Making subjectivity visible: Sections from my dissertation


I wrote these pieces in a course on ‘creative non-fiction’ and included them in the dissertation to provide my readers a break from the formal monotony.  Sadly, most people remember sections of this from the dissertation, and little else.  Such is the life of a doctoral student.

15 Jan 2006

I should not have trusted my ethnography professor.  She convinced me today that good academic writing should make the researcher visible.  By subscribing to this, I have created an existential crisis for myself: Who am I?

I would like to write about my fondness for butter scotch ice cream and denim kurta, or that my grandmother asks me to get married every time I speak to her.  Unfortunately, in academic writing these are interesting but irrelevant details.  I asked myself what could be relevant and one thumb rule comes to mind: I should write only about those things that will influence the reader in how they understand my understanding.  It has to have the potential of giving them some “Ah ha moments” of discovering for themselves new information on the information I share with them.  They should be able to say things like, “Ah ha, he could have missed seeing this being a Brahmin boy”; “it is unlikely that an official discussed these things with an ex-activist”, etc.  A good introduction will make my reader, a co-investigator in my project.

PS: I now have the rule, but the question remains: who am I?

Weighty matters

21 June 2007

I climbed the weighing machine today after two years. I pushed the scales to a familiar position and it remained upright.  I nudged it gently to no avail.  After considerable amount pushing around the scale tilted indicating I was somewhere there – and I had grown a full 20 KGs.  If have been Americanised in any way, it is this, and I seem to have put my deposits just where men in hurry always do – a pot belly.

31 July 2007

Strange things are happening to me.  I reached India 15 days ago and went to a women’s college in Chennai on some work.  I met the head of X department and she immediately called me “sir”.  I am unused to this, that too by a senior person in a hierarchical institution like a college in India.  I begged her to call me Vivek.  “Oh OK Professor Vivek”, she said very sincerely.  Earlier when I moved from place to place even a (low cost) rickshaw wala would not solicit me unless I asked for one.  This time around taxi drivers (the high cost end) rush to me to know where sar wants to go.  I have also had an easy time in getting things done in government offices.  Something seems to have changed.  My friends tell me that I am just the same but for some extra weight. I have been wondering what is happening to me.

I think I got a clue today.  A Panchayat president I interviewed told me sweetly that people listen to her because she’s plump.  Two years and twenty KGs earlier, I would have missed the import of the statement, but now I don’t.  I used to be so thin that I was called a skeletonstick of a coconut leaf and other colourful adjectives.  Now these adjectives are gone, and I am convinced that my new status is due to my pot belly. I am ok with the status, but I am not sure if I should write about this in my dissertation.  Perhaps I should consult my ethnography professor.

Rose, black & brown

30 Sept 2007

Amma asked me not to spend too much time out in the sun during fieldwork.  She’s worried that I might become darker.  In the darkest person in the family already; after all, Tamil Brahmins tend to be fair complexioned.

I reached the village for fieldwork and had a conversation with a passerby.  He asked me to go and meet his friend who knows a lot on my topic, and telephoned his friend generously to say that I am coming.  Not knowing how to introduce me he thought for a while and then said, “a rose complexioned young man will come to meet you”.  I have now come a full circle.  I am rose complexioned where I do my fieldwork, black for my parents and brown for the American government.  Who indeed am I?

Ps. I think I told you this before, I should not have trusted my ethnography professor.

Disciplinary approach

Feb 2009

I went to a dissertation defence this afternoon.  My friend was candid and bold.  To many questions he answered candidly that he wanted to try a few things, but did not do so because it is not the norm in political science.  He said, “My hands are tied”.  I do not want to bind my hands, but academic culture may require me to write things in a particular way.  I am glad to be in the social science programme, unattached to any discipline so that I do not have to tie my hands.

Making the researcher visible

20 Oct 2009

A lot of people I met talked about communist, Dalit and other village level movements again and again. I also find reflections of these types of movements in many villages.  I guess these must have had a lot of impact. I am not too sure what other movements might have had an impact in the state…I guess I will never know all of them.

My fieldwork reflected five forms of collection action repeatedly giving me a reason to believe that these are among the major forms that had an impact on collective action in Tamil Nadu.

The following five forms of collective action had a significant impact in shaping institutional changes in Tamil Nadu.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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