Thursday, April 13, 2017

The field is not just data: Reflecting on cultural centering


I began fieldwork in Jangal Mahal, among Santali communities experiencing disenfranchisement both materially and symbolically.

As a scholar interested in health outcomes and community participatory processes for securing health, the lived experiences of community members with extremely limited access to health resources was an entry point for developing communicative spaces where community members could come together and articulate their health needs, and seek out a variety of material solutions for addressing these needs.

Amid the extreme forms of marginalization, disenfranchisement from access to resources, discourses of resistance often appeared in community narratives as strategies for securing access to health.

When these narratives of resistance took material form in 2006, I stopped writing about my field sites as a decision that seemed natural to one of the key tenets of the culture-centered approach: reflexivity.

Reflexivity in this context meant that I had to attend to silence as a method.

Keeping silence was a methodological choice, one that emerged from the voices of community members. These stories were not to be told, as their time had not yet come.

Moreover, as my access to the field had become very limited between 2006 and 2011, I felt limited in making sense of any narrative. Stories flowed in complex and contradictory webs, not seamlessly fitting into the "sandwich" theory or a theory of "pure resistance." 

It is amid this silence that I am struck by the desire of the academic from the metropole to turn these spaces into objects of theorizing. The Kolkata academic sees Jangal Mahal as an artefact that would launch his career.

Once again today, when I received an inquiry from a scholar wanting to collaborate on the question of Maoist violence in Jangal Mahal, my response was simple: No.

The desire of the metropole to study subaltern resistance is the sort of academic voyeurism that breeds and reproduces the inequities that constitute Santali life. A day trip to the Santali community or a few days in a couple of villages become the basis for careers to be made from the exploitation of subaltern life.

This fundamental inequity in the production of knowledge, where the scholar from the metropole, from Kolkata or Chicago, can go into the community, pick up glimpses and then write up journal articles constitutes the very inequity that lies at the heart of the structural disenfranchisement experienced by subaltern communities.

The turning of the field into data that pushes academic careers lies at the heart of the communicative processes of material marginalization.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

For a daughter.

When a daughter is just being a child,
"Oh no, look at her.
Needs to be disciplined."
You tell me.
When a son is just being a child.
"This is how sons are,
he is just being a child"
You laugh.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Engagement amid structural silences.

Engagement taxes the body of the engaged academic.

Some days, when the body is tired, and the spirit has been beaten up by the insistence of structures to be impervious, the engaged academic wonders: What is the price we pay for engaged scholarship?

Engagement assumes a sense of willingness/openness of structures "to" engage. Engagement also assumes the continued openness of communities at the margins to engage, to come to conversations, especially when their lived experiences with engagement often teaches them to not trust structures, to not have hopes in the possibilities of making spaces within structures.

In this dance between community life and organized structures of social life, the engaged academic negotiates power, the privilege of the engaged position, and the challenges that come with it.

Because in so much of my earlier writings I attend to Spivak's evocative concept of "privilege as loss," in this post, I will attend to the other side of the journey of engaged scholarship: the challenges to engaged scholarship amid structural silences. How do we sustain the spirit of engagement amid structural rules, roles, codes, and formations that are immersed in techniques of top-down rule?

First comes the negotiation of the expectations of academic structures, increasingly constituted within parochial commercialized vision of the role of the University in communities, states, regions, and globally. The expectations of academic work, measured in frameworks that are pushed by private rankings-based, metric-driven corporations, are driven by top-down articulations that often privilege the production of academic work as writing.

What is the price we pay for the labor of engaged academic work that is not easily translated into journal articles, counted in top-tier, high impact factor journals in our fields?

The engaged academic therefore has to do double work in order to survive institutionalized academic structures, and in order to retain the space of academic-community engagement. Do the work of publishing so you can sustain yourself in academia. The work of engagement then comes as an addition.

And if engagement is to be performed with integrity, this means that the participation in community-activist networks is driven by a commitment to seeing change happen, not by the academic ends that would be met by the work. This means that the nature of the work is open-ended, fluid, and labor intensive. The engaged academic returns to engagement because of a commitment to communicative processes that bridge.

What is the price that engaged academics pay for this labor of continually pushing the definitions of what makes up academic work? And more pertinently, how does the engaged academic retain the spirit of engagement, grounded in community life while simultaneously negotiating the bureaucratic structures of Universities as institutions, constituted in the corporate logic?

Second, and more importantly, comes the work of engaging structures outside the University. Beyond the structures of academic life, engagement calls for continued negotiation with societal structures- institutions, bureaucracies, organizations. These include structures such as organizations delivering basic services such as food, health, and housing; structures of states and development institutions; and structures of global organizing that circulate the overarching ideas of governance. To engage is to continually push these structures toward opening up to "other" voices, with a deep commitment to reflexivity.

However, the notion of creating space that sites outside of the dominant agendas is usually seen by the dominant structures as threatening. What is the price to be paid for continually pushing these structures that are typically impervious and quite used to their general performance of opaqueness?

In the work of culture-centered projects that are committed to building infrastructures for listening to the voices of the margins, a commitment to engagement translates into the everyday work of creatively "working through" structures to make space for voices at the margins. "To work through" is to continually engage the organizing logics of the structures and simultaneously rendering these logics impure to make space. This "making of space" counters the processes of marginalization written normatively into structures through acts of invertive listening that foreground rationalities that interrupt the dominant taken-for-granted assumptions.

Note here that listening in the framework of the CCA is not located within institutional structures and organizational diktats. Processes of listening located within the dominant structures simply serve dominant agendas of reproducing hegemony, without really inverting them and without disrupting the silences they reproduce, to the extent that these processes are established within organizational norms and within the contours of decision-making. Therefore, the concept of building structures of listening in the CCA situates the listening structures outside of the existing dominant structures, and in a dialectical relationship with these dominant structures. The spirit of dialoguing with dominant structures of knowledge production is grounded in a deep understanding of the impossibility of dialogue.

The CCA theorizes that to build infrastructures of listening, attention needs to be paid first and foremost to inverting the oft-circulated logics of the dominant structures that are often taken-for-granted as common sense.

To build these infrastructures of listening outside of the frameworks of dominant social structures therefore calls for the continued work of community-grounded collaborations. It is in this act of making space that the CCA offers an entry point to other imaginations, locally grounded in community life and based on invertive conversations with structures. The questions that arise from these community conversations are uncomfortable to the everyday assurances of dominant structures in reproducing hegemony.

The work of the engaged academic therefore becomes one of finding sites of solidarity with communities at the margins, and continually working to disrupt the silences that are produced by structures. This can be perceived by structures as threatening, leading to the typical response by structures of shutting down these spaces of listening.

For the engaged academic, this recognition of the everyday nature of structures to silence voices is a key point for continued struggles for co-creating spaces of listening to the margins, drawing on ideas of grassroots democracy. An awareness of the intrinsic challenges to listening and the discomforts produced by listening is key to sustaining the labour of engaged academic work in partnership with communities.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Challenging the corporatist logic of social impact

Society and impact are the two definitive constructs that make up the concept of social impact.

Yet, this very nature of social impact that is guided toward the question of social good and the role of knowledge in contributing to social good is increasingly obfuscated from corporatized metrics for measuring social impact and from the benchmarks put forth by university administrators speaking to this corporatized structure of Universities globally.

In this narrowly corporatist view, social impact is defined and measured in instrumental metrics that serve the interests of transnational capital. The guiding principles for articulating and evaluating social impact are narrowly constrained within corporatist agendas.

Metrics such as industry engagement, patents, and revenue generated are thoughtlessly calculated and put forth as metrics of social impact. Inherent in these uncritical adoption of corporatized metrics is the fundamental rift between social impact and the corporate agenda.

Not all forms of industry engagement are socially impactful. While indeed some forms of industry engagement might generate local jobs, strengthen employment, and contribute to social good, many other forms of industry engagement might actually be harmful to society and social good. Consider for instance the engagement of a Communication professor with Phillip Morris. While this engagement does qualify as industry engagement, it is broadly harmful to human health.

In other instances, social impact of academic work in terms of working with the poor, with migrants and refugees, is not countable in terms of metrics of patents and industry engagement. Yet in other instances, the social impact of scholarly work is precisely in its debunking of the corporatist logic and countering of the corporatist influence on policy making.

As we push for greater accountability of knowledge production to communities, we simultaneously need to debunk the narrowly corporatist logic of social impact.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The heartlessness trap of the meritocratic rhetoric

The meritocratic rhetoric works well in cultivating an ideal of providing opportunities for those with merit.

The very notion that if you have merit you can move through social structures is seductive.

In extolling the virtues of merit as individual ability and sheer hard work, the meritocratic rhetoric obfuscates the structures that constitute merit.

Merit, however, does not exist in a vacuum.

It is produced in societal structures, amid overarching inequities and differentials in distribution of power that define what is merit and then reward certain forms of merit.

Merit is a product of social networks and circles of influence. The ability of an individual is cultivated in relational ties, and in socially held bonds. These socially held bonds are further cultivated in schools of merit-making. For instance, the sites of educating merit are themselves further sites of producing elite networks of the meritorious that can then leverage these networks for a wide variety of implicit benefits in the future. From jobs to referrals to health services to education of children, elite networks cultivate and pass on the privilege of merit.

In other words, these implicit benefits of merit networks get passed down through generations. The children of those with merit get further access to sites of merit-making, cultivated in the habits of merit since early childhood. Children of the meritorious trained in such-and-such school miraculously find seats for themselves in such-and-such school.

The power of the rhetoric of merit, however, lies in obfuscating all these spheres of influence that constitute merit, somehow then cultivating the belief that success is one's individual achievement.

The rhetoric of individually-driven success, having erased the powerful role of social structures, cultivates the heartlessness trap.

The elite start believing in the seductive appeal that they have earned the privileges they have. They also become convinced that those that are less fortunate deserve their less fortunate positions in society, that somehow this is all a part of a naturalized social order of things.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Culture as reproducing structures

Structures often reproduce their oppression through the trope of culture.

The concept of context is brought about to justify another oppressive policy or another disenfranchising aspect of the status quo. For the status quo, culture is a tool, one that conveniently allows the powerful to bypass critical interrogation.

To the extent that structures can render structural oppression as culturally situated, the conversation on transforming structural inequities is deflected. There are no basis for the organizing of social change as the structurally constituted inequity is constructed as cultural. The explanatory framework of culture thus emerges as a tool that reproduces the marginalization of the disenfranchised, consolidating power in the hands of the status quo.

One such example of the reproduction of the culturalist narrative to justify and reproduce violence is the "Asian cultures" frame. The depiction of "Asian cultures" as justifications for structural inequities works through the logic that Asia is different.

The argument goes somewhat like this "Because Asia is different, the interplay of power is shaped by Asian logics."

Such culturalist explanation would be fine if it served as an entry point then for organizing work that sought to transform the inequities that are perpetuated by these logics. Instead, the work of academics becomes one of reproducing these inequities by simply describing and interpreting Asian difference. Asian difference then becomes a trope for explaining the inequities in distribution of power, appealing to some Confucian or Hindu logic to justify oppressive arrangements.

For the powerful in cultural contexts, the culturalist trope serves the agendas of power. Hence, the widespread interest among the powerful in cultural articulations, framing these articulations as projects that reproduce the instrumental logics of the status quo.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The conservatism of behavior change: The limits of health communication as persuasion

The bulwark of health communication is built on the premise of communication as a tool of behavior change.

Since the invention of film, communication scholars, practitioners, and policy makers have been obsessed with the power of media technologies to transform behaviors of audiences that can be targeted through messages. Mass media as tools of propaganda are invested with miraculous powers of transformation.

The power of communication to bring about magical transformations in the behaviors of those it touches forms the mainspring of the lay obsession with magic bullet theories of the media. The media effects literature over the last four decades has robustly debunked the magic bullet ideology.

These magic bullet theories have been witnessing a catalytic return since the advent of social media in the form of the renewed interest in behavior change theories, now packaged in big data analytics, nudge, and behavioral insights. What these renewed fascinations with media technologies (in this case, with the latest version, digital media) often overlook is the empirical evidence that aptly captures the limited effects of communication technologies in bringing about behavioral transformations.

Why then this ongoing obsession with health communication as persuasion?

Amid the large scale global inequalities and the effects of these inequalities on human health, policy makers and academics in the status quo find in the premise of behavior change the hope for improving health while keeping the status quo intact. As long as communication technologies can nudge individuals to change their behaviors, large scale inequities and the structures that constitute these inequities can be left intact.

In other words, the system can be left to perpetuate itself, maintaining the status quo to the extent that health outcomes can be framed in the premises of behavior change. Hence, the growing interest in these age old communication-driven persuasive processes in economics and business schools.

Essential to the logic of behavior change is an overarching conservatism that reproduces the inequities in existing structural configurations. The moral question of inequalities in health outcomes is shaped by an emphasis on individual responsibility, placing the onus of health on the individual.

Behavior change reifies the neoliberal ideology of health, where policymakers and health communicators continue to see health as a product of individual behavior.

The neoliberal ideology of health communication fundamentally limits conversations with empirical evidence, with the body of work on media effects that is humbling in terms of the degree of faith we ought to put on the promises of behavior change. Economists and business researchers jumping into behavioral insights and nudge theories with gusto would do well to begin with the vast body of media effects literature instead of clinging to the seductions of an ideology that has largely proven detrimental to human health and wellbeing.