Reflection on my middle class indulgence as second nature

London is an excessively populated city. It is expensive and not worth it when you consider the congestion. Nevertheless, many an interesting academic talks take place at this not very exotic location. I travel to the city and stay with my cousin over the week. I get free lodging and free food. She has even packed me 2 lunchboxes with food for the next few days as I return to my Northern Powerhouse location – not too city-like, but only just a town. Today I venture to Kings Cross where my train is to depart from. I’ve taken a train. The difference is GBP 15.

I am a social researcher, or so I like to claim. Today on the tube to Kings X, I was reading one of the theoretical works suggested to me for my research. I want to study the multi-faceted nature of reality that influence decision-making processes. Conscious as well as sub-conscious. There are a number of approaches in the social sciences. One very popular theorists is Pierre Bourdieu. The work I am reading critiques (or rather criticises with big words/jargon) this theory. Margaret Archer calls into question the Sociologist and academic as the only people who can make reflexive decisions, or have reflexive thought processes. Or so I gathered from the words I understood. OF course I agreed. I agreed that the sociologist is privy to lenses of analysis that the commonperson is not. Yet, this does not mean that the commonperson does not themselves practice reflexive thought. The two need to meet.

I’m almost an hour early at the train station now. My cousin dropped me off to the tube station by car so that I would not be late. I was not late. Having been here before, I know that my train would not be announced until around 10-15 minutes prior to departure. I waited anyway, for 10 minutes – before I decided to loiter about the place. My mind had focused on a cooling beverage to beat the 28 degree heat. I am accustomed to hotter climates, but being ill prepared for this “heat wave”, I had forgotten to get my bottle of water.

I decided to amuse myself and look through the shops to buy my beverage. W H Smith tried to convince me that ‘Smart’ water costs only £1.99. Perhaps I’m smarter than smart water – or cheaper- as I didn’t fall for that. It was a bit out of my budget and just a bit ridiculous. I found myself thinking “ha! As if you can convince me, on top of having to purchase bottled water, to pay a ridiculous amount of money for it”. That wasn’t going to happen. With a ‘Nope’, and a laugh, I walked out of the shop. Across me was Waitrose. Waitrose is an overpriced supermarket. There wasn’t much else around, and I was mindful of the time. I walked straight in, telling myself that I would not be making a purchase if the prices were mirrored in this shop too. It wasn’t. It sold Evian – the posh water – at just £0.96. I strolled around the store in search of a flavoured alternative to water, or a cooling beverage of a fruity taste, yet not a juice or thick smoothie. I chanced upon a bottle of Lipton Ice Tea. Lemon. £1.16. The perfect balance of thrifty and middle classy. Of course I bought it. I am a smart shopper.

I made my way to the platforms to wait for the train platform to be announced. I found the trains of the company I was to travel and waited by with observant eyes for the platform to be announced on any one of the 3 services I saw. Got it. I enter the train successfully finding my reserved seat. Before I plant my bottom on the seat, I pull out my laptop, books, Staedtler colour pens, a note pad, post-its, a pen and my bottle of Ice Tea. I write this, in my middle class way. Watching in semi disgust as I behave in the way I want. In my second nature. Or rather my nature. I don’t know.

But then I wonder. What is wrong with this? Why am I uncomfortable, and in what situation would I be comfortable? Today I felt like writing. In fact, when I sat I decided not to have my laptop out as I wanted to read or enjoy the view. Today I want to write. Having a laptop and an internet connection while on board this train enables me to do this. I could have done it with a paper and pen but my typing speed outshines my writing speed. I can also stare outside the window as I type, having used this keyboard before for longer documents. I have privilege. I have some agency. I have constraints. I don’t accept determinism. I don’t want to live in poverty. I don’t want to fetishise it. I want to be aware of my actions and conscious of my capacity to not worsen problems in the world. I want to think. I want to write.

This month, last month, the next month. They have stressed me out with the amount of travelling I have done. More privilege. The thing I miss most of home is the ability to be in one place, to belong to it and feel comfort in knowing that I have power to negotiate the space and my time. It is entitlement to an extent, but I guess we all need that power. How we wield it is what is most important to consider. I’m good at making excuses.

I’ve got an hour left of my journey. I think I might read.

1984 – again

“the labour of the exploited peoples round the Equator is not really necessary to the world’s economy. They add nothing to the wealth of the world, since whatever they produce is used for purposes of war, and the object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war. By their labour the slave populations allow the tempo of continuous warfare to be speeded up. But if they did not exist, the structure of world society, and the process by which it maintains itself, would not be essentially different. […] In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact. The very word ‘war’, therefore, has become misleading.” Orwell, in 1984
 
 
Similarly, too, the exploited peoples serve the purpose of the ruling countries to manufacture new academic studies and “revelations”. To provide aid where previously there was destruction waged by the now aid-providers.

Rambles on marching

I couldn’t make the march today. Or rather I didn’t. It wasn’t that I woke up too late to join in as I had said to a friend (sorry Mich), but it was because I had no motivation to join in another protest which did not seem to have any objective at its end. I tried searching for the aim, but could not find it. Perhaps I did not look hard enough. Laziness. Of late I have found little to no motivation to join in to protests. For years I had, and I wanted to change the world. I even did my Masters which focused on social change. But I find my passion may have been misplaced. Which leads me to my next, possibly more personal point.
I had another reason to skip this march of such a magnitude which I suspect didn’t lose much from my absence, seeing the strength in numbers being reported. I lacked interest in thinking of women as strong if they joined in a march and walked in throngs through cities. I recently lost one of the strongest woman in my life, my grandmother. She was a housewife, a mother, a grandmother who was pretty much also a (third) parent to me, a story teller, a knitter and a loving person. She was very intelligent not only because she read but also because she understood. The difference between her activism and the activists at the ‘Women’s March’ – though the former I suspect doesn’t get counted as activism because it isn’t visible, loud and intense – is that she did it in silence with her actions, and with her voice (audible) at crucial points. Her stories of her childhood and how she negotiated it – overturning gender norms; her behaviour as a parent to me – encouraging, understanding, strong-willed; the fruit of her labour including little bikinis for me when I developed a skin pigmentation condition aged 5, and woollen scarves when I moved to England – it reflected care and hard work; all this influenced how I understand what a woman is. This was in mundane practices, yet we do not think of this as a woman using her agency for change.
Today I am studying further and working because of the women in my life like her. Her encouragement made me continue to work hard. Losing her made me emotionless at first, feeling nothing at all, hollowness. I still cannot comprehend this loss, the fact that I can no longer look at her, tell her about the many things I am doing and watch her swell with pride. Eventually, it made me realise that we sometimes forget, in our neverending pursuit for individualised worth and self-importance, that it is in mundane realities too that we challenge norms, not just to be contrary, but out of conviction. This conviction makes the individual act when it is important, not react, leaving a lasting effect on those around them. It is (one of) the lessons I have learnt from the amazing women who have been in my life forever – my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my sisters (the cousins as well); those relatively newly met such as friends, lovers and mentors for whom I have developed respect and friendship; and also supportive men in my life including my father, my brothers, uncles, and indeed friends, lovers and mentors. It is what I communicate to those with whom I forge new relations, and seek to always better my understanding of realities, and indeed my practice. We all have strong women in our lives, and can appreciate them too in their mundane existences.
So I am not going to go to a protest, but I respect those who do as their use of agency indeed is essential. Instead, I will use my agency to act reflexively and strive to appreciate the ability to make changes in everyday practice.
And I will turn up to vote appropriately when given the chance.

The pseudo-Global

My Greatgrandmother was born in Portuguese ruled Goa, moved to Dar-es-Salam where she had three children and then returned to Goa (where she had 2 more children). She was widowed at a young age and took over supervising the work on the land (yes, in many ways a Zamindar. Sorry). Her gender was not a problem, nor that she was a widow. Because in Goa it didn’t matter as much then. She saw the transfer of power of Goa to India and then lived in India owned Goa too.
She spoke English, Portuguese, Konkani, Kswahili, Spanish and Hindi – these are only the ones I know of. She probably knew more.
She saw some aspects of our so-called global world. She asked my mother often about her travels as my father works on ships.
Eventually my greatgrandmother died. I knew her for 14 years of my life. She wasn’t young, because she was strong in so many ways.
Today, we make such a big deal of being “Global citizens” and advanced peoples. Yet all I see is our limited, pathetic homogenisation of outlook on life, in terms of language use, trends followed, what we find valuable and our never-ending ego-masturbation. This is no global world. This is hegemony.
I may be fetishising the past a little, but there is so much we presume about our superiority as we exist in the world today. I doubt much of it is true. Take language for example. We take classes to learn languages. We do not learn them to speak, to communicate. We do not learn them as cultural processes, with their meaning and their practice. We learn them as tools of accumulation – to get us ahead of others. How perverse our existence continues to be. It is no wonder many try to search for a previous self, our previous selves or a less unsatisfying way of life.

Interdisciplinary how?

Yesterday I finally received my computer at my desk in the office I share with other PhD researchers. I noticed it after the library decided to close early and I thought I would try my luck. Turns out it was installed that morning. It was around 1830 hrs when I sat down at the piece of equipment. I was so thrilled at the sight of it that I remember exclaiming ‘it’s here!’ like that long-awaited-for parcel. I left the office at 0000 hrs.

I started my PhD a month and a half ago. I didn’t realise how important it would be to just have a seat and a computer at the table. My situation is somewhat odd. I am a social scientist registered under a natural science department. I know that interdisciplinary research is considered the next best thing in the academic turn, but this situation is different from the norm of having a natural scientist in a social science space. I know we cannot include architecture as a natural science, but it is a rather technical art degree. The inclusion of people with this background into say cultural geography is not new. Another trend I have often seen is Chemists engaged in the social sciences – my favourite undergraduate teacher had a degree in it and my supervisor for my PhD did their PhD in chemistry. That is a great thing. However, I must say it feels a little weird to be in the opposite situation.

This isn’t the first time I have been in this topsy-turvy form of ‘interdisciplinary’ situations. I undertook a diploma in Forensic Science alongside my degree in Sociology, and was the only social science student in the class (psychologist don’t see themselves as being of the social sciences). I ended up doing very well in this course; I was excited to work within a situation where I could see cause and effect immediately. Blood splattered at an angle tells you its point of origin. How simple, yet brilliant? Anyway, being part of interdisciplinary research may sometimes feel isolating for your thinking process. Even though the people around are very friendly, there is only so much you can chat about. Which is why I think some of these little steps have helped me:

  1. Being a part of an interesting academic network
  2. Speaking to people who seem interested in your project – this is called “networking” in business speak.
  3. Re-affirming your position by engaging with opposing perspectives
  4. Challenge your position by looking at different ways in which people address your research/interest areas
  5. Meet people from other departments for coffee chats
  6. Anyone one else you know? Meet them for coffee!
  7. Don’t think that the people around you cannot be engaged to discuss your perspectives – speaking to a non-specialist audience is seen as important. Natural scientists classify as this audience when speaking about social sciences, something we all forget!
  8. Don’t take too much work on at once – remember your project!
  9. Don’t let the admin team get you down with their incompetence (sorry not sorry)

I do feel I put myself at risk of not focusing on my research. Always make sure your work has some semblance of relevance to what you are studying. This can help recover any lost enthusiasm.

 

If nothing, these are notes to myself. A reflective journal is definitely helpful and here’s a first.