Friday, October 23, 2009

Social Contact and Interactions

By S. P. Udayakumar, International Research Fellow for the Kirwan Institute

The binary thinking that permeates most of our cultures across the world often results in simplistic two-pronged classifications. ‘Good vs. Evil’ is the most favored storyline in most cultures. ‘Us vs. Them’ is the most fecund identitarian and political scheme. ‘Profit vs. Loss’ in economics, ‘Victor vs. Vanquished’ in military, ‘Holiness vs. Sinfulness’ in religion, and the cultural sphere has many more: strong-weak, tall-short, fat-thin, black-white and so on. The list is endless.

We often think of social contact and interactions also in terms of social exclusion and inclusion. In the typical ‘before-after’ binary thinking, inclusion is the tool of intervention. The ‘pre-inclusion’ state is deemed to be social exclusion. Then inclusion happens and the ‘after-exclusion’ state is understood to be inclusion.

A medical analogy could help us understand this better. Say you have a nose and feel pretty bad about it. You undergo a plastic surgery and get the nose straightened. The doctor shows the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos, you are thrilled about the new nose and live happily ever after. The ‘during’ phase between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages is a short and swift surgery.

But is ‘social inclusion’ such a quick and easy move? The ‘during’ part that can be termed as social contact and interaction is long, convoluted, complex, intricate and highly political. Unlike the plastic surgery, a lot happens here. If we locate all that happens here on a continuum, this could range from ignorance and indifference to outright animosity and active confrontation. Between these extreme positions, there are all kinds of inclusionary and exclusionary precepts and practices.

Take, for instance, the inclusion of women in many of our societies. For many men and man-made institutions, inclusion of women is rather a forced or legally mandated effort. We could call it ‘sexclusion’ that means overall exclusion with selective sexual inclusion. Some sections of people in some parts of India abort female fetuses because of their preference for male-children. Girl children are considered to be a liability. But they do need women for their boys to marry. Another example would be the ignominy of untouchability in some parts of India. The members of a ‘lower’ caste are kept away by the ‘upper’ caste groups as untouchables. But the ‘lower’ caste women somehow become touchable when sexploitation is possible. The issue of sexclusion is much broader and more complicated and deserves to be studied separately.

Social exclusion also happens at two levels. Pushing ‘the Other’ away from you is often problematized and is a crime in many of our societies. But there is also an equally effective and treacherous way of exclusion, and that is pulling your(self) away from ‘the Other.’ Examples could be White people in the United States running to the suburbs or the ‘upper’ caste Brahmins in India secluding themselves to maintain their purity and ward off pollution from the Dalits. Thus marginalization is a form of structural violence that keeps sections at the margins as you seclude yourself at the center. Furthermore, it also means your refusal to enter the margins and interact with the marginalized in any meaningful manner. This large grey zone between ‘social exclusion’ and ‘social inclusion’ must be studied more deeply and methodically.

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