Collidoscope: Of Grieving, Microfinance and the Unconscious

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

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

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.

Grieving on Youtube

A statue at Stanford University. Credit: Ed Ng/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A statue at Stanford University. Credit: Ed Ng/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Who do we mourn with?

Family, friends, neighbours, colleagues – my answer would be some combination of these people who are a part of your daily life. But Margaret Gibson’s article in the Journal of Sociology made me rethink that.

I’ve had multiple conversations with my friends about how grief expresses itself on social media. I think my first first-hand experience of it was in college, when a batchmate died in an accident. His Facebook wall was filled with messages from people – messages expressing grief and solidarity with everyone else who knew him, but also messages to him. Over the years, I’ve seen this repeat itself multiple times and I’m sure so has everyone else on social media.

But Gibson’s article deals with something slightly different. She studied videos made and uploaded to Youtube by young people who talked about the grief of losing a parent, and found that not only was Youtube being used as a medium to express grief, it was also being used to create communities based on shared experiences. She narrowed in on 11 videos to study in-depth, ten of which were uploaded from the US and one from England. While these 11 ‘vloggers’ shared intimate details on their loss, how they dealt with it, their relationship with the deceased parent and so on, what stood out for me in Gibson’s article was her point that these vloggers weren’t just getting something out of their system – they were starting, and often participating in, conversations. And this conversation was meant for strangers, people who they weren’t close to but who may be going through something similar. This conversation was then taken forward by others in the comment section, who often expressed that they had gone out looking for videos of the kind because they had just lost someone close to them in the last few days, sometimes even hours.

“thank you for the video my father died this morning after a year of bone cancer and I needed this thank you again (Kenny Sprankle comment on ‘The Death of a Parent: My Story, My Advice’)”

She also quotes a vlogger who specifically talks about why she is saying what she is on video rather than taking it to a friend or someone close to her. While the vlogger breaks down in front of the camera, she talks about why she is uncomfortable crying in front of her friends.

“This is kind of why I’m trying to make this video, caus I know that I need to talk to somebody but my mind is still thinking what the other person is going to think of me even if they’re my best friends and I know they’re not going to judge me but I just dont even want to put them in a position where they have to deal with someone who is sad…”

Many of the videos also talk about how they faced a lack of understanding from their peers after the loss – awkward silences instead of the right questions, an effort to move on instead of giving people the time to grieve.

Youtube has become, Gibson argues, a public space that is also highly intimate, a open platform to share something extremely personal.

“People go to YouTube to find strangers to communicate with, including those who might know what they are going through. In this way, to return to the opening discussion of this article, YouTube bereavement vlogs and response posts are channels of emotional supply on their own terms and not necessarily functioning to supplement emotional connections offline. Going online and on YouTube is not a delayed emotional process or last resort but part of an everyday space of media sociality where many and diverse platforms are spaces for announcing a death and discoursing about bereavement. … YouTube, unlike other socially mediated mourning, creates a visually intimate scene of grief story-telling where vloggers, sometimes to their own surprise, trigger, mostly through unscripted speech, the flow of tears in themselves and others. These embodied emotions punctate the narrative, framing an intimacy of grief shared between strangers.”

Is that, then, the future of grieving and relationships of support? I still find it hard to believe, though research seems to be pointing right at it.


The (non-)language of our unconscious

Credit: nofrills/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Credit: nofrills/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Can we explain how our unconscious works?

In his article in Nautilus, novelist Cormac McCarthy attempts to answer this. To understand what exactly he means, his introduction is worth quoting (advance warning, there is going to be large amounts of quoting in this one – McCarthy’s writing is fun and made it easy for me to understand things that would otherwise probably have take much longer):

I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”

What do we know about the unconscious? It’s persistent, McCarthy argues, almost everyone has repetitive dreams. “Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I dont know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?”

This assumes that the unconscious knows there’s stuff that we’re just not getting – and takes it upon itself to make those things clearer. But where does it get these facts?

One of those questions that we can’t answer with absolute clarity in a way that makes sense to everyone, McCarthy suggests, is how languages evolved. It’s one of those things we’ve never seen happen – the process is too quick, too old, for it to have a history we can study. And while we constantly see languages change (which some may say is also a form of evolution), we’ve never actually seen a language develop.

One of the things scientists and linguists have talked about though, is when language entered our lives in the first place.

So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they dont think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didnt precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old. They havent explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly.

But this, McCarthy explains, could well be why our unconscious prefers to stay out of the realm of language. If language has been around for a hundred thousand years, our unconscious has for two million. It then spent large amounts of its existence rather successfully without the notion of language – why should it suddenly change its ways now that we have better ways to communicate with each other? A picture, like the one Kekulé dreamed, can be remembered all at once as a whole, unlike an essay or speech that makes an argument in bits and pieces and has to be followed and remembered in full. This is true, McCarthy says, for all of us – it often takes us time to put things into words even if we’re perfectly aware of what it is we want to put across.

Unsuprisingly, given his original question and the concerns expressed in his article, McCarthy ends with a heap of questions – questions I know will be playing in my mind for a while:

“Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?”


Adapting microfinance in Kumaon

Representative image of Kumaoni women working. Credit: Allan Hopkins/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Representative image of Kumaoni women working. Credit: Allan Hopkins/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Do microfinance schemes really work the same  way everywhere?

In her article in World Development, Rachael Goodman’s answer is no. But that’s not because those who design the schemes necessarily take into account the local context, she argues, but because those using the programme fit it into their pre-existing borrowing practices and norms.

Goodman’s article looks at an NGO called Pahari Sansthan that works in the Kumaon region. While those heading the programmes thought women would use the self-help groups they started to supplement their income and make new investments, either in agriculture or in new businesses. But the members had very different ideas on how this group would work, Goodman found, and with the help of local workers of the NGO, redesigned the nature of the project in their use of it.

According to Goodman, borrowing (interest-free) money in times of shortage, from friends, relatives and neighbours, was already a very common practice in the region. If loans are paid back when needed (there is usually no fixed duration), it builds trust, and if the person who took the loan at some later point becomes the one to give a loan, even more so. But this wasn’t seen as a loan at all, even though it was to be paid back at a later date:

“Loans” were taken from banks or microfinance groups, while money from friends, family, and neighbors was given as “help.” During my first trips to Kumaon people always said no when I asked if they took loans from family members…It was only later that I realized I was asking the wrong question. Family and friends do not “give loans,” they “give money” or “help.”

One individual or family was likely to have such relationships of ‘help’ with several others, Goodman writes, so that the entire burden of support does not come onto one. Exchange relationships were set up on the basis of trust or if some favour had been done in the past. Reciprocity, she says, was expected not only on loans but on all kinds of ‘help’.

How, then, did microfinance fit into this system?

Project planners at Pahari Sansthan expected the SHGs to work like banks, charging interest and enforcing repayment deadlines. However, following these rules would have violated the obligation not to overburden exchange partners. People did not charge interest on money given to those with whom they had exchange relationships and repayment of such money was flexible, dependent on the economic situations of the lender and the borrower rather than an arbitrary deadline. SHG members, who were generally already in exchange relationships with one another as co-villagers or kin, felt it was unnecessary or rude to enforce rules about repayment and interest that did not apply to money lent outside the context of the SHG.

While microfinance in Kumaon didn’t achieve what the planners wanted – a source of loans that would be used as investments to increase livelihoods and expand business – that’s not to say they didn’t achieve anything at all. According to Goodman, these groups created another source of income for women, expanding the network and benefits of pre-existing exchange relationships. “Microfinance only changed the landscape of borrowing by adding an additional source of cash, one that could be used for daily expenses that had not previously been met through exchange relationships. It did not reshape the guiding principles behind borrowing in Kumaon, nor the moral economy that governed relationships between exchange partners and the wider community.”

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