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Teaching Social Theory


“Why are women complaining 24 years after the incident took place? The timing of these complaints makes their claims really suspect.” Holding a copy of Robin West’s celebrated essay on feminist jurisprudence that was being discussed in the class, I tried listening, interpreting and responding to a law student’s views on the ongoing #MeToo campaign. The male student seemed perturbed with the fact that “these women” were not approaching the legal machinery and were instead making “wild allegations.” It was not surprising to see that his views found noticeable support amongst quite a number of other students, both male and female. Of course, there were other students who seemed to understand the complexity of the issue at hand. For the remaining part of the interaction, I tried probing into the possible reasons behind the persistence in their minds of a rigid, fixed view about the dynamics of social structure, individual agency, power and its legitimacy. By the time the class ended, I could sense that my counterarguments, and attempts to problematise a clear-cut view of an otherwise complex issue had left little impact on my students. Similar observations are to be made with regard to other crucial determinants of social identity such as religion, class, caste, and race.

If one wishes to think through such classroom experiences, one will be bound to examine the subtle changes that have occurred in the environments in which social relationships and social theory are supposed to be delivered for the benefit of a receptive audience.

A series of classroom interactions that I have had with students during the past few months have often narrowed down to questions of gender equality and the repercussions of the #MeToo campaign. Depending on where in the world social theory is being taught, contested issues such as hierarchy, individual and collective identity, nationalism and affirmative action are increasingly dominating classroom discussions. Students come to the classroom not just from varied social positions, but also from a variety of digital and print standpoints in the sense that they are also actors who subscribe to certain news and information portals, and follow certain handles and pages on social media. In the process, the classroom also turns out to be a melange of informational threads and becomes a resource having an immense potential to help us theorise better pedagogical practice in the age of digital revolution. The disconnect that sociolegal theory has traditionally had with the “social reality out there” stands significantly reduced today. It is this proximity between facts and theory that poses newer challenges to the way social science is both taught and learnt. Today, one cannot conceptualise the university classroom as a space where the teacher is either “shaping young minds” or “preaching to the already converted.” The extent to which personal, lived experiences have made their way into academic practice and processes is an achievement of modern technology that needs to be placed at the centre of the debates around making social theory more accessible for learners.

As I stated, my classes have at times seen fierce debates between students over issues of patriarchy and its overt and covert manifestations in otherwise “gender-neutral” laws. For ensuring a free classroom environment, I have often had to play the devil’s advocate. In order to elicit a variety of responses, I have had to present a view that resonates with commonly held beliefs about the relationship between the sexes and the role and status of men and women. It does not really surprise me that this contrarian (or should I say mainstream?) point of view does indeed ring a bell and brings to the fore a variety of points of views about caste, class and gender relations. One may propose here that the belief in the traditional social order is far more grounded than that in modernity and its institutions.

Why, despite decades of modern pedagogical attempts, have prejudices remained deep-seated in the social psyche? In the case of India, one can no longer present the “third world,” “developing country” and therefore “in need of awareness and education” argument to answer the question about the striking prevalence of conservative beliefs. Neither can one simply wash their hands of the issue by merely pointing to the hegemonic character of Western and colonial ideals and concepts, and therefore their inapplicability to a society having its own cultural peculiarities.

It is time that the pedagogical apparatus looks within, and reflects over the gaps it has left unproblematised over the decades during which it has tried to make students learn the “better way of thinking.” I am not sure if educational institutions teaching advanced social theory have indeed been able to leave a mark in the minds of the generations of scholars, practitioners and activists that they have produced. Instead, the possibility that these institutions have themselves remained significant contributors towards strengthening and providing further impetus to holding on to irrational, prejudicial, and conventional beliefs cannot be denied.

What can social science education therefore do to enhance the possibility that classroom teaching actually enables students to, first of all, speak up and place on the table their respective,  individual assessments of things, processes and ideas of what is “modern?” Academic institutions need to open up and welcome ideas of all hues. The social science views of religion, law, tradition, culture and civilisation have to be presented in their complexity in a way that none of them undermine social institutions in which masses have traditionally held deep, unquestioning faith. The role of the teacher in the classroom is the most significant in this regard. They need to reclaim the confidence, empathy and the fearlessness required for making classroom interactions dialogic and meaningful rather than monotonous, routine (and therefore) inconsequential as they seem to have become.

Amit Chaturvedi


Updated On : 24th May, 2019


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