"Do you believe there is gold in South Africa?"

Nopes I haven't developed a sudden interest in minerals - South African or otherwise. It’s just one of the dots I started connecting today while dissertating, thinking about social construction, and the academic environment in general.

But first a little bit of background so that you know how the question about gold and South Africa fits here.

At the end of the first year, all doctoral students enrolled in the Ph.D. program in my school sit for an OQE (Oral Qualifying Exam). When I took it in 2002, the format was as follows. Examinee is given about 15 minutes to make a concise presentation on a topic usually related to his/her research interests. S/he is then examined by a committee of 3 faculty members (the configuration: current director of the Ph.D. program plus any 2 faculty members who taught one of the then 5 required core classes during the current academic year) on this presentation each of whom have about 15-20 minutes to ask questions of the examinee.

When I took this exam I presented what in retrospect seems like an uninformed and underdeveloped explication of conceptualizing national identity as socially constructed ‘all the way down’ i.e. from a thick or relational social constructionist perspective. What do I mean by that? To be overly simplistic (since this is a post on my blog rather than a chapter in my dissertation) for a second, what I tried to make a case for was that national identity should be conceptualized as always emerging in processes of social interaction rather than as a product of transcendental forces of nature. From a thick social constructionist perspective, national identity is not a noun but a verb. To elaborate, instead of being conceptualized as a variable attribute whose existence is the result of realizing naturally occurring divisions of some kind, national identity is understood to be emergent in social interactions as differences between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are legitimized.

The decidedly-structuralist examiner, during his 15 minutes, caught me somewhat off guard but not surprised when he asked me “Do you believe there is gold in South Africa?” I remember asking him to clarify where he was going with his question. To be somewhat glib, I should have – and did – expect that kind of question from a die-hard structuralist. My ‘everything is socially constructed’ position didn’t quite agree with his ‘there’s stuff in the world that is Real damn it!’. I recall trying to find the patience in me to not fly off the handle there because his question seemed a bit obnoxiously worded for a first-year student’s oral exam. (Add to that the fact that he and I had been struggling with this difference in our analytical commitments throughout the semester while I was taking his class. Confession incoming: I wish I’d made more of an effort to defend my position rather than try to find a middle ground to get through the class with this professor – that would have been much more productive and useful. Chalk it up to being sick of fighting while I was trying to get comfortable in a major I had no prior experience with whatsoever, to recovering from being assigned to professor-from-hell the first semester, and to major issues in my personal life. No use crying over spilt milk. Plus I’m happy to report that I eventually worked my way there so no permanent damage done!) I will give myself a pat on the back for remaining largely calm but not one for defending my position well. I don’t remember exactly what I muttered in response but I recall saying something along the lines that we don’t recognize or value gold because of any transcendental Gold-ness that this material possesses (which it might or might not but is not something knowable to humans) but because we have decided to call this metallic, yellow, shiny substance ‘gold’ and because we, for various reasons, agree that it is something to which we assign high monetary value. Similarly, national identity isn’t a realization of “Nation-ness” but rather a social construction of a ‘nation’ that continues to delineate those within its boundaries and those it considers falling outside.

When I think about this today I have more precise and thoughtful answers to offer – answers that not only defend my position but can take the accusation two steps further to talk about social theory and what’s at stake in this discussion. I’m saving that for the dissertation – at least for now. That and it’ll take time to write out cogently and I’d like to not be on an extended blogging break.

What I would like to talk about are two thoughts and/or questions about and/or around the idea of ‘social construction’, specifically relational social construction, that came to my mind today as I re-read some stuff and recalled this question from my OQE.

1. Why is it that the claim “socially constructed all the way down” meets with vehement accusation on the part of those who think that there are material realities in the world? The claim socially constructed all the way down doesn’t mean that there is no “Truth” or “Reality”; just that we, as imperfect human beings, can’t comprehend what “It” is so we, as Wittgenstein would suggest, pass over all of that in silence. Claiming that there is no “Reality” is very different from claiming that we can’t know it. To me, the first is a matter of theology, the second is an ontological claim.

2. Relational social constructionism is often viewed by those on the other side of the fence as apocalyptically relativistic. Did any of us relational folks ever say anything and everything goes? Please pardon my ranty accusation, but I find that there are several ‘nutty-hermeneuticians’ or those with a ‘multiple interpretations’ fetish (these are the kind who don’t bother to explore whether it would be useful for them to use hermeneutics to answer the questions they’re interested in but simply latch on to the idea of multiple interpretations because the aspect or part of the world they’re interested in that they think needs saving from someone or something can only work if they can convince everyone else that there are many ways of being – aka multiple interpretation, the current way of being is screwed up, theirs is a better/Truer option so let’s jump on the bandwagon of Equality and Justice and all will be well with the world) who are much more guilty of this charge than us. As a card-carrying relational social constructionist, I don’t recall ever having suggested or argued that anything goes. On the contrary, I – like other social constructionists of my ilk – would claim that outcomes might be contingent but they’re certainly not arbitrary. What does that mean? It means that past ways of making sense form the landscape, if you will, of how that entity has been and will be narrated. Therefore, for example, the India-Pakistan conflict is sustained not as a matter of transcendental fact but because particular ways of relating to each other, of imagining difference (whether that is based on Hindu-Muslim differences, trauma or unfinished business of partition, or something else is inconsequential – what matters is that certain factors are woven together to make meaning in particular ways) such that the other is viewed as an enemy (albeit to different degrees at different times), are re-deployed. If at all relative, I’d say a relational stance is about social relativity (such that outcomes are connected to the logical possibilities that social actors have constructed) which is not the same thing as the overarching relativism (here outcomes are generally viewed as the product of rationality and reason such that agency plays a minimal role in such accounts) we’re traditionally accused of by conservative structuralists.

Having shared these two thoughts I'd like to head down a different, but related, tangent before I sign off for today.

What I’m still wondering about is not the fact that relational social constructionists like myself have to defend our positions and arguments or that there are differences that elicit contention. What I continue to find perplexing is the character of these kinds of exchanges. To me these interactions have become increasingly useless because they hover around the same misunderstandings in a more or less circular fashion. I’d like to think we have more substantive stuff to talk about. Unfortunately, these discussions tend to obsess with (in largely passive-aggressive ways) arguments over value-commitments rather than the phenomena being studied or talked about. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and decide that my question would be better answered from, let’s say, a structural Marxist perspective. It’s just not going to happen – not because I believe Marxism is undeniably useless but because it doesn’t help me answer the questions I’ve been interested in.

So is the problem that we relational folks have yet to explicate our positions clearly and more convincingly (although I can name several folks in the relational camp who have, IMHO, done so)? Or perhaps what I view as misunderstandings are really substantive debates about theoretical commitments that are poles apart and I, as the student in most of these interactions with individuals much more qualified than I am at present am painfully aware of my position on that totem pole, feel compelled to explain myself rather than argue the way I should to take advantage of that exchange? Or perhaps it’s just that the theoretical commitments of positions are usually so opposed that hell would have to freeze over or pigs would have to fly to let me have the kind of non-circular, more interesting conversation with non-relational folks?

Whatever it is I wish we could have discussions with those outside the choir in more productive ways. It just seems to me that if we agreed to disagree and acknowledged that our interactions are not exercises in conversion that we might get somewhere. To me, this war-of-the-worlds kind of environment that prevails most of the time in academic settings overlooks one important thing – the positions we take come are connected to the kinds of questions we answer…so perhaps our conversations ought to be more focused on the questions or, to be more precise, the puzzles we’re trying to solve, on elaborating our value-commitments, and the soundness of the accounts we offer in an attempt to answer the questions that bewilder us. I think that would get us someplace much more interesting.


Professors & Dissertating

Since I enrolled as a doctoral student 4 years ago, I’ve been part of various conversations with other Ph.D. students in my program and elsewhere that have to do with dissertating obstacles in general but keep circling back somehow to how professors and doctoral students relate to each other. That is, how the mentor/mentee relationship works as well as how faculty and students who do not work together interact with each other. The conversation in this vein varies from being specific to an institution (including horror stories about certain professors ranging from plagiarism to harassment to discrimination that make me wonder why these people haven’t been kicked out of their institutions as yet) to a different, more general level of abstraction to talk about interacting with professors in general.

[Side note: these conversations tend to increase in frequency as more doctoral students I know enter the stage when prospectuses (or is the correct word ‘prospecti’?) must be written and dissertation committees must be assembled. I do enjoy the bonding experience that takes place when Ph.D. elders pass on the wisdom of their experiences in a given environment but am also aware that this advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt since the configuration in which each student finds himself/herself is unique in its own particular way. Hmm how redundant was that statement?!]

I get the feeling that I’m being inexplicitly, mostly in passive-aggressive ways, pronounced as the ‘black sheep’ when it comes to my interactions with faculty members in some Ph.D. student networks/circles. Or, the bad comrade, as it were. Why?

Apparently I’m betraying some (unwritten) code of ethics of which I’m unaware by spending the bulk of my time on-campus (which is in any case rare since I now live about a 3 hours train-ride away from the institution at which I’m enrolled) or at conferences in conversations with professors (aka – according to the circles in which I’m the black sheep or, at best, distant relative, of the family – those who already have Ph.Ds and have been put on this planet for the sole purpose of converting us to think the way they do or to make our lives miserable somehow). To be honest, I hadn’t noticed this till it was pointed out to me. I’m not at all convinced that this is a problem. Granted that I should probably make an effort to talk to other students other than the ones I regularly discuss stuff and generally keep in touch with. But what I fail to understand is the notion of the doctoral experience in which faculty members are only meant to be engaged in conversation with if one is taking a class with them, bumps into them in the hallways or departmental hub/office, at conferences for the duration that a panel is officially in-session, at workshops if supplemented by free food afterwards, or in purely instrumental ways (signing off on independent study forms, just before defending one’s prospectus or dissertation, during a prospectus or dissertation defense, etc.). I just don’t think that faculty should be ‘othered’ (in the conventional use of the term…damn relational theory for making me more linguistically anal than I was…and even that iteration doesn’t sound right but you know what I mean?) right out of the journey such that their presence is deemed necessary only when an important hurdle needs to be jumped.

What I’m trying to say, but probably failing miserably at, is that I don’t agree with the notion of thinking of the faculty as an entity to be avoided or as the evil on the other side of the fence making your life miserable whose only use is to approve the dissertation once its finished. [If that is the situation in which you find yourself then I suggest changing committee members or institutions as the case may be or trying to engineer a situation in which your needs and expectations can be met.]

What has sustained me to a large extent through this process is talking to faculty members (whether or not we share the same intellectual commitments but, like others, I usually end up in continued exchanges with individuals where there is some kind of overlap to be found), both at my institution and elsewhere, about my project throughout the process thus far. I like being pushed to think with greater precision and clarity and articulate a sounder argument by folks who seem to know their way about this process and the ones after this (job searches, tenure, publishing, surviving academia) – this is something I find severely lacking in those circles where I am the black sheep. I also enjoy simply the exhilaration that I derive from a thoughtful conversation about ideas…post-panel conference conversations with a good mix of Ph.D. candidates and faculty with similar-yet-different commitments who respect each other are good examples of this kind of talk. This is not to say that I don’t value talking to my peers – there are some colleagues/friends on whom I rely extensively and am grateful for their critiques of my work, the opportunity to read books and articles of mutual interest with, to talk with more generally about ideas and theories, as well as for support through the long, seemingly unending journey that is a Ph.D. But I don’t agree with the strategy of avoiding faculty till one has finished drafts of a prospectus or a dissertation or whatever project one is working on. That makes no sense to me.

So I’m going to continue sending all my green-points, convoluted thoughts, and chapter drafts to my chair, other committee members, and other folks I consider part of my (hopefully ever-growing) epistemic community. These are people for whom I have immense respect. I value their support and am encouraged by it. Their critiques and suggestions help me think of ways to sharpen my argument and make it more precise. And even if this was not the case, the satisfaction of a meaningful conversation would be inspiration enough. As I stated earlier, these are all things that the networks in which I’m considered the black sheep fail to provide.

So my apologies to those circles in which I’m considered a bad comrade. Count me in every single time you want to talk about your ideas or mine or that of some butt-kicking, mind-blowing philosopher (Nietzsche comes to mind; I’m trying to get through Heidegger at the moment so please join me if you feel so inclined and we can talk about “Being and Time” together) but please don’t expect me to participate in endless whining sessions sans any constructive action that can lead to a solution of those problems because I have neither the energy nor the capacity nor the patience. This does not mean that I won’t be there for you as a fellow-colleague; I’ve just made a decision to avoid interactions that don’t go beyond whining so as long as you are also willing to find ways to overcome the predicament you’re in please feel free to knock on my door, inbox, what have you.

I have to add that I don’t particularly relish the thought of being seen as the aberration in some cases. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that label to go away. Nor am I particularly interested if it means sitting out all the fun and thinking of faculty as evil. All I’d like to say to these folks who do think faculty have no role in the process of dissertating: don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

And on that note, I better make a move or else I’ll be late for a meeting with one of my dissertation committee members.

Ciao for now!


The dreaded lit review....

So now that my life outside academia seems to be less out of control than it has been I'm using the time to try and write. Rather than returning to the chapter I was working on before I went on a dissertation hiatus of sorts I've started a new one - the dreaded lit review.

A lit review chapter brings with it various doubts and concerns, at least for me. In no particular order, these are:
1. There is so much more to read and re-read that it'll take me months to write this one. Am I going to run out of steam during this period?
2. Am I saying something that is worth saying? Or...the gleeful pleasure at having found a topic that folks just haven't written about (foolhardy optimism can lead to days where these folks are viewed as classic morons for having missed something this obvious) even though preliminary field research has led me, the dissertator, to believe that there is definitely some there there seems to dissipate into odd anxieties: Did I miss a source? Has this been done somewhat differently but not enough to warrant me waxing poetic about it for 500 pages?
3. Related to # 2 above, what I'm trying to say is so obvious and self-evident that it's just not possible that it hasn't been said.

Am I plagued with an odd obsession about the value-addedness of the enterprise I have undertaken? Might seem that way but I suspect that it is probably a roundabout way of procrastinating to make sure that the perfectionist in me isn't let down when I don't write the fantastic, with Pulitzery-flair (not that I want to write a piece of journalism but that was the only prize that came to mind that has to do with writing) dissertation that I want to.

Either way - it just needs to get written....so back to that. Even if starting at the very beginning leaves me vulnerable to some insecurities I kind of like the logic of starting at the beginning and the certainty of having spent time articulating the contours of my argument before I get into making it. Once this is behind me I can get to the fun stuff - films, oral histories, etc :-) .... plus since I'm more than enthused about my dissertation hiatus ending it might be the best time to work on something I find not as exciting as the rest of this endeavor.

And yes I know I'll be re-writing this a few months from now when I've finished the rest of the work...I learnt that lesson when writing my M.A. thesis...stayed up for 2 or 3 nights (I forget now so I guess it's kind of like child-birth...you forget the unpleasant pains from the first-time round to have the next one...or so I've been told) prior to submitting my thesis when it dawned upon me that the lit review I wrote a year ago made no sense...

Dare I say onwards :-)?


Three questions that I've been obsessing about:

1. Why is it that most folks who do interpretive or hermeneutic research think that my relational "inclinations" (and I quote) mean gravitating towards some arbitrary stuff that I can make up to describe social phenomena? I don't know whether I get more annoyed when "they" make stuff up in the name of textual hermeneutics or any other such "qualitative research label". I'm going to say it one last time (or so I think)....social construction does not mean that one can interpret anything one wants to based on one's personal politics and/or vision of how the world should work. Neither is the notion of 'multiple interpretations' the excuse to do the same i.e. declare existing interpretations invalid and instill one's own as "Authentic" and, therefore, "Right". Understanding reality as socially constructed is to recognize and acknowledge that we act in certain ways and make our lives meaning-full in particular ways at particular times by re-deploying ways of making sense we associate with the past.

2. Why is it that most folks I meet as part of my Ph.D life or are interested in the fact that I've chosen to walk down that road are insistent upon me somehow finding my political activist hat to wear? (This tends to happen more often in South Asian gatherings of the intellectual kind of which I've been a part. Somehow my lack of enthusiasm for Marx is both shocking for these individuals and proof of some kind of inauthenticity that I possess - yes it is essentialized for the most part! - as a South Asian, at least a good one. What baffles me about the latter in particular is that I grew up amongst South Asians who were hardly Marxist but nearly nowhere elite enough to be "the enemy" that "comrades" must take arms up againt...yes I'm being deliberately hyperbolic . So why South Asian-ness comes to be equated by a fascination with Marx is something I have yet to discover). I'm similarly intrigued by the increase in this insistence by folks who know that I'm involved in a project on biographies and international relations (more on that in a subsequent post). Why do some of these folks - generally outside academia - assume I must be some man-hating feminist because I use my brains, don't shy away from expressing my thoughts albeit politely, and am single? Apparently that my parents have taught me to believe in my dreams and have tried to make sure that I always had a high level of self-respect hasn't crossed their minds. That I must be single is also of course because I hate men --- not because I have yet to meet the person I'd live a lifetime with because I love him and not because God (yes I'm going with that) has decided that it isn't time yet (though it would be nice for that blessed moment to arrive soon!) Let me just say this one last time. I have political commitments - we all do. All of life is political in the Nietzschean sense, or so I think. I do happen to have respect for some politicians or those who would be considered part of the political realm because they seem to possess skills I don't. I have a general distaste for political activism because I would prefer not to step on the toes of others and shove my personal preferences down their throats because I'm convinced that I have some transcendentally right answer to the problems that plague our world. So what I'm saying/singing to the tune of the really bad and cheesy 80s song "Hey teacher! Leave the kids alone" is "Hey political activists! Please leave me alone." I'm completely fine with being thought of as the inactive, useless philosopher who's too bourgeois or whatever for your tastes. If my Nietzschean sensibilities bother you find some way to get over it without asking me to go all Marxist on myself.

3. Why is it that when I describe the new baby smell I think of it as a pink smell? This one might seem awkward thrown in with the two above but I didn't want to break the tradition of expressing oneself in 3s. Plus with the insane number of baby showers and "go visit because couple X has newborn baby" events in my life the oddity of the metaphor struck me. So it seemed like a good fit for # 3 :-).