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Alice Thorner: An Appreciation

by Sujata Patel, 26 September 2005

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(published in: The Economic and Political Weekly, Sept 13, 2005)

It was EPW that introduced Alice to me. Sometime in late ’89 or early ’90, when I was in Bombay, Alice, called me to request permission to reprint an article published by EPW in February 1988 titled The Construction and Reconstruction of Gandhi in an anthology that she and Maithreyi Krishnaraj were editing on behalf of Sameeksha Trust. (Ideals, Images and Real Lives, Women in Literature and History.2000).

Alice and I met a few days later in Delhi, at IIC, where she used to stay whenever she was in Delhi. I recall how nervous I was of this meeting, I was in great trepidation, not the least because of the formidable reputation that she had achieved by then- that of a critical scholar with a sharp mind, and a keen observer of contemporary India, who was a colleague and friend of the best and most reputed social scientists of India and the world, the latter who were so distant from a young scholar like me. Though I felt proud that she and Maithreyi had selected my paper for their anthology, I was extremely apprehensive, about the comments that they would make of the paper.

My apprehension was related to the fact that I was meeting the Alice, who was the co-author of the book Land and Labour in India, which I had read in the seventies when I was doing a Masters degree in Sociology, a text that became a basis, for many of us, to understand contemporary agrarian India. But there was more. We all also knew that Alice was closely associated with other scholars, specially women scholars in working with them to establish the field of gender studies in India and that she was the force behind the setting up of the special thematic issue, Review of Women’s Studies, in EPW. By then she had also acquired a reputation of being a competent sociologist and a social scientist with a keen sense of history. Additionally she was more than a generation and a half ahead of me. She was my mother’s age and had in fact met her, before me, through a common friend. How would she relate to me?

As I think back I realized that we established a mutual bond of respect, in our very first meeting, a bond that cemented over time as we started knowing each other. And this was only because of Alice. For Alice loved to meet new and young people as well as young scholars and discuss what was happening in the world with them. (No wonder she housed a student in her home with a request that they eat dinner together so that they both had an intellectual discussion on the table!) She was a senior scholar, and recognized for her contributions, and yet she remained free from considerations of age, status, rank and prestige. She could strike friendships with people in planes, in conferences, by reading their articles in newspapers and journals like EPW, Monthly Review, or Journal of Asian Studies, and by asking friends to introduce her to their doctoral students who were doing interesting and different work. (Some of these scholars and activists were later invited to give the Daniel Thorner Memorial lectures-Land, Labour and Rights, 2001)

Alice’s life traversed and intervened with more than sixty years of thinking and research on India and she intervened in the many contours of this thinking that took place in the three continents of South Asia, Europe and the US. Her own corpus of work is impressive, ranging from brief commentaries on art and aesthetics and culture and politics to rigorous academic analysis of problems of agriculture, industry, urbanization and gender studies.. Many of her contributions fuelled debates and research on contemporary India, such as her masterly analysis on the Mode of Production debate in India published in EPW, her work on the census and the questions she raised regarding the methodological problems in making assessments on the basis of this data, her work on urban processes in contemporary India and especially Bombay and how these processes engendered the growth of cosmopolitan consciousness, together with her contribution to women’s studies.

Like many of her contemporaries in the US, where she grew up and lived till 1952, Alice upheld the ideals of humanism together with a love for knowledge. However, I believe there were also some significant differences. The first related to her concern for the poor, the deprived and the exploited in the world and her belief that our reflection and criticality has to aid the growth of knowledge that can intervene to create opportunities for those who do not have them. No wonder she was the first to introduce the poverty debate-taking place in India to French scholars who were then more concerned with cultural and symbolic assessments of India.

Alice was committed to an ideology- very early in her life she identified with the creation of India’s freedom from colonial shackles. Later when she realized that this was not being achieved she started to ask questions why this was not so. When she moved to Paris she became equally involved with the social and political concerns of the academic community and intellectual circles there and participated actively in the ’68 student protests. And yet, these opinions, ideas and ideals, she believed, should not detract one of a critical appraisal of the world around them.

Her commitment to knowledge, her search to understand and interpret the world around her was tempered by faithfulness to research and its protocols. Though she graduated in psychology and started her work with a strong methodological leaning towards analysis of quantitative data, over time she understood not to have a fetish about methods and methodologies and she came to recognize the merits of case level information and its interpretation. Later she argued that scholars should work with many methods, because social science is interdisciplinary. And yet, till the end she personally remained biased towards historical method.

This belief in contextualisation of all research and an assessment of research questions through a historical lens was related to her understanding of India as a country of plural traditions of work, life and livelihoods. She had recognized this very early, in her travels around the country, first undertaken in 1946 and later with Daniel Thorner in 1952 and onwards. She understood that these differences between and within groups in India were related to mobility of people, and that migration had and continues to affect the nature of social organization of the people. This assessment made her question social scientists tendency to make generalizations in terms of immanence of groups, cultures and the nation, using them as categories for doing social science. Much before it became popular, she had made clear distinction between the nation and the state. (Possibly she recognised this distinction, in 1952, when Daniel Thorner was asked to testify against himself and his colleagues during the McCarthy years. Henceforth, she remained a steadfast critic of the American state, its imperialist policies and yet was a American citizen)

Her observation regarding the pluralities of work and livelihoods and thus of cultures, in the subcontinent led her to assess aggregate data codified by the state and alert us, in an excellent paper published in EPW, to the fact that there are many differences between what the data represented and the social practices relating to work of individuals, both women and men and their communities. Like many who were her contemporaries, such as B. S. Cohn, she drew our attention to the practices of collecting data and showed how these practices were dependent both on ideologies and exigencies of the state.

I believe, that as Alice integrated herself as a single woman and as a professional after Daniel Thorner’s death in 1974, with the community of intellectuals in the three continents, this understanding led her to increasingly commit herself to the interpretation of the world through an international comparative approach. Alice’s internationalism was eons away from the buzzword of today: globalisation. It was based on pluralistic assessment of the world and a belief in bringing communities together (and in her case the intellectual community) to not only appreciate the differences between them of research questions and practices, but to learn from these differences and accept them in a new way. This cosmopolitan outlook qualified her as a woman and a scholar of the twenty first century.

All of us learned these and many other things from Alice. We discussed these issues around the dining table, as we ate her deliciously cooked meals, in the kitchen having steaming cups of good French coffee, as we visited art galleries and museums, and as we traveled in various parts of Europe and India with her. As I grew to know her, I understood that Alice was organizing in the gentlest way, a worldwide network of scholars of four generations, who could commit themselves to this mission.

I am convinced that in Alice and her life we can discern a new way of building and making social sciences. She was a silent institution-builder of social sciences in India. For more than five decades, she discussed and debated personally many of the categories concepts and theories on Indian economy, society and polity. Her home in Paris became a salon where friends and colleagues met to discuss the contemporary issues besetting India. These discussions were continued in India, in Bombay at Jyotiben Trivedi’s home, in Delhi at IIC and in Calcutta at Ashok Mitra’s home. Additionally, Alice gave a lot of energy and time in identifying potential good scholars as she went visiting research institutes and University department, asking them and sometimes pushing them to rethink in new ways how to engage with their own research, reading their first drafts, introducing to them other scholars, and comparative research papers from other parts of the world, and then ensuring these be published as journal articles and books. Krishna Raj once told me that he considered Alice the best copy editor!.

She herself was unaware of this project that she was undertaking. For, in an interview, for the Festschrift that we presented to her (Thinking Social Science in India, 2002) Alice mentioned very embarrassedly that she has not kept a comprehensive bibliography of her writings, though ‘others have ones which flow into pages’. However, knowledge construction takes place in many ways not only through impressive curriculum vitae, which we all know she had. This takes places in big ways, through setting up of organizations and introduction of thematic sections in journals and writing of books. It also takes place in small ways by encouraging would-be academics and scholars to explore and give form to new ideas. Alice’s significant contribution to the social sciences is to convert the personal relationships into creating a public sphere for the growth of critical thinking.

I met Alice a few days before she passed away. I was in Paris on the 18 and 19th August and stayed with her. I was on my way back from the US where I had attended two conferences. Despite being weighed down by physical difficulties she was interested in engaging with me and debating my arguments in these papers. As was her nature, she insisted I invite one colleague from Paris, whom I had met in one of the meetings. Over tea and cakes, she vigorously defended the argument that in France inequalities were on the rise. As I kissed her goodbye the next day, she reminded me to send her my papers of the conference. On Monday night, she was taken to the hospital with breathing difficulties and passed away on Wednesday morning at 11.30 am. Alice went as she lived-an intellectual who was committed to learn about the world and interpret it.

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