Modes of Theory – Summary

Scholars employ not only different theories but also different modes of theorization, different “theories of theory.” What frames or theories are generating questions for you? Which ones seem no longer productive? How do you justify your choices? (Sundar Sarukkai leads the discussion)

The discussion centred on the relationship between theory and experience, started politely by people agreeing on the diverse problems associated in the interaction between the two. However, by the end, it took a disruptive turn (in the intellectual sense) as many uncomfortable questions emerged. It began with the acknowledgment that the ideal yet naive scenario that all theories should emerge from the empirical/ethnographical work on the field is a simplification, which doesn’t really happen with anthropologists. The other extreme, how much ever problematical, does happen sometimes where theories are force-fit into ethnographical data without being completely relevant to the context. John Borneman here pointed out how theorists have become more important than their theories and people are getting lesser interested in challenging these existing ‘giants’ and more comfortable in merely “applying” their theories left-right-centre in varied contexts of time and space. However, George Varghese liked to hold onto the idealistic position about theory-making by claiming that the need of theory emerges from the complexity of the field and particular objects, like in the case of gold whose complex nature drove him to resort to Deleuzian analysis.

This led to a deeper discussion on the need of theorization or the desire to make some coherent meaning of our empirical experiences. Carolyn Rouse came up with an interesting idea of putting ethics in between theory and experience which in a way justifies our need of theorization. She suggested that if we observe some kind of social inequality in our experiences, like in the case of racism or castiesm, theory can be used as an ethical tool to address these problems. I could relate to this analysis in my own personal experiences, as there are many times I feel people around me (in India) have bigoted views towards a community of a different caste, colour, religion, etc., and I feel a need for some theoretical tool which could be used to make an ethical argument. John recommended viewing theory as having three kinds of accountability to experience – of emancipatory nature (as suggested by Carolyn), making truth claims and describing reality in its varied complexity. However, he acknowledged at the same time that no theory can hope to contain the entire reality even if it desires to describe it completely and make truth claims about it.

Here, Satish Deshpande tried to open up the discussion, which was hovering around the need of theorization, to asking a more fundamental question of what is theory in the first place. Sergei Sokolovskiy suggested that theory can be looked as a grounded generalization but it seldom remains grounded in experience once it takes the form of ideology. In the ideological form, theory doesn’t need validation from the experience but becomes self-referential and perpetuating. Gopal Guru turned the definition of theory to experience itself, claiming experience to be a form of proto-theory. He problematized the need for a more sophisticated theory, since we already have the experience of a complex reality. Is theory required at all in the first place? This was a radical yet rhetorical question as we also know that no experience is free from a theory-laden view, how much ever people are unconscious about the kind of theoretical glass they are using to view the reality. But still, it is important to keep challenging the superior authority that (brahminical) theory enjoys over (dalit) experience. He argued that the latter should be allowed to have a reflection of their primary experiences which could result in new forms of theorization. He also problematized the use of western theory that keep getting imposed on non-western experience. He used the metaphor of second-hand shop where non-western theorists go and buy their theories from. Here, Nikhil Govind, cautioned about the other extreme where people, to confront the above problem, artificially try to import a so-called eastern theory which also looks superficial and fake.

The discussion became quite intense after this, when Gopal provoked all of us by critiquing liberal pluralism and claiming that the role of theory is not merely to be ethical but to be political. He argued that one needs to claim the superiority of one theory over another, especially from a subaltern perspective, as equal existence of multiple theories doesn’t address the real issues and it remains a comfort only enjoyed by the elites. Here, Satish linked the discussion to the famous debate between Sundar Sarukkai and Gopal on ownership and authorship of subaltern experiences (can be read in their book Cracked Mirror). Carol Greenhouse transformed into a triad – by adding the notion of readership – the existing diad of ownership and authorship, and argued for the inclusion of the larger community into the debate, a community that should read these experiences and be responsive to the issues afflicting the society. The discussion time ended here but I had a feeling that the debate had just started!

– Asim Siddiqui

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