Friday, September 16, 2016

Your White Progressivism

When your White status quo
Wants to internationalize
Under your oh so
Progressive banner
I shudder.
At the thought of
Your pox, malaria, syphilis, cholera
That you will bring
With your civilizing mission.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Individualized faculty performance: When unbridled meritocracy breeds selfishness

As a faculty member who has been teaching for almost two decades, I recall the many times I have felt so lucky to have the mentorship and support of senior colleagues.

Senior colleagues have thoughtfully provided feedback on my paper, with line-by-line edits, the paper entirely marked by notes in pencil. Senior colleagues have observed me teach, make mistakes, built up my spirit, and shown me strategies of teaching large and small lectures. Senior colleagues have taken me aside and given me advice on various aspects of academic life. To all these senior colleagues, I owe much of my academic survival.

That I survived in the academy and did so somewhat well is a product of the countless hours and unpaid labour these colleagues put in. They did all this with a smiling face, with compassion, and with care in their hearts.

The increasing privatization of the University in recent years and the ascendance of the privatized logic however is breeding a different kind of self-serving academic.

For this self-serving academic, university life is all about beating the performance metric so they can earn the next bonus or the next accolade. Success is narrowly defined as self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. Often at the cost of others.

For senior faculty in this individualized system, junior colleagues are seen as competitors, to be harshly evaluated, to be compared with, and to be put down.

Faculty members no longer want to share their lecture notes and PowerPoint slides with junior colleagues. After all, it is the job of the junior colleague to come up with her or his own lecture notes and PowerPoint slides. The irony is particularly rich when one recognizes how the careers of these individual faculty members ride on the generosity and kindness of other senior colleagues who have unconditionally shared syllabi, notes, slides, assignments, grant proposals, authorship, datasets etc.

Leave aside sitting through classes and giving feedback, faculty are incentivized perversely to think of junior colleagues as competitors. Rather than come from a framework of solidarity and love, for these faculty in an individualized performance-driven system, the performance is one of harsh evaluation. The performed subjectivity of senior scholars or want-to-be senior scholars in this sort of a privatized system is one of holding up criteria when evaluating junior colleagues without ever turning the harsh light of the criteria on their own scholarly record. As long as you can trick the system to look good on certain metrics, you have succeeded.

Unfortunately then, what goes on in the name of meritocracy in such instances is mediocrity, garbed in individualized and selfish notions of performance metrics.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Intimate Sites of Violence in Yuppie Indian Cyber Cities

The Cyber sprawl of Yuppie hi-tech Cities across India is intimately marked by violence.

Cities such as Noida, Ghaziabad, Cyberabad, and Bangalore narrate stories of violence, both in the expressions of everyday forms of violence that are narrated in the mainstream, and more powerfully so in the everyday forms of violence that remain hidden, tucked away under the glossy images of smart, green cities advertised in the brochures seducing non-resident Indians (NRIs).

Often these sordid stories of violence narrated in the Yuppie media and shared in Yuppie networks, scripted as tales of rape, robbery, and murder obfuscate the violence of class, caste, and displacement that remain hidden from the everyday narratives of a Yuppie culture and the mainstream media that caters to this culture. The enunciation of violence, what gets talked about and what doesn't, is a reflection of the overarching violence of social class and inequality written into the Yuppie City. The telling of these stories enunciate the anxieties of the elite, while simultaneously rendering invisible the profound loss and everyday emotional labour borne by the city's poor.

Violence is the foundation of Yuppie hi-tech cities in India, that have been designed and implemented through displacement. The usurping of farming lands, displacement of farming communities from these lands, and the disenfranchisement of the landless laborers that often tilled these lands are forms of violence that are routinized into the everyday assumptions of the mainstream. These displacements are carried out often through everyday acts of violence, realized through tools of threats, coercion, rapes, and murders. Land mafia, developers, and city planners work hand-in-hand to legitimize the violence of displacement as necessary for growth, and simultaneously render invisible these forms of violence. In the mainstream media of Shining India, these stories of violence are not newsworthy as they don't draw in the audience of Yuppie viewers, and thus are not ratings-worthy.

The poor, dispossessed from their sources of livelihood in a rapidly-displaced agrarian economy settle in make-shift colonies at the peripheries of IT-cities, tucked away beyond and behind the seductions of clean greenness. The manicured lawns, glass buildings, and paved highways make invisible these shanty towns. The everyday work of urban planning and city construction works incessantly to make invisible these warts and moles of the city, carefully sculpted into zoning, urban development, and slum rehabilitation policies.

Even as the poor in the peripheries of the IT-city are displaced further and further from their sources of livelihood, other poorer classes of India, displaced from their sources of local livelihoods in a neoliberal economy, migrate to the peripheries of the IT-cities. They settle in the shanty towns in the periphery, seeking to find informal and unskilled work in the city, hoping to sell their labour to eke out a living. Their labor forms the backbone of the private infrastructures of Yuppie life in the hi-tech cities.

Working as guards, nannies, domestic workers, gardeners, cleaners etc., the poor struggle to make a living at the seams of the city. Working as day-labourers at construction sites, they form the backbone of the cities. Their everyday work is the work of cleaning up, of doing the shining for Shining India.

How this work is paid for or not paid for, however, depicts the violence of/in the city. Without union representation and without access to collective bargaining, the unskilled poor working in these sectors of the neoliberal economy have no social protections, no health insurance, no workplace insurance, and often no access to pathways of bargaining for a decent wage. Working in an informal economy, with no labour representation and no accessibility to collective mobilization, they often struggle with poor pay, long hours, and no workplace guarantees. For the informal labour in the yuppie city, there is no safety net.

There are no leave policies and no days off during the week. From Monday to Monday, seven days a week, 365-days a month, the work carries on. The state offers no protection to these workers in its informal economy.

Add to this everyday assault on the poor the attacks on basic human dignity that is experienced on a day-to-day basis. For the Yuppie, the poor must be rendered invisible. The work of making the poor invisible is the work of ritualized symbolic violence.

The Yuppie-IT cities are built on dreams of a shining India. For the yuppies living in these cities, the poor are an unwanted but necessary paraphernalia. Necessary to take care of their children, do the domestic chores, and carry out the everyday work. Necessary to keep the appearance of the manicured lawns and the gyms equipped with the latest equipment. Necessary to do the dirty work so the city can shine.

Unwanted as the sight of the poor disrupt the shining make-believe worlds the yuppies aspire to live in. The air-conditioned lobbies, lifts, and hallways, the decorated gardens, and spiffy swimming pools are carefully managed to keep out the sites of the working poor. Separate elevators for the maids, gardeners, and the many vendors that serve the city demarcate the spaces of the poor from the spaces of Yuppie comfort. Housing management develop policies of strict gate-keeping to render pure the spaces of Yuppie life, free from contamination by the poor. Swimming pools, gym areas, gardens are quarantined, outside of the reach of the poor.

Elaborate rituals of demarcation mark the bodies of the poor. In the intimate spaces of homes, separate utensils are kept for the domestic worker. The narrative of "hygiene" marks spaces of purity, uncontaminated by the poor. The rituals of boundary formation in everyday life mark the inside and the outside, carrying out the structures of caste in deeply internalized ways. The forms of communication further reproduce these boundaries. The lower caste poor, the domestic worker, the gardener, the guard, must be kept in check, must be disciplined and controlled. The worker must be managed. However, reflecting an inverted world that exists in opposition to the fun IT and finance-work-spaces emulating US-work cultures, the managerial discourses of domestic worker management are devoid of articulations of fundamental worker rights, protection from harassment at workplace, and access to workplace grievance policies.  The violence of everyday abuse is normalized.

The violence in intimate spaces of Yuppie cities is a concoction of India's caste structure, adapted to the workings of class-based inequalities and normalized in a narrative of growth, aspiration, and opportunity.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"She is difficult:" Whiteness and norms of civility

A normative response that often seems to circulate within our discipline when referring to brown critical feminist scholars is: "She is difficult."

The "She is difficult" trope works to signal the potential trouble a department might be inviting when it hires a brown critical feminist scholar.

The trope works as heuristic universal, as a signifier to mark the body of the "unruly brown woman."

It does so by circulating norms of civility constituted in White privilege. Communicative processes and forms that thus challenge this white privilege fall outside of the norm, as the abnormal.

Incivility, as a tool of the oppressor, works fundamentally to shut out interrogation of the Whiteness of the structures we inhabit.

Rather than interrogating the structures of White privilege that reproduce this privilege, norms of incivility often work unequally on the bodies of brown women. More so, these norms work on bodies of brown women who question the oppressive logics of a White patriarchal structure.

The label "She is difficult" thus often works to shut out the interrogation of the Whiteness and patriarchy that is integral to our disciplinary formation.

As a trope, "She is difficult" shuts out difference.

Paradoxically, it does so under the guise of multiculturalism and inclusive climate. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Elite articulations of the fourth industrial revolution: Pseudoscience that needs to be challenged

That unregulated globalization processes have produced large-scale global inequalities in the distribution of resources and opportunities is empirically documented.

These inequalities are so dramatic and the disaffection produced by them are so widely registered that elites and their mouthpiece pundits can no longer ignore the level of inequalities.

Having acknowledged the inequalities though, particularly in the backdrop of the financial crisis, elites fall back upon propaganda to justify and perpetuate the neoliberal status quo.

Rather than look at the inequalities as the product of unmitigated globalization processes that privilege those with power, experts offer theories that render as natural the state of inequalities.

One such elite explanation suggests that the large-scale inequalities we are witnessing today are the product of the "fourth technological revolution."

Without any data to back up their claims, these elites therefore prescribe smart strategies of adaptation to the status quo rather than fundamentally interrogating the status quo or questioning the overarching logics of trickle-down flow that constitute the status quo. Wearable technologies, driverless cars, automated workplaces are paradoxically offered as solutions to global inequalities.

In the face of the data that point toward the large scale job loss in the realm of automation or introduced by innovations that replace workers, these technological fixes to problems of unemployment and inequality paradoxically are the problems rather than the solutions they are pitched to be.

However, to offer a technological solution to a structural problem retains the structural configuration while at the same time continuing to co-opt the participation of disaffected workers in technologically embodied narratives of adaptation and skills improvement.

Rather than interrogating the political-economic formations that constitute the current state of global inequalities, these elite articulations prescribe new technologies and innovations to solve the problems of inequality and poverty that were generated on the first place by techno-deterministic policy formations.

The pronouncements made by elites at global forums are neatly packaged as scientifically derived.

Close examination of such elite claims however depict the absence of data or evidence to back up the new age imaginations of the fourth technological revolution.

The pseudoscience of "trickle-down economics" continues reinforcing itself, generating investments and venture capital funding for the next technological fix to global inequality that would simultaneously generate profits for social enterprises and transnational capital.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The spirit of the social sciences: Speaking truth to power

The social sciences offer insights into social, cultural, political, economic phenomena through empirically-driven work.

The quest for empiricism essentially means that the social scientist has to pay close attention to data in drawing her conclusions. Good social science is not simply about running an equation or generating a simulation on the basis of assumptions, but actually putting these observations and assumptions to test.

For instance, mathematically drawing out how two players may make specific choices in a game based on a rational actor model is perhaps irrelevant unless tested through empirical observations.

The observation of social phenomena thus is grounded in a commitment to generating truth claims, however contingent and incomplete.

It is possible that some or many of these truth claims that emerge from honest social science scholarship disagree with the broader assumptions or foregone conclusions of the dominant power structures in a given social-political-economic system.

For instance, when a social scientist observes the poor health effects of large-scale inequalities in systems, the conclusions drawn may not really be palatable to the political-economic plutocrats that govern many universities today.

Yet, the commitment of good social science lies in speaking these very truths, drawn from close study of data.

Speaking truth to power in this sense is quintessential to the integrity of social science.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Addressing Diabetes and Regulating the Food and Beverage Industry: Misplaced Stigmatization of Rice

Culture is integral to how we live our everyday lives, how we experience health and illness, and how we negotiate our health seeking behaviors. Cultural context is a salient aspect of our everyday experiences of health, giving meaning to our negotiations of health.

Yet, culture is often either neglected in health promotion efforts emanating from the West or deeply ingrained in Western values. Even more problematically, these Western-based ideologies of health promotion often work to precisely turn culture as a barrier to healthy behavior, instead working to change cultures elsewhere based on Western scripts, values, and concepts.

Culture thus emerges in health promotion efforts as backward and as the object of Western-style health promotion campaigns, using the narrative of health thus to disseminate Western-style values of health. What we have as a result often in the name of health promotion is a Western hegemony of health, pushing behaviors that are deeply Western, dressing these behaviors up in the name of science, and thus strategically obfuscating the Western cultural values underlying the proposed behavior.

Paradoxically, as I have noted in my work over the last fifteen years, the Western behaviors being promoted as healthy are often fundamentally unhealthy, and in other instances, are deeply embedded in value-driven notions of what is health. Nations such as the US and the UK are deeply problematic in terms of their unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors, thus witnessing the epidemics of diabetes and heart disease.

The role of culture in health is salient when considering diabetes, its prevention and treatment. Diabetes as a lifestyle disease, is a disease of globalization, the global movement of the unhealthy lifestyles of the West that have been projected as symbols of prosperity and upward mobility. Consider for instance, the global diffusion of the Pepsi and Coca Cola lifestyle that is attached to youth and symbols of upward mobility and modernity (unfortunately equated with Westernization).

It is another example of a paradox then when Western-imported knowledge claims are offered as solutions to a health problem that is in many ways a product of the "ways of the West."

Given the recent emphasis on addressing the diabetes epidemic in Singapore, it’s worthwhile to consider the cultural context of diabetes and the way in which culture may be taken into account in addressing the risks of diabetes as well as in developing potential solutions.

A nuanced understanding of culture and cultural context is however missing from most top-down health communication efforts that fail to take into account the lived experiences of people. In these interventions, culture is often treated as a barrier that needs to be transformed in order to diffuse the health solution.

Culture gets in the way and should be changed so that the health behavior can be disseminated among the target audience.

Consider for instance the recent coverage of diabetes prevention that has appeared in the mainstream media in Singapore. The "War on Diabetes" takes on rice, an unfortunate example of turning local cultural  practices into pathology and uncritically circulating Western knowledge claims. The targeting of rice by the Health Promotion Board's recent diabetes campaign apparently is based on meta-analyses published by the Harvard School of Public Health. An introduction to the campaign makes the following reference to the studies:

"A meta- analysis of four major studies, involving more than 350,000 people followed for four to 20 years, by the Harvard School of Public Health - published in the British Medical Journal - threw up some sobering findings. One, it showed each plate of white rice eaten in a day - on a regular basis - raises the risk of diabetes by 11 per cent in the overall population."

The reference to the study is not available in the references to it, and the study therefore is not accessible for analysis to the lay public. When I started looking for the study through targeted literature searches based on the description, I came across the following study published by Hu et al. (2012) in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) (this is probably the study the HPB is referring to but it is difficult to be certain given the lack of citation).

When the Hu et al. study was published, it came under criticism for its methodological drawbacks and a debate ensued in the May 2012 issue of the BMJ. These articles, published by Naqvi et al. (2012), Hu et al. (2012), and Kadoch (2012). Unfortunately, this debate is inaccessible to the public because it is located behind a firewall.

The Naqvi et al. article questioned the methodology adopted by the Hu et al. (2012) study, noting the limitations of self-reported measures of diabetes used in the study. In their response, Hu et al. (2012) acknowledged the unrepresentativeness of the study participants in comparison to the general population in those countries, thus limiting the generalisability of the findings.

In his response to the BMJ article, noted Dr. Michael Kadoch (2012, p. 28) of the Mount Sinai Medical Center: 

"White rice has been the staple of the Asian diet for thousands of years. For most ofthat time it produced some of the most slender people in history. Western diseases such as diabetes and coronary artery disease were almost unheard of in this region. Only after the comparatively recent adoption of high fat Western dietary habits, focused primarily on animal products and highly processed junk foods, have these illnesses become more prevalent in Asia."

Acknowledging the presence of White rice in the Asian diet for thousands of years, Dr. Kadoch draws attention to the rise in diabetes in Asia corresponding with the globalization of Western lifestyles to Asia more recently, accompanied by the rise of high fat Western dietary practices focused on junk food and animal products. Certainly as an anchor to the debate on lifestyles and diabetes, he draws attention to the unhealthy effects of the global diffusion of Western-style lifestyles.

He then goes on to note:

"Diets centred on white rice have, in fact, produced some of the most dramatic health benefits reported in the medical literature. The rice diet, as pioneered by Walter Kempner, has repeatedly been shown to drastically reduce hypertension, insulin resistance, and obesity. Low fat diets emphasising starch have reversed diabetes and coronary artery disease. These remarkable studies were all inspired by the traditional Asian cuisine. Encouraging patients to choose intact whole grains such as brown rice is certainly warranted. However, to rescue the Asian population from a mounting epidemic of chronic lifestyle diseases, most effort should be focused on removing the cause- the toxic Western diet. This may even justify promoting a return to white rice, instead of condemning it outright."

Note in the article the acknowledgment of traditional Asian cultural practices such as the practice of eating white rice as a potential solution to Western-induced lifestyle diseases. This debate in the pages of the BMJ draw attention to the questions that remain about the viability of the simplistic claim "White rice causes diabetes." Moreover, the debate attends to the important role of culture and cultural practices within the broader context of health outcomes. 

Let's then situate this debate in the backdrop of the Health Promotion Board's "War on Diabetes."

The lead Straits Times story on Diabetes prevention that appeared online on May 6, 2016 sought to hit home the point that Singaporeans needed to reduce their intake of rice. The story compared rice with sugary drinks, noting that eating a bowl of rice is equivalent to eating two cans of sugary sweet drinks.

The brief story description on FB summarized: “ICYMI: Starchy white rice can overload Asian bodies with blood sugar and heighten their risk of diabetes. It is even more potent than sweet soda drinks in causing the disease.”

The juxtaposition, while may be accurate when comparing carbohydrate content, does not take into account the everyday lived experiences of Southeast Asians with rice and the history of eating rice across various parts of Asia. Rice has long been a part of Southeast Asian cultures, a staple to most meals. 

Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand have comparatively lower diabetes prevalence rate and yet are mostly rice-consuming.

In Singapore, rice is a part of everyday culture, integrated into the ways of life of Indian, Malay, Chinese communities. In each of these cultural contexts however, rice is never eaten by itself. It goes along with some combination of vegetables, fish, meat make up what would be considered a balanced Asian meal.

It’s not just about eating the rice but also about how it is eaten and what is the portion of the meal. It is also about understanding the local cultural context, its nuances, and the lived experiences of everyday food habits.

In response to the ST Facebook post, one commenter noted “How to shiam rice in our Asian diet? We are fed rice the day we started to eat solids as a baby. If you go to angmo countries, you still yearn for rice for your meals. There is really no substitute for rice.”

One solution proposed in the story is adding brown rice to the mix. This suggestion, while worthwhile, also needs to take into account the cultural meaning of brown rice, the taste and texture of brown rice in the context of the entire meal, and the cost of brown rice compared to white rice. In the comments section of the Straits Times Facebook story, each of these aspects have been raised by community members. 

To consider culture is to make room for voices of community members in developing solutions that would be meaningful to them and their lived experiences. A culture-centered approach to addressing diabetes in Singapore would begin with understanding local cultural practices of eating and living, cultural understandings of diabetes, and developing culturally situated solutions through partnerships with everyday Singaporeans. Such an approach would celebrate local cultural practices as positive entry points toward developing solutions to health and well being.

Moreover the message foregrounding sugary sweet drinks as the benchmark for rice underplays the health effects of sugary sweet drinks as well as the prevalence of sugary sweet drinks such as “Coca Cola” and “Pepsi” in increasingly Westernized Asian lifestyles. Contrary to how the message might be interpreted as underplaying the role of sugary sweet drinks in diabetes, sugary sweet drinks and other processed foods are indeed key risk factors in the context of diabetes.

The health effects of sugary sweet drinks and processed foods on children and adolescents needs serious consideration. This is especially the case given the large proportion of advertising of sugary sweet and processed foods that is carried on online and offline media targeting children and youth. Policies need to carefully look at ways to regulate the food and beverage industry, particularly its targeting of children and youth through advertising and promotion. Policies might similarly look at raising the taxes on unhealthy foods such as sugary sweet drinks and snacks. Certainly, these are some of the approaches being adopted closer home in Asia.

Unfortunately, the comparison of white rice to diabetes framed in a message "The health authorities have identified one of their top concerns as they wage war on diabetes: white rice. It is even more potent than sweet soda drinks in causing the disease" can be misleading for parents. It might lead them to underestimate the poor health effects of sugary sweet drinks, especially when parents might not even be aware of the negative health effects of sugary sweet drinks to  begin with.

Similarly, the role of processed foods in the context of diabetes need to be carefully examined, simultaneously developing appropriate regulatory tools for processed food advertising and marketing.

Addressing diabetes, just as addressing any other health risk, calls for a deeper understanding of cultural complexities. Bringing community members to dialogues in developing participatory solutions, and understanding their everyday lived experiences are integral to the solutions that are developed. 

Finally, addressing the structural contexts of poor health and developing appropriate regulatory measures targeting the Food and Beverage industry is an important policy component.

In sum, a starting point in addressing diabetes in  Singapore ought to engage the local cultural practices, look at culture as a positive resource, understand the local cultural context, and make available the evidence on the basis of which claims are made for public engagement. Through these open dialogues on evidence that engage local communities and develop culturally meaningful solutions, Singapore's addressing of diabetes can emerge as a global exemplar.

Prof. Mohan J Dutta is Provost’s Chair Professor of Communication at the National University of Singapore, where he specializes on health communication and culture. He sits on the Advisory Board of WHO Europe’s “Cultural Contexts of Health Expert Advisory Group.”