Workshop Report: Keywords for India, and Beyond?

In this report, Lerato Posholi (researcher in the Reversing the Gaze project) discusses the workshop ”Keywords for India, and beyond? Enriching the Global Social Science Vocabulary” with Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi) and Peter deSouza (Goa University). The event was organized by Ralph Weber (Principle Investigator of the project) and Lerato Posholi as an inception workshop in the framework of the Reversing the Gaze project.

Keywords for India, and Beyond? Enriching the Global Social Science Vocabulary

On the 7th of May 2021, Prof. Ralph Weber and Dr Lerato Posholi organized a workshop with Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi) and Prof. Peter deSouza (Goa University). The workshop used Bhaya Nair and deSouza’s book «Keywords for India: A conceptual lexicon for the 21st century» as a point of departure for reflecting on the core question of whether, and how, certain keywords for and from India (e.g. guru or nirvana or policy paralysis) can apply or be used to study contexts beyond India. The discussion covered some of the central themes of the Sinergia project «Reversing the gaze: towards post-comparative area studies» on the politics of conceptual travel, theoretical challenges to using concepts beyond their context of origin, and broader concerns around the nature of comparison.

Two broad sets of critical insights were foregrounded in the contributions and discussions between invited speakers and participants. The first set of insights raised questions regarding the notion of ‹reversing the gaze›: what does it mean? Which gaze are we reversing? Why must we ‹reverse the gaze›? How do we ‹reverse the gaze›? Prof. Bhaya Nair highlighted that the notion of ‹reversing the gaze› commonly amounts to a call to study Europe just as Europe studies the rest of the world but proposed that ‹reversing the gaze› should go beyond this to inspire ways of seeing the world anew. She remarked that in their book, the placing of ‹big academic concepts› such as democracy and subaltern next to everyday Indian keywords such as balti (Hindi/Urdu for ‹bucket›) can provide new perspectives on the world. Prof. deSouza added a critical perspective on the notion of ‹reversing the gaze› by raising the question: «who is doing the gazing?» This question is loaded with topical issues about positionality and how it affects knowledge production.

The second set of insights surrounded the topic of concept travel. On this topic, the concern was whether all concepts can travel and what the conditions of possibility for concept travel are. Two key points were raised on this issue. The one point was that concepts can be deeply embedded in certain theoretical frameworks and socio-cultural contexts, making it difficult for them to be applicable outside their contexts of origin. The speakers emphasized that some of the keywords for India may be so embedded in Indian contexts that they are not applicable elsewhere, or may first need to be made fit for travelling, as had been the case with karma. The second point raised a word of caution against taking for granted that travelling concepts retain their original meaning in different contexts. Concepts, especially social concepts, tend to expand or change meaning precisely in their travelling. For example: the concept of human rights, some may say, has expanded and evolved precisely because the original conception of human rights has been challenged in applications of the concept in many different contexts.

Overall, the fruitful discussions from the workshops raised important questions that will help us do some ground clearing in the Sinergia project. These questions and insights call for careful clarification of what is meant by ‹reversing the gaze› in the project and an illustration of how this reversal of the gaze can produce post-comparative area studies.

This report was originally written for the monthly newsletter of the Institute for European Global Studies (University of Basel):

> Newsletter: Nr. 132 Juli 2021 | Europainstitut | Institute for European Global Studies

Peter deSouza
Ralph Weber
Lerato Posholi