Sociology and the Inescapability of Human-self

Note: The following essay is a commentary on a conversation that took place in the American Journal of Sociology on the use of Verstehen (empathic understanding of human behaviour) between Watts (2014) and Turco et al (2017).

The goal of sociological study is to examine structural processes in a society consisting of human beings. Hence, a sociologist attempts to separate herself from the society in which she belongs and attempts to examine it “objectively.” In this procedure, it is inevitable that a sociologist ends up becoming the object of her own study.

The objectivity criterion in sociology assumes that a “self” can be separated from the “identity.” More specifically, this criterion assumes that a sociologist-self can be separated from other roles that the sociologist plays as a human. One senses that this is the impossible task that Watts (2014) wishes sociologists to achieve in order to have their work qualify as “scientific.” (p.324-5)

In describing the ‘frame problem’ of undertaking the exercise of verstehen, Watts says that “when we deploy our mental simulation apparatus to project ourselves into a particular situation… details are simply “filled in” by the unconscious mind, which draws on its assembled library of images, emotions, stereotypes, role models, and other stylized memorabilia.” As a result of this, “we treat the imagined details in exactly the same way as the specified details…and we calibrate our imagined reaction accordingly.” (p.328; emphasis is mine)

For Watts, the frame problem is not a “problem” in practice because “it is applied under conditions that are especially forgiving for prediction, namely concrete, immediate circumstances that are experienced repeatedly.” In addition to this, “the practice of theorizing about others using simulation is aided greatly by real-time feedback; thus, even when our mental simulations do make erroneous predictions, these errors can be corrected quickly.” (p.330-1) But in the process of theorizing, Watts notices that the further one goes from the context and the actors under study, the greater is the potential for error in making predictions. Yet, this shortcoming does not seem convincing in disqualifying the use of verstehen in teleological study of the society.

There is an underlying contradiction between Watts’ call for objectivity and his desire to not distance away from “a familiar actor and a familiar situation” (p.331). Attempts at objectivity require the distancing of the self from the minute specifications of the context and the actors, in order to be able to see the structural factors governing the social processes more clearly. For example, to be able to see suicide as a social fact, Emile Durkheim (2006) attempts to step away from the specificities of those individuals who commit suicide along with the context of each suicide, to look instead at the aggregate social process that can help understand variations in suicide rates across different religious groups.

As Turco and Zuckerman (2017) correctly observe, one finds in Watts’ position on verstehen an odd tension (p.1274). At times, Watts rejects the idea that empathetic explanation can have any teleological importance while at other times, Watts believes that it can lead towards a causal explanation.

Comparative and historical analysis, a method of data-gathering and interpretation, would not qualify as scientific under the criterion laid out by Watts. This is because, in addition to relying on the chronology of events to prove causality, it also uses narratives that show the causal link between two observations. In many cases, showing causality is not the goal of the research. Instead, comparative-historical research can be undertaken with the goal of understanding the correlation of different observations. If the offer of causal explanation acted as the sole entry-point for the study to be considered scientific, descriptive work that is prevalent not only in social but also natural sciences would lose its value. Hence, causal theory and scientific theory should not be collapsed into each other, a fallacy that Watts finds himself committing.

What Watts is calling for is a thick theory that makes strong claims for causality. For him, this can be achieved through the use of experimental methods and out-of-sample testing. (p.343) Yet, the thicker the theory, the less is the generalizability. Experimental methods, while having strong internal validity, have weak external validity. This is because, by the nature of its design, “experimental research tends to produce discrete findings that cannot simply be “added together” in any way” in order to shed light on macro processes (Mahoney and Thelen 2015, p.11). To trade-off generating thick theory (with strong causal claims but less generalizability) for thin theory relying on verstehen (and weak causal claims) for increased generalizability should not make the study become ‘less scientific.’ If the contrary were true, as Watts tries to argue in his text, then it is unclear where one would draw the line to qualify as scientific, given the spectrum of works that lie between the ideal types of purely empathetic and purely causal explanations.

To conclude, if the criterion dictating the entry of a socio-scientific work into “science” requires an escape of the human-subject from the human-self, it should push us towards questioning not the methods of our knowledge production but rather what is indeed meant by “science.”


Durkheim, Emile. 2006 [1897]. On suicide. London: Penguin.

Mahoney, James and Kathleen Thelen. 2015. Advances in Comparative-Historical analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turco, Catherine J. and Ezra W. Zuckerman. 2017. “Verstehen for Sociology: Comment on Watts.” American Journal of Sociology 122(4):1272–91.

Watts, Duncan J. 2014. “Common Sense and Sociological Explanations.” American Journal of Sociology 120(2): 313-51

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Padmavati or Padmavaat? Conflating myth and history in social imagination

(As written on 27 February 2018)

Women clad in bright-flowing red swarm together, unifying in a hymn to Hindu goddess Bhavani. In the baroque sets that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is known for, Queen Padmavati leads these women in an act of defiance against the ‘evil.’ One could easily mistake it for a feminist act, for there is agency and resistance against the attacking evil. Yet, just before the curtains fall, they all drown themselves in fire.

Padmaavat, a film based on the epic poem of the same name, has ignited many emotions. Expected to have released late in 2017, it was finally released in most states in India on 25th January 2018, becoming an instant Bollywood hit. The story, as depicted in the film, runs rather parallel to a popular account of Ramayan, an epic of great religious importance for the Hindus. Goddess Sita, who is known for her beauty, is captured by the evil ten-headed Ravan, while she is exiled with her model husband, god Ram. After Sita is rescued, she is abandoned by her husband for he cannot be sure of her “purity.” So, to prove her purity, she throws herself in the flames.

This time, Ratan Singh, the king of Chittor, is the perfect husband, with strong moral values derived from his Rajput caste. To stand up to his caste-values, he commits a series of political blunders which leads him to put his kingdom of Chittor at stake. These blunders are justified through the repeated call to “Rajput values” of valor, honesty, and hospitality. In stark contrast is Allaudin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi who lusts for Ratan’s beautiful queen Padmavati. And this ‘evil’ also happens to be Muslim.

Padmaavat, as a work of poetry, was written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, a Sufi poet, in 16th century. The film chooses to glorify a Hindu king and make an anti-hero of a Muslim king. Yet, the epic itself is more complex. While, historically, the siege of Chittor did take place in 1303 under the rule of Allaudin Khilji, the historical truth of the story of Padmavati has been rejected and seen instead as merely a legend.

The film starts with the show of Allaudin Khilji’s barbaric appetites, be it food or women. His tearing away of huge chunks of meat contrasts the normative belief of vegetarianism as morally ‘pure’ in contemporary India. And meat has become politicized. From public lynching of Muslim men accused of killing cows to the Hindu-nationalist groups who patrol highways to check for illegal beef trade, meat has become political and symbolic of the communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

The desire for violence is also made analogous to Islam in the film. When Allaudin Khilji decides to wage a war on Chittor, we see a crowd of men praying in unison at a mosque, who rise up in chaos and fervor as the call to the war is made. Calls praising Allah (“Hamdullah!”) are made as Khilji kills one of his aides who questions Khilji’s strength to conquer Chittor.

This hyper-masculine and violent portrayal of Khilji has been stated as one of the reasons why the film was flagged by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and banned in Malaysia. It has also led to riots across India by various communities, some of which continue today. The film has yet to release in Gujarat, a region with a history of communal tensions.

The debate that the film has generated has concentrated either on the question of feminine representation or on the right to free speech. In the film, Jauhar, or collective self-immolation, marks the victory of Chittor, as the narrator remarks, and it marks as well the loss of Allaudin Khilji. The valorization of this practice, long made illegal in India, has been criticized for its link to patriarchal control of women and their identities. The free-speech camp has criticized those calling for banning this film on the basis of its potential to hurt the sentiments of many communal groups, citing that the film should not be interpreted beyond its scope for entertainment.

What seems to be largely overlooked is that the terms “history” and “legend” have been conflated in the debate largely prevalent in the Indian media. While the film starts with the disclaimer that it “does not infer or claim historical authenticity or accuracy,” many in the media still talk about the movie’s depiction of the story in terms of a historical fact. This repetition has one problem – the potential to embed in the social imagination the idea that the depiction of the story in the film is indeed historical and scientific. And it can have dangerous consequences.

The experience of danger related to historical manipulation is not too far in the past for India. The riots and violence following the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992 are a reminder that the history is never settled and that it continues to remain a space of political contestation even in the present.

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Alienation through education

John Edgar Wideman, in a talk this weekend at the literature festival Écrivains du Monde organized by Columbia University Centre in Paris, mentioned the gap he felt in his literature classes while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. There was no African-American writer in the reading list he was handed. In his conversation with Christiane Taubira, ex-Minister of Justice of France, he mentioned the alienation he felt, also echoed by Madame Taubira herself from her experience of being educated in Cayenne.

I found myself reflecting on my own process of education, especially in Ahmedabad. In my Catholic school run by the Carmelite Order, my English classes were filled with characters from old Britain that we continuously sought to emulate in vain. Literature was to be a place where English was spoken; so our school banned us from bringing our own cacophony of languages ranging from local Gujarati to Malayalam to Punjabi and Bengali. To bring our brown identity into the school premises meant inviting humiliation, an experience that Edward Said highlights while speaking of his education at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt.

There was not a single Indian writer in the books we studied in our English class at Mount Carmel. We read India through the eyes of Rudyard Kipling, yet we were made to forget that we could learn to observe our land through our own eyes. Our eyes could not see the real India, we were educated to understand. Through the other texts we read, ranging from poetry by William Wordsworth that we had to recite for our final exams to the unfathomable Charles Dickens, I was made to understand that brown characters had no space, nor did the everyday landscapes of India that I was so used to. My everyday self and space in India was made banal, to be looked down upon, to be erased so as to create and recreate the scenes from Shakespeare’s works. The only original tragedy had to be the story of Romeo and Juliette. The local Laila and Majnoon, singing around the trees and kissing behind gardens full of roses were low-brow. It would be blasphemous in my school to even compare the two tragedies in the same sentence.

My education taught me to shut my mouth up and retreat, for my brown skin could not be a speaker. I was told to believe that I didn’t even have a voice; for the voice was reserved for the dead poets and writers long buried at the Highgate Cemetery. I think of my education as having played a deep role in colonizing my understanding of my life and thoughts along with my place in the world. And I am amazed to find that a colonial institution such as Mount Carmel school with not a single non-Indian soul running it today can continue the legacy – with such pride – of an act so silently subjugating.

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When sexual predation marks academic boundaries

I happened to be reading a journal on anti-colonial and migration studies from Beirut, when I got to know that one of the works being analysed was a work by a professor who had sexually harassed me.

He is still at the university, running free, gaining academic success. And here I am, in Paris, wondering whether women in this community across the Mediterranean are safe.

I was sexually harassed in May 2013, four years ago. I did set up a case against him, but the outcomes were not to my satisfaction. The level of efficiency of rule of law in Lebanon along with my previous experiences of sexual harassment from the local army meant that I decided to go through the university legal structure to seek remedy. After a long painful trial that lasted the summer, and after long testimonies given over Skype from India, I got an email from the then president of the university saying that the professor in question will undergo compulsory counselling. That’s it! No firing. No kicking him out of the university and the country! No shaming him in the academia as he continues to write about colonial subjugation.

Right now, I am realizing that some of the academics I would have wanted to work with and who fall into this group of anti-colonial writers are mostly men and would laugh if I ever brought up the misdeed of their fellow academic. I would find that my strength as a woman academic would be questioned. This is not the first time I find myself locked in the academic networking chain, so crucial for one’s success as a writer and an intellectual, because of the prospect and memory of sexual predation.

I find it ironic indeed, that this brown anti-colonial man attempting to re-write histories of subjugation is himself a creator of subjugation. I remember very well the event of harassment. I remember him, as we sat together for dinner at his place, beginning to cite some cringing phrases from the then popular Fifty Shades of Grey. While I clearly tried to express my disgust, he went forward to grab my hand, refusing to let me go out of the house and I began to realize the quick turn of the event. I did finally manage to get out of his apartment.

It took me many days to understand what had happened. I had refused to name it as sexual harassment. It was only during my conversation with fellow women classmates that I realized that this form of interaction, between someone who is a professor and someone who is a student is not normal. So much for the colonial subjugation!

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Interviews with my Grandmother: Part II

My grandmother’s name is Snehlata. It translates to “a vine (lata) of love (sneh).” I would say that she is rather a “a vine of strength”, who has succeeded in keeping her ever spreading family together. Today, her children and grandchildren are spread out across India, the US, Canada, Azerbaijan, (and, hey, France!)

My grandmother was born in Godhra, a small town in Gujarat, India. She was born into Modhvaniya Vaishnav family, meaning that she is a Vaishnav (follower of one or all forms of Vishnu).

When asked about what Modh meant, my grandmother seemed not to know. It was my father, who suddenly became very enthusiastic about my project, who also provided the missing piece to the puzzle. His knowledge on religion has inspired a forthcoming project – Interviews with my father.

The Modh in Modhvaniya indicates that my grandmother and her family fall into the tribe of Goddess Modheshwari worshipers, indicating that before conversion to Vaishnavism, more than five generations ago probably, my ancestors were actually followers of Shaktism. My grandmother can ascertain that we have been Vaishnavs for at least three generations before her. Vaniya indicates the caste; we are vaniya or baniya or the merchant caste. My friends have fun making jokes about how caste-ist I am because I chose to study economics.

My grandmother is the mother of my mother, hence my maternal grandmother. My grandmother married into a family that was also a follower of Modhvaniya Vaishnavism; so did my mother. These marriages occurred through arranged marriages. One of the questions that I asked my grandmother was about finding suitable partners for marriage  (not for me, oh dear no!) – how do you assure that you find a good husband or good wife who is Modhvaniya Vaishnav? You can apparently not marry until your seventh cousin in the family.

So basically, you can marry in your tribe but not in the family (until the seventh cousin). My grandmother says that my father actually doesn’t belong to their Godhra family by blood. My father comes from the Modhvaniya Dhandhuka family, which is a Pushtimarg following Modhvaniya family based in Dhandhuka, a small town not far from Ahmedabad, India. In trying to make sense out of this, I have concluded that probably more than one family was a part of the Modhvaniya tribe that later converted to Vaishnavism. I might be wrong. (If you have the piece to solve the puzzle, please send me an email.)

My extended family largely consists of intermarriages between the “Shah”s and the “Parikh”s. Not that all families with these last names belong to the same sect as my family, but that those who belong to Modhvaniya vaishnavism usually have these two lastnames. My grandmother was a Shah before she got married; Parikh after. My mother was a Parikh and still is a Parikh because my father is a Parikh. So every time that I have an option of choosing a secret question to retrieve a password, I cannot use the option of “What was your mother’s maiden name?” Guess what, it never changed! Well, maybe her middle name did change, from her father’s firstname to my father’s firstname.

Check out Part I

Part III coming soon…

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Interviews with my Grandmother: Part I

Pushtimarg is a sect within Hinduism (and under Vaishnavism) that my family follows. It has been translated loosely as “A path (marg) of Grace (pushti)”, but I would translate Pushti rather differently. In my childhood, pusht, the root of pushti, was used to describe older men, who were pusht about their principles and values, or rather, upholding strongly of their principles and values. So Pushtimarg, for me, means a path that helps you uphold your principles.

This meaning that I had understood in my childhood brought me to my thesis that equated Pushtimarg and the rise of other similar sects as comparable to the rise of Calvinism (and Protestantism in general) in the late 16th century. While trying to understand the values of sacrifice for the older and the younger generation that my parents exalted, I made a connection between the rise of the Protestant ethic and pushtimarg. This link that I framed into words while having a conversation with Prof. Theodor Hanf, a true Weberian of a kind, got us both very excited. Now, said Prof. Hanf, I needed to do the field work.

I came from a scientific background that only sees quantitative methods as scientific; I had always laughed at the degree of “scientific” knowledge you could get through qualitative methods, like interviews, ethnography, or participant observation. Qualitative methods is a religion of it’s own, Prof. Hanf would have said. After I did “change religions,” shifting from economics to sociology, I had to convince myself that qualitative work could indeed be scientific. As with every religion, my conversion story is full of miracles, including one where I came upon the holy text written by Mario Luis Small (How many cases do I need?) which managed to convince me that ethnography could be scientific; it just needed to be evaluated with different criteria than that involved in quantitative methods (which have, unfortunately, increasingly been seen as being the only scientific way possible to do social sciences).

I asked myself – where exactly do I start studying about Pushtimarg? I read a few papers, mostly written by British social scientists during the time of colonial rule in India. Following the tone of the Empire itself, the paper had a note of “white man’s burden” to it, which left me dejected. So, I decided to turn to my grandmother.

Check out Part II

Part III coming soon…

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Objective discrimination vs “Experienced” discrimination

If you had asked me 10 years ago if I had ever experienced discrimination, I would have thought for a few seconds and said no.

As my education in social sciences along with interaction with the political sphere increased, I began to re-think past events and find patterns of discrimination that came from various sources; this discrimination had not been felt at the moment it was being directed against me. In other words, I began to integrate the presence of discrimination in the process of choice of actions and behavior. Through this process, I underwent what in sociological literature is termed as “biographical reconstruction,” in the sense that I began to see my life as being governed by the fact that I am both “brown” and a “woman,” two facts which were not important to me before.

This observation has led me to think two aspects about the nature of discrimination. These two aspects are separated in time as pre-enlightenment and post-enlightenment in relation to the directed discrimination:

  1. The pre-enlightenment period: This is the period when one is consciously unaware of the discrimination being directed to oneself. Objectively speaking, the discrimination does exist in the human relations. Yet, considering the lack of awareness of discrimination, one does not consciously integrate this presence in deciding one’s actions.
  2. The post-enlightenment period: This is the period when one becomes aware of the discrimination being directed to oneself. It is not static; rather it is a process. The presence of discrimination is taken into account while choosing one’s actions.

The shift from pre-enlightenment to post-enlightenment is marked in the identity of the person. The parts of social behavior or appearance that the “post-enlightened discriminated” individual feels as being the target of discrimination suddenly become central to governing the individual’s behavior.  The social fact of being “brown,” for example, suddenly became predominant in my choice of dressing, the food I would consume, the political views I would adhere to, etc. I am also more prone, in general, to identify events that might not contain “objective discrimination” targeted against me as containing discrimination. Hence, I am prone to experience more discrimination than that which might actually be targeted, objectively, against me. This in turn implies that my response to non-discriminatory relations might, in some instances, be one that would have been if it was, indeed, a discriminatory one.

Now, my question is, how does this re-naming of a social relation/ action from my side as discriminatory affect the individual or institution with which this relation is made? Does my naming of a relation as discriminatory make it discriminatory over time? How does this affect the individual or institution whose non-discriminatory relation or action is interpreted as discriminatory?

My other set of questions pertain to how other minority individuals, who face objective discrimination and undergo enlightenment, shift in behavior and meaning-making of everyday interactions? Is there a bias to exaggerate the number of discriminatory interactions? If yes, how does this change the aggregate perception of discrimination? How does this change group action of those who see themselves as target of discrimination on similar grounds (specific shade of skin colour, gender, nationality, religion, etc)?

My third set of questions focus on the difference in the effects: how to account for discrimination when it objectively exists but is not “experienced”? Is there a change in how one chooses one’s actions when one is not aware of the discrimination being directed as us? Does this change the degree to which the discrimination affects outcomes, for example, in opportunities and outcomes of these opportunities?

If you have any answers, I would be happy to know!

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