Engaged anthropology in the time of late liberalism

Activists, anthropologists, and the state in India

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Cody, Francis. 2013. The light of knowledge: Literacy activism and the politics of writing in South India. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Middleton, Townsend. 2015. The demands of recognition: State anthropology and ethnopolitics in Darjeeling. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

What new forms of life, knowledge, and politics are emerging in India that challenge our notions of emancipatory politics and the modern state? Two compelling ethnographies, based in South and Northeast India, grapple with this question as they analyze social movements, activism, and the postcolonial state under neoliberalism.

Francis Cody’s The Light of Knowledge analyzes one of the world’s largest literacy movements, Arivoli Iyakkam in Tamil Nadu. There literacy activists inspired by Paulo Friere struggle to infuse the rural countryside with Enlightenment ideals of self-determination, even as the pedagogical practices of the activists often work against these ideals. This raises the question: how does a social movement train people to become free? In tracking the epistemological practices of literacy activists, Cody describes the “enabling and disabling of agentive life under neoliberalism” (11). Under what conditions and at what cost do the state and social movements attempt to produce empowered citizens? How do they grapple with multiple epistemologies and ways of being modern? At once an ethnography of a social movement and Enlightenment ideology, Cody argues that social movements like Arivoli Iyakkam should be contextualized as products of a specific political conjuncture—the demise of the Nehruvian development state and the rise of neoliberalism. Ultimately, these movements are not simply “local” manifestations of some global neoliberalism. Reading Cody, I got a sense that social movements like Arivoli Iyyakam borrow from contradictory political logics (socialist politics in a neoliberal age) and produce modes of mobilization that exceed their ideological roots (fostering autonomy through notions of duty).

Townsend Middleton’s The demands of recognition is a remarkably lucid account of the role of state anthropology and government anthropologists in the way postcolonial states manage claims of difference and subalternity. How do states and communities use ethnology, in their own way, to make claims and counterclaims about difference and marginalization? How did the anthropological infrastructure of the British colonial state (state anthropologists, offices, and reports) become the battleground for some to gain social justice in India? Middleton traces how communities in Northeast India deploy anthropology’s dark past—categorizing and studying “primitive” people—to make claims for affirmative action in contemporary India. But it is not the familiar narrative of anthropology as a technique of colonial governance that is key here. Townsend instead gives us a striking case study of how marginalized communities seek to use anthropology (and ethnology) to become tribal in Northeast India. By becoming an anthropologist among (state) anthropologists, Townsend analyzes the salience of what he calls the “ethno-contemporary” in India, one piece of a global story that tracks the contemporary rise of politics based on ethnos. Tribes, natives, and indigeneity are some of the keywords that drive this kind of politics.

Marginalized communities seeking recognition from a postcolonial state like India engage and manipulate the lens through which the Indian state manages and views its margins. For instance, Townsend’s book opens with a group of state anthropologists traveling to remote villages in the Northeast to check their “tribal status.” The criterion is colonial to the point of being farcical (to be recognized as a Scheduled Tribe in India requires “indication of primitive traits” and “shyness of contact with the community at large”), but the people seeking the status are savvy postcolonial subjects who guide the government anthropologist to precise locations where they must document goats being sacrificed. But like all performances, such staged “tribalness” leads to substantial changes in both community and identity. Such performances, however strategic, create new forms of power and hierarchy. Rituals produce difference, but state-backed rituals of difference end up homogenizing a syncretic culture and people. Activist groups and leaders, claiming to represent different factions and tribes, not only compete with each other to be recognized as authentically “tribal,” but in the process also enforce dress codes for men and women, ban certain festivals, and impose new forms of worship and comportment, even while people continue to practice their old, messy forms of identity.

While Cody examines the “paradoxes of agency within an Enlightenment pedagogy that would claim to remold the very people it aimed to emancipate through the written word” (5), Townsend presents a convincing narrative of how ethnological knowledge can be both “an instrument of modern governance and a resource for emerging sociopolitical forms” (21). Both ethnographies demonstrate anthropology’s ability to work with paradoxes surrounding subaltern politics, not to dissolve them into narratives of resistance or oppression but to examine the forms of life and politics that thrive in the interstices.

The politics of space and time

Following Freire’s influential pedagogy, Arivoli activists in India designed literacy primers that would address questions around land tenure and hunger in order to develop a sense of empowerment and raise consciousness among low-caste, illiterate Tamil villagers. In the activist imagination, villagers were exploited and marginalized because they were mere “thumbprints”—they cannot sign their name and have to instead use their thumbprint in place of a signature. Literacy, in this context, is imagined as the light of knowledge, which can make the powerless into autonomous citizens. Cody’s book opens with the valiant attempt by one literacy activist to train poor Dalit (ex-untouchable caste) peasants to petition the government in writing, in order to display their newly acquired literacy. Throughout the book, Cody carefully unpacks the conceptual and practical assumptions underlying attempts to emancipate people through literacy. This attempt to make the subaltern literate turns out to also be an attempt to unify heterogeneous orientations to time and space. While Cody’s informants are using literacy to make rural subjects modern, at the same time in a different part of India (Townsend’s book), marginalized communities are doing their best to go back in time, become “tribal,” in order to receive benefits from the state. Townsend’s informants, the communities trying to become tribal in Northeast India, are not only politically and spatially marginalized; they also face the additional burden of being typecast as “outsiders” because they are of Nepali origin and speak Nepalese. In this way, both ethnographies present two different cases of what Cody calls “chronotopic politics”: the frameworks of time and space that ground political claims and narratives.

Breaking with usual techniques of rote learning and memorization, which dominate conventional education, such novel literacy techniques should have been hugely successful among the dispossessed and lower castes. However, Cody’s careful attention to language and discourse helps us understand the implicit theories of writing and empowerment built into “enlightened literacy” projects. Learning how to write is not simply a question of mastering a set of abstract marks but an embodied practice that requires “socialization of the body to a dominant habitus” (130). Rajalakshmi, a Dalit woman tells the anthropologist that Friere-inspired literacy lessons, however conscious of power and hierarchy, “just wont [sic] stand in my mind” (124).

Emphasizing the importance of form, both anthropologist and activists realize that it is songs and stories, narrative forms embedded in the life worlds of the learners, that must inform Friereian pedagogy in Tamil Nadu. We find that empowerment does indeed take place, but in unexpected ways and places. The inability to achieve what Cody calls “degree zero” of communication with the subaltern need not be conceptualized as a failure or even impediment to social transformation or activist politics.

Beyond governmentality

Like elsewhere in the world, Foucault’s notions of governmentality have been influential in understanding the relationship between the state and society in India and South Asia. Building on existing studies of governmentality and concepts like “political society” (Chatterjee 2004) and “recognition beyond politics” (Shneiderman 2014), both ethnographies seek to under–stand the relevance and limitations of the analytic. More specifically, Townsend argues that governmentality does not shed light on the way in which people and communities adapt and manipulate techniques of governance. Instead of conceptualizing governmentality as a unidirectional force, both ethnographies build on anthropology’s strength to document how people live with and adapt such forms of government to produce a range of outcomes. Townsend shows that ethnology can be both a way for the Indian state to manage its diversity, allocate its resources, and perform welfare politics and a resource for subaltern populations to make claims about marginality to the liberal Indian state. As Townsend writes, “Populations are things. People are not. People feel. People categorize back” (25). Combining archival research and interviews with state officials, Townsend shows that governmentality is often an open-ended process, much more conclusive on paper than in the way people and state agents actually engage each other.

Cody’s characterization of literacy activism as “charismatic Enlightenment” also stands uneasily with the kind of instrumental reasoning and formalized structures of power that are evoked by governmentality. Even though literacy activists certainly blurred the divide between the state and the nonstate and facilitated the dissemination of governmental rationalities (for example, paperwork) into new domains, they also worked with ideas of duty and reciprocity that cannot be subsumed under the category. For example, while writing and paperwork can certainly be understood as classic forms of governmentality, both ethnographies show that their actual use and circulation by both state and nonstate actors, and the forms of social life they engender, cannot be encapsulated by the paradigm.

Relating the conceptual to the experiential means that anthropology is uniquely placed to help us understand the limits of governmentality. These limits are palpable when anthropologists encounter the messy, fragmented, and contradictory life worlds of their informants, who have been so neatly recognized and classified elsewhere. For example, Townsend finds that the politics of becoming tribal in contemporary India can certainly be traced through government offices, activist associations, colonial records, and official surveys, but that would miss the deep anxieties about belonging that characterize these struggles. The anxieties of Nepali-speaking marginalized groups in Northeast India about their place in India are “deeply rooted in body and time.” And by using concepts as varied as Bourdieu’s habitus and Hegelian recognition, Townsend is able to help the reader understand not only the longer struggle for autonomy and belonging in the hills of India, of which the tribal turn is one crucial moment, but also the affective stakes underlying such politics.

Activist and anthropologist

The ethnographies, read together, offer a glimpse into the world of activism in India and provide strong models of engaged anthropology. Both deal with the radical aims of social movements, the transformations they envisage, and the paradoxes they encounter in the process, whether it is literacy activists who want to produce autonomous Enlightenment subjects via literacy programs or political leaders who want to transform people into ethnological stereotypes of “tribes.” Both ethnographies document the ethical and conceptual challenges that beset activists and the anthropologists who choose to work with them. Governmental anthropologists, pressured by political leaders that represent different hill communities, are aware that their work is not simply academic—after all, communities want to become tribes in order to alleviate their socio-economic status—but must document what are highly orchestrated, even farcical, performances of “tribal-ness” before them. Similarly, literacy activists in the Tamil countryside encounter vastly different conceptions of space and time among rural villagers that do not adhere to the nation-state’s organization of districts, states, and villages. Such radical differences between the aims of social movements, the particular worldview embedding agendas of social transformation, and the conditions in which such activism takes place are not used by the anthropologists to point out the so-called theory and practice divide but are a reminder of the kinds of experimentation and reflexivity integral to social movements and social transformation. Activists, governmental anthropologists, and communities change track, use different methods, and adopt new languages to make claims and represent themselves.

Doing fieldwork with activists leads both anthropologists to productively engage with the question of “failure” and unintended consequences. Anthropologists of activism and social transformation will learn how well-intentioned actors and their interventions stumble, stop, and even fail. For instance, Cody documents how activist-inspired attempts by the rural poor to petition the government in writing fail to challenge upper-caste dominance in the countryside; in fact “the promise of emancipation had instead faded into a new form of caste domination, now sanctioned by bureaucratic authority” (207). Similarly, in the hill regions of Northeast India, the promise of tribal status and autonomy is dangled before communities during elections, but the state apparatus eventually exhausts the communities and coopts their leaders, and the postcolonial state’s infamous red tape triumphs over minorities’ claims on the Indian state. But success and failure in Indian politics, both anthropologists remind us, is not absolute. Since all politics is felt and embodied, it is often at that granular level that activism can make its changes palpable, even if its official goals are different. Failure exists at the level of actors and ideology, but it may also be structural. The failure of the subaltern and their leaders to be recognized as marginalized by the Indian state may not be caused by politics or even ideology; failures may instead, according to Townsend, show “the shortcomings of the system of recognition within which they [tribes] have little choice but to operate.”

Cody’s careful delineation of various strands of activist work—activist intentions, reflections, experimentations, and commitments to empowerment—shows how, depending on the networks and cadre of a movement, impediments can fuel creativity and experiments. For example, we learn that well-known theoretical precepts about language—such as authorial intention, logocentricism, and the irreducible materiality of language—do pose obstacles to activists’ dream of forging a common language between them and the rural poor in Tamil Nadu, but they also lead to creative solutions. Activists are forced to speak in story and song, learn from the subaltern, engage subaltern archives of folklore, and develop new forms of literature and narration. By offering sympathetic yet critical accounts of activism, both authors highlight the protean qualities of a postcolonial politics that attempts to “recognize” and empower the subaltern. Together, these ethnographies show that even well-intentioned and enlightened activism enable diverse forms of social life, often unanticipated or unexamined by the actors, which in turn may produce new forms of subordination and exclusion within the postcolonial state.

Inside the postcolonial state

These ethnographies build on the rich body of work on the postcolonial state that examines its unique dynamics, including its ostensibly incongruent elements like a predilection for paperwork that ironically fosters vast gray zones of informality. Together they give us a glimpse into the functioning of the Indian bureaucracy, the ethnographic state, and the making of the neoliberal Indian state.

Cody’s analysis of the Arivoli Iyakkam is a case study of the transforming goals and character of the Indian state. Part of the reason for the literacy movement’s wide reach and influence was because it could co-exist with an older Nehruvian developmental state with its ideals of spreading a scientific outlook among the poor and illiterate masses of newly independent India. However, under the neoliberal development state, the literacy movement is no longer supported by the Indian government. Instead many of its activists now work for private development agencies. This marks a global shift to a certain kind of new nongovernmental activism and shows that changing conceptions of the common future can be tracked by analyzing transformations in the kind of activism supported by the state. Cody’s focus on language shows how bureaucratic state power can be reinforced at the very moment when activists want to challenge it. In tracking activist efforts to encourage the poor and marginalized to petition the Indian state in writing, Cody uncovers continuities between the “language of praise and prayer” (193), and even though it certainly matters that petitioners can now sign their own names, they still deem it important to address key bureaucrats as if they were kings. This is, of course, a sign of the enormous power wielded by the district collector in India, and the “abstract and unpredictable” (188) way in which many Indians experience the state.

But how do state agents experience “the state”? What does it mean to work inside a complex entity such as the postcolonial state? Town-send’s analysis of the difficulties of being a government anthropologist is a timely addition to the burgeoning literature on the bureaucracy in South Asia. By mapping how different levels within the postcolonial state challenge, contradict, and oppose each other, Townsend uncovers “the partialities of the Indian state” (151) or “the fragmented, incoherent, and incomplete nature of the state itself” (151). While this is well known among anthropologists of the state, Townsend’s ethnography shows precisely how one set of state actors are frequently unaware of, or shut out from, decisions and processes taking place in different parts of the state apparatus. By tracking the work of state actors across sites, Townsend is able to show how they “imbue the state with their own biases and partialities” (152), which are often crucial to its everyday functioning. As files and documents move through different government offices in Darjeeling, Kolkata, and Delhi, aspiring tribes lose control over a process of recognition that was initiated by them. This intractability of the postcolonial state, its ability to simply exhaust communities and people who come in contact with it, and its ability to outlive petitions and protests leads to the critical question of whether this is a peculiarly postcolonial-state effect or, instead, a more general feature of the modern state itself.

In sum, both ethnographies are excellent places to begin to rethink subaltern politics and its relationship with the late liberal state. Together, they represent anthropology’s strength in presenting empirically rich case studies of how governance, politics, and the state are changing under conditions of late liberalism.


  • Chatterjee, Partha (2004), The politics of the governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. New York: Columbia University Press.

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  • Shneiderman, Sara (2014), Reframing ethnicity: Academic tropes, recognition beyond politics, and ritualized action between Nepal and India. American Anthropologist 116: 279295.

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Contributor Notes

Moyukh Chatterjee is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University, Canada. Email: moyukh.chatterjee@mcgill.ca


Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Chatterjee, Partha (2004), The politics of the governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. New York: Columbia University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shneiderman, Sara (2014), Reframing ethnicity: Academic tropes, recognition beyond politics, and ritualized action between Nepal and India. American Anthropologist 116: 279295.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation


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