“It’s as if doctors didn’t want to fall ill and die.”
The hallmark of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is his heretic and treacherous demeanor towards his own university system. Prescient of censorious reviews of his Homo Academicus, which aimed to demythologize and debunk the institutional conservatism of the French academic system, Bourdieu appositely called his own book — “a book for burning”. Rife with convoluted sentences with several sub-ordinate clauses within that mark the esoteric style of Bourdieu, the pith of the book is an epigraph by French poet, Charles Peguy — “It’s as if doctors didn’t want to fall ill and die” — dedicated to the historians who delve into the historical details of which they themselves don’t want to be a part of. Bourdieu’s bold and inward critique of the system with which he undeniably belonged was in no way malice toward his own academic field and discipline. Contrarily, it was his paradoxical audacity, if I may say so, to defend sociology and academic institution as a dissident and protestor.
Intriguingly, Pierre Bourdieu is absent from the course designed by the Central Department of Sociology (CDS), Tribhuvan University, where I completed my masters two years ago. More to this, critical thinkers in likes of Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Zygmunt Bauman and Jurgen Habermas are relegated to the sidebars. On the other hand, there is corresponditial profuse of anachronistic Durksonians, portmanteau of conservatives — Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, and the sundries of applied subjects — beneficial for everyone to measure the latitude of sociological thinking, and also brazenly careerist. The course goes on to mar the latitude of sociological thinking by setting a set of popular methodologies so that the students would conduct research in a way to acquire the expected results. Complacent of individual achievements, as few are relentless in their efforts to churn scholarly materials, the bracketing of broader outlook and the want of critical readings has been deleterious to a depressing extent.
It is not a surprise that the academic decay in Tribhuvan University is produced by the froward nature of the political parties. The political parties are successful enough to appoint their cronies as chancellors, rectors, teachers and bureaucrats in the university so that they can control and manipulate the university in their own ways. The anecdote widely circulated in TU is that candidates are already selected prior to the service commission exams, and, one of my friends showed me an alleged question paper for the written exam of service commission a week before when it actually happened. I hoped it was a fugazi. With party manifestos on hands and minds, officials have maintained that only the “lower-middle class” students would be catered in the university. The amenities would be supplied accordingly with absolutely no care for latrines, canteens and hostels. The knowledge would be inculcated in a similar fashion — creating course and textbooks, and interpreting them in idiosyncratic manners. Intersectionality becomes a tool to compare the rich Dalits of Kathmandu and the poor Brahmins of Jumla. Suicide becomes a classic contemplation without any deliberation to point the fingers at the sociological explanation itself as it has utterly failed to address the issue in the light of fresh data and literatures. The debate, discussion becomes a bipartisan issue in a way that what would my party say about this? The democratic space is void. When a leading sociologist gave a talk and published an article on democracy based on the argument of Karl Popper, everybody lauded. Not a single person critiqued, for example, why not Jurgen Habermas, instead of Popper, as a touchstone for democratic culture who has argued that university as a bastion of free, undistorted, and communicating ground. It all comes down to Peguy — as if doctors don’t fall ill and die. Thusly, a leading sociologist can’t be wrong, and we don’t have to ask questions at all.
A student of sociology has to understand that the discipline has a chequered history from Emile Durkheim, a French propagandist, to Geoffrey Kranji, the intellectual architect of apartheid in South Africa. For a very long time, sociology was obsessed with the social and national ideals. The society that Fredrick Nietzsche would call the stultifying herd and Jean Paul Sartre the human Hell was overwhelmingly supported as an authority to which men should deliberately surrender. It was a time of John F Kennedy, his quote — ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country — was popular in American sociology. The authorities and institutions in likes of family, society and nation possessed the dictatorial powers inside the sociological discourse. These discourses and programs marginalized the intellectuals from the marginalized communities. W.E.B. Dubois is an example. The discourses and programs had a long lasting effect on sociological thinking — reproduction of social hierarchy, and cloning patriots. But, sociology has been drastically changed in the west. It has now become the least disciplinary and the most radical of all social sciences. The relic of its past still walks brazenly in Nepal, epitomized by archaic ashan grahan and playing of national anthem before the programs organized by Nepal Sociological Association (NSA). I have come across several incidents where sociologists conjure up smattering of social structures and institutions, rife with misquotes and clichés, to build a banal “sociological” reasoning. Scathing of “modernity”, a female professor who taught sociology of gender for thirty years censured “freedom and openness” for their roles in increasing rape and violence in a conference in 2018. She had a Dionysian conviction to prove the scourges of patriarchy as less harmful than freedom and openness. In another episode, Dalit and women activists were aghast to listen to a professor who said “society [ultimately] takes its own course”, meaning of which that “radical transformation” of society is virtually impossible. If it is so, what is the use of sociology? If sociology doesn’t have praxis, and if it doesn’t correct the distance between the coarse lives of people and their utopic vision, what is the use of sociology? Paraphrasing Ulrich Beck, if there is poverty and discrimination in the society which are obviously linked to an objective cause, and if the aim of sociology is to explain it, then there is not much of a choice between explaining and ending poverty and discrimination. To sociologists, society doesn’t take its own course, and the objective reason of poverty and discrimination has to be dismantled. The explanation remains valid where there is want of such explanations trying. The spaces where the explanations are urgently needed are the places where there is a smokescreen between individual agonies and their objective reasons. This is a place where Nepali sociology fails — it writes op-eds in a fashion that everything it states every layman already knows.
Elsewhere, poet Milan Kundera comments: “To write means for the poet to crush the wall behind which something that ‘was always there’ hides. Spokespersons for the obvious, self-evident, and “what we all believe, don’t we?” are the “false poets”, says Kundera. Taking the quote from Kundera, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman constructs a “false sociologist” for those who describes the self-evident, and a “true sociologist” who comes close to the hidden possibilities.
“If sociology is the answer”, then, what is the question? asks the German sociologist Ulrich Beck in his Politics in Risk Society. The question is difficult — are the terms and conditions given to us to live our lives acceptable?
There is an ongoing pandemic. Thusly, a commenting season for sociologists who keep on speaking and writing from their properly victualed safe houses. But, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu warned the social scientists of being bourgeois, will Nepali sociologists step out of their couches? This pandemic is a huge social moment to contemplate from the virus itself to the idiosyncratic thoughts and politics of medical laymen, communities, countries and international organizations like World Health Organization (WHO). Will the sociologists unlearn and outwit their bourgeois worldviews and talk about barefooted people dying on the streets? If they stop in layman interpretation of the last earthquake simply stating how certain groups of people faced the brunt more than their own classes, it would be worthless of this pandemic not teaching enough lessons to the sociologists.