HIMAL MEDIOCRITY SERIES – I
There is a well-known Southasian social scientist, a particular favourite of the editor of Himal, who describes himself on the jacket of a book as active in the environmental, human rights, alternative science and peace movements. Now I cannot say about the other three, but if this worthy is active in the environmental movement, then my name is Medha Patkar.
Exaggerated claims to a personal radicalism are the staple of Southasian social science, made with carefree abandon by man and woman, young and old, Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian, Bangladeshi and (I dare say) Maldivian. It was once all right to label a piece of work in descriptive terms, that is, to label a study of land relations in eastern Nepal as, precisely, A Study of Land Relations in Eastern Nepal. Now it would be presented as An Action-Research Project or Programme of Participatory Intervention, written by an activist intellectual or intellectual activist.
Why have these claims become necessary? First, to elevate the author, to dignify him or her with a moral authority that is believed to come through association, however tenuous, with a social movement or political project. Second, and simultaneously, the claim is made to intimidate readers, to coerce them into an a priori acceptance of the results of the article or book placed before them, to make certain that they ask no questions about the means by which these results have been arrived at. For how can one begin to challenge a study advertised as a critique of Western hegemony or an attempt to give voice to the voiceless? If one raises doubts about the reliability of the data or the validity of the methodology, one runs the risk of being made complicit in the projects of colonial/feudal/patriarchal domination
A particularly egregious example of this kind of behaviour was on display in the celebrated debate on the death of Captain Cook, conducted between two of the most highly regarded anthropologists in the world. Marshall Sahlins, of Chicago, and Gananath Obeyesekere, of Princeton but once of Peradiniya, disagree on how the death of the explorer was viewed by the native Hawaiians who caused it. But where Sahlins stays with the evidence and his particular interpretation of it, Obeyesekere also advances, in support of his view, his nationality, the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka, and to cap it all, the random reflections on the State of Humanity of a Colombo taxi driver.
The fact that his own skin colour, and the colour of some of his friends (including the unnamed cabbie) more closely approximate the pigmentation of the Hawaii islanders has encouraged Obeyesekere to claim privileged status in the debate, to argue that this allows him greater access to the voices of brown men speaking another language in another place in another century. It must be said however that the Princeton man was merely reproducing strategies perfected in Delhi and Dhaka, where one’s caste, gender or alleged participation in the environmental, human rights, alternative science and peace movements automatically assure the correctness of one’s views and the authenticity of one’s data.
There was a time when such claims were regarded as unnecessary even by those well-placed to make them. Consider the case of Nirmal Kumar Bose (1901-72), a man who was both one of India’s leading anthropologists and a partisan of the Indian national movement. Bose was jailed by the British for participating in the Civil Disobedience movement in the 1930s. Later, in the forties, he served as Gandhi’s secretary while the Mahatma was on a walking tour in the riot-torn villages of eastern Bengal.
This associate of Gandhi kept his politics and his scholarship strictly separate. He wrote on urgent and topical issues such as the fate of tribal people the economic life of cities, but never asked that his research findings be given a special hearing because, unlike other anthropologists of the day, he had a background of social activism. Nirmal Bose would always scrupulously demarcate the personal and the scientific, never feeling the need in his academic work to advertise his own, frequently deep, political engagements.
Could the activist claims of today’s social scientists be a product of deep-seated insecurity, a worry that their research work cannot ride on its own, that the frailties of evidence and argument need to be buttressed by bluster? One consequence of the radical mediocrity of Southasian social science has indeed been the declining significance of empirical research. This is especially marked in the two academic disciplines this writer knows best: history and anthropology.
Unlike more speculative subjects (such as economics, which when shown something in real life responds: “It may work in practice, but does it work in theory?”), these disciplines once prided themselves on the systematic and steady collection of facts. The historian burrowed away among old documents, moving from one archive to another in the attempt to reconstruct, from numerous disparate fragments, aspects of the world we have lost. The anthropologist spent a year or more in the field, learning a new language and whole-heartedly participating in the material and ritual life of his or her chosen community, so as to present a more faithful and comprehensive account of aspects of the world we still have
Over the past 20 years, the importance of field work and archival work has been greatly undervalued in the university. Within both history and anthropology, the move has been towards discourse analysis through the study of printed texts. All over the place, in the United States as much as in South Asia, political posturing has tended to take the place of careful research. Thus, the historian exhumes a book written by a long-dead colonial official and damns it as racist, or, for variation, takes apart a tract by a nationalist icon such as Nehru or Jinnah.
The anthropologist, meanwhile, indulges in acts of intellectual parricide, in the deconstructive destruction of his forebears. Earlier (and safely-deceased) anthropologists are arraigned on all kinds of charges, from being agents of colonial rule to simple exploiters of the knowledge of their informants.
Admittedly, there are still some historians who work away in the archives, as well as the odd ethnographer who likes to rough it out in the field. But they are decidedly not the ones in the vanguard of their profession, not the ones in fashion, not the ones looked up to by the young. Now is the moment to make your reputation through phony radicalism, by imputing motives and abusing from the comfort of your armchair the work done in distant places by honest, hardworking scholars. There are signs that the fashion is passing, but it has already exacted a terrible toll, by polluting the minds of talented but impressionable students, directing them away from the kind of work that shall last.
Contrast the careers of our mediocre radicals with the intellectual Honesty of a scholar who happened to be white, male, and British—all the wrong things to be nowadays, a triple disqualification for one’s work to be taken seriously. His name was Edward Palmer Thompson, and he is an exemplar for our humbugridden times. A future biographer of E.P. Thompson shall have to distinguish four phases of his career: communist educator, historian, peacenik, and historian again.
In the late 70s, at the peak of his influence in the academy, Thompson abandoned scholarly work, throwing himself into the peace movement. At the time, he had two or three major books half-finished but when his conscience called, he set his drafts aside to lead the opposition to the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe. Thompson returned to complete his books only after the peace movement had died a natural death, with the end of the Cold War.
All the while that he was an activist, Thompson did not so much as glance at his notes. This was because of his abiding respect for the scholarly vocation, his knowledge that history’s muse demands an undivided and unqualified attention. Compare his behaviour with that of our indigenous Southasian radicals, whose claim that they are both activist and academic speaks only of the low esteem in which they really hold both vocations.