commitment to speaking vocally about the violence of conversion that is carried out by the US state through the missionary activities it supports across the globe.