Collidoscope: Of Bollywood, Water and Chinese Languages

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.


India’s elite, through the lens of Bollywood

Stills from Shaandaar and Dil Dhadakne Do.

Stills from Shaandaar and Dil Dhadakne Do.

How much do we know about the sociology of India’s elite? And can Bollywood teach us more?

That’s what Parul Bhandari is looking at in her article in Society and Culture in South Asia. She looks ats two films released in 2015, Dil Dhadakne Do and Shaandaar, analysing how they portray marriage alliances, subjectivities and resistance within the elite. In her opinion, these movies are different from the myriad of other Bollywood creations on India’s business elites over the years – “they depicted not simply the lives of grandeur but also the fragmented identities, vulnerabilities, struggles and, what Sennett and Cobb (1972) have made crucial to the understanding of class, the hidden injuries, in this case, of the elites.”

I saw both of these films when they first came out and I have to admit I was not particularly impressed by either. My reaction was similar to one Bhandari describes as common among critics – a dismissal of the films as perhaps entertaining for a while but all too caught up in the ‘first-world problems’ of the very rich, except for a few interesting insights on gender relations.

For her, though, the films have something else to offer. They give an insight about an Indian class otherwise seldom studied, she argues, and “forms an essential entry point to further knowledge on social stratification as well as gender, kinship and marriage practices of contemporary India.”

One of the things Bhandari focuses on is the importance given to alliance-based marriages. Selecting a husband or a wife, especially for the parents in a business-elite family, the films indicate, is more economic alliance formation than anything else. To get their children to agree to these alliances, she continues, they often play on their vulnerabilities and anxieties, portraying a darker side to them.

A lot of Bollywood today tends to focus on ‘contemporary’ love, for instance live-in relationships that are the independent choice of the two people involved, but this tends to ignore the realities of a major chunk of the elite, Bhandari argues. What Dil Dhadakne Do and Shaandaar give us is a more accurate look at what goes into their relationships, she says. And they also show individuals resisting these trends, resistance that is not trying to overthrow the status quo or even give up their own access to their family’s money, but somehow carve a slightly different path within existing structures. Priyanka Chopra’s character from Dil Dhadakne Do, Ayesha Mehra, is good example of this, according to Mehra:

“The movie begins by depicting her vulnerable position in both her natal and post-marriage home. Her parents refuse to add her name to the invitation cards for their wedding anniversary celebrations reinforcing that she no longer belongs to their family, while at the same time her mother-in-law constantly accuses her of being too professionally orientated and devoting less time to her domestic responsibilities in her ‘new’ home. She is shown to feel great constraint and disconnect in her conjugal bond not because her husband is promiscuous or physically abuses her but for the other many reasons which leads her to feel he is not a compatible partner. She also relates to her sexual life more as a domestic obligation and resists motherhood (by taking a contraceptive tablet). These experiences of self finally allow her the courage to demand divorce. The scene where she is surrounded by pressurising family members, who seek to convince her to honour the marital unity, depicts beautifully the changed self-image that Ayesha has of herself. Ayesha’s character, therefore, is not presented as a bored rich housewife desiring to seek recognition only through professional achievement but builds on her anxieties and vulnerabilities stemming from unfulfilled dreams and endurances of constraining role performances.”

Bhandari argues that sociology and anthopology have, to a large extent, ignored studying the elite. And while I can understand the point she is making on the need to look at changing sociological patterns within all groups in a society, I am not equally convinced that the two films she has chosen portray a realistic picture of what is going on. While her analysis of the films is interesting, she does not talk about how much she thinks they relate to the actual lives of people or why she thinks they do; perhaps that will be something to look to in the future if the sociological practices she is suggesting do become a reality.


A moral economy of water

Representative image. Credit: camilo g. r./Flickr CC BY 2.0

Representative image. Credit: camilo g. r./Flickr CC BY 2.0

How do moral norms within a community affect access to resources?

Hagar ElHadidi and Esteve Corbera are trying to answer that question in their article in Development and Change, using the case study of access to water in a village in Egypt’s Nile Delta, Shubra Qubala. This is an important case study, they argue, because “Millions of inhabitants in Egypt’s Nile Delta have unequal access to water, due to unfavourable, poor macro-level planning and internal village practices.”

The interesting thing about access to water in the region the authors are talking about is the existance of charitable water wells or fountains, called sobol. But does a sobol actually change people’s access to clean drinking and irrigation water?

According to the authors, sobols were historically built by wealthy sultans and others, making the giver religiously virtuous. Though this practice declined over the ages, there have been attempts in several parts of the country to revive them in recent years, given how certain groups do not have access to enough irrigation water or clean drinking water. This is also true of Shubra Qubala, where the authors interviewed farmers, residents and local authorities.

A drinking water filtration system was constructed in the village by a local youth group, after facing troubles with piped water supply. Numerous people in the village depend on this sobol for drinking water, given the poor quality of tap water. The village also has multiple sobol irrigation wells, used by farmers who can afford private tubewells.

While these sobols have made access to water easier and more equitable, they are not without problems: “The filtration station is located at the village’s entrance, easily accessible to many residents. However, almost a third of people interviewed travel a kilometre or more to reach this water, utilizing donkey carts, bicycles, motorbikes and auto rickshaws. Others proceed on foot, either due to short distances or an inability to use other means. Therefore, while the water is free, indirect costs include efforts in commuting, transportation fees and fuel costs. Although not all beneficiaries perceive them as costs, seven respondents expressed that they are worth it. Another hindrance to accessing this water is that many residents, who live far and/or do not possess the transportation means or health, cannot reach it.”

In the case of irrigation sobols, the costs are more direct. Farmers often have to use their private pumps when extracting water from a sobol, meaning they have to invest in the pump as well as repeatedly pay for fuel. Proximity or distance from the wells also changes people’s access, with those whose fields are farther away having to pay more to irrigate and competing with each other for access. Those who are seen as ‘donors’ or ‘shareholders’ in the sobol are also given priority access to water, as opposed to the ‘beneficiaries’. Existing property rights regimes thus make their way into the governance of sobols as well. Sobols, while a positive step and an example of moral economy, the authors write, aren’t enough to make access to resources completely equitable as they cannot break existing structures.


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Ambiguity and superstition in Chinese languages

A woman looks at traditional decorations celebrating for the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year at a market in Beijing February 6, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A woman looks at traditional decorations for the Chinese Lunar New Year at a market in Beijing February 6, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

How much are languages shaped by cultural values, and vice-versa?

“That bug is really cramping my style.” Read that, and what do you think I’m referring to? A spying device that won’t let me say what I think freely? An insect that’s getting in my way while I try to do something? A friendly annoyance at a child, using a term of endearment? It could be all of those things, but if I’d said it in a specific context, would I need to explain myself?

In her article in Nautilus, Julie Sedivy is looking at how different languages deal with homophones (words that sound the same but mean different things) and the ambiguity that comes with them. Her particular interest is in Mandarin and Cantonese, in which ambiguities around homophones is taken extremely seriously, she writes, to the point of avoiding certain words in all their contexts because of one meaning.

“Every year, more than a billion people around the world celebrate Chinese New Year and engage in a subtle linguistic dance with luck. You can think of it as a set of holiday rituals that resemble a courtship. To lure good fortune into their lives, they may decorate their homes and doors with paper cutouts of lucky words or phrases. Those who need a haircut make sure to get one before the New Year, as the word for “hair” (fa) sounds like the word for “prosperity”—and who wants to snip away prosperity, even if it’s just a trim? The menu of food served at festive meals often includes fish, because its name (yu) sounds the same as the word for “surplus”; a type of algae known as fat choy because in Cantonese it sounds like “get rich”; and oranges, because in certain regions their name sounds like the word for “luck”.”

It’s not that homphones don’t exist in other languages. In English, for instance, psycholinguist Bruce Britton estimated that at least 32% of words have more than one meaning. For the 100 most frequently-used words, 93 have multiple meanings. But the ambiguity that this brings with it mostly ignored by English speakers, Sedivy writes. And I have to say I agree – it would never even occur to me to explain which ‘bug’ I was referring to, for instance, but subconsciously assume that it was made clear by the context.

This is very different from how the Chinese respond to linguistic ambiguity, according to Sedivy. As psychologist Eileen Yee told her, they might say the equivalent of “I have to renew my mortgage, so I have an appointment with my bank—you know, the financial institution, not a river bank.”

This area is not one that has been studied in depth yet. It rasies many intriguing questions though: does the importance societies give to certain concepts, like luck and misfortune, change how language is used? Does the nature of a language change how people communicate?

Linguistically, Sedivy writes, Chinese languages pack more meaning into less syllables:

“In English, as in many other languages, basic units of meaning (called morphemes) are often composed of processions of multiple syllables—hippopotamus, president, fastidious. But in languages like Cantonese and Mandarin, morphemes are almost always monosyllabic. These monosyllables aren’t necessarily stand-alone words, as most words in Chinese are compounds made up of two or more morphemes, each of which is represented by a separate character. Still, each syllable has to be assigned its correct meaning in order for a Chinese listener to grasp the intended meaning of the compound. Add to that the fact that Chinese languages use a much smaller set of vowels and consonants than English, and you have an impressive number of meanings packed into a small sliver of phonetic real estate.”

But does that mean that communication in Chinese is harder and a large amount of energy is spent in dispelling ambiguities? Not at all, according to Sedivy. Along with contextual signals, intonations used while speaking also help the Chinese know immediately what meaning is referred to. It is only in writing that the ambiguity is more pronounced.

What is the cultural significance of studying ambiguity in language? Sedivy makes it sound like a fascinating field begging for further study, that we’ll hopefully get to see in the future:

“Ambiguity provides a unique bridge between the meaning and use of words. When many meanings map to a single word, they are all more likely to be evoked, changing our experience of both the word and its meanings. If ambiguity allows cultural associations to lead individuals to sidestep certain words merely because they sound like “bad” words—as English speakers do when they use rooster instead of cock—perhaps they can also leave a broader imprint on the lexicon. Could it be that cultural associations that shape individuals’ linguistic behavior eventually become embedded in the entire language?”

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