Stuck in the past

  • The concept of development has become a ‘social organizing force’ in the Nepali socio-political context
- Deepak Thapa

Oct 5, 2017-

It is more or less universally accepted that Karl Marx is without doubt the one person who has had the greatest influence on the social sciences. There is no discipline that has not been profoundly shaped by his ideas, a fact that is equally true for many aspects of the humanities as well. What of contemporary scholars? The late political scientist, Samuel Huntington, enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success with his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), having made it to the bestseller lists twice, when first published and after the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the US. Huntington, of course, authored a number of seminal works over the five decades he was active, including his last, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), a volume that presaged white-nationalist Trumpism, and, some would argue, even abetted it.

Apart from economics, however, there is no Nobel Prize equivalent for the social sciences to celebrate in some measure the value of a body of work that scholars spend entire lives on. On the economics Nobel, instituted by the Central Bank of Sweden in 1969, sociologist Irving Horowitz takes issue with the fact that the award is given to ‘economists in the promulgation of a better business and commercial climate and not for their contributions to the social sciences’. In his 1983 essay, ‘Toward a Nobel Prize for the Social Sciences’, he calls for either a single award for ‘applied social science, whether it contributes to business, labor, or human personality issues having little to do with either’, or one each for the five main social science branches, which he defines as anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology. After all, he argues, ‘All of us in social research stand on the shoulders of the same intellectual giants.’

Come 2009 and the Nobel Prize for economics was given to Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist. Reacting to the news, Steven Levitt, better known as the author of Freakonomics and an economist in his own right, writes that he had never heard of Ostrom or recalled any economist mentioning her. And, while that reinforces the rigid disciplinary boundaries of the social sciences, he says, ‘This award demonstrates, in a way that no previous prize has, that the prize is moving toward a Nobel in Social Science, not a Nobel in economics.’

The Nepal scholar

Ostrom’s Nobel may have belatedly vindicated Horowitz but to us Nepalis, it gave some cause for joy since her work was partly derived from her engagement with our country. However, having said that, as her scope was much wider it would be quite presumptuous to appropriate her as a ‘Nepal scholar’. A big-name scholar who might have fit that bill is anthropologist Sherry Ortner, but she moved away from research on the Sherpas of Nepal to issues in her native United States long ago.

Although it may seem like an exercise in futility, it is quite difficult to answer who has been the most influential of social scientists on Nepal. Among Nepalis, Mahesh Chandra Regmi and Dor Bahadur Bista have been major figures, as have numerous foreign scholars starting with Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf.

Among the latter group is someone quite unknown outside the academic community even though she is perhaps the most-cited author of all. It has been 25 years since anthropologist Stacy Leigh Pigg wrote ‘Inventing Social Categories through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal’, and it continues to generate interest across various disciplines.

And, that is not only in Nepal. For instance, in his important book, The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (1995), Arturo Escobar has acknowledged Pigg’s ethnography of the interface between development and modernity as being pioneering. Among the ideas she posits is how the idea of development, or as she calls it, bikas, ‘to focus attention on development as it is understood in Nepal by Nepalis’, is adopted in the Nepali socio-political context. I use Escobar’s words to sum up one of her arguments: ‘Her interest is to show how ideologies of modernization and development become effective in local culture, even if…the process cannot be reduced to simple assimilation or appropriation of Western models…As the bikas apparatus becomes more important in terms of providing jobs and other means of social wealth and power, more and more people want a piece of the bikas pie. Indeed, it is not so much to be a beneficiary of development programs that people want—they know they do not get much out of these programs—but to become a salaried worker in the implementation of bikas.’

Pigg’s analysis of how the concept of development, to use Escobar’s words, becomes a ‘social organizing force’ is among her most important contributions. She argues: ‘Embedded in the Nepali usage of bikas is what I call an ideology of modernisation: the representation of society through an implicit scale of social progress.’ Panchayat-era schoolbooks ‘offer us a window on how this ideology constructs the relationship between national society, bikas, and the village’. ‘Insidiously’, Pigg writes: ‘The eighth grade civics text…, in a section on national society and the character of the Nepalis has an illustration composed of recognisable ethnic types…In the background are Tibetan-like high mountain dwellers; in the middle are hill dwellers in ethnically distinctive costumes; and in the foreground are a Hindu man and woman of the Terai, and a woman and a man who might be high-caste Newars or Brahmin-Chhetris. The latter man wears glasses, considered a sign of high status in Nepal, and the standard office garb of a civil servant. This arrangement conforms to elite views of increasing levels of what they call, in English, civilisation. It brings into a single evolutionary line a number of scales of social differentiation: habitat (mountain to plains); livelihood (nomadic herding through farming to office work); religion (Buddhist to more orthodox Hindu); race (Central Asian to Aryan). As school books inform children about the social diversity of Nepal and about other countries, they also order these differences.’

Plus ça change...

Not so long ago, a commercial used to be aired in Nepal, showing the popular comic duo of Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya—who go by the name MaHa Jodi—endorsing a brand of cement. It showed the two of them steadily climbing flight after flight of steps of what appears to be a building under construction. Every new shot showed them clad in a different dress, purportedly portraying Nepal’s different social groups and also consistent with MaHa’s real-life message of celebrating diversity but also unity. That unity presumably was meant to be demonstrated in the last shot in which the two of them triumphantly reach the top clad in, what else, the daura-suruwal. Every time I watched that ad, I never failed to be reminded of the accompanying image in Pigg’s article. As the French saying goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Published: 05-10-2017 07:47

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