Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for November 2016

The social sciences develop within a historical context which they influence even as they study.

This well-known “reflexivity” is often illustrated in the Indian context by referring to the British colonial practice of taking censuses. Census operations necessitated the drawing of sharp distinctions- of religion, caste, language, or whatever else the administrators had decided on as worthy of being counted.

The historian Sumit Sarkar notes that “Colonial modernity helped to tighten community bonds: it has less often been noticed, however, that it also stimulated forces that made them more fragile. What was coming into existence by the late-nineteenth-and early twentieth-century was a situation conducive to the growth of not one but many community-identities- religious, caste, linguistic-regional, anti-colonial ‘national’, class, gender, in interactive yet often conflictual relationships with each other.” (Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History)

The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of American social life in the 1820s has become a political classic. He was struck by the observation that the strong Puritan streak in early American religion meant that, since clerical authority was viewed with suspicion, every American was expected to form his own judgments, to aspire to self-sufficiency in thought and action.

This, of course, was unrealistic. The capacity to form independent judgements is something that one grows into during the course of a life. Individuality is formed though community and the practice of tradition, not in detachment from them. So, forbidden to follow custom or ecclesial authority, we look around to see what everybody else is thinking or doing. “The demand to be an individual,” observes Matthew Crawford in his recent book The World Beyond Your Head, “makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion.”

The founders of social polling such as George Gallup and Elmo Roper believed passionately that they were promoting democracy by constructing “rational citizens”. The supposedly “neutral” vocabularies of social science surveys thus structured new modes of self-understanding, prompting Americans to take a detached stance towards their own lives. This, ironically, led to the collectivisation and homogenization of the “public”, whether organized as a national polity or as demographic “communities”.

Sarah Igo tells the fascinating story of the birth of social surveys in The Averaged American. She observes that the Kinsey Reports on Americans’ sexual practices became objects of intense popular interest, maybe because they arrived (in 1948 and 1953) just as the received norms and mores were losing their authority. Everyone was left to her or his own devices. People were anxious to know if they were “normal”, where the only norms now available, were statistical: What’s the average? How many do it? The normative centre of gravity has shifted from parental or religious sources to the middle of a distribution.

Kinsey himself had once been an entomologist in a Midwestern university, and used this fact to present himself as a man of science who had turned from the study of beetles to human sexuality. He himself had unconventional sexual tastes, and it seems that his reports were attempts to reconcile these two aspects: liberation from sexual “hypocrisy” meant bringing everything out into the open. Igor writes that the “statistical reassurance” found by those who eagerly enrolled in the second survey was located in membership of “a community of potentially similar, though anonymous, others”. One could think of these as the first virtual communities. Kinsey’s data on homosexuality became a tool in the movement for gay rights, providing the epistemic foundation for gay identity politics. New links were forged between strangers, even as older bonds of family, locale and religion were eroded. One could leave the closet and find company in the box.

The format of the surveys structured a respondent’s identification with these anonymous others by way of categories such as professional, upper middle-class, black, etc. Igo notes that “individuals were coming to view themselves though the social scientific categories [Kinsey] and others had made available.” This gave birth to communities based on “sexuality”, ending isolation through the solace of numbers.

So emerged what Crawford labels “the stackable self” of identity politics.

The United States is one of the few countries that continues to use the dubious category of “race” in classifying its citizens. The Census Bureau is planning to add a new racial category for those from Middle Eastern/North African backgrounds. Given that most Americans equate Arab with Muslim, and with anti-Muslim rhetoric rife in some quarters of the media, Arabic-speaking Christians as well as Muslims are rightly fearful.

A white South African friend of mine told me how, during the apartheid era, whenever he was asked to enter his personal details on official forms he would write under “religion”, “none”; and under “race”, “Christian”.


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