Theory and Ethics – Summary

What is the relation of the place where you work and do research to social theory and ethics? Do the concerns of “anthropology” in the place where you do research (the field site) differ from those in the place where you live? Do these differences, and the tensions between local and global locations, create synergies and incongruences, impasses and taboos? In what way, do the changing self-definitions and demarcations in the disciplines in our specific locations influence our research questions and agendas? (John Borneman leads discussion)

The discussion in this ‘heroic session‘ (post-lunch) led by John Borneman went in different directions, with many conversations and anecdotes. Satish Deshpande set the tone of the discussion by talking about the significance of location and the 1980’s discussions on women of colour. It began with bringing to people’s attention the fact that the significance of location in people’s identities is diluted because of multiple affiliations of the theorists, for example, the increasing tendency of diasporic intellectuals to theorise. Carolyn Rouse, talking about her experience in Ghana and her discomfort with some of the systems of her home nation, and her comfort with activists who transgressed power, exemplified the absence of a well-defined land. Deepak Mehta commented that a location is not a bounded entity and made a distinction between the archival and the ethnographic. Gopal Guru went on to make another distinction between space and place and noted that while the notion of space is a bit more open, the idea of place is more constrictive.

Meera Baindur brought in the idea of place in relation to the  environment. A place is seen as where people ‘inhere’. The notion of the landscape and its integral connection with people’s modes of living. Also significant is the connection of language with place. Later, Satish took up this point and talked about the centrality of language in ethnography.

John used the German idea of zeitheimat to show certain modes of expression placing people back in a certain time and place. Recounting his experience of the difficulty of working on east and west Berlin about 25 years ago, and the changed attitude to that work, he showed how people’s perceptions of places also change with political transformations. He made the point that the number of diasporic intellectuals is still small, and because of that, the notion of place is still quite well-defined for a majority of people.

I am going to skip a few of the conversations (some quite insightful – making a distinction between the idea of a physical presence as opposed to a sense of belongingness) in between and move to John‘s observation about the absence of universal principles in anthropology. This raised the question of whether all asymmetries are unethical. Sundar‘s response was that the asymmetry becomes a big problem when one is in far too excess of the other. He gave the academic discussions on the east by the west as an example. To that, one could add in the context of Indian social sciences, the academic discussion on  the Dalit questions by the upper castes. This can also be seen in the gross disproportionality in the distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor of the world.

The discussion moved on to the question of certain conceptual categories acting as gatekeepers in the field of anthropology. The scholars pay attention to certain widely discussed concepts in relation to certain places – such as the idea of hierarchies in South Asia. These categories in some sense seem to restrict the possibilities of enquiry within the discipline. Satish exemplified this point with the idea of caste (rightfully) taking up much of the academic and public discussion in the 1980’s and 1990’s studies on India. Gopal Guru‘s response to it was that caste had to be discussed because it is a very central problem in this particular place.

Nikhil Govind raised a very important problem that should have been engaged with in a little more detail. The question of the addressing of the emancipatory project or addressing the question of the ‘excess’ is a long-term one, but in the current situation of academic publishing and livelihoods, capturing that in writing is a big challenge.

Our discussion on ethics was mainly centred around the question of place and the idea that only persons of a particular place can capture in some sense the reality of a problem. However, the session did not revisit the other question of ethics, such as ‘the curiosity about the other’ or the block posed by ethical questions to open research, which were to a considerable extent, discussed in the previous sessions.

Jobin Mathew


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