What is political anthropology for you? How do you understand both anthropology and politics (or the political): what is politics (or the political) and what does anthropology mean to you?
What if we started somewhere else than with the idea that political anthropology is a given domain of social life? Text books on political anthropology assume that each specific domain that we cut society into has a specific conceptual vocabulary that identifies universal categories. Thus, state, sovereignty, democracy, authoritarianism, power, law, governance are assumed to constitute the conceptual furniture through which politics as a domain of social life is carved out. The corresponding vocabulary for religion might be god, spirits, piety, prayer, ritual, and so on. The task of the anthropologist is then seen as that of finding good examples or instantiations that will illuminate local variations, empirical actualizations, and thus allow comparative formulations. It is then assumed that with each new empirical work, we will ultimately achieve better and better understandings of these concepts. What if our picture of thinking was different, not necessarily more right but, different?
Rather than speak in general terms, I would like to start with a concrete example of the vicissitudes of anthropological concepts to show how the domain of the political comes to be articulated – what it brings forth and what is eclipsed from view. Consider the classical text that many view to have inaugurated the field of political anthropology, African Political Systems, edited by Meyer Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940) in which they stated forcefully that “We have not found that the theories of political philosophers have helped us to understand the societies we have studied and we consider them of little scientific value.” Yet the conceptual heart of the book lay in the distinction they proposed between political systems in which order was maintained through a balance of power in segmentary systems of intersecting lineage and territorial units (“anarchic order”, as it was termed) and one in which control was exercised through centralizing political institutions such as a ruling chief and territorial organization of the political community. In the former case, they argued that “there is no individual or group in which sovereignty can be said to rest” (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, 1940, p. 14), while in the latter case they identified such figures of sovereignty as the chief, or the king. This division into stateless societies and ones with state, not only allowed them to introduce a teleology in which societies moved in the direction of the former to the latter, but also managed to smuggle into the analytic, a particular concern of political philosophy arising from the original myth of sovereignty that Hobbes tells us – viz., that prior to the institution of the state, men existed within a state of nature in which the only rule was that of mutual violence men enacted on each other (see Das et al., 2014)1. I have critiqued elsewhere the picture of the masculine state upon which this formulation rested and the fraught relation between the social contract and the sexual contract. I have also shown that in Hobbes’ formulations men were seen as completely autonomous beings springing from the earth, as it were, like mushrooms from the earth, which led to the expulsion of women from the political domain altogether (Das, 2006, 2007, 2008a)2.
Most anthropologists writing on this subject would readily concede that centering the Nuer political system (and others with lineage segmentary models) around the question of how order was maintained in stateless societies as a response to the Hobbesian problem of order, obliterated from view the actual disorders that Nuer society was facing in view of British colonial wars, and the implicit assumptions of rights to territory through rights of conquest. Characterizing the Nuer as a political system marked by an anarchic order,3 shifted attention to the absence of the state among the Nuer rather than the presence of the colonial state. I had thought that Talal Asad’s (1973) decisive intervention in 1973 showing how colonialism produced the conditions of possibility for British anthropology to be consolidated as a discipline had led anthropologists to be cautious about the ways in which they read and interpret the character of the political in texts written within the political milieu of colonialism and indeed in the postcolonial contexts too.4 Indeed, a rich literature grew around the Nuer and the Dinka, shifting the problem of governance from solving the puzzle of finding mechanisms of order in stateless societies to such issues as the rhythms of violence and pacification in the region and the various measures taken by the British to institute their own modes of governance.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover how the distinction between stateless societies and societies with centralized authorities has resurfaced in economics (see Moscona, Hunn and Robinson, 2020) in the form of the distinction between lineage societies with segmentary processes, and societies with the centrality of the village in which authority rests with the chiefs as a mode of organization to explain variations in the intensity and duration of “civil conflicts” [the reason for putting this expression within distancing quotes will become evident soon] in Africa. A detailed critique of this paper follows but, here, I simply note that the way anthropological literature has come to be read in some parts of economics and in comparative politics has an uncanny resonance with the work done by members of the security apparatus in some powerful countries in the West that have the global reach to influence the direction of research on political conflict, which deserves close attention. I don’t mean to claim any kind of innocence on behalf of anthropology either. After all, many anthropologists, directly or indirectly, contributed to the colonial project and recent writings have again raised important questions about the use of anthropological knowledge by security apparatus in both authoritarian and democratic politics (Verdery, 2018; Price, 2016). Instead of a confessional mea culpa kind of stance, I want to think of the epistemological and political challenges we face as we come to terms with the fact that there is no escaping the political conditions within which knowledge is produced. What shape should our criticisms then take?
As an example of the kinds of concerns that I am trying to put forward here, let me turn to the paper recently published in Econometrica, the flagship journal of Economics, on segmentary lineage organization and conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa (Moscona, Hunn and Robinson, 2020). The reason I take up this paper is precisely because of the disciplinary recognition accorded to any paper published in this journal, but also because the authors have tried to take the anthropological literature seriously, and their results (within the confines of their method), they claim, show strong effects of segmentary lineage organization on contemporary conflicts in Africa. That they disregard the subsequent literature demonstrating the distortions in the very texts they take to be canonical for understanding the relation between kinship and politics is puzzling. I can imagine that their response may well be that they only wanted to extract from these texts what was relevant to their argument. But at the very least two totally different methods of reading the same texts then arise and could raise important epistemological issues that are in themselves fascinating. When these differences begin to have real consequences in the world on how structures of domination are reproduced, through the stories scholars in elite universities continue to tell about non-Western societies, then the critique with which we might provide each other takes on an added urgency.
In their paper, “Segmentary Lineage Organization and Conflict in Sub-Sharan Africa”, Moscona, Nunn, and Robinson (2020) set out to test the hypothesis (a “longstanding” one, according to them) that ethnic groups organized around “segmentary lineages” are more prone to conflict than those without segmentary lineage structure.5 The justification they offer for considering this hypothesis to be robust is that “Ethnographic accounts suggest that in such societies which are characterized by strong allegiances to distant relatives, individuals are obligated to come to the aid of fellow lineage members when they become involved in conflicts”. The conclusion towards which they veer then is that small disagreements in societies of the segmentary type often escalate into large-scale conflicts involving many individuals, and thus have lethal consequences. Due to the ease of mobilizing distant kin, these authors argue, conflicts become larger in scale and are protracted for longer periods of time, as compared to societies organized around other principles. They also, in passing, mention that kinship ties are stronger in societies of the segmentary lineage type.6 The second arm of their analysis is the characteristics of specific conflicts they cull from the database from Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. For the moment I will refrain from offering my critique of this kind of dataset and apparent ease with which the conflicts are coded as “riot”, “protest”, etc., and particularly the apparent ability to separate the actors (government forces, rebel militia, terrorists, etc.), only to note that much of my own research – along with many civil rights advocates, lawyers and other academics in India and elsewhere – has been precisely to show how government agencies manage to use these classifications to obscure the role of the state in what are rendered as non-state actors (see Das, 2004, 2008b).
How do Moscona et al. arrive at their understanding of how the anthropological literature is to be read? I have chosen to concentrate on The Nuer since this is the classic text which provides the most sustained discussion of this model of lineage organization. For convenience of reading, I will juxtapose the claims on the distinctive features of lineage segmentation that Moscona et al. extract from the Nuer, and then track what happens if one follows that abstract model through to other parts of the text in which Evans Pritchard speaks of actual lineage segments and their composition. Moscona et al. start their own discussion with a model drawn from Evans-Pritchard: “Each segment is itself segmented and there is opposition between its parts. The members of any segment unite for war against adjacent segments of the same order and unite with these adjacent segments against larger sections.” (Evans Pritchard, 1940, p. 142.) Moscona et al. supplement this observation from Evans-Pritchard with similar statements from Smith (1956), Lewis (1961, 1994), Sahlins (1961), as well as with proverbs found commonly in many societies that give hypothetical accounts of proximity and distance in kinship relations. “I against my brothers; my brothers and I against my cousins; my cousins, my brothers and I against the world.” I note here that the discussion is based entirely on hypothetical questions posed to informants – it is not based on any observed case of feud in which higher order segments have united against similar units, nor is it based on a reconstruction of an actual historical feud, unlike later studies such as those of Rosaldo (1980) on headhunting expeditions among the Ilongot in the Philippines, confined to a defined historical period.
As opposed to the schematic model of lineage segmentation, with its neatly balanced lineage segments, when it comes to the actual lineage segments to which references are found in The Nuer, one finds that there are considerable uncertainties in the listing of segments in Evans-Pritchard’s account, as well as ambiguities in naming the territories in which members of a single lineage segment are to be found. For instance, while Evans-Pritchard gives us the names of primary and secondary sections of the Lou tribe,7 and the Eastern Jikany tribes, and tries to fit these into his abstract model, it is clear that he had never witnessed an actual feud or the involvement of the primary and secondary sections in the actual unfolding of any feud which might have shown how individuals from territories actually participated in the feud. Disputes that occurred during Evans-Pritchard’s fieldwork erupted among minor sections, which involved adjacent villages and not agnates dispersed over different Nuer or Dinka territories. The type of weapons used in these conflicts were restricted, and if accidentally blood was spilled, the offender tried to take shelter with the leopard skin chief trying to avoid exposure to those on whom the duty of vengeance would fall. The kind of disputes that could escalate into a war involving the maximal lineages had not happened among the Nuer for at least fifty years. The account of divisions among Gawaar, Lak, and Thiang tribes were not a result of direct observation, but were retrieved from discussions Evans-Pritchard had had with Mr. B.A. Lewis, the one-time Commissioner for Zeraf River District. In fact, after giving us the model of lineage segmentation and the reconstructions of segment names, Evans-Pritchard himself notes that: “These fights between tribal sections and the feuds that result from them, though based on a territorial principle, are often represented in terms of lineages, since there is a close relation between territorial segments and lineage segments, and Nuer habitually address social obligations in a kinship idiom. Thus, in telling me that Wangkac and Yol would unite for war against any other section Nuer stated the proposition by saying that the Wangkac and Yol lineages, which are the dominant lineages in these sections, would unite because their ancestors were the sons of the same mother” (p. 143, emphasis added). The loyalty then arises even at the level of a hypothetical possibility because of filiation (to use Fortes’s  term) and not because of agnatic descent.
I could give many more examples of the entangled nature of kinship ties in Evans-Pritchard’s account when he looks at the concrete lineages and not the abstract model, but the main point I am making is this: the construction of the lineage segmentary model was not based on what was happening when Evans-Pritchard was engaged in fieldwork. The answers Evans-Pritchard elicited were offered in response to hypothetical questions. The answers were not even reconstructions of the history of any actual feud the respondents might have participated in. This is why there is such a preponderance of such expressions in The Nuer as “would unite” (p. 143); “at one time it must have been common” (p. 152); “I have never observed such a procedure”; “according to verbal information for I have never observed such a procedure” (p. 163), etc.
It is a pity that the critical literature on kinship in the late seventies and eighties onwards, which challenged such categories as “unilineal descent groups” and a mechanical model of “lineage segmentation”, was either not studied or was simply omitted in their discussion by Moscona and his colleagues. It is also the case that these authors take what could be elicited from informants in response to hypothetical questions as if these were descriptions of actual behaviour. Both these two factors lead them to a very outdated conception of such terms as unilineal descent, kinship obligation, and helps them to completely erase the colonial violence from their account which is right in front of one’s eyes if one cares to look into the text on the Nuer slightly more closely and not with an eye to simply extract statements that would support an explanatory frame for contemporary conflicts in these regions.
There are several places in The Nuer where Evans-Pritchard speaks of the articulation of the lineage system with the territorial system. For example: “In our view the territorial system of the Nuer is always the dominant variable in relation to the social systems” (Evans-Pritchard, 1940, p. 265). Among many other anthropologists who wrote on this theme, Susan McKinnon (2000) summarizes a clear consensus among the critics of Evans-Pritchard that there are stark discrepancies between the abstract model of lineage segmentation and the empirical facts noted in the different texts by Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer. In McKinon’s words (2000, p. 36): “Although few critics have been willing to offer an alternative characterization, most are quite clear that the attribution of patrilineality is difficult to sustain in face of the complexities of the Nuer system… At every point, the patrilineal/patrilocal model is contradicted and complicated by modes of affiliation and attachment that is anything but patrilineal and by modes of residence that are hardly patrilocal”.8 Indeed, recruitment to territorial groups as in the villages and the camps to which the Nuer moved during the dry season was made on the basis of a number of principles that included agnatic, cognatic, affinal and adoptive relations. Similarly, when it comes to lineage composition of actual tribal groups, these included not only members of the dominant lineage but also “large stranger lineages”, “small lineages of Nuer strangers”, and of “Dinka clusters” (Evans-Pritchard, 1940, p. 206). Evans-Pritchard also reported that sometime groups fleeing British oppression were given shelter in another village because of ties through the mother; in other cases, segments might have moved because of ecological conditions. Frustrated by the obsession with classifying societies as being either marked by unilineal descent or cognatic descent, Edmund Leach (1961) characterized the entire enterprise of dividing societies according to one or the other principle of descent as “butterfly collecting” that completely obscures the complexity of multi-layered relationships. But it is McKinnon (2000) who gives the clinching argument by showing that at the heart of the conceptual problem underlying the whole notion of unilineal descent was the sharp division between the domestic domain and the politico-jural domain in British anthropology of the fifties and the sixties, which resulted in the differentiation of unilineal descent as belonging to the politico-jural level and cognatic relations as belonging to the domestic domain through filiation rather than descent. It was not that relations through ties of unilineal descent were stronger than, say, those among cognatic kin or affines, but rather that the image of a closed unilineal descent group fitted better the notion of jural corporation and the colonial notions of jural rules, which would be enforceable by British officials. I should stop this line of argument here for it might seem like flogging a horse that was not even alive in the first place, except that the resurfacing of these concepts to explain complex trans-regional conflicts in Africa authorizes a new politics of knowledge that dresses colonial projects in new clothes.
Let us take just three other points. First, there is simply no evidence that could support the claim on which Moscona et al. (2020) rest their case, i.e. the fact that because people owe kinship obligations to distant kin, conflicts become more prolonged in segmentary lineage systems. Most of the conflicts that Evans-Pritchard describes in detail in the texts are among proximate villages or within a village, and it is because territorial units have mixed lineages that cross-cutting ties of cognatic kinship and affinity can become resources – along with ritual mediation by the leopard skin chiefs – that blood feuds ended or at least vengeance could be deferred (on this point, see also Caton, 1987). Second, if we look at the actual violence that was going on as result of colonial occupation, we see traces of it in Evans-Pritchard’s different texts on the Nuer, but these are traces, for they never receive full-fledged elaboration. Thus, for example, though Evans-Pritchard claims that the influence of the prophets in political life was exaggerated, his actual empirical materials show that the British treated the prophets as potential rebels attracting a large number of followers who could be incited to rebel. Evans-Pritchard states that: “Owing to the facts that Nuer prophets had been the focus of opposition to the Government, they were in disgrace and the more influential of them under restraint or in hiding during my visits to Nuerland” (1940, p. 185). It is startling to see that the prophet Ngundeng is declared by Evans-Pritchard to have been a psychotic presumably on the basis of government reports even though he had died in 1906 and, as a result, Evans-Pritchard could not have any direct experience of his apparently “psychotic” behaviour. This kind of remark probably reflected judgements of British officials rather than the viewpoints of the followers of the prophets. The prophet Gek was killed by Government forces in 1928; Dwal was made a political prisoner. Evans-Pritchard sees none of these events as “political”, nor does he speak about the disorders that the colonial rule itself was perpetrating through large scale interventions of this kind. It is hard to resist the idea that the entire portrait of the Nuer in terms of lack – they did not have a state, they did not have law, they had no jural authority among them they could appeal to, evacuated the real politics of colonial rule and substituted the model of “ordered anarchy” through the abstractions entailed in the mechanical model of lineage segmentation that came to dominate the discussion on political systems for three decades.
Second, it is not that the picture Evans-Pritchard constructed of lineage model was conjured up out of thin air. At this point of my thinking, I am able to offer a couple of observations that would need further refining. First, we would need to revisit the whole question of what it means for Evans-Pritchard to have spoken of kinship as an idiom, and that the Nuer habitually express all other relations and conflicts in the idiom of kinship? In the late sixties this question was subsumed within the debates on substantivist versus nominalist views of kinship.
Finally, it is not that anthropologists have not engaged in understanding the prolonged civil-war in Sudan, but they have simply not found it useful to evoke the model of lineage segmentation to explain the shifts in loyalties or the prolonged conflicts and wars between Northern and Southern Sudan. Instead, they speak of kleptocracy, movement of weapons, rent seeking of loyalties, foreign missionaries, shutting of oil refineries, the political market place and the role of transnational militias, as well as international humanitarian organizations with good intentions and bad outcomes (see Alex de Waal, 2014, 2015; Hutchinson, 1996). The very notion of non-state actors, which theorists of new wars popularized (see Schuurrman, 2010; Wolfendale, 2011) and which is seamlessly incorporated in Moscona et al., overlooks the simple fact that in all terrorist organizations and operations, and in so-called civil conflicts, there are multiple states involved, which fund these operations, provide weapons, military support overtly or covertly, and intimidate civilians with air raids in areas defined as enemy areas, and that powerful states like the USA and Russia are engaged in proxy wars with stakes in prolonged conflicts.9
It gives me no joy that the ideas honed within political anthropology that implicitly or explicitly provided support to the ends of colonial Empires are now retooled to provide support to scholarly explanations that once again obliterate the role of geopolitical interests, transnational movement of drugs, oil, and weapons, as the burden of explanations for the disorders of wars is shifted to these societies’ internal features. Not surprisingly, Moscona et al. (2020) find themselves in agreement with experts in security studies. They state: “Such arguments are not confined to the writing of academics. Zeman (2009), a strategist with the U.S Marine Corps, has argued that there is a strong relationship between segmentary organization and ‘terror’. Members of Islamist extremist groups commonly come with societies with segmentary traditions and there are explicit links between tribal organization and ‘terror’” (p. 2032).
I can imagine that in a face-to-face discussion Moscona and his co-authors might ask why they are finding these strong effects of lineage organization if such segmentary forms are simply abstractions offered in response to hypothetical questions. My answer could go in two directions. First, if the scaffolding on which the explanatory framework was built – viz. that due to the model of segmentary lineages, members dispersed over large territories automatically assemble to fight for their agnatic kin – simply crumbles, then it is for economists to tell us why they are finding these large effects. There are many examples in the history of science that show that, caught in the grip of theoretical models, researchers were able to “see” empirical correspondences to their models shown later, in the wake of paradigmatic shifts in the models, to have been false, as well as debates around the resonances of models with fictions (Contessa, 2010; Hacking, 1998; Friend, 2019). Second, it is perfectly possible that the aggregate Moscona et al. have constructed is a false aggregate and that we will do better by looking beyond a single causative factor and going into the particularities of the cases of ongoing conflicts, wars, and genocides with a mind to look at the whole assemblage of these formations provided we remain mindful that those powerful actors, whom Moscona et al. cite and are producing the paradigms of security today, are themselves complicit in sustaining many of these conflicts. Meanwhile, as widely reported in the media, the USA demanded and extracted some amount in the region of 335 million dollars from Sudan, a country impoverished by an authoritarian and corrupt rule that was supported by powerful external forces, in order to take it off from the list of terrorist states. It boggles the imagination that these kinds of brute extractions are not seen as constitutive of the violence and disorder of the conflicts in Africa, as the alliance between the new cultural economics (or institutional economics) and intelligence agencies is consolidating.
Although I have occasionally slipped into an accusatory tone, my intention here is not to elevate one discipline over another but to pause and ask what deeper questions about knowledge arise as we think of concepts and their shadows. My concluding thoughts, therefore, are more in the nature of three questions.
First, if thinking cannot be completely divorced from the political milieu in which it occurs and our ideas have wider social effects, how might we begin to think co-operatively across disciplines on these matters? As Asad had reminded anthropologists back in 1973, “[…] anthropology does not only apprehend the world in which it is located but… the world also determines how it will apprehend it.” (Asad, 1973, p. 12.) But what does this stance of asking how our knowledge is shaped by institutions and in what way tokens of power get misapprehended as tokens of expertise entail? Going beyond the analysis of rhetorical performances of indignation, what impact do institutional structures and material conditions of knowledge production have on the way we think of the dark sides of knowledge?
Second, does anthropology need to reconsider its whole notion of culture which allows societies to be abstracted in terms of a set of items of cultural characteristics, isolated from the hurly-burly of life? Could Moscona et al. (2020), for instance, have been misled into thinking that features such as unilineal descent, or the proposition that unilineal descent groups are “closed” whereas cognatic groups are “open”, by anthropology’s own assumptions about culture, and if so, how? Instead of a search for cultural characteristics, would another concept such as “life forms” have allowed the enfolding of various institutions – including those across different scales – into each other, to which much anthropological literature testifies, but which tends to be ignored by economists and political scientists because it does not lend itself to neat models (Floyd, 2018).
Third, how are false aggregates produced and what are epistemological implications of the neat correlations and causal effects that some social scientists find when the institutions in question have no real empirical counterpart, as I have shown with regard to models of lineage segmentation in which abstractions held and offered in relation to hypothetical models are reified and confused with actual behaviour of people on the ground? I am not arguing that mentalities or mental models people hold are not an important part of the social, rather I am asking what questions we might legitimately ask of these modalities? For instance, the idea that lineage organization was central to Somali life, seeped into political imaginaries of scientific socialism and the vehement attacks on “tribalism” as part of the political experiment to introduce new forms of governance in Somalia, created their own political pathologies, as amply demonstrated by Lewis (2002). The point is that the programmes to build Somali nationalism did not happen in a vacuum and to assume that the geopolitical context of the cold war can be simply bracketed distorts the analysis. The impact of new laws to stamp out so-called “tribalism” need to be seen as part of the historical developments in which the history of colonialism, the stakes of new transnational flows of arms, political ideologies, as well as the very ideology of social sciences that propagated the idea of modernity as a triumph against traditionalism played a vital role in the way the imaginary of lineage forms was enfolded into the imaginary of building a thoroughly new kind of nation. One might think of the parallel with caste in India, in which the very existence of such terms as “scheduled castes”, “other backward castes” attests to dynamic political processes rather than a straightforward continuity of traditional institutions. If societies are to be seen as existing in time rather than static entities to which time happens, then one needs to problematize the question of complex multiple forms that intervene in making the ontologies of social entities such as lineages, castes, nations, state, than taking their meanings for granted.
Does this whole set of issues require a rethinking of reality itself as not “frontal” and “out there”, which we can confront from the outside, but as something we, as those who seek to represent it through our descriptions and our models, are a part of: “we are in this reality” (Benoist, 2021)?
Finally, let me reiterate that my criticisms should not be misconstrued as objections to the use of models or mathematical reasoning in economics. Indeed, I am perfectly aware that we often theorize quite effectively with inexistent objects. If the paper by Moscona and his colleagues was in the nature of a thought experiment, or if they were making a model in which they were trying to work out the logical consequences of a set of assumptions about lineage segmentation and the varying intensities of conflict by simulations, or within a logical structure of conditional truths (if… then), I would have little to object to, for that might contribute to clarifications of logical connections, or go towards showing certain impossibility conditions – a type of exercises from which I have learnt much. It is also not my point that the powers of the colonial imagination within which non-Western societies were conceptualized in terms of a lack does not have real consequences. My point is that there is enough evidence in the texts that Moscona et al. use, i.e. that, when it comes to action, answers offered to hypothetical questions are no substitute for actual observation, which of course was not possible because of the government actions banning feuds. Even a reconstruction of an actual feud in which some had participated would have given a better idea of the enfolding of different institutions to produce much more complexity than the mechanical model implied as Lewis, for instance, discovered in the case of Somali and to which he testified (Lewis, 1994, see also footnote 8). The problem for me is not that Moscona et al. give the wrong answers, but that they ask the wrong questions.
I hope a new set of conversations among and within disciplines might be made more robust through mutual commentaries, and, most of all, I hope these contribute to addressing what really matters (Laugier, 2015) for our informants, respondents, co-inhabitants, or whichever name we want to use for the flux of social and political milieus of which we are a part.
Does your research in political anthropology voluntarily relate to, or at the contrary, break with one or (m)any disciplinary traditions (as places for teaching, working and carrying out fieldwork)?
I have taken the case study above to be able to argue that I have no allegiance or aversion to any tradition. Instead, I like to take a problem and ask what might be the best way to tackle that problem. Are we asking the right questions? What is the kind of vigilance we must exercise on ourselves to see that our theories and models do not become harmful, as I think the case of the movement of the model of segmentary lineage into economics and security studies is likely to become. Philosopher Stanley Cavell repeatedly expressed the disquiet that philosophy harbours in itself the potential for violence against the everyday. The only therapy I can offer is what I have called a descent into the ordinary, which entails an attention to the concrete, an ordinary realism that eschews the desire for perfect solutions and a commitment to discover what it means to care for the world that we inhabit with others, humans and non-humans alike.
I read the literature in anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, and political theory and have a limited understanding of the literature in economics that proves helpful (or sometimes harmful, depending on different conditions) in pursuit of the specificity of the issues that get thrown at us from our respective political milieus and our knowledge locations. But I don’t start a priori with what I feel attuned to or what I feel aversion to. I discover that in the course of getting to get a grip on problems that I come across through fieldwork or through reading of particular texts. I do regret that I have not been able to bring into the conversation more of the philosophical literature from Sanskrit on very profound issues such as the nature of negation, or what is an understanding of concepts, how is the real constituted. I hope I still have time left to gather enough confidence to give one final push to make some of this happen and show how much we lose by assuming that, as far as thought is concerned, everything that is valuable is to be found in Europe, as philosophers revered for their commitment to the recognition of the other, such as Emmanuel Levinas, have no hesitation in proclaiming.
How does the specific (political and disciplinary) context of your fieldwork shape your own approach of the political anthropology you are conducting?
I have been working in urban slums and low-income localities in Delhi for the last twenty years and, interspersed with that filed, I have worked on violence for a long time. My work has thus addressed issues of urban poverty and health as well as issues pertaining to everyday claim-making on the state, modes of power that are quotidian, and the manner in which catastrophic violence including that in sectarian riots, and terror related to so-called “legal violence” breaks not only individuals but also communities apart. I have also been collaborating on researching issues pertaining to diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis and the modalities for implementing a global intervention to reduce time between diagnosis and treatment adherence for under-resourced communities. Here are some of the points that emerge from this research.
First, the literature on the urban poor has been intimately connected with discussions and interventions in public policy that generated such internal divisions as those between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor, or between the proletariat seen as the engine of history and the rest (e.g., lumpenproletariat), who were regarded as unable to engage in politics at all (Rancière, 2004). Concepts such as social capital moved from academic theorizing to the policy world in the context of framing policies to help the poor move out of what was called the “poverty trap”. One of the consequences of this way of seeing the poor is that while agency is granted to certain kinds of poor, others are seen in policy discourses as populations to be managed through both the state’s policing and paternalistic interventions. In one inﬂuential tradition of conceptualizing the poor, the very emergence of the poor as a distinct social category of those who are neither fully included nor fully excluded from society is seen to be a product of the relief provided them by others, as in Simmel’s (1965) work. This manner of having brought up the poor within social theorizing was set to denying them any agency in their own destinies, and yet much of the work on the poor shows that they manage incredibly complex economic and political lives. An attention to these issues prompts us to ask how we may think of domesticities, kinship, politics, and the way networks, material and affective, are mobilized to enable what one might call moral economies, or everyday ethics.
Theoretical interventions such as subaltern studies did much to reclaim collective agency on behalf of those defined as subordinate, but there was a concentration on the extraordinary, or on moments of rebellion. As far as everyday life was concerned, there seemed to be an implicit agreement in the literature with Hannah Arendt’s (1965) position that the poor are not capable of politics: they are so entangled in ensuring basic survival that they cannot exercise the freedom that Arendt sees as a necessary condition for collective action or deliberation that (for her) defines the domain of politics. From this perspective, the problems relating to the poor are seen as confined to problems of administration. Even when at certain specific moments, such as elections, when it is apparent that the electoral participation of the poor exceeds that of the rich (as in India), the theorization emphasizes the projection of other sensibilities (e.g. that of the religious or the sacred) to the poor to explain their enthusiasm for, say, electoral politics. These positions assume that the poor do not have the conceptual means of understanding what a vote might mean for determining their political futures – for a strong refutation of this view see Das and Randeria 2015, among others. I have written on these themes, but also held focus group meetings, workshops, and discussions in the slums with people to make available, in Hindi, the nature of our findings for their comments, and for correcting ourselves on how we understand politics.
Without any wish to romanticize the poor, or to underestimate the ways in which poverty might corrode the capacity for collective or individual action, it does seems to me that an understanding of poverty must be considered in relation to other conditions of life such as the possibility of democratic participation, the erosion of infrastructure, the denial of citizenship as in the case of refugees, the impact of race and policies of incarceration, or the way in which livelihoods might become embroiled in drug trade or addiction, or are willfully destroyed in the name of either development or the functioning of the free market. In each of these constellations, we can discern the different ways in which poverty is experienced and how far the potential for political action, seen as the effort to bring about a different kind of everyday, is realized.
There are other themes I am interested in, such as the politics of research on urban health, the implications of big data, the manner in which we could understand the way numbers or narratives are generated, or how to think of such issues as the ethics of care (Laugier, 2015), or local justice (Merry, 2009). I would readily agree that the world makes me restless but I will register some astonishment on how I keep returning to concepts, traditions, empirical contexts, theoretical issues around the everyday and their bearing on skepticism. The best way to put all this across is to say that I am learning to see what is before my eyes.
What do you think is the role of the political anthropologist both in the public and intellectual debate?
Which are the “solicitations of the present” (authoritarian regimes, repressions, revolts or revolutions, riots, social mobilizations and protests, etc.) that make political anthropology important for our contemporary societies? How does the present affect or disrupt research, methodologies, engagements, interpretations and theories?
How do you position yourself in relation to commitment and political transformations? Do you find it necessary or inevitable a dialogue with social movements? If so, why and what for?
I started with a detailed case study of the way anthropological concepts such as those of stateless societies and lineage segmentation have moved into other disciplines such as economics and political science in a manner that the technical apparatus of certain disciplines manages to evacuate the role of contemporary geopolitical forces in the creation of lethal conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. I can take that case study to define my own compulsions to see how conditions for creation of knowledge are inflected with new forms of politics including the politics of knowledge creation (see Das, 2021). I am generally more interested in detailed demonstration of claims and critical observations and, to that extent, find the move from, say, general theories of justice to theories of local justice more interesting. I have also been involved in many collaborative projects in which these issues are honed to specific conceptual and pragmatic challenges. This is why I am writing on so many kinds of topics from thinking about the normativity of concepts and the place we could make for generating knowledge through to engaging philosophical traditions of India, to trying to create empirical knowledge on health markets in India, and how time for diagnosis to tuberculosis could be reduced and, as in my most recent book Textures of the Ordinary, what it means to bring anthropology into conversation with philosophy. All of this is anchored to my interests in everyday life, ordinary ethics, ordinary language philosophy, and the cross-cutting of anthropology with philosophy and literature. I find I am always having to learn new ways of engaging with these issues and would ideally love to go back to being a graduate student.
Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you and the readers of this exciting new journal.