Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Academic freedom is the anchor to social science scholarship

Trained as an agricultural engineer in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), on the underlying technology and mechanics of agricultural innovations, I was drawn to the social sciences because I stumbled into the early realization that any design of technological solutions is incomplete without taking into consideration the societal, cultural, and contextual dimensions that constitute technologies and their uses. Working with poor rural and urban communities, one of the early lessons I was taught by community leaders who had developed their wisdom through the grueling and committed community work was this: narrowly technical solutions to problems of marginalization and inequality erase, often strategically so, the very underlying causes. This simple yet profound realization, mostly emerging from the communities I found myself conversing with, drove me to the social sciences, and more specifically to communication as it offered a pragmatic anchor to developing solutions to the problems I was interested in.

As I went through graduate school and in my early career as an Assistant Professor, I found the answers to the challenges of marginalization and inequality at best incomplete, and in most instances, constitutive of the status quo. Moving back and forth between the theorizing of communication as a vehicle of social change and the practical struggles of communities at the margins, I felt challenged by the vast gap between the empirical evidence grounded in community life and the distant top-down theorizing that was imposed on communities, often by local elites, drawing on theories manufactured in Western sites of knowledge production and funded mostly by Western agencies (state development agencies, private foundations, private corporations etc).

This challenge formed the critical foundation as my students and I worked on formulating the key tenets and applications of the culture-centered approach (CCA), embedded in community life and in the rhythms of community organizing. The many journeys of collaborations with communities that were often at the very margins of the knowledge systems that generated theories about these communities became the basis for articulating conceptual tenets that challenged the foundational categories of social change communication theory.

Any challenge to the status quo is on one hand, ridiculed by the power structures that perpetuate the status quo. On the other hand, the constitution of an academic community founded on the principles of argumentation enable the possibilities of new thought to emerge through reviews that critically engage the scholarship. The work of the CCA had similar experiences through its journey. In many instances, manuscripts were rejected because they offered arguments that were critical of the disciplinary status quo. Reviewers often noted how manuscripts did not engage with the dominant bodies of work, ignored these bodies of work, or misrepresented them in the critiques offered. In many other instances, reviewers noted the novelty of the arguments being made, attended to the evidence being presented, and considered the openings for the field created by the manuscripts.

This process of debate based on arguments, of going back-and-forth with evidence, was enabled by the fundamental commitment of scholarship to academic freedom. The very principle of knowledge production is grounded in freedom to explore new ideas, to challenge existing norms and diktats based on evidence, and to create new conceptual frameworks based on critical engagement with the evidence available to the scholar. Without the fundamental guarantee of freedom, knowledge would continue to be regurgitated within narrow domains of beliefs held by those in power who control the circuits of knowledge production.

This is particularly salient in the social sciences. The goal of the social sciences to generate truth claims, albeit fragmented and tentative, about social systems only becomes possible through a fundamental societal commitment to academic freedom.

In societies that don't value and safeguard the very foundation of academic freedom, conducting social science scholarship is impossible.

In other words, societies that don't fundamentally value academic freedom are not equipped to guarantee social scientists the basic integrity of scientific work. In such instances, the claims that are manufactured by charlatans posing as social scientists are meant to keep the status quo intact, singing the praises of power, obfuscating empirical evidence to tell the stories of power, and often carrying out the public relations work for powerful actors through the manufacturing of evidence that suits powerful actors.

The work of social science becomes one of maintaining and reproducing power rather than being ethically committed to generating truth claims anchored in empirical evidence.

For social sciences to carry out the work of generating truth claims therefore, the first and foremost work of social scientists is to actively lend their bodies to the struggles for academic freedom and to continue working to maintain the spaces of academic freedom.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

So why do we at CARE (the Center for Culture-centered Approach to Research and Evaluation) do what we do?

The culture-centered approach (CCA) outlines a conceptual framework for communication for social change, developing empirically grounded tenets that map out key concepts of communication within the broader ambits of social change.

As a meta-theoretical framework for communication for social change, the CCA explores the ways in which culture, structure, and agency constitute spaces for meaning making and sites of participation for communities at the margins of social systems.

Social change in the context of marginalization specifically attends to the co-creation of communication infrastructures, communication tools, and communicative spaces where the voices at the margins of societies are heard.

From the question of systematic erasure of subaltern subjectivity, the CCA theoretically grapples with the work of communicative processes in disrupting these erasures, the role of communication in struggles for voices to be heard, and the array of communication strategies that open up possibilities for transforming structures.

In answering the questions, "What communication strategies work in challenging erasures?" "What are the communicative infrastructures that enable subaltern voices to be heard?" the CCA is embedded within a contingent, impure, and dynamic site of communicative practice. The theory of practice emerges from the practice itself. In this sense, the culture-centered scholar has to do the work of social change communication to tease out the key lessons of social change communication.

To observe the social change communication processes from a distance is unlikely to generate valid and reliable concepts because the very nature of social change communication involves nuances and practices that are usually invisible to an external observer. For instance, while a removed external observer, sitting in her ivory tower, might claim that "there is no possibility for dialectical articulations in Singapore," an immersed reading of social change communication might point to very different lessons regarding the array of communicative strategies that are put into work everyday by different actors. 

As an empirically grounded meta-theory, the CCA is by nature community immersed. The tenets of social change emerge through the collaborative work of academics with communities at the margins, and also with a range of other actors including state agencies, activists, and civil society organizations. The nature of these relationships, however, are fundamentally grounded in the challenge of "how to build communicative infrastructures for listening to the voices of the margins."

The theory of communication for social change, grounded in cultural articulations and constituted in iterative relationships with structures, emerges through the work of "doing" communication for social change. In this sense, the doing of communication for social change is deeply intertwined with the concepts that are distilled out, and mapped into the meta-theory of social change communication. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sati, consent, and power: White men and predatory behavior in Asia


During our trip to Phuket, Debalina and I were inundated with images of White men, mostly middle-aged and above, roaming the streets of Phuket with women that seemed to barely have crossed their teens or just beyond their teens.

This sight, of the "old White man" with a young Asian woman, often old enough to be his daughter, is a fairly common sight across East and Southeast Asia.

The image is so common that it is naturalized as part of the scenery, a normative element of the "unique selling proposition" of Phuket, Bangkok, Bali.

The liberals and Asian apologists of cultural tourism have often responded with the concept of consent, noting that the women participating in these "relationships" offer their consent in participation, that they are fully aware of the consequences of participating in such relationships, and therefore, make active choices.

However, consent and participation are never devoid of power. To construct some elaborate narrative of human agency devoid of the structures at play reproduces the exploitative nature of the structures.

Consent is constituted within networks of power, tied to the seductions and affordances offered by power, even as power constrains the possibilities available to those at the receiving end of powerful relationships.

Consent thus is imbricated within the network logics that make up possibilities, possibilities of a better life, possibilities of mobility, possibilities of negotiating structures, possibilities of economic access.

The nature of sexual consent is further complicated by the ways in which patriarchies shape the normative expectations within and outside of institutions. Relationships of power, embedded in clearly signalled differentials in economic access, constitute specific logics of consent that reproduce the vastly unequal terrain of power and control.

The apologia of the "old White man with a young woman" discourse is a reminder for me of the apologia for Sati, the practice in India rooted in the marriage of young women to Brahmin men old enough to be their father or most often, grandfather.

The discursive justifications of Sati were often rooted in notions of consent, celebrating the agentic choices women made in their participation in the ritual, which ended in them being forced onto the pyre of their dead husbands.

In any social system, the powerful deploy the notion of consent to reproduce structures of power.

The notion that "women enact their consent when participating in exploitative relationships with predatory men" reproduces the circuits of power, upholding the participation of institutions to reproduce these logics of exploitation.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The flipside of a monolithic collaborative stance in culture-centered processes of change

Figure: The activist Samarendra Das organizing the Foil Vedanta campaign in the backdrop of the Vedanta mining operations in Zambia.

Culture-centered processes of social change, grounded in the voices of the margins within local contexts, explore the ways in which communicative spaces can be co-created through collaborations with those at the margins.

In the co-creation of these communicative spaces as well as resulting from these communicative spaces, a plethora of communicative strategies emerge.

For those at the margins, these strategies become ways of securing access to resources that are mostly erased or absent.

While in many instances, collaborating with(in) institutional structures to shift normative expectations prove to be effective, in many other instances, an antagonistic strategy is necessitated to create the grounds of claims-making.

A monolithic focus on collaboration with institutional structures often ends up perpetuating the status quo, without creating the transformative openings for constitutive structures.

Without antagonism that is public, grounded in community voice, too many opportunities are left intact for those in power to co-opt the culture-centered processes.

At the end, what strategy is going to work and what is going to be deployed has to be carefully developed through community participation, engaged with activist and academic partners.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Incestuous left academic circuits, power games, and erasures

Much of the left-posturing academic circuits is an incestuous power game, especially so when one considers the Left circuits within Asian academe. The postcolonial Left, often born within elite English speaking families with networks and inbuilt connections, reproduces the same old colonial structures.

To elucidate this point, I will draw upon a recent experience that travels through Facebook.

The last two years, I have served as an external reviewer on a graduate committee where a Nigerian student had been struggling and the rest of the committee wanted to decline the student a degree after all the work the student had put in. I was struck by the lack of mentorship and access to structural resources to the student. This is what I had written on my Facebook wall on August 10, 2017:

"academicwhiteness #colonialbullshit Calling out the racist bs that makes up much of European academe. After much thought, just got done with writing a minority evaluation letter to a European University that took in a Nigerian student, gave him very little guidance, and now wants to fail him on his dissertation. Sadly, the Asians are too happy replicating the same bullshit.

"The student has done extensive revisions based on the inputs offered by the committee. The current draft reflects a detailed analysis of the data, connecting the data to theoretically based interpretations, and offering insights into the communicative processes in negotiations of health and care. Therefore, I am ready to pass the thesis, based on the criterion of sufficiency. At this point let me also note my concerns regarding the overall processes of student advising at your university, especially when taking in international students from underserved contexts. I am not inspired by the level of support and advice available to the student. So we don't continue to reproduce racist and colonial biases in processes of student examination and evaluation, adequate steps need to be present that offer students clear guidelines, nurture them, and walk them through the contexts of academic norms within the Eurocentric academe."

This bs that makes up the standards of Whiteness needs to be called out."


Matsurah Alatas, whom I had friended on Facebook because she posted insightful comments on a debate on the wall of the scholar Simon During, responded with the following:
"Pardon me, but how well do you know "European academe" (which differs vastly from nation to nation) to say that "much of it" is made up of "racist bs?" (note the condescension in her tone of phrasing the question, which we will come back later to)

Although I had already explained the context based on the specific case (of the Nigerian student) I was drawing my account from, here is what I repeated:

"Let's see, I have served as an external committee member or reviewer for the British, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Belgian, and French systems (there are more, but these come to my mind as I think of recent experiences). When it comes to mentoring and evaluating students from the global South, I am sorry to say that I see much of each of these systems reiterate the racist bs that makes up their colonial organisational structures. Would love to be educated otherwise."

The Singapore activist-academic Sangeetha Thanapal, who is on my Facebook friends list, responded:

"Lololol. Hundreds of years of violent colonialism, continued study after study on institutionalized racism in European universities, and still apparently, the question needs to be asked. Weird. Academics are supposed to be able to read past research right? Well, not if your career is built entirely on your father's name, I suppose. "

Ms. Alatas did not respond to either Sangeetha or my response.

I was therefore surprised, when on October 29, 2017, more than two months after the initial exchange, Ms. Alatas posted on her FB, with an article titled "The apology:"

"As a writer and a teacher, I have lots of things to apologise for all the time--mistakes, wrong tone, inaccuracies, being late-- and I do so all the time.

Last week, a US academic apologised for a post, and I really appreciated it. It showed the integrity and professionalism of the person.

A few days ago, someone reminded me of another post, Mohan Dutta’s, from some months ago. He is someone I do not know and who asked for friendship some time ago. He is professor of communications at the National University of Singapore. Re the post, I had asked him why he said much of European academe was full of “racist bullshit” since I know tons of people in European academe. One commentator, S. Thanapal (someone who gave what many have recognised as a bad interview on Singapore which came out in boundary 2, of all places) out of the blue jumped into the discussion to say that my “academic career” was built on my father’s name.

The whole thing was embarrassing because, first of all, I am not an academic as such, so the commentator has blown her credibility all on her own in one quick swipe. Secondly, I live in a country where my father is practically unheard of.

But this is just one of the many stories about prejudice and misogyny. We see the racist European but we do not see the non-racist European or migrant in European academia who may have some power. Also, there are actually women in the world who get jobs, and not because they are helped by their fathers’ names.

Fb is a place that is full of cantankerous, aggressive academics. Let it be known that Dutta never apologized for the slanderous remark made by Thanapal. Anyone can manage their posts as they like, but reputations are made or broken this way.

Should we judge friends by their friends? We do so all the time, from political alliances to business dealings to the company our children keep.

There is no reason not to do so also in this space.

I am very proud of the behaviour of all of my friends in this place, which include many, many young, spontaneous angry frustrated voices of Italian youth. Not once, over the years, has anyone been rude or slanderous or aggressive on my wall.

For this, I thank you all.

And I apologise if I have ever been so."

What strikes me about the exchange is the incestuous referential power that flows uncritically in Left academic circuits in postcolonial spaces, using the feudal strategies of "hearsay," "marking," "othering," and "respectability politics" to stifle debate. Sangeetha's valid point about the history of colonialism and how that is intertwined with logics of Whiteness that constitute knowledge production remained obfuscated in this one-sided mis-labeling. That I had extensively offered the context to my post, further added more context to respond to her question, and invited her to educate me otherwise remained obfuscated in the post made by Ms. Alatas. That I was originally responding from my sense of solidarity with a Nigerian student remained obfuscated. Ms. Alatas, from her elite privilege, somehow does not even notice the student's ordeal in a racist Eurocentric institution that the post began with.

We are told Ms. Thanapal is not credible because Ms. Alatas proclaims she is not an academic as suggested by Ms. Thanapal (and yet publishes academic pieces, and that too, in edited collections such as one edited by the Left celebrity Vijay Prashad, alongside bigwigs such as Naomi Klein, Rafia Zakaria, John Bellamy Foster, and Ghassan Hage). I am unsure about what Ms. Alatas' definition of being an academic here is.

Ms. Alatas suddenly becomes the tone police (who cares about rudeness, aggression, and slander), while her own tone in responding to my post was condescending and rude (asking how well I knew European academe).

That this comes in the back of ongoing witch hunt in elite academic circuits in Singapore that target Sangeetha Thanapal is no surprise. In a small place where privilege makes up the basis of  a tight-knit performance of meritocracy, an author making contentious points about Chinese privilege and its circulation (including within academe) is an easy target for bullying.

I am not at all apologetic about the comment posted by Sangeetha, and stand by her. That civility is often a communicative tool of the elite that maintains the status quo is a point I have often put forward in my own academic work as well as activism, standing by colleagues all the way from Steven Salaita to Dana Cloud. That established standards of communicative civility (that take their own forms of "saving face" of the power elite in Singapore) often erase the voices that interrogate the status quo is substantiated by systematic communication scholarship.

Moreover, Sangeetha's observation about the academic privilege that Ms. Alatas draws upon is a point that needs to be critically interrogated. I am not sure what Ms. Alatas refers to when she sees prejudice and misogyny. If she sees prejudice and misogyny in an act of calling out her own privilege (because of who her father is), that points toward the sort of unreflexivity that keeps academic power intact. If she sees prejudice and misogyny in a genuine critique of the Whiteness that makes up the marginalizing practices in European academe, it points to her inability to engage with the extensive body of literature on Whiteness and its continued erasures.

Clearly, my original post was referring to the logics of White colonialism that make up academic forms and processes in many European institutions. That there are many people of color in Europe has nothing to do with the Whiteness of the Eurocentric academic structures. Ironically, Ms. Alatas refers to people of color in Europe in positions of some power to make up her claim about European multiculturalism, apparently oblivious to the everyday racisms and struggles that students and colleagues of color in precarious positions have to negotiate in Europe (which was the point of my original post). She appoints herself as the prejudice-police, erasing the stories of institutional racism that make up many academic structures in Europe.

Sangeetha's intervention in boundary 2 that interrupts the implicit racism of Chinese privilege in Singapore becomes the subject of attack. To attack this powerful and much-needed intervention in Singapore, Ms. Alatas does not offer any arguments, but instead refers to some Brahminical power group. The essay is apparently not worthy we are told because "many have recognised as a bad interview on Singapore which came out in boundary 2, of all places."

Note once again the implicit referential power of elite networks, working like some elite high school clique. This network does its power from gossip circles of the powerful. There is no need to engage arguments or offer thoughtful critique. Simply stating that some Brahmin club labels this as a bad interview perpetuates the elitist hegemony that unfortunately marks many Left circles in postcolonial societies. Also, Ms. Alatas carefully obfuscates the fact that she had earlier written a response to Ms. Thanapal's work by referring to her father's scholarship (demonstrating precisely the claim Ms. Thanapal was making; a well-connected and networked in elite member delegitimising a Tamil academic-activist with no apparent connections and already the target of various forms of bullying).

Beyond this debate about the inability of the postcolonial elite subject to mark and interrogate elite Eurocentric practices of erasure lies the point about the disempowering/silencing power of privilege, which is precisely what Sangeetha's post refers to.

The post made by Ms. Alatas makes reference to reputation, suggesting that a person is known by the friends he/she keeps and the ways in which he/she manages these friends, a typical strategy of privilege to silence opposing views. Implicit in the post is the cliquish threat of bad-mouthing someone that is critical, talking about them in hidden circles of power groups rather than engaging them in debate.

She states: "Should we judge friends by their friends? We do so all the time, from political alliances to business dealings to the company our children keep. There is no reason not to do so also in this space."

It is unfortunate that the Left space in postcolonial societies has become one of reputation management, carefully cultivating one's friends list so he/she is in with the God fathers and God mothers. My reputation is not tied to whispering cliques and girl/boy clubs, but rather to my scholarship, my role as a teacher, and my engagement in social justice projects with communities. I have never cared much about cliques to draw my reputation, and find the very idea of reputation to be both status quo-affirming and intellectually boring.

To the extent that postcolonial societies continue to reproduce power in these tight knit elite networks in privileged spaces, containing them within radical pronouncements, there is no hope for the Left. Left is much more of a power/performance game rather than a site of critical intervention and actual decolonization.

The cliquish cultivation of the right friends only cultivates group think in elite positions of privilege, devoid of engagement with the real struggles of real people, and erasing the sites that actively need to be decolonized.

The real struggle for decolonization ahead of us lies in disrupting these elite circuits of referential power that operate within postcolonial spaces, complicit with racist Eurocentric structures of power. "Decolonizing postcoloniality" as another Facebook friend Priyamvada Gopal puts it, is the only starting point. This starting point however, has to actively engage questions of social justice, interrogating the deep forms of marginalization that are perpetuated by/in elite networks.

The elite gibberish in postcolonial circuits erase the subaltern within our very academic spaces even as we spout the politics of the Left imaginary. The Nigerian student whose story I initially began my post with is entirely obliterated in this politics of postcolonial power games. To decolonize postcoloniality is to decolonize the very cliquish practices within our academic structures that reproduce the silences of the margins within these postcolonial elite power circuits. To decolonize postcoloniality is to disrupt the marginalizing racist logics that flow across sites of White and postcolonial elite politics, and collaborate to reproduce silence.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Whisky-sipping, gender-bending, Kolkata radical

In reading the names that have formalized and given voice to the hushed conversations about sexual harassment by radical-posturing academics in Raya Sarkar's List, one is struck by the repeated appearance of a particular kind of elite, the highly networked Kolkata elite.

This elite, inaugurating the posturing conversations of postcolonial and Subaltern Studies, occupies a radical space in the Kolkata imaginary, and by extension, the desi imaginary.

One striking feature of this elite class is its access to spaces of radical posturing simply by virtue of being born in upper middle class, highly mobile, Convent-educated Kolkata families, with an ancestral history of prostrating to their British colonial masters.

Often educated at posh Kolkata English medium private schools that afford access to the art of language trapeze, networked in by parents working in Ad agencies and multinationals, offered pathways by parental connections into elite Kolkata universities, and groomed in the establishment Calcutta and Bengal Clubs, this elite category is highly mobile, from Kolkata to New York.

This or that "dada," this or that "mesho" or "mashi" opens up the connections to other networks of privilege and entry into this parochial club.

For most of its life, this elite class grows up with utter disdain for or complete cognitive erasure of the poor that live in shanty towns and squatter colonies right outside the posh New Alipur and Ballygunge Phari homes. The rural only appears in its Shantiniketan culture tours.

By extension, the organized Left of Bengal is entirely absent or derided in its registers.

This class is born with the birthright to its version of urban radicalism, postured in listening to John Lennon, learning to play guitar as one composes radical-sounding Bangla rock, and theorizing its radicalism in marijuana parties. Gender bending is one extension of this bourgeoisie position, performed from elite privilege.

Highly parochial and exclusive, the elite club puts up a wide range of barriers to any outsider. Talking in elite tongue that recirculates all the way to New York via London, various strategies of exclusivity are strategically cultivated. And then when in New York or London, some chic-sounding pretense of solidarity with displaced farmers becomes the perfect recipe for the entry pass to other elite circuits.

Devoid of questions of class struggle and structural transformation, this elite group finds refuge in performing its radicalism in the marijuana parties, whisky addas, Calcutta club gatherings, Foucault, and Derrida.

The ongoing conversations on desi versions of sexual harassment open up a window into the faux radicalism of this Kolkata radical.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When you come home mother

When you come home mother,
You with your power and glory,
and blessings and grace.
These saffron-wearing thugs,
bandanas on their heads,
tridents in their hands,
the asuras of the Hindu-rashtra,
run in fear for their lives.

When you come home mother,
You with your love and anger,
and strength and justice.
These hate-mongering chanters
of Ram-naam,
with hate in their hearts,
the desecrators of your name,
go into hiding.

When you come home mother,
You with your joy and rage,
and care and force.
These miscreants that plant
the seeds of violence,
threaten to turn your land
into Gujarat or Ayodhya,
evanesce into the ether.

When you come home mother,
You with your power and glory,
and blessings and grace,
Your children, Hindus and Muslims,
come together in united resolve,
To keep these mandarins of
hatred and violence
Out of your land.