Professor Nandini Sundar is an outstanding social anthropologist of South Asia, who has made major and original contributions to our understanding of environmental struggles, of the impact of central and state policies on tribal politics, and of the moral ambiguities associated with subaltern political movements in contemporary India. These contributions are anchored in her deep grasp of the legacies of colonial rule for cultural politics in contemporary India, and in theoretically innovative understanding of the relationship of major historical events to persistent structural tensions in Indian society. Professor Sundar has placed her detailed studies of tribal politics in Central India in the broader frame of studies of the law, bureaucracy and morality in modern India. In so doing, she has combined innovative empirical and ethnographic methods and cutting-edge approaches to those sociological debates which link the study of social change in modern India to central debates in comparative social theory.
The Infosys Prize 2010 for Social Sciences – Social Anthropology is awarded to Nandini Sundar in recognition of her contributions as an outstanding analyst of social identities, including tribe and caste, and the politics of knowledge in modern India.
This week features a series of readings from Indian public sociologist, Nandini Sundar:
- Chhattisgarh: The Future of India
- Insurgency, Counter-insurgency, and democracy in Central India
- Vigilantism, Culpability and Moral Dilemmas
- Police States, Anthropology and human Rights
- Interning Insurgent Populations: The Buried Histories of Indian Democracy
After reading the preceding, join the global network of public sociologists on Facebook!
Discussion Summaries and Comments
Barcelona (February 25, 2012):
Some of our debates in the Barcelona Seminar from Sundar’s talk:
Professor Sundar explained with a real example something that has have happened so many times in history and in many places: state “perverse” strategies to reduce insurgency. We thought that it was key from her example the idea that people need information and knowledge, and the creation of democratic spaces of participation, and they get empowered and use this power. Sometimes both the state and insurgent movements could withdraw power from people. Would this provision of information to people be the role of public sociology and public sociologists? Sundar is having this role for sure, in her involvement with the public litigations movement (if we understood well).
We also compared this tension between the state and the insurgent movements with terrorism in the Basque country, Spain. Both the government and the terrorists had been against dialogue to find middle positions and end with armed movement. Intellectuals in favor of dialogue had been threatened and even killed in the last decades. Fortunately, in the last legislature, the government for the first time took a different position and so did a sector of the terrorist group, dialogue happened and they abandoned armed struggle. October 20, 2011 was a historical day in Spain. Many intellectuals stood for dialogue, as well as many citizens, all together, and in the end this has been very important.
Finally we discussed whether writing newspaper articles or being present in the media is public sociology. This is an information channel which reaches people, for sure, but we think that, as social scientists, we must be in both channels: scientific and public media. May be thinking of how make the knowledge created from social sciences available to the people and also how the problems of the people inform our research, scientific interests and theories. Activism and social theory is indeed complementary.
Berkeley (February 25, 2012):
Discussion of Seminar 3: Nandini Sundar
University of California, Berkeley, USA
Nandani Sundar tells the story of counterinsurgency in Chhattisgarh, India. Her work details the stories that the mainstream media censors about state oppression, violated land rights, and the deliberate creation of insecurity. Such insecurity, she argues, legitimizes the government’s coercive action of moving displaced groups into camps where they are policed, starved, and turned against their own village people. Nandani argues that allowing big corporations to take over the rich land of Chhattisgarh, all in the name of development, reflects state failure. She has filed a case with the Supreme Court against 500 deaths and rapes in order to hold the government accountable for what they claim are moves “toward development and security.”
Our class found the work of Nandani highly interesting and we wondered about the nature of her publics. We asked if she consider the people of Chhattisgarh her public? Although she considered the villagers her public—because they are who she seeks to shed light upon—she is largely unknown to them since they lack access to media. We also wondered what her relations to the Adivisi people in Chhattisgarh are. The tactics which Nandani used in her work were extremely cautious. Nandini understood that she was being followed, tracked, and observed by authorities. For that reason, she often had to avoid talking to Adivasis in order to mitigate endangering the villagers or exposing them to later retributions. Ultimately, she has formed deep connections among the Adivasis because after years of violence, they found relief and hope in sharing their suffering and stories with her. More importantly, both Nandani and our class struggled with the idea of violent and coercive conditions in a “so-called” democracy. After all, these cases of corruption and coercion are in fact occurring in a democracy. It is a state of paradox!
Yet, it is because of Indian democracy that she is able to go into villages and provide this research for international bodies and the Indian public at large. Ultimately, Nandini explains, it is all about justice: How do we hold the state responsible? How do we make sure vigilante groups don’t take the law into their own hands? How do we challenge corrupt state actors, judicial systems, and police force? These are questions that we must grapple with as students and activists. When the state and media misrepresent what is happening on the ground, we must correct this as public sociologist. For Nandani, work as a public sociologists take many forms. The key to this work is to spread her works and ideas, and she does this by speaking to students and publics through the internet, her writings, and even TV. She finds that in writing and speaking with students, rather than as a categorized “expert” in the media, she is better able to get her arguments across. As for the future of India, Nandini proscribes that the Indian state take the first steps in negotiations with insurgency movements. The hope lies in peace talks.
Johannesburg (February 28, 2012):
Lecture III: Nandini Sundar – Insurgency and Counter Insurgency in India.
Discussion Summary: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
We enjoyed this week’s speaker because she is an example of a public sociologist who embodies many of the challenges and contradictions associated with public sociology that we discussed earlier.
Nandini, interestingly shows how the rhetoric and tools we use in struggle can sometimes be antithetical to our academic work. In the first seminar, Michael talked about the tension between the 4 streams of sociology but Nandini’s case as a public sociologist goes further to illustrate the tension between the two words i.e public and sociology especially when one is really involved.
Public sociology comes with some personal risk as illustrated by Nandini but also by South African sociologists involved in the anti-apartheid struggle like Ruth First, David Webster and others who lost their lives because of their work. However this shows us that a public sociologist should always be themselves and should not camouflage excessively. Sociologists involved in communities sometimes end up speaking on behalf of communities in different spaces and this begs the question whether sociologists should be involved in this type of politics.
This week’s discussion also highlighted the role of the media in shaping what we hear and know about India and highlights the importance of public sociology in challenging the dominant discourse.
With Castells theory of communication power in mind, Nandini’s work shows that the Indian government is trying to use persuasion by painting this whole issue as a developmental one but they are failing to do so, hence reverting to coercion. However the Maoists are painting it as a justice issue and this has allowed them to tap into persuasive power and that’s maybe why they have been able to survive despite enormous state suppression.
Kyiv (February 28, 2012):
Lecture 3: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgence in India, Nandini Sundar – Discussion Summary, National University of ‘Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’, Kyiv, Ukraine
1. Mrs. Sundar is engaged in really important issue, and her efforts to help with the organization of peaceful dialogue between the rebels and the government deserve only positive estimation. However, the very important problem should be considered at whole subject of public sociology, the problem of social scientist’s attitude to research object. For the emotions of different type and force affect the conclusions of each sociologist, more or less. Of course, in situation described by Mrs. Sundar we have no questions to her point of view of the conflict, but there are lots of examples when solving the one social problem actually leads to the range of other problems ( for example, the closing of ecologically harmful factory affects local citizens positively, but leaves factory workers unemployed, and the conclusions of sociologist about closing the factory can wary from positive, if he is concerned with health and ecology, to negative, if he sympathises to the worker’s movement). For the sociologist work and active communication with public contains the threat of losing the sigh of important aspects and problems connected with research object. We would like to mention that threat should be taken into account.
2. To overall extent, we found the position of Mrs. Sundar somewhere between Policy and Critical Sociology. The foremost and challenging problem to create Public Sociology is undoubtedly concerned with the specific example of India. As it was said, a list of difficulties emerges when the power-holders define you as an activist, you cannot manage an interview with politicians, provide the discussion through traditional media etc. To my mind, the possibility to create Public Sociology lies in the roots of Professional Sociology. Developing the discourse between academic audiences and driving students to become more interested in these issues could be resulted in the new generation of scientists who will be concerned with providing fruitful researches. Moreover, as it was mentioned by Mrs. Sundar that activists’ movements are not so strong, isn’t better to start with creating a specific network and to provide scientific discussions between its members?
Contributors: participants in the second session of Public Sociology course of National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy: Serhiy Bilosludcev, Nadiia Barycheva
Michelle Kolpack (UC Berkeley): Thanks for your post! I’m one of the students in Berkeley, California. It’s so incredible that we can exchange ideas on this transnational level, especially in regards to the practice of public sociology!
Here in Berkeley, we have also been discussing how Sundar’s work as an activist and scholar fits into public sociology and the difficulties she faces through rejection by the naxalites and the state. Your comment that you two both find professional sociology to be at the root of public sociology is very interesting. Several of us discussed how Sundar seems as if she feels the greatest sense of acceptance, given her public sociology studies of insurgency and counter insurgency, within the university. Professor Burawoy noted how this is specific to the context of public sociology in Indian universities. Public sociology is more normatively incorporated into professional sociology in India. This is in stark contrast to the US, where many professional sociologists of universities tend to denounce the legitimacy of public sociology. Do you two have any specific thoughts on this?
Thanks for raising the many layers in this issue raised by Sundar. I totally agree that the labor issue is another aspect that is very important. To me, the environmental and labor rights are strongly connected. While realities of neoliberal globalization are enabling multinationals to exploit environmental resources, they are also enabling them to severely exploit people’s labor in that process. Jobs produced by these multinationals subject workers to horrible conditions and pay that is too meager to sufficiently live off. I always ask when there is a job shortage not only why there are no jobs, but also why people need jobs. People of populations in various areas of the world have lived off the resources that surround them. Coming from a Marxist perspective, I emphasize how when multinationals take over that land and control those resources, people have no other choice but to work in those factories for the benefit of companies that exploit their labor. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks again!
Nadiia Barycheva (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy):
We are also pleased to have an opportunity to exchange the ideas on international level and the course of public sociology is a great chance for doing this way. And we are really thankful for you rising an important questions about the discussed topic.
Starting with a first question, to my mind, being a professional sociologist is a necessary condition to become a public sociologist. For sure, it takes a lot of time to work inside the university and talking to the publics, but these two positions are interrelated. If you are a professional sociologist you have a certain amount of prestige and ability to convert your ideas to other activities and publics. There is a possibility to write a research paper and then in a simplest way try to publish it in other sources, and in this way raising the consciousness of members of civil society. There is an opportunity also to take part in different manifestations. An activist who is engaged with professional sociology has greater value that those who protest because they are unsatisfied with something. The professional sociology gives you a chance to become an expert in some field, as a result a broader communities and publics are going to listen to you. It seems like public sociologist takes a legitimacy to do so through the power of knowledge, which is given from professional sociology. Concluding, I need to say that if there is such situation in USA you are in need to start from the small things (for example, writing different articles on some problematic issues, creating discussing groups and conferences inside your universities, social networks, etc), and, in some time there would be another opportunities to develop public sociology. Like it is said doing small steps to achieve greater success.
Certainly, an issue of multinationals and their controlling power is considered to be very important. Even if we take a look from other perspectives (and not only the Marxist one) the abovementioned problem would still exist. Otherwise, the problem can be considerate from the top-down and bottom-up perspectives. It is not only the problem of state regulating these processes; the workers play an important role as well. But why everything is going as it is? To my mind, the market is organized in that way that even between workers there is a competition for the working places. Because of unemployment and other issues people are in need for jobs to survive. That is why there is a competition for being exploited. That is why even low paid jobs and work conditions are not the obstacles for people to leave the exact work. They are continuing to doing their job because they need to. And in a considerable extent, they are afraid of loosing it and do not fighting for theirs rights. And the governmental is satisfied with these conditions as well. A little bit pessimistic, but as it is.
What do you think of these? Thank you!!!
Liz Vergara (UC Berkeley): I agree that it is important to maintain a stance of perceived neutrality by power holders such as the media, yet I think in some ways this is difficult because the media which pushes neutral scholars to simplify topics or choose sides rather than present them in their full complexity. It is difficult, for this reason, to be both a mediatique and a scholar, at least simultaneously. I think that as researchers, sociologists must present the complex realities, or inconvenient truths as Bello framed it. This is what separates the activist from the public sociologist.
Nadiia Barycheva (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy): I can’t but agree with some of your statements. However, I might say that it depends on different publics to whom you present your ideas. And it should be simplified (still I’m thinking about frames and rules in scientific research works in Ukrainian proffesional sociology) in order for even well-educated public to listen to you. As it is said, simple sentences is even harder to build.
David Torres (UC Berkeley): Liz, you bring up a very interesting point on what a sociologist should do. I am student from Berkeley, and we have discussed what Bello says is the responsibility of a sociologist–presenting inconvenient truths. But the questions our class raised on is when is there an “objective truth” and is it only the sociologist who is capable of presenting this “truth” to a public. For Bello, this truth has to be validated in order to be accepted. Nadiaa, you raise the issue of the importance of professional sociology in order to gain legitimacy and an expertise. In the US, professional sociology is overly emphasized and students who study this are put through the university pedagogy seem to get detached from the publics as they focus on being professional and academic. It is only when they are practicing their own research, such as in a PHD program, that they can reignite their passion with working with publics–this is after many years of formal education. In the case with Nandini Sundar, she seems to have some characteristics in all the four types of sociology described by Prof. Burawoy. Her engagement within the social minefield of vigilante groups sponsored by the government, the Maoists, and media appearances characterizes her involvement in Public sociology. Her work in the Supreme Court is her Policy Sociology. With all her work, she gains a new perspectives that allow her to be critical on whats going on. And she wishes she had more time to be more professional and write academic articles. I think with any work you do, there will always be involvement in all the different types of sociology, but for Public Sociology, there has to be interaction and accountability between the public and the sociologist.
Oslo (March 1, 2012):
Discussion summary from the University of Oslo, based on lectures #1-3
Nandini Sundar opened the discussion of “Public Sociology Live, Oslo”. Her lecture set the scene for those of us not familiar with the idea of public sociology, and led us to a broader discussion of what public sociology is and can be. As with many of the other groups, we were drawn towards contextualizing the discussion: Are there public sociologists like Sundar in Norway, and should we strive towards doing sociology the way she does? We couldn’t find that many, the field is dominated by policy-oriented sociologists as the lines between politics and sociology are blurred. As students though, we feel that we are being taught critical sociology most of the time (‘we learn to tear down, but never to build up’).
Sundar’s lecture points towards one of the basic problems of being an organic, public sociologist; how easy it is to loose the sociologist in you. We discussed to great lengths whether this active and deep engagement with publics and with politics is a strength or weakness for the individual sociologist. We also discussed the boundaries between policy and public sociology; not always easy to separate in our local context. Even though Burawoy argues that professional, public, policy and critical sociologists together make up the sociological division of labour, the Norwegian sociological scene forces us to see these four as being parts of every individual sociologist as well. Is a sociologist turned activist still a sociologist? Can sociology survive if it becomes a cover for left-wing activism and struggle? What do we do when the publics we want to engage, don’t want to be engaged? On these points, we could not agree or conclude.
We could, however, all agree that the first three lectures of Public Sociology Live were very inspirational. Working as a sociologist in the circumstances that Sundar does, demands a lot of courage. We discussed whether it is our privileged position as sociologists in a rich welfare state in the west that hinders us in taking the same steps as she does. Why are Norwegian sociologists not engaging in pressing national equality questions? We could be working with the local Roma population, or with Palestinian asylum seekers who have built a camp in the centre of Oslo protesting the treatment they have received from the Norwegian government. But few of us do. Do sociologists have a moral obligation to?
Niels Christie is one of the Norwegian scholars who has taken the furthest steps towards being a public criminologist. His engagement with publics goes both ways, and he has been especially active in encouraging academics to write in an accessible style. To secure a simple and understandable language, he writes his texts in English, his second language, and then translates it to Norwegian, his mother tongue. In this way, he believes that he is able to capture the essence of the argument, while keeping it simple. We wanted to share this with you all, because we think it might be relevant for those engaging in public sociology, grappling with the translation problem between sociological language and ordinary language. People who don’t have English as their first language might actually be more successful in engaging English-speaking publics.
That’s all from Oslo for now, we are happy to be part of this, and look forward to all the debates that are to come!
Michael Burawoy (UC Berkeley): Delighted that Oslo, you are on board — where would we be without a welfare state as point of comparison? Besides there is a long history of public sociology in Norway that one can appeal too, even if today a lot of it has been eclipsed. Time for revival?
Kelí Benko (UC Berkeley): Ida, you make some wonderful points here. I don’t know all that much about Norwegian sociology, but if it is anything like sociology in the US, then the professional realm is quite dominant. It seems that because of this, sociologists have the opportunity (luxury) to remain within the confines of the academy and engage mostly with academic colleagues rather than disadvantaged publics. In Sundar’s case, she is conducting research in an environment where professional sociology is quite weak. In fact, for her, a retreat into the professional realm is a tremendous gift, as it provides an opportunity for reflection. Perhaps her engagement with marginalized publics is related to the current division of labor within sociology in India. In the US where professional sociology is so dominant, it does seem that the manifestation of a dialogue with a disadvantaged public does require extra effort. Whether or not it is a question of morality, I am not sure. But if sociologists are in the business of protecting civil society, then engagement with the most marginalized groups seems absolutely necessary.
Sandra Nuñez Portocarrero (UC Berkeley): Keli and Ida, I feel privileged for knowing you both. And privileged for being part of this academic bubble too! I have a problem with the use of the terms “marginalized” and “disadvantaged” here,are we talking about economic factors? marginalized as in opressed by the “majorities”? If we are, then Keli, wouldn’t you agree that many of the US sociologists do engage with the disadvantaged publics when conducting research? Just look at the Berkeley department, from workers in Zambia, undocumented immigrants, people in the hyperghettos, exploited farmers in Nicaragua…if that’s not engaging with a disadvantaged/marginalized public, then I don’t know what it is!! I am confused here too: first, you suggest that US sociologists have the luxury to engage mostly w academic sociologists ( so, your focus is on the exchange of information among academics) but then you talk about the research Sundar conducted….so, I then ask myself: is there an equal power relationship between the researcher and the participant? Thanks Keli for making me think about all this! I also ask myself: are sociologists in the business of “protecting civil society” as you suggest or rather, of constructing or even better -deconstructing AND reconstructing civil society? Also, is being “in contact” with marginalized groups enough? I think that a major problem of sociologists nowadays ( worldwide- let’s not romanticize the third world) is that they turn people’s pain into a commodity. Many sociologists go into the field, extract data, come back to the bubble and get grants, money, publications, recognition ( and develop a huge ego too!) while the poor places remain poor? is there a problem of moral here? absolutely! if they are teaching us that capitalism and exploitation are a problem, then why treat subjects as commodities? I feel awful and impatient when I see social scientists exploring the “andes” and never coming back again.If only the knowledge and data produced could be applied to create real change….Can this generation of sociologist do that? use research as a weapon to create sustainable social change? absolutely! we are public sociologists, aren’t we?
Kelí Benko (UC Berkeley): Sandra, I agree with a lot of what you said here. Indeed many US sociologists (our department included) engage with marginalized groups in meaningful ways and in my comment I was thinking two things: one, like you say, often sociologists conduct research with marginalized groups only to retreat back into the academy. If we define public sociology as a back and forth dialogue between researcher and public, is this an example of public sociology at all? It brings up the tricky question of time length/nature of continued engagement a researcher has with her public. Should ones research be a lifelong project of commitment to that public? On the other hand, I don’t think a situation where a researcher extracts all desired knowledge and then departs never to be seen again is good either. Somewhere in there a balance must exist; which builds upon your question of power relationships between the researcher and her publics. Clearly our methods of engagement exist within the context of relationships of domination. The notion that any researcher could establish a perfectly balanced dialogue is just fairy sociology. If you look at the video for Soler and Flecha you can see one methodological attempt to create a more balance relationship between subject and researcher. However, I do think that there will always be inequities in one way or another. On my second point, I meant only to say that due to the dominance of professional sociology, US sociologists are privileged to remain in the academy if they so choose. Plenty of sociologists, some of whom feel threatened by public sociology, will happily spend their entire career up in their office, in dialogue with other academics. I like to sit around and talk abstract theory as much as the next person, so I could see the temptation to keep warm in your office. Finally, Michael has previously outlined sociology as the defense of civil society. Economics takes the standpoint of the market and political science of the state, so sociologists produce work in efforts to protect CS from the two. Could you say that sociology works to de/reconstruct civil society without losing legitimacy as a science? That’s one of the big fears of public sociology, that sociology and politics become muddled such that the sociologist is no longer framed as an objective social scientist.
Sandra Nuñez Portocarrero (UC Berkeley): yes! i’ve been following the videos! this is just great!! feel lucky to have taken the first experimental course last year. Now back to packing to get out of the bubble and go back to the Andes!! let’s talk more soon!
São Paulo (February 22, 2012):
Lecture 3: Nandini Sundar – Insurgency and Counter Insurgency in India.
Summary – University of São Paulo. By Ruy, Gustavo and Juliana.
As in India, land’s commodification is also a big issue in Brazil. Historically, land’s concentration has always been an obstacle to democracy in the country. Despite the hopes created by the “Lulism” (the Workers Party hegemony), the current development model is concentrating land even further through the legalization of public land that were illegally occupied by large landowners. This is happening especially in Amazon forest – the “new frontier” of agribusiness in Brazil.
Unlike India, however, Brazilian government has chosen to co-opt the movement of peasants. Every single year the government invests US$ 800 million in cooperatives controlled by the Landless Mouvement (MST). This created a tension within the MST: on one hand, there are the cooperatives that receive government money (the “assentados”). On the other hand, there are thousands of workers camped throughout the roads, living in terrible conditions and waiting to receive a piece of land to work (the “acampados”). Unfortunately, a piece of land which will never be delivered by the government. Due to this, the number of families camped dropped from 80 000 (2003) to 14,000 (2009).
Beyond degrading the environment, government support to agribusiness puts the most important social movement of the country in a deep crisis.
Obviously, this tricky situation poses many problems for public sociology. Especially, because MST invested seriously in the relationship with critical intellectuals (especially sociologists). For instance, MST has built a school (called “Florestan Fernandes” who is considered the most important Brazilian sociologist) for education its own political cadres. Currently a hundred of Marxist intellectuals supports in many ways the MST’s school.
Here, our situation isn’t so tragic as in India. The Brazilian government doesn’t use military forces to destroy those who are resisting to privatization of land and the natural resources. It uses another instrument (in many ways much more efficient than the crude repression): the power of money. This puts public sociology in a complex situation. Just to sum up: how to continue dialoguing with MST without sacrificing the autonomy inherent to the critical reflection?
Matt Lear (UC Berkeley): Hey guys,
I’m writing to you from Berkeley and found this summary very interesting in how it connects with the Sundar lecture. It would seem that Brazil has a similar problem with India in that there are people who are being oppressed by ademocratic state.
in your response you bring up how the government both supports the furthering of landlessness through legalizing public land to business interest, while at the same time attempting to fuel a Landless Movement, in giving some people a piece of land to call their own. The balance here is very intricate. (To me)
These moves by the government acting both for and against the MST interests seem to hinder the solidarity trying to be built. With some peoples’ needs satisfied, are you guys finding less and less support for the movement? I’m no expert this seems kind of like how the indigenous in America were given reservations to live on (land of their own) and not much else and told for that be equivalent to what was originally taken by Americans, despite the vast inequality to what was taken vs. what was given as compensation.
I am also really curious as to what you see the roles of the public sociologist, or more thoroughly the school? I just assume that these people are invested in to better organize and rationalize the problems and projections for the people they intend to represent. Are these public intellectuals out trying to change minds, and if so is this further confounded by the government’s very malevolent-benevolent role?
Money talks in many cases, I can definitely see the problem at hand with Brazil in the government seeming (to me) to pacify the problems to reduce resistance and further oppress by concentrating the land in the hands of the business sector. In Sundar’s case in India, there is a use of government principles through the court system despite the violent repression from above that is still utilized and seems to be a glimmering hope. Do you in Brazil see this judicial route a way to get what the MST needs? Cesar Rodriguez Garavito brought up in his lecture how some people were encouraging the people to go to law school so they could fight on more equal footing with those making the policies that hurt people. Could a similar methodology be used in Brazil as they’re doing in Columbia? As it seems there is already that academic base in the “Florestan Fernandes” School.Very cool the way the two situations fit in both Brazil and India-Matt
Tehran (February 27, 2012):
Lecture 3: Nandini Sundar, “Insurgency, Counter-Insurgency in India”, DiscussionSummary: Student Sociological Association of Tehran University andIranian Sociological Association.
Our first comment includes two main questions: Is itpossible to consider the works of Dr. Nandini Sundar as public sociology? How? Itseems that this is an example of a sociologist joining a public (this publicalready exists and is not created by the sociologist; it is also active andvisible). Dr.Sundar here has worked as both a traditional public sociologist (bypublishing articles and paper in media) and organic public sociologist (bygiving them the opportunity to speak in public court).
What is the general pattern (model) in Dr. Sundar’s work?(It might be useful to design such a pattern based on her work in order to useit in similar circumstances). It seems that Dr. Sundar has started tounderstand the features and history of this public and its relations to otherpublics and other social institutions (state, industry and so on) by joiningthis public and used it to theorize this issue. She has produced multipletheories in this way; for example she says that “control produces the cycle of violence”and based on this theory explained the behavior of that Maoist group (they actjust like how the state confronts them). Now we can map this to other societiesas well, for example to Kurdistan in Iran where there are groups who actsimilar to Maoists or even school environment and so on.
Dr. Sundar’s work show the impossibility of forming networksof people (as Castells has in mind and defines the network based on“relationship” as the possibility of communicating meanings). Dr. Sundar showsthat state and media as major networks have swallowed or absorbed the civilsociety and therefore public sphere where the public can be formed. But if wedefine the public based on “shared problem” rather than relationship, then wecan identify inactive networks that are available in society (established bypeople having same concerns and problems) and here the responsibility of publicsociologist is to inform members of the network of their shared (joint) concerns.
Our critique to Dr. Sundar is that she differentiatesbetween her public activities and academic activities and separates them fromone another. In order to continue, public sociologist has two options: one isto leave the academy and on the outside work as a social activist and just bean academician inside the academy; second option is to control the academy. Thesecond option tries to institutionalize the public sociology and instead oflooking at public sociology and professional sociology as two sides of a coin,tries to impose public sociology to academy and evaluate whatever happens inacademy based on its degree of being public. Public sociology task force inIran makes efforts to take such a role in academy, just like Prof. Burawoy whoin spite of his efforts to mark the differences between public and professionalsociology, has done by initiating task force of public sociology in internationalassociation of sociology.
Dr. Sundar’s experience shows that a person can be a publicsociologist and a socio political activist (and challenge the governmentdepending upon the circumstances) and a social worker (social work is techniquethat can be used even in critical political situations) and an academician whowith her own knowledge of sociology can influence upon the academic audience(which is still possible in countries like Iran), all together at the same time.Therefore a true sociologist is someone who except for her knowledge ofsociology is also an intellectual and social worker and adopts techniques thatbest suits her circumstances.
Participators: Dr. Behrang Seddighi, Fatemeh G. kashi, SaberKhosravi, Mehran Hajimohammadian, Ahmad Mohamad zaki, Zahra Taheri, mahdialaoddini, maryam ashoor, shahla raanai, mahdokht ghorbani and Fatemeh Moghaddasi.
Sandra Nuñez Portocarrero (UC Berkeley): Merci Fateme joon for answering my private message and for talking about it in in class in Iran Moshallah! I will write in english so everyone can understand. You wrote something that impacted me: “we do believe in the necessity of public sociology for developing countries like Iran where civil society isn’t powerful enough and probably the conservative form of social science is somehow a barrier for social change. Why do you think public sociology is important for sociology in your country?”. I believe that civil society in my country, Peru, isn’t powerful enough because of one major problem throughout South America: corruption. Also, people may not think that Peru is a conservative country but we currently have very difficult issues with our universities. For example, the catholic leaders in my country want to gain power of one of our “best” universities, wish means the abolition of the courses that do not go “with their train of thought”. It’s pretty sad, considering Peru is already a very poor country ( intellectually). I think one of the reasons why I am so interested in the development of public sociology in my country is because we don’t have any good sociology at all! there was a wave of Marxist sociologists produced during the 70’s-early 80’s, who were the “rich kids” who could travel to NY or England to study sociology, came back and are considered the “caviars” of our country. Then, when the Shining Path came along, anything that had to do with Marxism ( including sociologists) became “terrorist”!!! To think of all the work that must be done…ahh!!! I get “khaste”!!!
Parijat Chakrabarti (UC Berkeley): Thank you Fateme and Sandra for your very interesting comments! I find it fascinating that what Sandra said… [“Then, when the Shining Path came along, anything that had to do with Marxism ( including sociologists) became “terrorist”!!!”]… draws many parallels to the situation in India. The Maoists in India are labeled as terrorists and anyone associated with them are put on a government watchlist and monitored closely. This seems to be the case with Nandini Sundar and (in response to Fateme’s 3rd point) is probably why she has had to clearly delineate her work as a public sociologist and as an professional sociologist– for fear of delegitimizing her professional work and ending up in further trouble with the authorities.
I also find Sandra’s point about government intervention in academia to be very interesting as it mirrors very closely the situation in West Bengal, where to advance one’s career as an academic, one is forced to align with the ruling party. This perhaps could be a ‘common problem’ as Fateme defines in her second point, and could be something that public sociologists could network, band together, and try to tackle. Although, as Fateme pointed out in her earlier post on Castells, that could be difficult to do if the state is determined to cut off such forms of networks.
Finally, I found the analysis of generalizing “control produces the cycle of violence” very interesting, particularly since you could “map this to other societies as well, for example to Kurdistan in Iran.”
Thank you all very much for the comments and the questions, which were very thought provoking. All of them were spot on, focusing on what Michael has called the “antagonistic interdependence” among the different kinds of knowledge created by different sociologies, with an equal emphasis on the antagonism and the interdependence.
However, even as they exist together, the ‘public’ and the ‘sociology’ may also be separated in time and space. In fact, they often follow each other in temporal cycles. Even in traditional public sociology, it takes a while before ideas which have gestated in the academy become common currency among the public at large, ideas like alienation, rationalization or hegemony. On the other hand, it takes time to separate oneself from active engagement and reflect about it. My next major project is to write about the Chhattisgarh case for an academic (and general) audience, using it to interrogate larger questions of democracy, sovereignty and violence, and human rights activism.
But throughout, as Michael has pointed out, teaching and supervising research are a space where the two – publics and sociology – can and have come together, even though the classroom straddles both a public and private space (where both teachers and students are free to experiment). I have been teaching a graduate course on the sociology of civil war for the last three years and a number of students in our department are working on themes of armed conflict and counterinsurgency, mining conflicts, corporate responsibility etc., responding to events they see around them and that are in the news, as well as theoretical questions that are raised by the courses they take. During class, we look at the ways in which sociologists should study these subjects as compared to human rights work on these areas – both in terms of methods, and also in terms of the themes. For instance, we focus on the epistemological problems created by conflict – the always fraught question of “how do we know what we know” becomes even more problematic while doing research in conflict situations. I also learn a lot from my students’ own interests – ranging from the relationship between anthropology and the military, to the Red Army faction in Germany to transnational links in civil wars.
While some of my work has entered existing publics, a large part of it has in fact been trying to create publics – getting people to be interested in the issue. When I started work on it in 2005, there were only a handful of people who were interested. It took a lot of mobilizing, getting in touch with media people, human rights activists, security experts, ministers, and lawyers and creating/entering different circles of involvement. And now I hope to draw on the work of Castells and others to think through how these networks form, disperse, and the messages they circulate. Whether this is autoethnography is another question!