“being in the polis”

Philosophy has lost, as Arendt in The Promise of Politics suggests, the old and short-lived Socratic urge to be in the polis; to lead a life of philosophical enquiry tied to the polis and not far removed or detached from the polis (Arendt 2005). In that sense, “Socrates marks the beginning of practical philosophy: practical in being concerned with questions of what one ought to do as an occupant of some social role, or more generally with how one ought to live as a human being; and philosophy as being engaged in analytically and dialectically with the aim of arriving at some true account of these matters”. In other words, practical philosophy is an attempt to be close to the social or the bios politikus. Do our studies in development need to come closer to the “old and short-lived Socratic urge” of being in the polis, or at least being close to the polis? Is being in or being closer to the polis and perhaps the life-world/worldview of the ‘Other’ an alternative to how we have hitherto conducted studies in development?

Do we need to critically reflect on the somewhat given and unquestioned research-process ‘field work’? In the MPhil programme in Development Practice and at CDP we have tried to move from fieldwork – paradigmatic in the social sciences – to ‘immersion’. The MPhil Programme in Development Practice has a (rural) Immersion component of one year; which is to (a) experience, engage and relate to in a psychoanalytically sensitive manner with adivasi life-worlds (as also Dalit contexts), (b) co-research rigorously with the ‘community’ on questions, issues, problems relevant to the community (including attention to psycho-biographs of hope, despair and desire), (c) arrive at an action research problematic collaboratively with the community, (d) develop a framework of action-ing the co-researched finding (s), and finally (e) research in a theoretically rigorous manner the action-ing process.

We at CDP thus argue for three departure points in our rewriting of fieldwork as immersion. One, for us, the ‘field’ is prior to the research question; in other words, the research question emanates from the ‘field’ (akin to psychoanalysis; in psychoanalytic research it is the ‘analysand’; in Development Practice it is the ‘village’ or the ‘community’). Experience at large, experience of the researcher’s self in particular, listening, communicating and relating with the Other hence becomes crucial in the form of action research we have undertaken and developed. Two, the focus is not just on knowledge-production. The focus is also on transformation. Knowledge production (i.e. standard forms of research) is ground for the identification of the problematic on which one shall initiate the process of transformative social praxis. Three, ‘community’, through the catalytic action of the action researcher, takes hold of the process of self and social transformation; the community is not a passive recipient of development; it is a co-participant in action research; hence the need to also understand communities, groups or collectives psychoanalytically.   

Does immersion take us closer to the polis, and to adivasi and Dalit life-worlds? This is a question we have been reflecting upon; including the pitfalls of immersion itself and the landmines that await one in an immersive experience. What does it mean to live with a ‘host family’ in the village? What does it mean to be hosted by the community in the village, where the ‘community’ is by no means a homogeneous whole, but a hugely disaggregated entity marked by innumerable contradictions (and not just consensus), including unconscious processes like envy, greed, aggressivity (jwalanand jadu-tona being one example in rural Madhya Pradesh)? Immersion in Development Practice meant that one was what Asha Achuthan calls an “embodied insider”; one was too close to the village community. Did the proximity blind us? Did it blur our vision? Or did it help us have a feel of the community with our other senses; did touch, smell compensate for the blur, closeness incurred? Did we get to hear more; because we were partially blinded? Did the taste of the food didi cooked give us a different sense of adivasi and Dalit life-worlds? While none of us were hard of hearing, we were definitely hard of listening, at least, partially. We realized that we had to work on our capacity to listen, listen to a different language, to different world-views (Pandikattu2002). We needed to learn to relate; communicate. But to listen to the Other, to relate to the Other, one (i.e. the action researcher) needed to learn to listen to oneself, one’s own inner voice; one needed to learn to relate to oneself, one’s repressed parts, one’s disavowed parts, one’s not-too-palatable parts (see Chitranshi and Dhar 2018).