What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?
I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy. My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies. It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time. More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people. I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves. But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly. So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself. New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.
CaMP Anthropology blog recognizes that information about books from some regions circulate more widely than books from other regions. To do our part in rectifying this inequality, we asked Dev Nath Pathak to discuss the analytical interventions his new edited volume offers to our field.
Max Weber was right when he perceived the powerful role of intuitive notions in scientific pursuits. A quest for culture and politics, their interface, and hermeneutic significance, in the chequered cartography called South Asia indeed solicits unbridled intuition. Following this, it could be said that our edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative Communication, published by Routledge (India) is a consequence of conceptual flirting and empirical lusting. It contains several bouts of intuition provoked by the soliloquies of individual scholars as well as conversations among them. And what does it seek to know– what is South Asia, if seen through the prism that collapses the binaries of power and performance, politics and culture, structures and meanings? Indeed the binaries do not exist, and never existed, insofar as it was about what we become though our diverse performances. We become citizens as we participate in the electoral performances, we become ethnos as we participate in festivities in rites of passage, we turn objective as we perform our own empirically sound researches and we are deemed deviant as we enact the Dadaist idea of anything goes. Even though we recognise that the format in which we play our roles entails binaries of good and bad, black and white, oppressor and oppressed, and even bourgeoisie and proletariat- we are performing with the complexity of Bourdieu’s habitus. Our being and doing are too finely intertwined to be viewed in separation. Often one thought that in a controlled performance in a proscenium theatre, the power relation is indubitably clear. Was it so? The relation of the scripted and the scripting always sprang surprises on us. It is just like the relation between structure and agency in theoretical discussions in social sciences, which cannot be mistaken for a linear, zero-sum power game. It is complex and fluid, despite the institutional determinacy and structural clarity most visible. This is very much what Emile Durkheim shows, that the normal and pathological stride together. Continue reading →
My dissertation explores the politics and semiotics of labor in India’s modernizing construction industry. I conducted fieldwork on a few key sites in the greater Delhi region where I attended to the ways workers, subcontractors and engineers understood their own and others’ productive activities. Drawing on linguistic anthropology I treat these understandings of productive activity as what I call ideologies of labor, to highlight the ways in which labor is not a pre-given category of action but rather something that is created through acts of framing productive activity. By analyzing how actors talked about, remunerated and recorded construction work I argue that production was shaped by tensions and translations between divergent ideologies of labor.
Page 99 falls in a chapter that illustrates one such tension in ideologies of labor based on fieldwork at a construction skill-training center in Faridabad. As I explain earlier in the chapter students and administrators at the center understood the very same productive activities in divergent ways. For administrators activities like carrying bricks were part of ‘practical’ training that would help students in their future careers as construction site supervisors. Students had quite a different understanding of this same activity, as for them brick carrying was considered ‘labor work’ and had the potential to transform them in a downwardly mobile direction into a laborer. Thus while administrators attempted to strip activities like carrying bricks of their associations with labor, students often reframed these activities through humor. Some students would refer to students who were carrying bricks as “laborers” which, as I point out on page 99, both construed the action of carrying bricks as “labor work” and not “practical” while also expressing an anxiety that engaging in such action would transform the actor into a laborer. The humor expressed a particular ideology of labor that was in opposition to that articulated by administrators. The remainder of the dissertation builds on this approach in analyzing production on a self-described “modern” construction site in Delhi. I argue that the practices of audit and accounting that marked the site as “modern” depended on the productive translations used by subcontractors and others to articulate divergent ideologies of labor to one another.
Adam Sargent. 2017. “Building Modern India: Transformations of Labor in the Indian Construction Industry.” University of Chicago, Phd.
By Susan Seizer “In the Western imagination, India conjures up everything from saris and spices to turbans and temples—and the pulsating energy of Bollywood movies. But in America, India’s contributions stretch far beyond these stereotypes. […] Today, one out of … Continue reading →