First of all let me extend my gratitude to the ANU-IU Pan Asia Institute for arranging this seminar as well as my whole month at ANU and Canberra. I want to highly encourage everyone to look into the resources available to them through this collaboration between ANU and Indiana University. Especially have a look at the graduate exchange option, and feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about possibilities at Indiana University. I hope to see some of you in Bloomington soon!
This seminar is based off the most recent iteration of my dissertation prospectus, which I have had to modify significantly in the past 6 weeks or so. Indeed, I had originally planned to conduct my field research in Dhaka, but with recent events in Bangladesh, I have decided that is no longer feasible. The new project is, I believe, actually an improvement though, so I have certainly gotten over any professional distress that I might have been feeling on July 1st.
My dissertation project is driven by a simple puzzle: How do people deal with the contradictions inherent in any national identity? We are all aware that nations are constructed entities. We also all know that, thanks to Benedict Anderson and others, that all nations are” imagined.” Not in the sense that they are not real, but in the sense that no one individual actually knows the entirety of the nation, nor does one’s conception of that national identity hold true for the entirety of the population and territory claimed. There are, I would say, inherent and glaringly obvious contradictions in any national claim, and, importantly, most people are likely to be completely aware of these contradictions! They have, however, reasoned around them, framed them, mostly in god-awful political speak, in such ways as to appear more consistent or logically palatable to insiders. Not only are these conceptual deals not immediately obvious to outsiders, but uncovering them is a puzzling undertaking, because of the numerous, almost infinite, options available to individuals and groups to frame and bracket off national identity contradictions and inconsistencies. Indeed, I would argue that it cannot be done through a positivist approach to political “science”, but rather is an almost ideal application for interpretativist and ethnographic approaches to social inquiry and explanation.
In this seminar, I want to go over some of the more recent developments in the study of “nationalism,” focusing on the exciting new work going beyond the rather simple “it’s all socially constructed” truism. I then want to talk a bit about interpretative methods in American political science and how this fits in with the study of nationalism and the kind of social meaning-making/semiotic systems that I am interested in. I then want to jump into some of the areas, in which I see contradictions in Bengali national identity, and some of the important and politically significant outcomes of these inconsistencies. Finally, I want to share how I propose studying this topic from an interpretative standpoint and what my initial claims are going forward.
New Nationalism Literature
Some recent books on the origins of nationalism have, thankfully, stepped away from ideas that national identity is an inherently “modern” phenomenon, with relatively shallow roots. Rather, the trend, as I read it anyways, is to appreciate that nationalism has a deep history and is just as much tied to ethnic or cultural identities and practice as it is to history and the emergence of the state and subsequently the nation-state. In this regard, new scholars are problematizing Anderson’s argument and pushing it in different and, I think, intellectually exciting and analytically useful directions.
Surely, what defined Anderson’s work is its clear contribution to the field and its wholehearted dismissal of primordial and especially biological theories of nationalism. Thank the goddesses that we can get rid of ideas of biological nationalism, at least in the academy! However, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I am absolutely on board with the idea that nationalism, like any identity, is constructed, and I might be able to concede that the contemporary use of the word “nation” and its related terms are a thoroughly modern concept. That said, the idea of political identities, affiliations, and communities being based on ethno-national identity is not new at all. This is best shown in Gat and Yakonson’s 2012 book Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. These authors argue that nationalism is part of a broader notion of political ethnicity. Defining ethnicity as shared kinship and culture- real or perceived- they show that ethnicity has always been highly politicized and was a clear factor in the types of political arrangements that predated the “modern” states, if we accept that such a category truly exists. Petty-states, city-states, empires, etc. all had a component of shared identity, that we would now call ethnicity. Anthony Smith’s 1986 book The Ethnic Origins of Nations, is a good example that this is not necessarily a new line of thought, but it is one that needs to keep being modified in response to important critiques from the “modernists” and more ahistorical conceptions of constructivism. For my research question, this points to the deep roots of nationalism as well as the continually adaptive nature of national identity discourses. That is to say that while nationalism is not the thoroughly modern concept that some might consider it to be, it is also in a constant state of flux to adapt itself so as to remain relevant to as large a section of a given population as possible. National discourse have to ring true to people in order to be taken up and believed in.
As a lean in to interpretativist methodologies, let me finish this section on nationalism by discussing Lisa Wedeen’s fantastic 2009 book Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. In this book, Wedeen takes on an important question: How is it that Yemenis have come to invoke and seemingly believe in a Yemeni nation without strong state institutions and in the face of other competing nationalist claims, such as the Islamic Ummah or pan-Arab identity. (Many of these same concerns with a little revision apply to Bangladesh as well!). To answer this question, she treats nationalism as a contingent category, which is what I want to focus on here. By “contingent”, Wedeen means more than the simple idea of nationalism as constructed. Rather, she invokes the idea that nationalism as a concept exists because it is performed. In other words, nationalism as an identity or an ideology is contingent on people referencing it and performing it in their day-to-day lives. In many ways, this is a continuation of her argument in her 1999 book Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbolism in Syria, in which she argues that the lack of obvious opposition to Syria’s authoritarian leader, Hafiz al-Asad, is based on Syrians performing obedience to the state alongside more underground critiques of the political situation. Few actually supported Damascus, but almost all were willing to perform obedience publically and disobedience privately. Again, political identity is treated as performative. So, to bring this into a more subjective light, “American” national identity exists because people behave as if it is a real thing. We salute the flag in primary school, and our national history is told as if the “US” was a natural entity, unproblematic in both its genesis and reach. But, outside of the rhetorical and discursive debates that invoke certain ideas of an “American” and “America.” As Gertrude Stein wrote in reference in Oakland, California in
1937, “there is no there there”, in the strict objective and material sense, but rather a concept that is given meaning by people.
Interpretive social science, as explained by Lisa Wedeen, likely its most well-known champion in the United States, is driven by four important ideas. Interpretative social scientists question the power presumed to accompany “science”; see the world as constructed and socially made; eschew the individualist orientation of rational choice and behavioralism; and tend to focus on language and symbolic systems, sometimes referred to as culture. The questions guiding such research are often along the lines of “How does X get taken for granted” and “How does Y change over time.” In this sense it is an ideal approach, methodologically, ontologically, and epistemologically for the study of national identity. Of course, identities are constantly in flux. Of course, it is impossible for me to make any claims to complete scientific Truth about what other people are thinking or how they make sense of their world. And, of course, nationalism is often taken as a granted by many people, a natural category that is true because its falsehood is not an option.
I understand interpretivism as a methodology rather than as a method, a distinction that is hugely important for understanding interpretive social inquiry and also its incommensurability with more mainstream, positivist approaches . I use methodology to refer to a way of understanding the world: what can we know, how can we know it, and why is it important. Methodologies guide researchers in forming research questions and determine the basic underlying logic of any research project. Methods, then, refer to the actual data collection tools employed to carry out one’s research. After deciding what kinds of data are important and what is actual out there to study, then and only then can specific methods be chosen.
Interpretivism comes along with a commitment to understanding how people make sense of their own world, and how we create systems of meaning, so that our actions are not simply what we are in fact doing, but what we are intending to do. Clifford Geertz’s story about winking is a good example. A wink is literally just a closing and opening of the eyelid, but it is given meaning through context and shared understandings so that a wink can be a secret signal, a flirtation, or a gesture of reassurance. In other words, any action must be recognizable to others. In order to find these patterns of meaning, the researcher will usually rely on historical, ethnographic, or textual/discursive methods of inquiry. Furthermore, she will give up on the false gods of positivist research such as deduction, falsifiability, replicability, and any notion of neutral objectivity. However, and this is where interpretivists differ from post-modernists and post-structuralists, there is generally believed to be a some degree of empirical truth. In my case and many others, there is also a normative framework and a decidedly critical foundation to such research. In this way, I find that interpretative analysis is less prone to saying that there are only discourses and no truths out there, as if everyone’s point of view is equal. Rather, there is something out there to study, and while you can never know it without reference to your own cultural context and can never hold onto the entirety of it, you can reveal and important piece of it.
In the study of nationalism, this suggests that how people make sense of their nation, the specific ways that they understand their “imagined community” is actually more important than the fact that the identity is constructed. How they deal with the contradictions or inconsistencies of their identity reveals a lot about the ways that people attribute meaning and even stability to what is by definition an unstable concept.
Now, I noted above that interpretive methodologies are emphatically not post-modern. Indeed, they are still concerned with explaining the empirical world. So, let me now get into the empirical meat of this seminar. My study is concerned with Bengal, which I would broadly equate with the Bengal Delta, including at a minimum West Bengal and Bangladesh; however, as I will point out even this modest claim is contentious. I don’t wish to spend a lot of time talking about the general history of the region; rather, I want to jump right into 2 areas that I find particularly interesting: language and religion. There are certainly more, but I think that these two are enough to understand the basic logic of my project.
Bengali nationalism is tied to Bangla, the major language spoken in the delta. Bangla, an Indo-European language, linked to Sanskrit, but with a fairly distinct grammar and phonology, is spoken by around 300 million, making it, by some estimates, the sixth or seventh most spoken language on the planet. (And yet, my mother, bless her heart, didn’t think it was a real language). And yet, the boundaries of what is considered “Bangla” and what is not is not just political, but often in a state of change. For example, as the British pushed north from Calcutta into Assam, they were convinced, by Bengali middlemen, that Assamese was an irregular and corrupted form of Bangla, and as such initial language policy in Assam was designed to promote spoken and written Bangla. Nowadays, however, Assamese is not only considered a separate language, politically and linguistically, but the divisions between Assamese and Bangla are important markers of difference and “the other”, if you will permit me to use such cliched language. However, languages just as distinct as Assamese from Standard Bangla are fully accepted as within the Bengali fold. Chittagonian and Rohingya, for example, display markedly different pronunciation, verb endings, negation, and pronouns. For example: I have done- ami korechi- becomes “ai gojonde” and “I didn’t do” goes from “ami kori ni” to “ai nagori.” At the same time, Chakma, a language with Tibetan-Burman roots, but has taken on such a large degree of Bangla vocabulary and grammar structures, that it is now considered Indo-European, are distinctly outside the bounds of Bengali nationalism.
This is not about objective criteria. Rather the discourse of Bengali nationalism is what ties Chittagong to Dhaka and keeps the Chakma at arms length. Chittagongians are Muslims, and, as far as I know, they do not have a separate literary tradition. While the colloquial might be linguistically distinct- far too distinct to count as a dialect- the political affiliation is clear. Chittagongians and other Bengalis consider people in Chittagong to be Bengali, and so it is true and performed as if it is true. On the other hand, Chakma are culturally and religiously distinct, perhaps even more so by these two markers than by language. There is no discourse or national identity option that allows for Chakma to be considered part of the Bengali nation, on either side. Importantly, however, there is also no room in the alternative discourse of Bangladeshi nationalism that recognizes non-Bengalis and non-Muslims as part of the nation.
Linguistic nationalism might be the prevalent in South Asia, where state external and internal boundaries have often been decided along linguistic lines; however, we also know that religion can, and often is, treated, as just as salient an ethnic marker in the region. Indeed, there are many books written on South Asia where “ethnic” conflict is actually Hindu-Muslim conflict. Ashutosh Varshney’s 2002 book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, comes to mind as a good example. There are at least four major world faiths practiced in the Delta in addition to animistic belief systems: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Buddhism and Christianity are comparatively rather minor and less politically important, so I will set them aside for now. Of course religious nationalism was behind partitioning Bengal in 1947, and its contestation is clearly central to Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971, during which Bengalis fought against the Pakistani military for independence from West Pakistan on the grounds of linguistic, cultural, and economic rights. It was also the impetus behind the 1905 partition of Bengal. In both cases the reaction was mixed. In 1905, the opposition to the partition was made by Hindu Bengalis who relied on the discourse of national unity as well as economic necessity for overturning the decision in 1911. East Bengalis were, however, largely supportive of the deal because it provided the opportunity for freedom from landowners, largely based in Calcutta. In the 1947 partition, clearly ideas of a united Pakistan played a role. However, Joya Chatterji in her 1995 book Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition has also shown that Hindu Bengali elites were also supportive of the partition, because they recognized that in a democratic system a united Bengal would have a Muslim majority. (I should point out the this book is highly controversial, but I think it is an important contribution nonetheless). Since 1971, independent Bangladesh has been almost strangled by contested national discourses, where different sectors of the population profess different ideas of national identity ranging from secular Bengali nationalism to a distinctly Bengali-Muslim identity, and even into pan-Islamic nationalism where ethnicity is irrelevant within the bounds of a united Muslim ummah or community.
I want to now move to a quick discussion of how I intend to actually utilize an interpretativist methodology to the study of contradictions and reasoning in Bengali nationalism. Remember that my broad research question is: How do people deal with the contradictions inherent in any national identity? Bengal is really an awesome and ideal case study for this type of research because of the political boundaries that divide it, as well as the dynamic, indeed often incendiary nature of nationalist debates in the region. Bengali intellectuals, which if we take the national stereotype to the extreme, is practically every literate Bengali, have hotly debated the emergence and the challenges to Bengali nationalism. What's more, these debates seem to have a kind of depth to them, where many people not conventionally concerned with elite nationalism do take part in conversations about identity, the country, and their political identity. With this mind, I am proposing that my research utilize ordinary language interviews and participant mapping alongside textual analysis of archival and other locally published materials, all conducted with a certain “ethnographic sensibility.” My current plan is to conduct fieldwork from January-July 2017, based in Kolkata, but with additional travel to other areas of West Bengal and perhaps Bangladesh, if the security situation allows.
The best examples of ordinary language interviews that I can think of are Fred Schaffer’s work on the use of “democracy” in the Wolof and other linguistic groups in Senegal. By focusing in on how the concept of the “demokaraasi” is used less in reference to voting and leadership and more in reference to community ties and dealing with crises through consensus, Schaffer shows us that while “democracy” might be used globally, what people mean when they actually use the term is highly variable. (Here I think about a fun Russian word play where demokratiya is changed slightly to dermokratiya, meaning shit-ocracy, a reflection on the instability experienced during the 1990s). A fellow IU graduate, Ahmed Khanani, did a similar study in Morocco looking at the meaning behind the term “demokratiiya” as used by Islamist parties in the country.
The underlying logic here is that you focus on words that have a lot of conceptual ambiguity or are used inconsistently across cultural linguistic groups and with enough interviews you begin to delimit the actual meaning of the concept as people actually use it. This is, of course, quite a radical departure from the Goertz-like obsession with conceptual clarity or even the more classical Santori-esque argument about conceptual stretching. Rather, we recognize that terms are never well defined, but that we can find out what these terms actually mean to the people using them to better understand political processes. In my project, it seems useful to use ordinary language interviews as a way to get at what people mean when they use the term “Bengali” and what other terms might be available that modify that identity, such as “Bangladeshi”, “Bengali Muslim”, etc. The emphasis will be on understanding the limits of these terms, but also identifying and pushing people on aspects of the definition that don’t add up. In this way, I will hear their justifications and reasonings, which is, of course, the core concern of my research.
Participant mapping here might come as a bit of a surprise, but I am extremely interested in geospatial analysis and its applications to interpretive work. Now, every time I seem to talk about my project most people are invariably confused with why I have this GIS component, because I have in the past treated it as a separate component. Rather, I want to emphasize here that geospatial analysis in my research will be utilized through participant mapping and historical maps. I am thinking that I will have each interviewee draw out where they consider the territory of the Bengali nation to be on a map with only the land masses delineated, but without reference to current political boundaries. I can then digitize these and use GIS software - I’ll be using QGIS over ArcGIS, because I am more familiar with that program- to compare across interviews and highlight areas that vary the most significantly. This approach can then be extended and deepened by comparing these maps to those published in archival and other secondary sources. The goal with this approach is to understand where the areas of contention lie, what importance internal and international borders may or may not have, and how people deal with the clearly non-Bengali areas of the Delta.
Archival resources and locally published materials will be a hugely important component of this research program. But, rather than try and construct a historical narrative, I am more interested in the ways that “Bengali” and its derivative terms have been used over time. I am also hugely interested in how Bengali intellectuals have historically been and continue to deal with the idea of Bengal and Bengali-ness. Ideally, I would be able to interview a large number of these authors, focusing on the differences between their writings and information given in the interview, with proper anonymity, of course.
Ethnographic sensibility, an embarrassingly cumbersome term, is essentially an attempt to indicate that while I think of this as an ethnographic, participant-observation-based project, my timeline is a bit condensed. Rather than be a stand-alone ethnography, my combination of methods is designed to fill in the gaps that would inherently arise from a more ethnographic or participant-observation-based project with only 7 months of fieldwork. We might then think of this as following the supposed logic of multi-method research, but without the need for or want of statistical analysis, which would be completely inappropriate for this type of research.
By way of conclusion, I thought I would end where most finished studies begin, namely, what I expect to find in the field. Now, this is explicitly not a deductive project, and I am not making claims to a timeless and objective TRUTH. But, I will be offering explanations of the phenomenon I observe backed with “data” gathered in the field. So, I thought perhaps in place of “hypotheses”, I would offer some expected findings or “claims”, that I expect to be guiding explanations for my future dissertation:
1.Bengali Nationalism is performative, and treated that way by the majority of people that invoke it. Being Bengali will depend on choosing “good Bangla” words, referencing core Bengali literary figures, and referring to connections with other Bengalis across borders. As a side note, I really love this idea of a “good Bangla words”. Many people in Bangladesh would tell me something along the lines “there is a good Bangla words for X” “Bhalo Bangla ache”, where X is either an English or Persian loan word. The good Bangla word is almost invariably a high register Sanskrit loan word, by the way.
2.Contradictions, while widely acknowledged, become unimportant in the space and context of when Bengali identity is evoked or invoked, as the case may be. I suspect that the key differences in language and religion are widely known, and that many people recognize the different and competing national claims at work throughout the Delta, such as Indian, Hindu, Islamic, and/or Bangladeshi nationalist claims. However, the concept of a Bengali nation will be referenced and rhetorically strengthened in contexts where those contradictions appear to be irrelevant to those making the identity claim.
3.The importance of the identity is subject to temporal change, depending on its utility and ability to stick. Here I am thinking about how certain sectors of the population will be unconcerned with national claims. Not only class barriers, but also age may play a difference. Certainly even the most artificial of borders can over a generation or so be completely normalized.
So, let me stop here and turn the floor over to you, because I am sure you are thinking…
…”OMG, is he done yet?”
Thank you all for coming today, and let’s jump into the more interactive half of the seminar, shall we?
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.