All entries for August 2006

August 30, 2006

For the Sake of Quality

The Telegraph, 30.08.2006

Here is a trivia for readers. Let us say that there is an academic institution ‘A’. Its admission criteria for post–graduation courses states that “applicants require a high 2:1 or a first class at BA level, but admission is at the discretion of the degree committee, which judges each case on its own merits”. For those not acquainted with the nuances of British classification of undergraduate degrees, a 2:1 implies an upper second class honours degree — a perfectly respectable and often a very good result if you are studying the humanities or social sciences. Now let us assume that another institution (‘B’), has this unambiguous one liner— all graduates from “other universities” require a “First Class Honours”. Note the capitalization, possibly to underline the inflexibility of the stringent requirement.

Now for the question. Which of these two institutions would you guess is the more esteemed centre of higher education? My guess is that you would vote for ‘B’, given that it requires applicants to be of a supposedly higher academic calibre. So would I, had I not known their actual identities. For ‘B’ is the University of Calcutta, while ‘A’ is the Cambridge University.

A parochial individual might conclude that Cambridge has dropped its high standards, while CU has somehow leapfrogged ahead of it. Hardly. If you glance at the latest university rankings published by The Times, Cambridge ranks at the top while CU is nowhere to be seen.

New rules

This particular admission criterion of CU is proof of how excellence is barred from Indian institutions. This may sound strange at first, but not if you consider the following factors. First, institutions of repute never install an academic criterion that discriminates against ‘outsiders’. Graduates who come from colleges affiliated to CU with much lower marks have no problems in applying for the post–graduate courses. Also, the argument that CU examiners are strict when it comes to doling out marks is preposterous. Getting high marks in world class British universities is no cakewalk either.

Second, different universities have different cut off points. For example, 60 per cent is enough for a student to secure a first class at CU. But that becomes 70 per cent in most British universities. So someone with 68 per cent from Oxford cannot even apply to CU, but a CU graduate can apply even with 50 per cent.

Making a difference

Third, the difference in the quality of these two institutions is ignored by the admission criteria. A degree from a top class institution is often more challenging than that from a lowly ranked one. Thus, someone with a first class from a poorer university can stroll into CU at the expense of a hard–working student from a top university who misses a first class by a whisker.

All this makes a mockery of the concept of neutrality. Some would argue that any admission criterion is exclusive in nature for it invariably discriminates against a certain group of students. But the importance of merit in making an institution a centre of excellence is undeniable. And the door is being firmly shut on the face of merit by criteria such as these. If rules like these stay in place, the handful of Indian students who decide to come back and contribute at home would also not return.

So what is the way out of this mess? The admission criteria should be made more subjective and sensitive to individual applicants. It might mean that the application process will have to begin earlier but then that may well have to be the case. A choice has to be made — whether we vouch for mediocrity or whether we become more selective and promote excellence, at least in some institutions in India.

August 23, 2006

The Real Problem with Globalisation

India Nest, 20.08.2006

If you utter the word ‘globalization’ among educated circles these days, you get a overtly enthusiastic response– either making sweeping statements about the possible environmental degradations and inequities that it precipitates, or listing its boost to entrepreneurship and upward social mobility in developing countries. Both these arguments miss the key issue. The most potent and long–lasting effect of globalization as it stands today has been on the realm of ideas that has been straitjacketed into a certain mould, which reduces options for weaker countries to devise their own solutions to the various perplexing problems that they face.

Stephen Gill has defined knowledge as “the principle form of production and power resource”. Following on, it can be argued that particular ideas which have been privileged in the globalization discourse must hold sway over the policy processes in poorer countries which increasingly look for models to emulate from the developed world. Being in possession of most of the knowledge circulating in the public policy realm, the developed countries on the whole are in a unique position to control the ideologies and mentalities of the global ideational system.

We are often fooled by the façade of relative power. China, we are told, exports a humungous amount of goods to the world, and it is a developing country. However, it is not the export of toys and machines that make a state fundamentally powerful. The World Trade Organization is the agency that exports transnational regulatory institutions to its member states. We know that the WTO is dominated by a narrow set of ideas and attitudes. The world economic system is set up in such a manner that to maximize gains from trade, a state has to go via the WTO policy regime. And therein lies the “structural power” of supposedly global– but in fact ideationally very local– institutions like the WTO.

The ideological reach of this predatory globalization is not limited to concrete policy propositions between states alone. There are what many label “soft transfers” between non–state actors such as multinational corporations and non–governmental organizations. Therefore, the various management models and corporate structures that are being emulated by companies in the developing world are equally part of this hegemonic discourse as the ideological imports of the NGOs that protest against these very companies. The power of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Cable News Network should not be ignored too.

In other words, your laptop may have a “Made in China” label on it, but the various technologies that have been mastered to manufacture it, and the production techniques and management structures followed by the manufacturing company are invariably “Made in USA” or “Made in Japan”. The undisputed status of English as the lingua franca of the world is also part of this standardization process. Linguistic theory since the 1980s has argued that the language we use can shape the structure of our thought and the terms that we debate in. This power of globalization goes largely unnoticed.

The antithesis to this argument has been pointed out by Samuel Huntington who has pointed out that “drinking Coca Cola does not make Russians think like Americans.” Similarly, it is often said that globalization in reality leads to ‘glocalisation’. For example, multinational companies often have to alter their marketing strategies according to the cultural tastes of a particular country. However, this ignores the fact that the hegemonic presence of Western brands not only homogenizes the structure of the market globally, but also creates an illusion of superiority for such products. The newfound consumer culture in China and India and the hankering for foreign goods is a good example of this tendency.

The state as the monopoly of political power within defined borders is undergoing broadly similar transformations across the world as a result of globalization, and this reduces space for individual states to shape their own political systems. For example, austerity programs of the International Monetary Fund often forces states to adjust their political and economic system to a neo–liberal model in order to receive financial aid in a crisis situation. Prior to the Asian Financial Crisis, the IMF forced the countries in the region to liberalize their financial systems, despite savings rates being 20–22% higher in these countries vis–àvis Western Europe and the United States. On the other hand, the developed world through the WTO– often influences the trade policies of developing countries that have few choices but to join the global system. China and India were markedly different– both economically as well as politically– prior to their enmeshing in the global economic system. Now both China and India have a broadly similar economic system, and they are converging even further.

So–called ‘international norms’ play a major role in states across the world altering their policies to the ‘global’ practices of governance. The Heritage Foundation publishes an annual Index of Economic Freedom, while Freedom House publishes an annual Freedom in the World survey. Rating agencies like Standard & Poor and Moody’s ‘mark’ individual countries on their policies. The criteria for judging the policies of all these markedly different countries is rather inflexible, and no country would want to risk bad press, since they are falling over each other to attract foreign direct investment.

There have been some suggestions– notably by Randall Germain– that the developing states had re–instated themselves in lieu of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, and that in turn has forced the transnational forces acting on them to adjust to their changed stance. As an example we can look at the increasingly assertive stance of the Group of 20 (G–20) countries at the WTO negotiations. Moreover, the World Bank has been forced to amend its Comprehensive Development Framework after the crisis to be more sensitive to social needs of countries. This power shift, however, is relative merely. The “decision–making structures of the global economy” have not changed significantly, and the developing countries operate within the framework set for them by transnational commercial interests and international institutions which are heavily influenced by developed countries.

Immanuel Kant once spoke of the “moral unity of mankind”. However, unity is achieved through the equal consent of all participants and their equal contribution. Globalization – in its current avatar – does not offer developing countries the chance to make their own choices about major economic and political policies. Ardent neo–liberals would counter the above–mentioned argument by suggesting that poor labor standards and inadequate environmental regulations are in fact a source of negative marketing for countries, and hence they would not do it. Marxist critiques, on the other hand, would present a diametrically opposite argument.

What is forgotten in this quibble is that the poor countries have no say in this ideational battle– they are obliged to accept the dominant ethos of the time– in our case neo–liberalism. Orthodox Marxists often espouse Antonio Gramsci and argue for a counter–hegemonic discourse to be launched against neo–liberal structures of knowledge. The problem for them is that they too are working within a Foucauldian discourse. In other words, inexplicitly they are part of the very discourse they are trying to wriggle out of. The terminologies used to criticize neo–liberalism have nothing to do with the ideologies of the developing countries. They are stuck between two world views– the neo–liberal and the Marxist/radical. Their policy processes, in the meantime, get continuously compromised due to influences by the all–encompassing globalization process that brings the dominant ideology with it.

August 09, 2006

Confused About Identity

3 out of 5 stars

India Nest, 06.08.2006

The most attractive feature of this latest work by Sen – as with his other writings – is its extremely accessibility and lucidity. Written concisely, Sen illustrates his thesis remarkably well in this book which seeks to argue that sectarian violence often occurs with both sides being led by an illusion of what constitutes the ‘other’s’ identity. In other words, the “dreadful conflicts” that have taken place in our world, be it in Rwanda or Sudan or the Indian subcontinent, are often successors to “periods of terrible confusion” in the minds of the perpetrators of the brutalities against humanity.

Sen offers a primary explanation of such confusions. He argues that the essence of our existence as human beings is essentially shared by various aspects of humanity itself. To put it simply, we may have several identities which compete for our attention. However, the very nature of the ‘othering’ process involves the construction of “a singular and overarching system” of classifying groups of individuals in order to effectively present a target for the wrath that erupts as violence.

Sen offers two methods which are adopted– deliberately or unconsciously– to achieve this “miniaturisation” of human beings. The first he terms “identity disregard”. This has been used classically in theories concerning the economic man, and more recently in various game theories where an assumed motivation (e.g., rational self–interest) overshadows all other identities that an individual may adhere to.

Following on from this, his second classification is called “singular affiliation”, whereby only one facet of an individual’s overall identity is privileged to caricaturize his entire self. Such reductionism is most commonly found in instances of communal violence, whereby a person may just be a Hindu or a Muslim, but not an Indian, a middle class professional, or a father.

A recent example of a blatantly reductionist theory is espoused in Samuel Huntington’s now–famous The Clash of Civilizations, a work that is subjected to seething criticism by Sen in his book. In this, he carries on from where he left of in his The Argumentative Indian. The biggest problem with Huntington’s thesis is the complete ignoring of the often–marked diversities in these various civilisational blocs.

In the “Hindu civilization” ala India, there exist minorities who are either numerically substantial or culturally influential in shaping the history of the subcontinent, such as the Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, among others. There has been a lot of intercultural influences between these communities which deny Hinduism any singular identity which can be associated with today’s India. Added to that are the striking diversities within Hinduism itself. Such intra–cultural diversities can also be found in the Middle East, where the Shia–Sunni divide comes instantaneously to mind. Indeed, given the mutual suspicion that existed between the Arab world and Iran as recently as the 1980s, along with the various intra–Arab disputes, it is doubtful how far a monolithic Islamic civilization is a reality.

Sen also notes the tendency to create an arbitrary–often historically inaccurate– identity of the ‘self’ in order to differentiate it from the ‘other’. Here he criticizes the notion of the “Western mind” whereby certain ideas (e.g., democracy) are claimed to be the sole property of the Occident. Citing examples of Buddhist councils during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (3rd Century BC) and tracts on religious freedom during that of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (16th Century AD), Sen attempts to illustrate how such an identity can be readily disputed.

Neither does Western multiculturalism escape Sen’s criticism. While attempting to accommodate various interests in increasingly diverse societies, these theories invariably associate the interests of the minority individuals and/or communities based on their religion, castigating all other forms of identities to the background. Even scholars who attempt reconciliation between the West and Islam (supposing that such homogenized monoliths do in fact exist) often search for a ‘moderate Muslim’, thus giving disproportionate importance to religion in determining the ‘other’s’ identity.

Sen points out that one’s perception of their own identity may change over time. He points out that East Pakistan was formed in 1947 primarily because of a religious motivation. Yet, in 1971 this motivation was grossly inadequate in keeping it together with West Pakistan, as Bengalis asserted their language and culture as their primary form of identity vis–à–vis their religion, which they still shared with the West Pakistanis. However, Sen also notes that the primary cause for violence despite changing identities is the incapability of the victims to convince the aggressors of this shift. Perceived identity, therefore, proves stronger than actual identity.

Here post–modernism can pose a perplexing question for Sen. From the works of Michel Foucault in philosophy to some recent work in psychology, we know that perceptions can often be formed subconsciously or even unconsciously, determined by the various pressures of societal environment and the dominating discourse. How does Sen then assert that the ‘actual identity’ of an individual is any more real than the ‘perceived identity’, when the choice made by individuals itself may be automated by other, often–invisible forces? If Edward Said were alive, he would surely have a word or two to say about the ways in which Orientalism often forces ‘other’ people to assume certain identities.

On one occasion Sen himself has failed to remain neutral towards identities. On page 171 of the book he narrates the harrowing tale of a certain Kader Mia being stabbed to death by “vicious Hindu thugs” during the 1947 partition riots. Subsequently he also criticizes Muslim gangs for similar deeds. But if Kader Mia was incorrectly taken to be just a Muslim, should his murderers be represented as just Hindus, and not as criminals, revenge–seeking individuals, or misguided youth? Sen could have escaped with his description, had he clarified that the description “Hindu gangs” would probably have been used during the time to narrate the incident.

Sen spends a lot of time emphasizing the role of “choice and reasoning” behind an individual giving primacy to one among the various competing identities within him. While stating that individuals often stumble upon their identities– or “discover” them– Sen readily concedes that often individuals make conscious decisions about their identities– “Life is not mere destiny”. However, individuals can only choose from the available options in the social decision making function, which may not be optimal under practical circumstances.

To be fair to Sen, perhaps he is merely arguing for chosen identity to be given preference over given identity. But there may be less difference between the two than he has accounted for.

August 2006

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