Reducing the Nuclear Threat by Reducing Local Threat Perceptions

12 Jan

The drive to acquire nuclear weapons is thought to stem largely from local threat perceptions. The point becomes all the more clear when we take stock of the countries where the nuclear weapons activity is limited to.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) nuclear weapons program initially started as a response to the not-so-veiled nuclear threat from Truman during the Korean War. During a press conference on November 30, 1950, Truman acknowledged that using the nuclear bomb was part of the contingency planning. (Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A History, multiple other sources) and during 1951 active hints – moving Mark IV nuclear capsules – were dropped to convey that the usage was imminent. Beyond 1953, US’s continued presence in the Korean peninsula and in the Sea of Japan is seen as a key reason as to why North Korea assiduously followed its nuclear program. Iran’s drive for acquisition of Nuclear Weapons can be similarly understood as a response to guard against the US threat.

It is, however, hard to imagine what particular use the smallish stockpile of nuclear weapons would be to DPRK. Any nuclear escalation by it will surely be met by an ‘overwhelming’ US response. Simply put, there is no deterrent against a super-power. Except for perhaps an alliance with another superpower. (I will come to this point later.) However, nuclear weapons provide a country with the capability of making an assault on it costly for the superpower by attacks on its key allies (Japan and South Korea). So while North Korea is held in check by the incredible US military power, the US, in turn, is held in check (to some degree) through North Korea’s ability to inflict damage on its allies. The same goes for Iran, which feels vulnerable to unprovoked US attack, given its inability to inflict damage on its ally (Israel) in the region.

Strategy toward DPRK until now

The strategy to contain DPRK nuclear weapons program has consisted of the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, the multilateral ‘six-party’ agreement signed in 2007, and a multitude of covert Sun Tzuian attempts to effect regime change. All these strategies have ended at different levels of failure.

The Agreed Framework, which required the DPRK to “dismantle its nuclear facilities and dispose of all its weapons-grade plutonium, only temporarily interrupted production – the fuel rods, with weapons-grade plutonium embedded in them, were stored in a pool awaiting reprocessing, and never removed from North Korea – as DPRK simply re-prioritized its efforts to construction of delivery systems. The efforts culminated in the successful August 1998 Taepo Dong I missile test. DPRK, as AQ Khan confirmed in 2003, also developed an indigenous uranium enrichment capability in the intervening years. In a three week period in Dec 2002/Jan 2003, Kim Jong Il expelled all international weapons inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three months later the DPRK acknowledged it had nuclear weapons, and eventually tested one in Oct 2006.

After years of neglect, Six-Party Talks held in February 2007 resulted in an agreement that called for North Korea to shut down its 5 MW (e) graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon by 14 April 2007. Almost immediately, North Korea refused to comply with the terms of this agreement and the Yongbyon reactor continued operation for more than two months beyond the mutually agreed upon deadline. On 18 July 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency finally confirmed that all five nuclear facilities at Yongbyon had been shut down. Since that time, “disablement” has continued. However, more recently on 26 December 2007, Hyon Hak Pong, vice director-general of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, stated the disablement process will be delayed, in a statement reminiscent of the process of repeated delays practices following the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The 13th February agreement, which was signed on the precondition that US would release the $25 million dollars frozen by Washington at a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, which had allegedly helped the DPRK illegally launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills, is a much weaker agreement than 1994 one. The 13th February agreement avoids the term dismantling and uses the more ambiguous terms “abandonment” and “disablement”, which allows the DPRK to essentially leave its entire nuclear infrastructure intact. Immediately following its signing, the DPRK state-run news agency announced that the offer of aid equivalent to 1M tonnes of fuel oil was made in connection with North Korea’s “temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities.”

Reasons for failure

While the 13th February agreement holds the six-parties – China, Japan, the ROK, Russia and the U.S. – accountable, each has different motives and capabilities of performing the duty. For instance, while China may admonish DPRK publicly – as it did when DPRK fired ballistic missiles on the 4th of July and then conducted a nuclear test on 09 October – it has little incentive to be a truly accountable. After all, the nuclear threat from NK concerns the US much more than it does China. Similarly, Russia has little incentive to police North Korean compliance. Japan and the US have very little leverage with North Korea due to non-existent trade links, that make any possibility of tangible economic threat moot, and South Korea seems disinclined. North Korea, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the security guarantee to comfortably forgo its nuclear program which makes it’s giving up of nuclear capability unlikely.

Strategy for success

Putting NK’s security needs at the heart of the debate is essential to gain a better understanding of how to craft a more sustainable agreement for North Korea. To gain a better understanding of its security needs, I will briefly survey the threat posed by Japan/US combine.

The US has over the past many years led the most cavalier foreign policy in the world. The policy has led to numerous regime changes, more failed regime changes, countless assassinations, and support of terror groups. In East Asia, US maintains a significant military presence, has bi-lateral security agreements with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea – and as co-guarantor of their security flexes muscle at each of their expressed security worries – and regularly issues damning rhetoric like ‘axis of evil’. While US’s capability to launch an attack in East Asia has been severely compromised due to the ongoing conflagration in Iraq, it nonetheless remains a potent and continuous threat to North Korea.

While Japan has a strictly ‘pacifist’ constitution, it hasn’t stopped it from building a very sophisticated and well armed “self-defense force”. Similar kind of ambiguity underpins its nuclear strategy. While Japan under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, promulgated the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” on 05 February 1968 and has been a tireless promoter of non-proliferation at a variety of international venues, it also has one of the largest stockpiles of enriched plutonium in the world – estimated at over 46 tons. While the majority of its plutonium is in storage in France and the UK, an estimated 5.7 tones (still enough to build in excess of a thousand of nuclear weapons) exists within Japan. In addition, Japan currently possesses approximately 3 tons of “near” (i.e. roughly 90% Pu-239, 7% Pu-240, 3% Pu-241) Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu), and could immediately begin production of larger quantities of WGPu and Weapons Grade Uranium (WGU) for more reliable and higher yielding warheads. It also has potent delivery vehicles in the form of H-2 (ICBM capable of carrying a 4,000 kg payload over 15,000 km), and M-3SII (IRBM capable of carrying a 500 kg payload approximately 4,000 km). In addition, Japan possesses a robust Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (TBMD) system which forms the centerpiece of “deterrence by denial” strategy. Since 2002, many high-level Japanese officials have openly discussed the possibility of Japan pursuing an indigenousness nuclear capability. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara have bluntly called for “revising” the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Kim Jong Il is primarily interested in maintaining himself as North Korea’s Dear Leader. US rhetoric about democratization and omnipresent military threat jeopardize that. A “non-use of force” agreement between the US, South Korea, and the DPRK would go a long way in ameliorating North Korea’s concerns but still won’t remove all doubts from either side. Minus the trust in such a treaty, all things go back to some version of the status quo. A better idea would be to rope in China and ask it to sign a protection deal with North Korea styled on US Taiwan agreements. Of course, China’s interest in roping in North Korea is debatable given that a nuclear North Korea is a concern for the US and not China. China, however, can be enticed by incentives. This kind of a deal would mean sacrificing some of the military supremacy that the US has enjoyed in East Asia but in the longer term, it would lead to a safer region for its allies.

Threats from non-state actors and other contingencies

Since “Chicago Pile One” – the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction – in 1942, a total of 9 Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) have emerged. In addition to the 9 current NWS, Japan possesses the capacity to produce nuclear weapons on a quick notice. Two other countries, Libya and South Africa have come forth and disbanded their nuclear weapons programs.

However, the critical nuclear threat is now thought to come from non-state actors. None of the 9 NWS can provide an exact accounting of the amount of Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) they possess. In Russia alone, only 64% of the basic Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) rapid upgrades (i.e. bricking over windows, installing detectors at doors) have been completed, and even fewer “comprehensive security and accounting upgrades specifically designed for securing each facility and its stored material(s), have been completed. More ominously, cases of trafficking of nuclear materials are becoming more commonplace. The most recent case came on 01 February 2006 in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi when North Ossetia resident and Russian citizen, Oleg Khintsagov attempted to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium to a Georgian undercover agent posing as a rich foreign buyer. This uranium was obtained from the nuclear material storage facility in Novosibirsk, Siberia; the same facility suspected to be the source of another 2003 nuclear material trafficking case which involved the seizure of 170 grams of HEU. Also in 2003, a court case in Russia revealed that a Russian businessman had been offering $750,000 for stolen weapons-grade plutonium for sale to an unidentified foreign client.

There is legitimate concern about non-state actors using nuclear weapons but using them would mean such an unacceptable escalation that would surely jeopardize the larger aims of whatever organization. But non-state actors are much less rational than nation states and diffuse organizations may mean that the ability to conclusively hit back at them is limited at best. The other concern is that neutralizing the organization may not neutralize the threat of the ideology that the organization may purport. On the positive side, however, – non-state actors often times have depended on explicit nation state funding. As long as the nuclear material is traceable to its source – something which isotopic analysis can do now – the organization and the state actors funding it can be implicated providing each state actor with powerful incentive to control such activity by the organization they fund or support.


The US must embark on a much saner foreign policy course and tone down its rhetoric so as to ameliorate the security worries that countries feel. The other related action would be to see to it that countries like North Korea get their security guarantees from major powers to which they are close to. Little recourse exists as to dealing with non-state actors except strengthening state actors – including providing help in sealing nuclear materials and instituting a strengthened security program. It is important to keep in mind that the chance of a nuclear attack is minuscule and expenditure on security should be commensurate to it.

Use of nuclear weapons has been stigmatized in the international arena to such a degree that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort for state actors, and likely for non-state actors too. The chance of usage of nuclear weapons hence remains minuscule and it is debatable whether it is worth focusing large amounts of resources on removing them from regimes with limited capacity to produce or use them. However, nuclear weapons do have strategic consequences (e.g. deterrence) on the ability of US to exercise power. The prominent worry is that with deterrence countries could feel emboldened to support terrorism. In addition, given the predicted cascading effect of nuclear weapons-neighboring countries feel threatened by nuclear neighbors and then their neighbors feel threatened etc. – strategic consequences can be immense. The course of action that I prescribe above focuses on mitigating security threat of countries that are intent on building nuclear weapons. But the strategy comes with consequences. Ameliorating threat perceptions of North Korea may also imply giving up the chance of ever really threatening North Korea. And therein lays the bargain and a key dilemma. You can have a nuclear-armed country with deterrence that successfully deters your attacks or be in a treaty with you or another major power which also effectively provides deterrence to it. There are two key advantages to the latter strategy – preventing the cascade effect, and limiting the threat of proliferation. The significant downside to both strategies is limiting the ability to mount punitive action. Given that alternative sanctioning mechanisms like levying economic sanctions have proven to be ineffective, very little edge ways space is available to counteract support for hostile entities except perhaps mounting negotiations – which may not quite work minus the threat of the stick.

It is perhaps best to look at the issue as to how much harder does the presence of nuclear weapons make the launching of punitive action in face of hostile activities. The fact of the matter is that propensity for mounting war as punitive action – even without nuclear deterrence – remains very low given the political and economic costs of war. So in the small minority of cases – really Iran and North Korea – presence of nuclear weapons may make US attack a little less likely from the already low number but given the overwhelming military superiority that the US enjoys – not terribly less likely than non-nuclear scenario.

Seen hence, nuclear weapons possession can be seen as a marginal gain for the countries but nothing which will decisively tilt the power equation.

The General, Bhutto, and Sharif

2 Dec

It was only a little more than a month ago that Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, after nearly eight years in self-imposed exile, to a rapturous welcome, and a stark threat of violence. Within days, however, emboldened by her reception, the largely salutary attention from the media – both national and international, and her pragmatic assessment of Musharraf’s rather limited options, Bhutto schemed to press home her perceived advantage in the power-sharing deal with Musharraf. A welcome opportunity arose when the Supreme Court led by self-styled messiah of constitutionality, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, appeared set to reject Musharraf’s recent “election” – the entire opposition boycotted this barely concealed charade – as President.

Musharraf preempted Supreme Court’s actions with a declaration of emergency on November 3rd, days before the Court was to hand its verdict. The emergency, which appears to have been declared at least with the knowledge of US if not with its backing, drew swift condemnation from around the world. Emergency declaration spawned the by now familiar scenes of protesting lawyers, undoubtedly with some PPP support, against the ‘illegality’ of Musharraf’s declaration. Musharraf and Bhutto, still hedging their bets, appeared to avoid a confrontation till November 9th when Bhutto declared her intention to lead a motorcade from Lahore to Islamabad on the 13th. Musharraf reciprocated by giving the orders to put Bhutto under house arrest.

The chorus of condemnation and the Western penchant for espousing formulaic naive idealism put enormous pressure on America’s support for Musharraf. From America’s perspective, it appeared that supporting Musharraf and the status quo wasn’t particularly in their interest, given the choice of dealing with equally amenable democratically elected representatives. America, it appears, let Musharraf know as much, and then worked with Saudi Arabia to bring Nawaz Sharif – whom Musharraf had removed in a coup in 1999 had successfully exiled – back to Pakistan.

With the arrival of Nawaz Sharif, who still appears petulant, in spite of his hair transplant, with his threats to boycott elections in January, even though the first thing he did after coming to Pakistan was to file his nomination papers, the electoral equation has changed. There is now a strong possibility that Sharif would perform strongly in the polls. The return of Sharif and the possibility of his electoral success marks the denouement of a political drama thick with intrigue, lack of trust, and greed.

Not so Sharif

Last time Sharif fought elections in 1997, his party managed to garner enough seats in the parliament to change the constitution, which it used first to strip president of his discretionary power to dismiss the government (Article 58 (2b)), and then to enact a law to allow party leaders to expel anybody from legislature who violated “party discipline”. The second measure was rejected by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Accusations of ‘judicial activism’ were leveled against the court and Sharif set to bring the court under his control. After a protracted battle with Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah during which Sharif threatened to curtail the size of the court to 12 from 17, Sharif forced the resignation of Shah by ably recruiting the other justices on the court against Shah. Between 1997 and 1999, Sharif assiduously worked to concentrate power. By early 1999, he felt sufficiently emboldened to suppress media. Between December 1998 and January 1999, his government sent notices to Jang newspapers to remove 16 journalists considered hostile to the government. When Jang refused, they launched cases charging tax fraud, among other things. “In May, two senior journalists, Najam Sethi and Hussain Haqqani, were arrested and a few others were harassed by the intelligence agencies. Sethi was accused of treason on the grounds that he delivered an anti-Pakistan speech in New Delhi.” (Hasan-Askari Rizvi, 1999)

Consumed by hubris, Sharif, whose relationship with the army soured notably after the army failed to deliver on Kargil, set to tackle the Army. On October 12th while Musharraf was on an official tour to Sri Lanka, Sharif dismissed Musharraf and replaced him with a low-level crony from Pakistan’s intelligence services. While Musharraf was still on the plane, the army responded by banding behind Musharraf and executing a coup against Sharif’s government. By the end of the day, Musharraf had taken the newly minted position of ‘Chief Executive’ – since the position of President was already taken – and thrown Sharif into jail.

The ‘incomparable’ Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto embodies the conflicts that cleave at the heart of Pakistani politics. She is a Radcliffe and “oggsford” (the college Gatsby went to) alumna and a “deeply dedicated Muslim” , a Shia by birth and a Sunni(?) by marriage, daughter of the last ‘statesman’ – a reputation Zulfikar, (the name of the double-edged sword Husayn used in Karbala, and a name that nicely captures personality of a feudal minded socialist), sealed with Shimla accord– and wife of Mr. 10%, the first democratically elected female leader in the Muslim world and the leader of one of the most notoriously corrupt regimes to lead Pakistan.

Bhutto’s political career rests upon the mythology of her father and the Bhutto name, and she has done little to let PPP grow beyond a personality cult, much like the nepotistic practices of the Nehru-Gandhi family in India. Bhutto, over her career, has not only shown calculating pragmatism – like her marriage to an undistinguished “successful businessman” at 34 in preparation of elections in 1988, or courting the West by playing to its stereotypes, and decisions reflecting deep sense of entitlement and nepotistic feudal tendencies like her appointment of mother, Nusrat, as a senior minister without portfolio, followed by appointment of her father-in-law as chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee, she has also shown a penchant for making brash decisions that come easy to a woman born in luxury, excessively feted by the West, and who was elected a Prime Minister at the age of 35. Her decision to press her advantage – when she saw a beleaguered Musharraf at the center of an international outcry – was one such misstep – and a misstep that is likely to cost here politically.

Pakistan: A country of exiled political leaders

When Sharif was sent to exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000, the heads of Pakistan’s three major parties –the other two being Bhutto (PPP) and Altaf (MQM) – were to all in exile. Despite the forced absence of leaders from parties which rely a fair bit on their leaders, Musharraf still couldn’t cobble together a new political structure – as was his stated intent. Perhaps it was because these leaders were able to rule so effectively from their respective exiles. But the more likely reason is that new political structures aren’t built in elites – they are built by years of demagoguery and pandering. In reality, Musharraf shouldn’t have tried to cloak his authoritarian regime with democracy. By playing a benevolent autocratic democrat, Musharraf clearly took on too much. He replaced politics with something far more inert and calculated, and his self-righteous defense of the charade combined with his increasingly manifest status as a vassal to the US drew people away.

The present and the future

Musharraf imprudently relied too much on continued support from the US, while Bhutto overplayed her hand by pushing too far with her rent-a-day rioters. It is very likely that the true beneficiary of the current fiasco would be PML, which will expectedly fight the election in alliance with Islamic parties if elections are allowed to be held fairly – a relatively improbable scenario.

Bhutto, Sharif, and Musharraf do not trust each other. A game of political brinkmanship, as evidenced by banning of Sharif and his brother Shahbaz by the Musharraf controlled Election Commission and the meeting between Sharif and Bhutto, is now unfolding as each tries to form alliances or thwart the other. It is useful to note that forming an alliance with one on a particular issue doesn’t preclude forming an alliance with another. This game will continue till election results come in and throw the power equation in sharp relief. Election results will also draw accusations of unfairness, and each of the power blocs has a large enough support base to cause major disruptions.

It is going to be a turbulent few months for Pakistan.

Further Reading:
BBC: Pakistan – the balance of forces Added (12/17)

Causality and Generalization in Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

19 Nov

Science deals with the fundamental epistemological question of how we can claim to know something. The quality of the system, forever open to challenge, determines any claims of epistemic superiority that the scientific method may make over other competing claims of gleaning knowledge from data.

The extent to which claims are solely arbitrated on scientific merit is limited by a variety of factors, as outlined by Lakatos, Kuhn, and Feyerabend, resulting in at best an inefficient process and at worst, something far more pernicious. I ignore such issues and focus narrowly on methodological questions around causality and generalizability in qualitative methods.

In science, the inquiry into generalizable causal processes is greatly privileged. There is a good reason for that. Causality and generalizability can provide the basis for intervention. However, not all kinds of data make themselves readily accessible to imputing causality or even making generalizable descriptive statements. For example, causal inference in most historical research remains out of bounds. Keeping this in mind, I analyze how qualitative methods within Social Sciences (can) interrogate causality and generalizability.


Hume thought that there was no place for causality within empiricism. He argued that the most we can find is that “the one [event] does actually, in fact, follow the other.” Causality is nothing but an illusion occasioned when events follow each other with regularity. That formulation, however, didn’t prevent Hume from believing in scientific theories. He felt that regularly occurring constant conjunctions were a sufficient basis for scientific laws. Theoretical advances in the 200 or so years since Hume have been able to provide a deeper understanding of causality, including a process-based understanding and an experimental understanding.

Donald Rubin defines causal effect as follows: “Intuitively, the causal effect of one treatment, E, over another, C, for a particular unit and an interval of time from t1 to t2 is the difference between what would have happened at time t2 if the unit had been exposed to E initiated at t1 and what would have happened at t2 if the unit had been exposed to C initiated at t1: ‘If an hour ago I had taken two aspirins instead of just a glass of water, my headache would now be gone,’ or because an hour ago I took two aspirins instead of just a glass of water, my headache is now gone.’ Our definition of the causal effect of the E versus C treatment will reflect this intuitive meaning.”

Note that the Rubin Causal Model (RCM), as presented above, depicts an elementary causal connection between two Boolean variables: one explanatory variable (two aspirins) with a single effect (eliminates headaches). Often, the variables take multiple values. And to estimate the effect of each change, we need a separate experiment. To estimate the effect of a treatment to a particular degree of precision in different subgroups, for example, the effect of aspirin on women and men, the sample size for each group needs to be increased.

RCM formulation can be expanded to include a probabilistic understanding of causation. A probabilistic understanding of causality means accepting that certain parts of the explanation are still missing. Hence, a necessary and sufficient condition is absent. Though attempts have been made to include necessary and sufficient clauses in probabilistic statements. David Papineau (Probabilities and Causes, 1985, Journal of Philosophy) writes, “Factor A is a cause of some B just in case it is one of a set of conditions that are jointly and minimally sufficient for B. In such a case we can write A&X ->B. In general, there will also be other sets of conditions minimally sufficient for B. Suppose we write their disjunction as Y. If now we suppose further that B is always determined when it occurs, that it never occurs unless one of these sufficient sets (let’s call them B’s full causes) occurs first, then we have, A and X condition conjugated with Y is equivalent with B. Given this equivalence, it is not difficult to see why A’s causing B should be related to A’s being correlated with B. If A is indeed a cause of B, then there is a natural inference to Prob(B/A) > Prob(B/-A): for, given A, one will have B if either X or Y occurs, whereas without A one will get B only with Y, and conversely it seems that if we do find that Prob(B/A) > Prob(B/-A), then we can conclude that A is a cause of B: for if A didn’t appear in the disjunction of full causes which are necessary and sufficient for B, then it wouldn’t affect the chance of B occurring.”

Papineau’s definition is a bit archaic and doesn’t entirely cover the set of cases we define as probabilistically causal. John Gerring (Social Science Methodology: A Criterial Framework, 2001: 127,138; emphasis in original), provides a definition of probabilistic causality: “[c]auses are factors that raise the (prior) probabilities of an event occurring. [Hence] a sensible and minimal definition: X may be considered a cause of Y if (and only if) it raises the probability of Y occurring.”

A still more sensible yet minimal definition of causality can be found in Gary King et al. (Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, 1994: 81-82), “the causal effect is the difference between the systematic component of observations made when the explanatory variable takes one value and the systematic component of comparable observations when the explanatory variable takes on another value.”

Causal Inference in Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

While the above formulations of causality—the Rubin Causal Model, Gerring, and King—seem more quantitative, they can be applied to qualitative methods. We discuss how below.

A parallel understanding of causality, one that is used much more frequently in qualitative social science, is a process-based understanding of causality wherein you trace the causal process to construct a theory. Simplistically, in quantitative methods in the Social Sciences, one often deduces the causal process, while in qualitative methods the understanding of the causal process is learned from deep and close interaction with data.

Both deduction and induction, however, are rife with problems. Deduction privileges formal rules (statistics) that straightjacket the systematic deductive process so that the deductions are systematic and conditional on the veracity of assumptions like normal distribution of data, the linearity of the effect, lack of measurement error, etc. The formal deductive process bestows a host of appealing qualities like generalizability, when an adequate random sample of the population is taken, or even a systematic handle on causal inference. In quantitative methods, the methodological assumptions for deduction are cleanly separated from the data. The same separation between the formal deductive process with a rather arbitrarily chosen statistical model and data, however, makes the discovery process less than optimal and sometimes deeply problematic. Recent research by Ho and King (Matching as Nonparametric Preprocessing for Reducing Model Dependence in Parametric Causal Inference, Political Analysis, 2007), and methods like Bayesian Model Averaging (Volinsky), have gone some way in providing ways to mitigate problems with model selection.

No such sharp delineation between method and data exists in qualitative research, where data is collected iteratively—[in studies using iterative abstraction (Sayer 1981, 1992; Lawson 1989, 1995) or grounded theory (Glaser 1978; Strauss 1987; Strauss and Corbin 1990)]—till it explains the phenomenon singled out for explanation. Grounded data-driven qualitative methods often run the risk of modeling particularistic aspects of data, which reduces the reliability with which they can come up with a generalizable causal model. This is indeed only one kind of qualitative research. There are others who do qualitative analysis in the vein of experiments, for example, with a 2×2 model, and yet others who will test apriori assumptions by analytically controlling for variables in a verbal regression equation to get at the systematic effect of the explanatory variable on the explanandum. Perhaps more than the grounded theory method, the pseudo-quantitative style qualitative analysis runs the risk of coming to deeply problematic conclusions based on the cases used.

King et al. (1994: 75, note 1): “[a]t its core, real explanation is always based on causal inferences.”

Limiting Discussion to Positivist Qualitative Methods

Qualitative methods can be roughly divided into positivist methods, e.g., case studies, and interpretive methods. I will limit my comments to positivist qualitative methods.

The differences between positivist qualitative and quantitative methods “are only stylistic and are methodologically and substantively unimportant” (King et al., 1994:4). Both methods share “an epistemological logic of inference: they all agree on the importance of testing theories empirically, generating an inclusive list of alternative explanations and their observable implications, and specifying what evidence might infirm or affirm a theory” (King et al. 1994: 3).

Empirical Causal Inference

To impute causality, we either need evidence about the process or an experiment that obviates the need to know the process, though researchers are often encouraged to have a story to explain the process and test variables implicated in the story.

Experimentation provides one of the best ways to reliably impute causality. However, for experiments to have value outside the lab, the treatment must be ecological—it should reflect the typical values that the variables take in the world. For instance, the effect of televised news is best measured with real-life news clips shown in a realistic setting where the participant has control of the remote. Ideally, we also want to elicit our measures in a realistic way, in the form of their votes, or campaign contributions, or expressions online. The problem is that most problems in social science cannot be studied experimentally. Brady et al. (2001:8) write, “A central reason why both qualitative and quantitative research are hard to do well is that any study based on observational (i.e., non-experimental) data faces the fundamental inferential challenge of eliminating rival explanations.” I would phrase this differently. It doesn’t make social science hard to do. It just means that we have to be ok with the fact that we cannot know certain things. Science is an exercise in humility, not denial.

Learning from Quantitative Methods

  1. Making Assumptions Clear: Quantitative methods often make a variety of assumptions including to make inferences. For instance, empiricists often use ceteris paribus—all other things being equal, which may mean assigning away everything ‘else’ to randomization—to make inferences. Others use the assumption that the error term is uncorrelated with other independent variables to infer the correlation between an explanatory variable x and dependent variable y can only be explained as x’s effect on y. There are a variety of assumptions in regression models and the penalty for violation of each of these assumptions. For example, we can analytically think through how education will affect (or not affect) racist attitudes. Analytical claims are based on deductive logic and a priori assumptions or knowledge. Hence the success of analytical claims is contingent upon the accuracy of the knowledge and the correctness of the logic.
  2. Controlling for things: Quantitative methods often ‘control’ for stuff. It is a way to eliminate an explanation. If gender is a ‘confounder,’ check for variation within men and women. In Qualitative Methods, one can either analytically (or where possible empirically) control for variables or trace the process.
  3. Sampling: Traditional probability sampling theories are built on the highly conservative assumption that we know nothing about the world. And the only systematic way to go about knowing it is through random sampling, a process that delivers ‘representative’ data on average. Newer sampling theories, however, acknowledge that we know some things about the world and use that knowledge by selectively over-sampling things (or people) we are truly clueless about and under-sampling where we have a good idea. For example, polling organizations under-sample self-described partisans and over-sample non-partisans. This provides a window for positivist qualitative methods to make generalizable claims. Qualitative methods can overcome their limitations and make legitimate generalizable claims if their sampling reflects the extent of prior knowledge about the world.
  4. Moderators: Getting a handle on the variables that ‘moderate’ the effect of a particular variable that we may be interested in studying.
  5. Sample: One of the problems in qualitative research that has been pointed out is the habit of selecting on the dependent variable. Selection on the dependent variable deviously leaves out cases where, for example, the dependent variable doesn’t take extreme values. Selection bias can not only lead to misleading conclusions about causal effects and also about causal processes. It is essential hence not to use a truncated dependent variable to do one’s analysis. One of the ways one can systematically drill down to causal processes in qualitative research is by starting off with the broadest palette, either in prior research or elsewhere, to grasp the macro-processes and other variables that may affect the case. Then cognizant of the particularistic aspects of a particular case, analyze the microfoundations or microprocesses present in the system.
  6. Reproducible: One central point of the empirical method is that there is no privileged observed. What you observe, another should be able to reproduce. So, whatever data you collect, however you draw your inferences, all need to be clearly stated and explained.

And the News is…An ‘Out of Control’ General, Freedom, Democracy, and Strawberry Tarts

4 Nov

On a slow news day, Western journalists took to telling the world about how ‘Pakistan’s Musharraf’—it was nice of them to put the possessive noun as it is not always clear—had declared an emergency. In doing so, they paid as much attention to a third-world dictator enacting the Martial law, as they have in some time. The calamitous event was reported with the usual combination of scant detail, high impact graphics, half-baked, and sometimes skipping the oven altogether, analysis, all topped with alarmist rhetorical flourishes.

The news day actually started a day earlier with reporting about speculation, and government warnings against the speculated action. The US, proudly and staunchly backing Musharraf at least since the day after that calamitous day in 2001, warned the dictator ‘against Martial law’ (San Jose Mercury News). When the threat of declaring martial law grew, the ‘world grew concerned’ (Guardian) simultaneously. And when a ‘desperate Musharraf’ (Trend Information, Azerbaijan!) declared an emergency, it left the US in a ‘tizzy’ (Calcutta Telegraph), as it ‘reel[ed]’ (AFP) under the blow. The US immediately took umbrage and issued a ‘condemnation’. The ‘world’, not to be left behind, ’roundly condemned’ (Deutsche Welle, Germany), ‘slammed’ (Earthtimes, UK), and ‘rapped’ (The Province, Canada) General Sahib. Rice went further, for she wanted ‘Pakistan to evolve as a democracy’, and appealed for a return to the ‘constitutional course’ (Bloomberg) even as the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” in the US constitution was being debated on to see if ‘coercively inducing a drowning sensation’ met that criteria. All this condemnation must have left Musharraf chagrined.

It was a ‘Sad day for Pakistan’ (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) when an ‘out of control’ (Nation Multimedia, Thailand) Musharraf chose to launch a ‘coup within a coup’ and put Pakistan under his ‘iron fist’ (The Standard, Hong Kong). The wordsmiths at Hindustan Times online division, which doubles as a soft porn website, found time to craft the smart-aleck headline “Under General Anesthesia” to describe the events of ‘Black Saturday’ (Malaysia Sun).

On that ‘black’ day, Western journalist’s thoughts didn’t stay long with people in Pakistan, as reporting on martial law gave way to more pertinent matters like ‘threat of nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands’, and ‘War on Terror.’

After all, the concerns of the media are solely determined by what (and how) they can best pander conditional on what is available. The Pavlovian reactions to international crises, the cues media uses to determine when to cry fire and when to cheer, are all rather simplistic—Democracy is good, autocrats are bad. Forget then that sometimes ‘enlightened moderation’ is the best alternative. Ignore too that nothing has changed substantively in Pakistani politics—control still rests with the General for it was only a ‘coup within a coup.’ Banish any thoughts that Benazir ran a regime true to her name, only if in levels of corruption.

I misstate my point for people who know little don’t need to deliberately ignore. They simply write. Till a new story appears and fuels a new news cycle, provides more cause for alarm, and more time to run ads.

It appears that Pakistan has had its day in the sun. The New York Times is not waiting with baited breath. There is a cell phone jammer in the market that can stop the person sitting next to you from yammering while you try to read about Paris Hilton. It is the Number 1 story on the New York Times website. Yeah, she is back.

Akshardham: A Spiritual Theme Park

26 Oct

The huge red sandstone and marble monument, visible from the nearby highway, stands alone, proud, and out of place.

The local road abutting the walled complex has a few informal ‘checkpoints’ where men in plain clothes check cars. As our Maruti Zen lurches into the ‘complex’, the true enormity of the ‘operation’ – the beehive of activity that keeps this place running – becomes clear. The complex employs at least a few hundred people (almost all men), mostly young, eager, full of self-importance, and too prone to giving directions where none are necessary. The job of frisking visitors, shepherding them through metal detectors, collecting parking tickets, maintaining order, among other things, at this massive complex clearly leaves the workers flush with tepid excitement akin to what one feels when one stands in the back lines of a violent mob.

Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex in Delhi is a large red sandstone-and-white marble structure built on a 100-acre plot on the Yamuna riverbed, opposite the disintegrating dingy hovels and narrow lanes of Pandav Nagar. The prodigiously carved temple, which took about five years to build and reportedly employed over 7,000 artisans during its construction, cost around Rs 2 billion (or about $50 million).

The construction of this gargantuan complex right on the dried up riverbed attracted the ire of environmentalists concerned about its impact on the river’s future sustainability. Their protests seemed a bit misplaced given that the Yamuna is not more than a sickly nallah, and isn’t expected to do much better in the future. However, it is widely believed amongst the knowledgeable elite that construction of the temple, as the first building on the riverbed, was a master move by babus at the Delhi Development Authority interested in opening up the riverbed for commercial development. Being a temple, the structure will never be torn down, and under the aegis, corporate developers can furnish claims for future development. The plan seems to have borne fruit with a Commonwealth Village for Commonwealth games scheduled in 2010 scheduled to come up next to the temple complex in the very near future.

The temple is run by the Swami Narayan trust or more precisely, the Bochasanvasi Aksharpurushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The current leader of the group, Pramukh Swami Maharaj (which roughly translates to ‘leader’ ‘saint’ ‘king’ respectively), is credited with inspiration for the temple. Apparently, the guru had a vision in which he saw a temple near the banks of Yamuna, an erstwhile preserve of Mughal monuments, and voila in a few years, the dream was realized. A useful biography of this great man can be conveniently found on the web.

The complex, featuring a Disneyland kind 12-minute boat ride to allow visitors to sail through displays of Indian culture, and a large food court serving everything from Burgers (vegetarian) to Dosas, takes its name from the Akshardham temple in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. The temple in Gujarat was the site of a deadly bomb attack and hostage drama in 2002. Given the history, the temple in Delhi features extraordinary security measures – people are barred from taking in any electronic equipment, they are frisked thoroughly, and even asked to open up their wallets for inspection (strictly inspection, fortunately).

The Swaminarayan temple complex is a strange mix of architectural styles, ranging from Deccan to Mughal to Mewari. The intricately carved marble interiors are reminiscent of opulent Mughal tombs and palaces, the main building’s red sandstone facade seems to pay ode to Deccan style temples (most prominently Meenakshi temple in its ostentatious carving), while the boundary wall and supporting structure seem to be inspired by a mixture of Mewari and Mughal styles. Walking on the tiled pathways perpendicularly crossing its wide lawns (reminiscent of Mughal garden layout), dotted with garish faux roman (painted cast iron with paint starting to peel) sculptures narrating major Hindu allegories, and showcasing prominent Hindu mythological figures, I still vividly remember catching myself staring at a boundary wall that seemed deceptively similar to Red Fort’s. Similarities to Mughal architecture aren’t that surprising given that Mughal architecture itself borrows heavily from (Hindu) architecture in Rajasthan during the 16th century, but the effect is ironic indeed.

The temple exteriors seem to have been carved to inspire awe rather than convey a more aesthetic sense of beauty. The impulse to impress is most clearly seen inside the carved white marble interior sanctum, generally the most unadorned place in a Hindu temple – in line with the philosophy that devotees symbolically leave the world behind at the sanctum and enter a distraction-free meditative space. The effect of all the embellishment seems strangely contrived, much like that of sets from religious mythological shows on television.

More pointedly, as a monument to both Hindu pride and ‘Shining India’, it is appropriately both a religious monument and a theme park. Hindu pride stares at emptily from the narrative sculptural montages, the embellished shell, and the self-satisfied awed masses that congregate here while ‘Shining India’ gleams in its insipidity in the food court, in the boat ride, in the musical fountains, and in the multimedia museum devoted to Hindu mythology catastrophically crossed with Indian history. But then it is mere natural progression from gaudy television dramas based on religious epics to gaudy monuments inspired by the same mythological television dramas. It is a mere natural downward progression – to be precise- towards a not-so-unique blend of pride, philistinism, money, religious fervor, and entertainment.

Bemoaning Delhi

6 Oct

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box-like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place—a lot of them. But the city was not created for them. Instead, people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one—to survive. To talk of architecture is a presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is weird to see Delhi through Western eyes, even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi. There is no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there. People are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank-eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your fucking sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old – if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional novel dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms of the mid-90s, was defined by two things: entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ’95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor – predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed. Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status. Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project – endless grid-like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became acuter, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day. The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all, McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.

Shining India: The Marvel of Marble

26 Sep

The Singapore Airlines flight SQ 408 landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at 8:45pm, a full 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, there was no gate available to greet the early arrival. After waiting for about 15 minutes, a gate was found and the weary passengers started “deplaning” into a stale-aired tunnel devoid of any air conditioning.

Passing through it, we reached a smallish marble-floored concourse also devoid of functioning air-conditioning. India is perhaps one of the few nations in the world where the government spends, what is undoubtedly an exorbitant amount of money to cover the floor with marble, and then leaves the air-conditioning unplugged. Marble in my memory is inextricably linked to the beautiful elegant toy-like tomb of Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, and the marble floors that line the homes of the nouveau rich in Delhi. The concourse of Indira Gandhi Airport is also one such tomb – a tomb to India’s bureaucracy, the babudom (a pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucracy) whose dried pan spittle adorns the lower extremities of the walls, and higher areas of corners, and one such hanging statement about clueless money.

I was soon making my way through the staircase to a smallish area that had the immigration counters, as passengers from another flight – this time from Malaysia as my surreptitious sideways glances at people’s passports and immigration forms later revealed – poured in. The area became crowded as people flowed over on to the staircase.

I belong to a class of people who are unable, or perhaps unwilling, most of the times to be assertive. So the waves of people pushed me back to my due spot- near the end of the line. In the interim melee, a man in his mid-30s behind me called out to his wife, ‘Arrey issey main dekhta hoon tum jaldi say line mein jaa kar lago (I will look out for him – the kid – you go hurry up and stand in the line). The passengers though were generally quiet and undemanding showing a detachment that only comes from having lived in plush comforting environments for some time, or when you are a young ‘foreign tourist’ and all ‘this’ is part of being in a new country. Of course, the fact that all of the Indian (expatriates or natives) passengers, a majority of the total passengers, belong to the super elite for whom pretending patience in front of fellow elites is important and also helps keep the verbalizing of resentment to a minimum.

The other airplane that had come from Malaysia was full of Muslims in full regalia—skull caps, flowing robes, and slippers. The foreigners in our line wondered. I wondered too.

In due time, my number came and I handed over my passport to the clearly overworked and unsmiling man across the counter; the job is perhaps lowly and the government babu (pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucrats) at the counter looked impoverished – he had a noticeably dirty collar, the shirt was yellowing and worn, and his tie was little askew. He stared briefly and stamped.

Then came the robust baggage trolleys – not the dainty ones that I saw in Hong Kong – on which I plunked my suitcases, which came slowly and sullenly over the conveyor belt looking worn and maltreated. And I was off into the dusty crowded outside, and into the hands of my parents.

The Role of Argument in Natural Sciences, Law, and Social Sciences

20 Aug

The following article has been written by Chaste, who has contributed to this blog before.

I will assume for the purposes of this piece that argument is the dominant form of writing in academia. This is also true of public discourse, but this piece will limit itself to academic writing, and more specifically to writing in the social sciences. If academia aims to produce worthwhile knowledge then the argument is the form that mediates our view of the object studied, and academia is the structure that mediates the production of the specific types of knowledge.

Mediating forms are layers of abstraction that can help understanding. They define a process for understanding that prevents distortion due to visceral or other perceptions. Yet as Adorno warns us, forms of viewing and the structures that regulate those forms can limit our understanding of the object studied. To take a simple instance, researcher-teachers argue a position to get published, and the success of such arguments in staking out and establishing a specific position within the field gets them promoted. Yet we expect researcher-teachers to conduct independent research, and train students to think with an open mind and to acquire comprehensive knowledge in a field. We must be wary lest the form of the argument and the structure of academia advance original/individualistic positions at the expense of responsible scholarship. We must also worry about the lure of political power for academics. Politics desires simple, narrow and sharply defined positions, whether for political posturing or for public programs. Succumbing to this lure can only exacerbate the effects of argument on knowledge.

Nature of Argument and its Role in Academia

I will quickly lay out the nature of the argument as used in academia. The argument typically takes the form of a declared purpose, followed by a description of the theoretical method, which the researcher will use for his analysis. It then applies this method to the selected data to come up with a conclusion that mirrors the declared aim. The primary critique of this form of argument uses a simple piece of reasoning. Applying a theoretical method to a selection of data should always produce the same result and conclusion. Therefore if “reasonable” (sic) minds disagree, this can only be because their aim/conclusion has pre-determined their choice of theoretical method and/or their selection of data.

The primary virtue of argument is its clarity. This is due to two qualities: consistency and discreteness. Yet consistency provides much greater explanatory power when we combine it with complexity than when we use it to support a single point. The argument often achieves discreteness by excluding other perspectives. We can gain greater explanatory power by defining relations between disparate issues perspectives, rather than by limiting them. “Cohere” is useful as it suggests both cohesion and coherence.

The popularity of the argument is doubtless because it mimics similar forms in science and law. Despite its recent success, scientific research is hardly a model of philosophical rigor. Recall the search for the “gay gene,” where scientists confused the biological phenomenon of sexual urge with the likely social phenomenon of sexual attractiveness. Or witness the ongoing fiasco about the continuous upward revision of global warming estimates because scientists had missed such obvious factors as the methane release from a permafrost melt, or missed the systematic differences caused by changes in methods for measuring temperature over the past century. Most scientific research is simple because it deals in the existence of facts. Reporting the properties of an element at 1000c has much scientific value. On the other hand, reporting my thoughts at any given moment has little value even though it may be an appropriate object of study for psychology or political science. Most scientific research does not involve speculative selection and aggregation of data. When it does, as in astronomy, public health, and climatology, its conclusions are no more reliable than those in the social sciences. “Speculative” is crucial when dealing with a seemingly infinite number of variables and infinite data. It underlines the necessity of an a priori judgment when faced with infinite variables and data. The analysis then turns into a test of the speculative judgment. It is at this point that ethics become crucial in such research. The researcher can choose his theoretical methods and select his data to prejudge the outcome in favor of the a priori judgment. Alternatively, the researcher can choose to be ethical. He could either come up with a new hypothesis and test it, or he could simply state the conclusion supported by the most appropriate selection of data and choice of methods.

The argument also mimics the dominant form used by law. However, the legal context is also quite different from that in social science research. It is true that lawyers select and even slant the data. However, the data is very limited. Again, the lawyer has no choice in the theoretical methods. Every legal point in dispute has a clearly established set of legal elements, which the lawyer must prove. It is this systematic exhaustion of every relevant legal element that makes legal briefs both thorough and thoroughly tedious. In academic arguments, exhaustive lists of theoretical methods are not possible. The infinite data and variables provide infinite scope for cherry-picking: the only criterion is that the method or data support the argument. Cross-disciplinary studies exacerbate these dangers. They make it easier to ignore any agreement in a discipline about the criteria for selecting relevant data, or about the best methods to analyze a particular type o data. In this instance, the proliferation of theoretical methods simply provides even more tools to derive a conclusion of one’s choosing. An extreme case of this phenomenon is that of the cross-disciplinary case study, which narrows the selection of data to a single instance, providing fertile ground for any conclusion whatever.

I do not suggest that such lax cross-disciplinary studies or case studies do not have any value. Their value is that of interpretive works and is similar to the value of literary works. Literary works sometimes reveal networks of meaning that cannot b openly discussed in their time. Cross-disciplinary case studies can straddle the boundary between what can and cannot be viably discussed in academia. As such, they can provoke thought and provide insights and skeletal structure for further analysis. An excellent work of this kind is Patricia Williams’ “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” which weaves together insightful arguments and moving, thought-provoking life experiences on various issues.

Another critical difference is that the law uses argument within an adversarial context. There is no counterpart in academic writing wherein a counter-argument immediately follows the argument. In this sense, an academic piece resembles an ex parte hearing in which the lawyer is required to disclose all facts favorable to the absent opponent. No such requirement exists in academic writing.

When used in the unsuitable academic context, the primary disadvantage of an argument is that it induces a loss of perspective by giving disproportionate emphasis to the position argued for. To a reader without extensive knowledge of the field, it is not possible to infer anything about the validity or worth of any claims. Unless the argument is part of a conversation, the only appropriate response is skepticism and a reserving of judgment. Judged by the credibility of its claims, the argument becomes worthless except as a data point in a survey or as part of a meta-reading.

Reforming the Argument

I will briefly examine a few alternatives to the argument as typically practiced. The first option is to abandon the argument in favor of a meditation that densely weaves together patterns of related insights. Meditation need not imply any loss of evidentiary or logical rigor, merely a flexible structure. The form of the meditation has several advantages. It dramatically reduces the problem of disproportionate emphasis on the one position. The substantive part of most arguments is less than 20% of their length. The rest is low-value elaboration masquerading as thoroughness. The more flexible structure of the meditation will encourage authors to replace the low-value elaboration with related information/insights. The weaving of patterns will become a pedagogical exercise, which will train the reader to map and relate the data in the field.

Meditation may be the ideal form; its practice is very likely to be something else. Authors will be tempted to spawn patchworks of recycled insights. This will make the editor’s job both time consuming and difficult.

Another solution involves a minor modification of the form of the argument. Editors can insist that the articles be self-aware: that they demonstrate how different conclusions can be drawn with different selections of data or variables and different choices of theoretical methods. This is the least resource-intensive of my three solutions. However, it runs the risk that the author will demonstrate only those alternatives that support rather than undermine his conclusion.

The most pragmatic solution is to have peer-reviewed publications. Unfortunately, most “peer reviewed” journals are a misnomer since they are only peer approved. The journals should publish the peer reviews, and allow the author to respond to the reviews. The reviews themselves should be an engagement with the material, and not merely indicate the quality of the piece. The editors must choose reviewers from different methodological expertise and disciplinary backgrounds (where that is appropriate). This will deter the author from making expedient selections of data and of theoretical methods and traditions. It will also give the reader an adequate perspective on the author’s argument. The interactive nature of the reviews and response will have pedagogical value not only for the reader but also for the author and the reviewers. It will enable the author and reviewers to possibly expand on the conversation outside the journal, and provide networking-related scholarly and career benefits. The article will come with a relatively objective assessment of its worth, which will help both readers and anyone else who may be interested in evaluating the work of the author. The editors should keep the approval process separate from the review process, and keep the submissions to reviewers anonymous. The editors should take care that the reviews not mimic the journalistic practice of seeking input from hacks representing stereotypes of established positions. However, this is achieved relatively easily in academia.

Peer review is reduced to peer approval in the sciences because unlike the social sciences, scientific research often deals in results rather than conclusions, and because the researcher is the only person with direct access to the results. Therefore, peers in sciences are largely concerned with fraudulent claims of results rather than with the validity of conclusions. In social sciences, the data is often public, and the value of the article lies primarily in the validity of the conclusions. Peer review will help determine this validity. It will also encourage responsible scholarship from authors. Not only will every article have to survive a more rigorous engagement; this engagement will be invigorating for all. Above all, it is achievable in practice because it does not impose unacceptable burdens on editors.

Mohajirs, Karachi, and Pakistani Politics

25 Jul

Pakistani politics cannot be understood without paying close attention to the deep ethnic cleavages that line its polity. The seminal moments in its brief history – the 1971 war with India which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the horrific violence that rocked Karachi in the mid-90s both are a reflection of Pakistan’s inability to transcend narrow ethnolinguistic boundaries in either revenue allocation or in crafting policies around language and culture.

Here below, I explicate how the vicious ethnic politics in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan and a city which contributes 35% (in some analysis 60 plus percent) of all revenue to the central coffers, has come to define the ethnopolitical dysfunction that has marked Pakistan’s history.


The Arabic word Mohajir means a refugee and in Pakistan, it generally refers to non-Punjabi Indian Muslim immigrants. One of the reasons why Urdu speaking immigrants are seen as Mohajirs and Punjabi immigrants not is that while the Punjabi Muslim immigrants were able to assimilate very well within the ethnically similar Punjab, the educated Urdu speaking immigrants from the Gangetic plains and elsewhere formed a culturally distinct group in Sindh.

The Mohajirs post-partition formed the educated ‘salariat’ (Hamza Alavi’s term describing the educated British favoring class during the Raj) in the nation’s capital city, Karachi. They were overrepresented in the bureaucracy, media, and managerial positions in the private sector. Politically, they were ardent nationalists who studiously avoided ethnic politics and favored Islamist parties until the reorganization in the mid-1960s. The Mohajirs cynically supported the military and strong central government so as to keep the federalist pressures, as in demands by other ethnicities for ‘fairer’ representation in bureaucracy and elsewhere, at bay. The arrangement fell apart as Bengalis rebelled and won independence in 1971. The same year Bhutto was elected and he ushered in a federalist structure by first revising the Regional Quota system in federal bureaucracy to lower Mohajir quota from 17 to 7.6%, and then by nationalizing some key financial institutions that were owned by Mohajirs. Since then things have changed dramatically for Mohajirs – they have come to be underrepresented in state educational colleges and jobs, and have lost some of their economic muscle.

The rulers and the Mohajirs

Pakistan as a nascent nation got off to bad start. Its ‘father of the nation’ (Baba-e-Qaum), a Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi rolled in one for the country, died a little more than a year after its creation. Whatever little chance the nation had of enlightened leadership vanished as Liaquat Ali Khan, a close confidant of Jinnah, was assassinated merely four years into his reign as a Prime Minister. Then, after a period that saw 6 prime ministers in 7 years, Mohammad Ayub Khan grabbed power in a coup and steered Pakistan into an alliance with the US. Midway during his rule in 1964, he fought and won elections, which were widely seen as rigged, against Fatima Jinnah, sister of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Mohajirs sided with Fatima Jinnah in that election and suffered targeted violence at the hands of Gohar Khan, son of Ayub Khan, for such temerity. Just as an aside Ayub Khan’s son Gohar Ayub Khan was Pakistan’s Foreign Minister in the Nawaz Sharif government and Gohar’s son, Omar Ayub Khan, is Pakistan’s current Minister of State for Finance. Ayub Khan in 1964 moved the capital city from Karachi to Rawalpindi on an interim basis and then to Islamabad, its current resting place. The move was widely seen by Mohajirs as a way to marginalize them. In 1969, he turned reigns over to the only second Shiite after Liaquat to lead Pakistan, General Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan of course famously led Pakistan into another losing war with India in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Following 1971, nearly half a million Bihari Muslims, who had moved to East Pakistan in 1947, demanded that they be expatriated to Pakistan. Out of the nearly half a million refugees, Bhutto – the successor to Yahya Khan – only allowed 100,000 before his Sindhi constituency forced him to abandon the rest. The stranded Biharis live in refugee camps in Bangladesh till today. The issue of these abandoned Biharis further alienated the Mohajirs who had vigorously campaigned for them.

Bhutto was elected at a time when Pakistan felt chastened by the independence of Bangladesh. Bhutto felt that his first job was to let off the steam of ethnic pressures within Pakistan by redrafting the quota system for federal bureaucracy and other educational institutions so as to provide for more proportional representation of different ethnicities. Bhutto, who is generally considered an enlightened statesman within Pakistan- and there are good grounds to think that the authoritarian leader was just that, was also a closet Sindhi nationalist. Bowing to his native constituency, the Sindhis, he instituted urban-rural quotas that resulted in a precipitous decline in the number of jobs to which the predominantly urban Mohajirs were eligible. The interesting side note to this controversy is that given that the regional quota system that was based on the demographic strength of each ethnicity, the census became the most politicized document in Pakistan.

After Bhutto’s assassination, Pakistani Politics was run by Zia-ul-Haq singly for about 10 years. Haq’s rule is legendary not only for his fateful decision to involve Pakistan in Afghanistan, but also for his full-throttle Islamization that he unveiled to support the prior cause. Haq, a Punjabi, also deeply reviled Mohajirs. The war in Afghanistan led to another refugee influx in Karachi that was to change the dynamics within Karachi to the worse once more. This time the influx of Pathans was also accompanied by the wide availability of small arms. “Between 1986 and 1989, the prices of guns went down by 40 to 50% in Karachi. The TT-pistol sold for Rs. 5500 in 1987. In 1989, it was priced at Rs. 3000. In the Frontier, the price of an AK-47 went down from Rs. 40 000 in 1980 to Rs. 16 000 in 1989.”

End of 1988 saw Bhutto being elected as PM of Pakistan in a much-feted election. The time period, of course, ties neatly with the ‘end of Afghan war’ and the reduced utility for the US of a military regime in Pakistan. Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rode to power with a coalition government that included MQM. Post-election, Benazir is widely alleged to have run one of the most corrupt regimes. Just to give you a flavor of the bankruptcy of the regime, Madam Bhutto appointed her mother, Nusrat, as a senior minister without portfolio and her father-in-law as chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee. In addition, ever the Sindhi nationalist and eager to firm up her credentials there, she didn’t throw much rope to Mohajirs. The relationship quickly soured and MQM, in turn, found an ally in Nawaz Sharif’s Punjabi dominated PML. It is important to note that this proved to be a death knell in terms of Sindhi-Mohajir relations against what many saw was Punjabi dominance, especially post Zia, at the center. Bhutto oversaw the worst of rioting in Karachi in the mid-90s in her second stint at the helm. Corruption wise things didn’t change much in her second stint as PM either as she appointed her husband, Asif Zardari, as the environment minister. Of course, Zardari did more than merely handle the environment. After moving through an interim prime minister, Sharif eventually came to power in 1997. He, in turn, was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, a Mohajir, in 1999 – which brings us to the ‘end’. We can talk about Shaukat Aziz but lets not. Most trace the ascent of Musharraf to the top in a Punjabi dominated military exactly because of his status as a Mohajir – the Punjabi military bosses promoted him for they felt that a Mohajir would never attempt, and much less succeed, in a coup d’etat. Musharraf’s relations with the Mohajir community, of course, have been on warm terms but that has attracted the ire of nearly all others. The 2007 Karachi riots hence can be seen as a stage-managed confrontation between PPP led Sindhis and MQM.

Demographic factors in Karachi

Sindh’s urban society was dominated by Hindus before 1947. The native Muslim population was primarily rural. The emigration of Hindus post-partition left a vacuum which was filled by the educated Muslim immigrants from India. In the 1981 census, only 6% of the population identified themselves as Sindhi.

The relative affluence of the Mohajirs was always a rubbing point for the Sindhis.
Post-1971 war with India during which Bangladesh was created, nearly 100,000 Bihari Muslims who had migrated to Bangladesh during partition immigrated to Karachi. Another 300,000 Biharis were left stranded in Bangladesh in over 60 refugee camps as political will ran out as Bihari immigrants became a political liability in Sindh. The Bihari immigrants who speak Urdu have traditionally been seen as part of the Mohajir community.

Then starting with the 1980s, Afghan refugees starting pouring into Karachi as Afghan war got underway. The Afghan immigrants were widely alleged to have brought along with them the ‘drug and arms’ mafia and the number of small arms in city just ballooned as ethnic conflagrations became deadlier. The Afghans threw their weight politically behind the Punjabis, and the nexus worked effectively and to deadly effect in the riots in the mid-80s and then again in the mid-90s.

Language and Cultural issues

Urdu was instituted as the official national language at the inception of Pakistan even though only a pitifully small fraction of Pakistanis spoke the language. In the widely cited 1961 census results, it was reported that Urdu was the mother tongue of a mere 3.7% of all Pakistanis (7.5% in West Pakistan), and only 15% of West Pakistanis were able to speak Urdu at all. It is hopefully already clear that Urdu was the language spoken by the Mohajirs and they fought tooth and nail to keep it the only ‘official’ language.

Language has been a key issue in Pakistani politics. In fact, one of the major rallying points for East Pakistanis was recognition of Bengali as one of the state languages. In Sindh, there was widespread resentment against Urdu. In 1972, Sindh province (Bhutto) passed a resolution instituting Sindhi as the second official language. The act led to ‘language riots’ as Mohajirs, concerned about losing the economic privilege that emanated from their ability to speak Urdu, rioted. Language riots are often seen as a turning point in the city’s history and the relation between Mohajirs and Sindhis.

Revenue Sharing Issue

In 1995-96, Karachi’s estimated contribution to the Federal and Provincial Tax Revenue was Rs 403 billion or just a little over 63%. Karachi metropolitan area’s population of about 12-14 million then was just about 10% of Pakistan’s total population. The Federal Government reallocated just over 2% of the revenues it harvested from Karachi back into Pakistan that year. The imbalance can be largely explained by the redistributive nature of tax regimes in which taxes from rich provinces are often used to provide for public goods elsewhere. While that is largely true, there was also explicit discrimination that led to such neglect of infrastructure that it almost killed the cash cow of Pakistan.

Mohajir Quami Movement

In 1978, Altaf Hussain formed a student organization called the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO). The nascent student organization quickly leached students from Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. In doing so, it sealed its future as an adversary of IJT. APMSO and IJT regularly clashed on the college campuses in the early 80s, and have continued to battle since then.

In 1984, the Mohajir Quami Mahaz (MQM) was set up by Altaf Hussain. Between 1984 and 1986, Hussain worked to recruit its cadre and then launched MQM on the national stage with a massive rally in Karachi on August 8th, 1986.

Between 1986 and 1988, MQM worked towards a Sindhi-Muhajir alliance. In 1988, MQM fought national elections (under the name Haq-Parast) in an alliance with Sindhi dominated Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto. In the elections, it emerged as the third largest party with 13 seats in the National Assembly. MQM also achieved a landslide victory in municipal elections (1987) in Karachi. MQM’s first stint in sharing power was largely ineffectual in delivering real tangible improvements as the governance was marred by both infighting within MQM as well as active sabotage by Bhutto’s PPP. MQM withdrew support from the Bhutto government and fought the next election in an alliance with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML). The Mohajir-Sindhi alliance provided the only real chance to thwart the Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics, and PPP’s parochialism and MQM’s need to deliver to its constituents, led to an early demise to the alliance. MQM’s decision to ally with the Punjabis would soon prove to be unfortunate.

The coalition Islami Jamouri Ittehad (IJI or Islamic Democratic Front) rode to power in the 1990 elections. Between 1990 and 1992, MQM got a free reign under Jam Sadiq Ali. But with power came dissent and party indiscipline. Aamir Khan, a comrade in arms with Altaf, began muscle flexing. In June 1992, the military concerned about MQM’s rising star launched Operation Cleanup to weed out Altaf Hussain. All of this was done with the express consent of Nawaz Sharif. While the Operation was officially to ‘weed out criminal’, it turned into an all-out witch hunt against MQM. The military launched not only conducted raids but also led a media assault- it released photos ‘showing’ that MQM was a terrorist organization that ran torture chambers, and newspapers, fed by the military, ran expose’ pieces about its gun running operations. Disagreements between Altaf Hussain and the then MQM’s two prominent militant leaders, Afaq Ahmed and Aamir Khan had first surfaced towards the end of 1991. The military-led campaign, sidled with a political campaign, helped create ‘mutiny’ within ranks and led to the formation of “Real MQM” or Haqiqi Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM-H) under Aamir Khan. Funnily, the progenitors of the splinter group were also killed by the avid embrace of its parents, the government. The group quickly lost credibility on the street and eventually just became a front group for the government to wage war against MQM.

Soon after the launch of the Operation, MQM withdrew support from the coalition. The same year, Altaf Hussain went to the UK ostensibly for ‘medical treatment’ and converted the opportunity in to a voluntary exile. Since then he has led the organization via telephone, faxes, and other modern communication mechanisms. It is important here to note the central role of Altaf Hussain in leading MQM.

MQM is seen as a one-man party which deeply relies on the charismatic leadership of Altaf Hussain. Hussain, who was born to a lower-middle-class background in Azizabad in Karachi, is known as Quaid (leader) and Pir Sahib within the ranks. MQM itself is a cadre-based tightly knit organization. The organization prides itself on superb discipline within its ranks. The organization imposes a premium on its cadres for strict adherence to, what it sees, are essential tenets for building a strong organization. In its pamphlet on training workers, it lists four essential elements of a strong movement: “(1) “blind faith” (literal translation from Urdu) in the leadership; (2) elimination of individuality; (3) strong sense of common purpose; and (4) complete knowledge of, and agreement with the ideological basis of the organization.”

MQM boycotted the 1993 elections. The PPP government in 1994 gerrymandered the districts so as to bypass MQM’s ironclad grip on Karachi. 1994 onwards Karachi was under the grip of violence as MQM(A) fought pitched battles with ISI supported MQM(H). In November 1994, the army was withdrawn from law enforcement duties in Sindh, but the paramilitary Rangers were reinforced and specially trained police inducted. During 1995 and 1996, hundreds of people were killed by Rangers and police, including hundreds of members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

In 1997, MQM(A) tried to moderate its stance in terms of ethnicity by changing its name Muthaida Quami Movement (United National Movement). Reflecting MQM’s nature (and need) for forming alliances of convenience, MQM again switched partners in 1998. The ruling PML(N)’s troubled alliance with the MQM(A) in Sindh province ruptured during October 1998. Without the MQM(A), the PML(N) no longer had the numbers to govern in the Sindh province, leaving a clear path for the opposition Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto to join with the MQM(A) to form a majority in the Sindh assembly. Within a year, Musharraf was at the helm of Pakistan as its CEO.

Transportation Riots

The Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Almost right away Pathan refugees started pouring into Karachi. Pathans, on coming to Karachi, largely went into the transportation, rental, and money-lending businesses. Up until 1979, the informal housing market in Karachi was controlled by Punjabis and Mohajirs. Starting 1980, Pathans started taking over the informal housing sector. This created tensions between Pathans and the predominantly Mohajir (Bihari) renters of Orangi. These tensions came to a boil in 1985 during the transportation riots.

Between 1984 and 1985, Karachi minibusses, called the yellow devils, were responsible for on average two deaths per day. In 1985, a Pathan bus driver skipped a light and ran into a group of students of Sir Syed College. The Mohajir and Punjabi student activists from the Islami Jamiat-e Tuleba, the student wing of the Jama’at-e Islami rioted. Bihari basti dwellers of Orangi also joined the transport riots. The rioting saw Mohajirs in pitched battles with Pathans, who formed a partnership with the Punjabis – an alliance cemented by arms trade between Punjabi dominated military and the Pathans. The alliance between Pathans and Punjabis still stands; Pathans are seen as henchmen for the Punjabis in Karachi.


The Mohajir conflict is not an ethnic conflict as Mohajirs don’t belong to a certain ethnicity but come from a variety of different ethnicities. The uniting cultural glue, if there is one, is the shared language – Urdu. The major thing that bound them together, especially initially, was economic interest. Economic interest was also what led them to mouth nationalist slogans as a way to propagate the status quo that distinctly advantaged them. The other part of Mohajir identity – the one which made them see as a different nationality- was formed in the era post-mid-1960s, when ethnic aspirations had started battering Pakistan’s political landscape with gale force winds. Mohajir ‘identity’ formed under the pressure of Sindhi nationalism, and the Punjabi and Pashtun ethnic movements, and most importantly under the economic pressures created by limited resources and ‘unequal’ distribution. Certainly, Sindhis felt that they had legitimate grievances for they believed that it was ‘their land’ and ‘their resources’ that were being ‘preyed’ upon by outsiders. Meanwhile, the Punjabis felt threatened by the economic ascendancy and dominance of the Mohajirs within Pakistan. Additionally, post-ethnic quotas, the only way Mohajirs could demand economic rights legitimately as a group was to be considered a separate nationality on par with that of Sindhis, Punjabis, Pathans, and Balochs. And Mohajirs did just that. Given that Mohajirs were ethnically, and to a large degree, especially post-immigration of poor Biharis- economically diverse, mobilizing them as a “nationality” proved tricky. The earliest mobilization attempts hence were focused on the style of clothing. It is often called the ‘Kurta-Pyjama’ mobilization.

The trajectory of Karachi and Pakistan could have been different had it not involved itself in Afghanistan. The Islamization unleashed by Haq to service the Muhajideen pipeline had a deep impact on the political and cultural fabric of Pakistan – an impact whose ripple effects are still being echoed in the demolished minarets of Lal Masjid, and Shia-Sunni relations in particular. Zia regime, which came at a time when concern about Iranian revolution was high, armed the Sunni extremists within Pakistan and helped perpetrate horrific violence against the Shias in the mid-1980s. Zia’s regime also saw the vicious persecution of other minorities like the Ahmaddis. The Afghan war also made available huge amounts of small arms within the country, something which was abused to deadly effect in ethnic clashes.

The Future

In 1998, Mohajir, Baluch, Pashtun and Sindh parties allied to form the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM), which seeks to challenge Punjab hegemony in Pakistan’s political life. Another group that represents Mohajirs, Sindhis, and Baluchis is the Grand Democratic Alliance. While these alliances proved ineffectual, there is now a chance that Mohajir-Sindhi-Pathan alliance may take shape with Benazir-Musharaf and possibly ANP coming together to fight elections.

Vague Apprehensions

18 Jul

“There is a possibility of a terrorist attack.” Or, “There is a heightened possibility of a terrorist attack.”

These statements are often interpreted as, “There is a high (or very high) probability of a terrorist attack.” These are not sensible interpretations. Of course, news media do plenty to encourage such interpretations. Footage of prior attacks, police sirens, SWAT teams, helicopters, all encourage the sense of dread, which likely encourages such interpretations. On the flip side, few news reports spend any length of time on elucidating the probability of winning the ‘Megamillion Jackpot.’

Like the news media, in everyday life, people also tend to speak in terms of possibilities than probabilities. And often enough possibilities are used to denote high probabilities. And often enough incorrectly so. Sometimes because individuals are mistakenly convinced that probabilities are actually higher (most people often do not remember numbers, replacing them with impressionistic accounts consistent with imagery or their own biases) and sometimes because people are interested in heightening the drama.

Speaking in terms of possibilities also allows one the advantage of never being technically wrong, while all the time encouraging incorrect interpretations. It allows people to casually exaggerate the threat of crime, or indeed any threat they feel like exaggerating. And it allows people to underestimate the frequency of things they would rather deny: for instance, dangers of driving faster than the speed limit, or when drunk, or both. The same benefits are afforded to strategic elite actors. It allows policymakers to sound logically coherent without being so. And to sell less rational courses of action.

By possibility, we mean that something that has a chance of occurring. It doesn’t give us information as to how probable the scenario is. A little information or thinking on probabilities that can go a long way. So aim for precision. Vagueness can be a cover for insidious reasoning (including your own). Avoidable vagueness ought to be avoided.

How Are Academic Disciplines Divided?

18 Jul

The social sciences are split into disciplines like Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, etc. There is a certain anarchy to the way they are split. For example, while Psychology is devoted to understanding how the individual mind works, and sociology to the study of groups, Political science is devoted merely to an aspect of groups—group decision making.

One of the primary reasons the social sciences are divided so is because of the history of how social sciences developed. As major figures postulated important variables that constrain the social world, fields took shape around them. The other pertinent variables that explain some of the new disciplines in social sciences are changes in technology, and more broadly changing social problems. For example, the discipline of Communication took shape around the time mass media became popular.

The way the social sciences are currently divided has left them with a host of inefficiencies which leave them largely inefficacious in a variety of scenarios where they can offer substantive help. Firstly, The containerized way of understanding the social world provide inadequate ways of understanding complex social systems that are imposed upon by a variety of variables that range from the individual to the institutional. And secondly, the largely discipline-specific theoretical motivations lead academic to concoct elaborate theories that often misstate their applicability in complex ecosystems. We all know how economics never met common sense till of recently. It isn’t that disciplines haven’t tried to bridge the inter-disciplinary divide, they certainly have by creating sub-disciplines ranging from social-psychology (in psychology) to political psychology (in Political Science), and in fact that is exactly where some of the most exciting research is taking place right now, the problem is that we have been slow to question the larger restructuring of the social sciences. The question then arises as to what should we put at the center of our focus of our disciplines? The answer is by no means clear to me though I think it would be useful to develop competencies around primary organizing social structures/institutions.

Role of Social Science

Let me assume away the fact that most social science knowledge will end up in the society either through Capitalism or selective uptake by policymakers. Next, we need to evaluate how social science can meaningfully contribute to society. One intuitive way would be to create social engineering departments that are focused on specific social problems. The advice is by no means radical— certainly Education as a discipline has been around for some time, and relatively recently departments (or schools) devoted to Public Health, Environmental Policy have opened up across college campuses. Secondly, social science should create social engineering departments that help offer solutions for real-life problems, much the same way engineering departments affiliated with natural sciences do and try experimenting with how for example different institutional structures would affect decision making. Lastly, social scientists have a lot more to offer to third world countries which have yet to be overrun by brute Capitalism. What social science departments need to do is lead more data collection efforts in third world countries and offer solutions.

The Problem in Immigration Reform?

9 Jul

The following article has been written by Chaste, an astute commentator who has written for Spincycle before.

Note: The author has used the phrase, “illegal workers” only when the illegality is specifically implicated. Elsewhere, he has used the phrase “foreign workers.”

Discussions about immigration reform have acquired a feverish intensity. Not only is there a pervasive sense of the intractability of the problem, there are wildly differing accounts of the nature and extent of the problem. These are tell-tale signs that the problem is probably overstated, and that there is a simple and straightforward solution — that the problem lies in the public’s attitude to foreign workers and immigration (read race-class nexus in substantial part). Here below, I will try to show that this conjecture is largely true.

Reliable data about the effect of illegal workers on the economy is hard to come by, in part because of basic disagreements about which factors to measure. Therefore, I will rely on analytical reasoning. On its face, the contention that immigrants who come to America in search of work are a burden on the economy seems absurd. The economy supports most native workers through their parasitic (from the economic point of view) phases of childhood and early youth. Americans for instance, consume close to $100,000 in school funding alone by the end of their high school. It is inconceivable that the average foreign worker could consume public services on a scale even remotely close to that. The economy gets a free lunch from foreign workers because it gets the benefit of their productive years without ever supporting them in their parasitic/dependent phase. This is a minor variation on what we know as the “brain drain.” That it goes largely unacknowledged points out the close ties between class and worth in this society.

Other popular arguments such as the burden on public schools also strain credulity. It is unclear that a child who may be here through no choice of its own should be lumped together in the same categories as illegal immigrant workers. In any case, since most of these children will grow up to be Americans, the rational approach to measuring their impact on the economy is within the trajectory of their own lives. Some even lament the supposedly downward pressure on wages. Yet wage levels are not determined merely by the market internals of demand and supply. External checks in forms like foreign competition are significant. The assessments of regulatory agencies like the Federal Reserve regarding the optimal wage pressures in a labor market are particularly important.

The proposed solutions are equally mired in unreal contentions and assumptions. Despite the clamor for walls and tighter border security, there is no evidence that migration patterns are responsive to anything other than economic opportunities for foreign workers. Programs that allow employers to check the immigration status of their employees voluntarily have produced no results. Massive state action in the form of imprisonment against employers, or deportation/imprisonment against foreigners who have been in this country for many years, is probably too controversial to be viable.

For the record, I will quickly lay out the simplest solution, one that is obvious to anyone who has given the issue any serious thought. The solution makes the following basic assumptions:

  • The government has an interest in having a stable and competitive labor market. It has the right to use immigration as a tool to address market distortions caused by structural problems (health and legal sectors are dramatically over-compensated relative to other sectors), or by cultural stigma (specific types of casual labor do not attract American workers at a pay rate appropriate to the relative lack of required skills). The government can achieve this with minor modifications to the concept of “prevailing wage rate.” The government currently uses the “prevailing wage rate” to protect American skilled workers from wage cuts due to immigration.
  • To the extent that American workers may be disadvantaged by immigration, this is largely a function of the disparity in rights between citizens and foreign workers. The obvious solution would involve not depriving foreign workers of rights, but rather drowning them in rights. It is important here to distinguish between rights and entitlements: rights simply give privileges within a transaction such as employment without any guarantees that the transaction (employment) will actually happen whereas an entitlement guarantees that the transaction will happen. Currently, the government protects victims of sexual trafficking, and it can similarly protect foreign workers when employers violate their rights (henceforth “violating employers”). Indeed the government should allow the foreign workers to recover substantial financial damages from violating employers.
  • The government should use market incentives rather than administrative regulation because it will enable more effective implementation. As mentioned above imposing greater burdens on illegal workers is unhelpful because it is their very lack of rights that makes them attractive employees. Besides, with no rights, even deportation has failed as a deterrent. Imprisonment for violating employers will likely be politically controversial. Very stiff fines against violating employers will target a group, which is particularly sensitive to such incentives, and will have an increased chance of political viability.
  • The government should avoid controversy and increase efficiency by delegating implementation to private enterprise. American lawyers have proved themselves gods of the enterprise by defying even the most basic laws of economics like the price supply curve: even as the country is drowning in lawyers, they continue to rake in enormous incomes. The government should allow private civil actions in court in which lawyers for successful foreign workers can recover lawyer’s fees from violating employers and get a percentage of the recovered damages.

The broad outline of a solution is clear. The government should determine the minimum wage rate for different professions based on the needs of the economy. Thus, the minimum wage rate can be lower than the prevailing wage rate in over-compensated professions so that those sectors do not become a drag on the economy. Conversely, the minimum wage rate can be higher than the prevailing wage rate for lower skill jobs because the low prevailing wages are often possible only because of indirect government subsidies in the form of social services. The foreign workers should have the right and incentive to sue violating employers. If successful, the foreign workers should get a permanent right to stay, should get their lawyer’s fees paid by their violating employer, and be able to recover substantial damages from violating employers (between $50,000 and $100,000). The prospect of 40% of $50,000 – $100,000 in addition to lawyer fees will motivate lawyers to pursue violating employers aggressively. Once these measures ensure enforcement, the government can throw open employment opportunities to foreigners, and increase labor supply in over-compensated and culturally stigmatized sectors. The minimum wage rate and the threat of legal action will make employers wary of hiring foreign workers in other sectors except in special circumstances.

This simple solution is obvious to anyone who has given the matter serious thought, or to anyone who has a passing familiarity with the legal sector. Yet mainstream media never mentions it. The public eschews practical solutions in favor of posturing in part because as discussed above the alleged problems likely do not exist. The idea that foreign workers should have the rights to sue American employers is anathema to American conservatives. They are unlikely to accept the idea to resolve fictitious problems. Liberals do not see immigration as much of a problem and are content with the status quo. Americans would dearly love to have the jobs themselves, and have the work done by foreigners, all without the inconvenience of having the foreigners in their midst. Failing this, they have settled for the perks of cheap labor, the comforting disparity in the rights enjoyed by themselves and the largely non-white foreign workers, and the self-indulgence of a self-righteous hysteria centered on law and legitimacy.

A Novel Medium

4 Jul

The late capitalist novel or the latte novel

Post-nineties, a new novel has come into vogue, as is evident from the homage it regularly receives from reviewers at NY Times and other prominent publications, a novel full of superfluous pseudo-intelligent text. It is the novel by the smart aleck. A novel that is full of ‘accomplished’ froth which bubbles over the latte lifestyles and spills over in shape of words on Apple Macintosh screens in urban cafés. It is a novel that achieves nothing except provide passing entertainment to readers who are sure to chuckle at each of its clichéd witticisms and identify with each of its ‘cultural’ references.

It is a novel created by a novelist gamboling in the lush verdant fields of ‘self-absorption’ (Chaste’s partner) while pecking on the honeyed pleasures of his own intelligence, sophisticated ‘unconscious’ salesmanship, and the ‘insights’ that come from two-penny thinking. This novel, my dear sirs, and madams is an ode to you – you as in those who choose to read it. The novel will coddle you with its accessible pseudo-intelligent dialog, bring a smile via its accessible witticisms, allow you to share a wink through bankrupts ‘cultural’ references, and it will leave you flush with giddy thoughts. Isn’t pseudo-sophisticated witticism the epitome of culture? And aren’t you one of the chosen cultural savants, having been nursed at the breast of it.

Novel and the novelist

Every medium imposes its own limitations, strengths, and temptations, on those who choose to use it. The novel, due to its endless mutability, its loosely defined borders, its complete dependency on the novelist, provides enormous temptations to the novelists to indulge in self-absorption, unbridled subjectivism, and poorly thought out analysis. A novel is an intimate medium, and a fair number of authors use it to exorcise their own psychological traumas by imbuing one or more characters with their own psychological scars and exacting vengeance on their perceived perpetrators. A novel then becomes an exercise in validating oneself, reveling in the position of the ‘wronged’ character, and showing the depravity of the straw man ‘other’. Sometimes assigning blame for psychological trauma turns into a faux-sociological study leading to even more indefensible perversions. Chaste provides a wonderful example of the same in Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Hence while a novel is a mistake in the hands of a buffoon, it is more so in the hands of an unscrupulous but skilled novelist.

To produce a good novel, a writer not only needs to forgo the temptations, he needs to dig deeper into self with unblinking honesty and careful introspection. It demands a deeper understanding of self and the society to deliver that understanding through a novel. A good novelist is at once a good psychologist, sociologist, and anthropologist or at least one of them. The strength of the novel is in its ability to deliver a version of reality that simultaneously increases our understanding of the world around us, and makes us empathetic to the numerous psychological pitfalls that hem the human condition.


People often write because they can and not because they have something valuable to say. The increased ease of getting published, the fascination with seeing one’s name in print, all goad mediocre writers to publish and inflict their mediocrity on us. Of course, mediocrity, if it has certain attributes, is infinitely marketable to the undiscerning hordes. More disconcertingly however and as I mention above even the elite crack brigade of novels, as ordained by the reigning cognoscenti, is increasingly a thinly varnished version of the piddling.

Perhaps more than the end of the novel, the sensibility and the ethic which defined a great novel is coming to an end. And that is indeed sad.

The Democratic Idea of Knowledge

3 Jul

In their misguided battle against ‘global warming’, the phrase, “science is not a democracy” has become a favorite with conservative pundits.

Well, I am co-opting their slogan to initiate discussion about something else—the future of knowledge.

Let us imagine that Google’s model of site ranking trumps all others. The Google model relies on the fact that if an information source is reliable, people will “vote” for it with a link. So more the number of links to the site, higher the ranking.

There are serious issues with this “democratic” model of ranking information. One falsehood linked again and again can give it the same credence as a fact. This theory is just an extension of the corner-shop gossip analogy with one substantive difference – in a linked online world, the effects are not localized but global. The model is troubling especially given that more acerbic, vituperative articles very likely get linked more than the dry, measured pieces. To drive home the point, let me etch out a particularly troublesome outcome – a world where all the knowledge is hijacked by zealots of either persuasion.

The democratic idea of knowledge rests upon the twin facts that information choices are diverse enough on the Internet to allow people to choice of source that has the most accurate information and that people who see the source with “right information” will know it is the “right information” and will be involved enough to “vote” with their links to the site. The paradigm just ignores one key thing -Internet, counterintuitively, doesn’t allow many choices. Ahem…

Hegemony is not only a problem with the mass-communication world but also with the Internet model. We are right now emerging from decades of a communication model dominated by mass-media where only a few outlets controlled the majority of the information. From this relatively oligarchical model, we are moving to a “distributed” model. The key problem with this distributed model is firstly that it is not really distributed. It is, in fact, narrower – a vast majority of the people look for information using just three tools – Google, Yahoo, and MSN. While these search engines spit out millions of results to our queries, studies show that most people never get beyond the first page. In this media market, the information hierarchy is in fact even more entrenched.

The other key issue that is at the heart of the problem of determining the veracity of information on the Internet is the relative anonymity of the Internet. The pedigree of knowledge is an important part in establishing the veracity of a piece of information and the relative anonymity of the Internet has raised concerns about the veracity of the information on it.

So, in all the Internet poses unique challenges for the existence and acceptance of “real” knowledge.

Social Science in a Guest Appearance in the Play, Capitalism

2 Jul

Social scientists are technology’s historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists—measuring the social impact of technology. It is important to note that all this activity is forever doomed to survive in the echo chambers of the forgotten consciousness of society and consigned to only enter in casual desultory (or heated but always ineffectual) discussions. Social scientists also produce knowledge that is directly useful to Capitalism and there, of course, it plays a more important role.

Society is led by the 800-pound gorilla of Capitalism and the ‘logic’ of the market, which is quite separate from the ‘logic’ of social good, determines what is sold, how it is sold, and when. Social scientists merely study effects of new technologies as they are unleashed on the world. Universities open up new schools, departments, disciplines, and certainly new topics within disciplines as technology and reality march on. Take for example the following – two decades after television became a common amongst US households, David Phillips found evidence for ‘Werther effect’ like phenomena that linked suicides in real life to television suicides, and later still Robert Putnam linked heightened social alienation to television, and now there is a slew of literature detailing negative impact of violence on television. Of course, nobody ever thought that they might want to research the impact of something before it is released.

Social scientists are consigned to doing research that will only rarely wend its way to policymaking. And of course they will never get a chance to determine the course of technological growth, or other policies for those are tethered to Capitalism.

So what is the role of social science or for that matter science aside from helping create wealth, and helping society in a small number of cases where money making and social good coincide? There is really none in a world where increasingly the word regulation is seen as a plague.

Perhaps we can write our own epitaph – we wagged our fingers and tongues, and scribbled furiously, as the chasm between the economic engine and the social good widened and Capitalism swallowed us whole. We also made some money doing that.

Need for Epistemic Standards for Evidence and Arguments in Governance

2 Jul

Explicit standards for evidence and argument are critical in a competitive system where competing groups have palpable incentives to withhold information, monger stilted information, use irrelevant information, or use any tactic to win.


Different branches of the US government use different epistemic standards.

The US judicial system uses the adversarial system in which each of the parties presents its case to a neutral party (judge or jury). Each side is supposed to furnish evidence in support of its argument, and an ‘impartial’ judge decides on what evidence is better in terms of its applicability and strength.

The adversarial system is a competitive system that relies on the sparring parties to furnish evidence. Like any competitive system, the sparring parties have incentives to withhold information from each other and misrepresent information. The system relies on the ‘other’ party to excavate any such violations, and sometimes on the neutral party. There are some other formal procedures to limit the kind of evidence that can be presented (though some are rooted in alternate theories) and procedures for sharing corroborative evidence. There are also formal procedures as to what kind of arguments can be presented.

The adversarial judicial process inarguably uses the strictest standards of evidence amongst any branch of government.

While the legislative process is largely a ‘competitive’ system, it has no formal epistemic standards limiting the kind of evidence or arguments that can be presented. The strength of the evidence presented, its applicability, etc. are either ‘judged’ by ‘citizens’ (substantially mediated by media) or by members of the other competing party.

The problem with legislative branch is not only that it is a competitive system, but that is a corrupt, special interest driven competitive system. The system provides little incentive to the members to judge the evidence impartially with the nation’s best interests in mind.

There are no epistemic standards that hold back the executive branch except for some loose constraints that tie those standards to the marketability of a particular policy decision.

Congress also uses the ‘Inquisitorial system’ when it conducts ‘Congressional Hearings’ to ‘investigate’ a particular issue. Of course, due to partisanship pressures, the inquisitorial system often uncomfortably borders on ‘inquisition’.


One way to correct the problem would be to create governance structures that explicitly involve independent bodies that judge the strength and applicability of evidence presented.

Opining About the Perils of Opinions: The Opinion Poll Model of Policy Making

29 Jun

Public opinion is central to the democratic political process and it has never been more important that today, when opinion poll numbers are constantly cited in the media to buffet policy choices. It behooves us hence to foremost understand opinions and the process of opinion change, and then to think critically about whether the causal mechanism driving ‘opinion change’ are commensurate with the expressed ideals of ‘democracy’.

What is the value of an ill-considered opinion from a person with limited knowledge of the facts? Close to none, one would expect. But apparently, it is worth much more in a policy debate on the Hill if sound bytes by politicians quoting poll numbers to buffet the validity of their issue positions are anything to go by.

Courtesy significant advances in sampling methodology, communication technology, and computational technology, one can now conduct a nationwide Opinion Poll cheaply (relatively) and quickly. Every major media company, from New York Times to Fox News, now publishes stories about the ‘findings’ from the polls with unerring frequency and drops these numbers casually on near about every policy issue, let alone questions like, ‘What should Paris Hilton eat for breakfast?’

Given the important role that media has in ‘framing’ the issue (Iyengar), and the fecundity of the polls, news media now often cites figures from opinion polls as part of a story on an issue and asks politicians to defend their policy choices (in six seconds or less) given the poll numbers. Correspondingly politicians increasingly cite poll numbers on issues as corroboratory evidence for or against a policy direction.

Where do opinions come from?

In a culture that values ‘individual expression’ above everything else, it isn’t surprising that people offer opinions on issues they know little to nothing about an issue. Funnily, and as has been extensively documented in Political Science literature, people not only offer opinions about what they know nothing about, they also offer opinions about non-existent (phantom) issues. (Lippman, 1993 and others) Krosnick et al. have posited a more benevolent interpretation of ‘phantom opinions’ arguing that these opinions originate from ‘violation of communication norms’. Even if Krosnick is right, there is wide agreement within the field that the general public which makes it to the voting booth and gleefully casts its vote (a behavior strongly based on overall opinion) is deeply ignorant about most issues.

Leaving aside ‘phantom opinions’, let us try to understand where opinions come from. “Every opinion is a marriage of information and values-information to generate a mental picture of what is at stake and values to make a judgment about it” (Zaller, 1991). It is important to notice how Zaller uses the term ‘information’ which he describes later in the paper as whatever political information a person consumes via media or other ways. By limiting himself to political information, Zaller mistakenly assumes that political opinion making sits in an isolated bunker – only affected by relevant political information – in people’s minds. Neuman in his book, ‘Common Knowledge’ has persuasively argued to the contrary. Leaving Neuman’s objections aside, it is easy to surmise that information has generally little to do with facts of the case. Secondly, we have yet to tackle how much of the opinion is driven by ‘values’ and how much of it is driven by ‘information’ but it seems intuitive that the mix would vary depending on a variety of factors ranging from the issue at hand (opinion on a value issue like abortion would inarguably have higher percentage of ‘value’ as compared to one on economic policy), need for cognition (people with higher need for cognition would use more ‘information’), cognitive ability, amount of information, etc.

Normative Questions

Since the publication of American Voter (Cambell et al.), and Converse’s later explications (1964, 1970), which described the average American voter as apathetic, and largely ignorant about major issues, political theorists have grappled with the threat that an uninformed voter poses to the claims of normative superiority of democracy. If democracy was to be claimed as a ‘normatively superior system’ in itself, without resorting to claims about its superiority as an instrumental good that provided ‘better governance’, it was important for the political theorists to argue that voters voted their interests – a claim which was no longer possible in lieu of evidence that pointed to widespread ignorance. The more severe threat that the theorists are rightly concerned about, is whether the democratic system can continue to deliver its benefits if the voters ceased to vote ‘their interests’ given a lot of benefits in the system are predicated on that assumption. While the conjecture is open to empirical analysis, we can theoretically analyze the value of an ‘opinion’ in an ideal democratic model.

The value of an expressed opinion in a democracy is directly proportional to its ability to tap into a voter’s ‘real interests’, best understood as ‘interests’, as understood by the voter, under ‘full knowledge.’

Ideal Opinions, Opinion Aggregation

Value of opinion cannot be pried apart from the system in which it is used. The composition of ‘ideal opinion’ would vary according to the system. Since we are talking about a democracy, let’s analyze its composition here.

The value of an opinion in a discussion is if it reveals a hitherto unknown piece of information. In a poll where you are asked to furnish your ‘considered preferences’ that benefit is lost to some degree. One can argue that there is indeed some knowledge hidden in the choice but since a poll weighs considered choices equally with ill-considered ones, and because we don’t know what led to the final choice, it is impossible to argue whether democratic majorities do bring forth collective knowledge. The only condition in which the scenario would hold is when a majority of the voters vote for the ‘right’ preference.

Let us now assume ‘full-information’ and the only variable as ‘value system’. If there is a ‘common’ universally accepted value system, then there is little value in soliciting opinions from everybody. It is when you start thinking about ‘averaging’ across value systems, a tenuous concept at best, that you need to think about soliciting opinions from others. Polling populace on a fixed choice of politicians is an impoverished way to go about tapping into ‘people’s will’.

Perhaps the way to tackle the problem is by actually breaking this down into a two-step problem – information maximization and ‘averaging’ over values. I believe we have the scientific community to address the former, but I do not have the answer to the latter but perhaps informed deliberation – which involves ‘public exchange of reasons’ – about consequences would be one way to approximate that.

Reporting Politicking: Horse-Race Coverage of Politics

29 Jun

The phrase horse race journalism is often used to describe how the media covers the elections. But it can also be used to describe how it covers issues. And then perhaps ‘horse race’ is a misnomer. A more appropriate label would be ‘football game’ style of coverage, given that it is heavy on analysis of strategy.

Reporting today is focused on analyzing the strategy of teams (parties), which are understood chiefly through its celebrity players (political leaders), engaged in a highly complex game. News coverage on domestic politics today involves extensive coverage of the process of how decisions are made (and not made), the innumerable stories on the power dynamics between the Legislative branch and the Executive, or between the leaders of the parties, while little attention is paid to chart the impact of the policies. Whereas we see extensive coverage and analysis of alleged ‘missteps’, we hear little about the substantive topic of interest – issues at the heart of it.

There is now a virtual army of pundits, each appropriately fitted with meager intellect, large ego, and partisan affiliation, that dissects every political move and its impact on the public perception of a particular leader or of political parties. Be it the reporting about the ‘immigration bill’ or “Iraq’, there is now an abundance of reports that talk about ‘Bush’s loss’ or ‘Rove strategies’ or the ‘lame duck president’. Indeed strategy is an intrinsic part of politics and dictates what is possible and what isn’t, but reporting on strategic aspects shouldn’t come at the expense of reporting on issues.


Driven partially by celebrity style coverage that puts individuals at the center rather than issues, serious reporters have mistakenly taken on the view that it is important to devote substantial energy on reporting on PR and strategy aspect of how decisions are made and how they will influence some person or organization.

Part of this style of reporting has to do with how news organization chooses to organize and how they prioritize. There is a ‘White House,’ and there are generally a few reporting from the bowels of Congress, but aside from a regular crime beat, there are few reporters assigned to analyzing issues. The analysis is either left to polemicists or hacks.

Certainly, a substantial part of the reason has to do with reporters who haven’t thought through what is worth reporting what isn’t. There is this bizarre idea that news is current, that if the news is a day old, then it is stale and unworthy. What the heck is the utility of this news either way for poorly informed citizens of a democracy? I understand why news about the weather has to be reasonably fresh, and why some business news has to be fresh, but why does anything else have to be delivered within five seconds of it happening? This harks back to the comments I have made about the marginal (more likely no) utility of breaking news. The point though is broader – lack of a theory of news – aside from race to earn the most money – has seriously compromised not only the overall coverage, which is more Paris Hilton than substantive news topics, but also the coverage that is given to ‘serious’ topics.

Interview: Bina Shah (Part 2)

28 Jun

Bina Shah is a noted Karachi based author, and journalist. (Part 1.)

In the response to the question about the choice of male protagonists in your novels, you noted, “This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways, at least at that age, than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.” Your observation reminded me of a passage in Ms. Sidhwa’s novel, The Bride, “Miriam, reflecting her husband’s rising status and respectability, took to observing strict purdah. She seldom ventured out without a veil.”

I think what you say is largely right and something which anthropologists have commented on earlier. They argue that it is the necessity of going to work etc. for the lower class that causes these somewhat lax attitudes. What is your take on the issue? Can you also comment briefly on how economics defines culture? Of course, we have heard all about it through the Friedman patented McDonald’s angle that tackles cultural change via globalization. But can you talk about it from a different angle? And how do you deal with it in your own work?

You won’t see women in the rural areas in purdah. They cover their heads with their dupattas and that is the end of it. They have to go out into the fields and work, and you can’t do that in a purdah or a burqa or a hijab. Some of our women-related cultural rituals and habits are affectations or posturing—making a statement about who you are, or who others think you should be, a very considered statement. Real culture comes more naturally; you don’t have to think about adopting it because you live it.

In response to the question about the ‘type’ of novel—elemental versus Intellectual—you said, “I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion… My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?” I perhaps misstated my point about elemental novels for they often have do have opinions and critiques woven in. I certainly think that your novels have implicit critiques, and at least amorphous theories. In fact, I find it impossible that a novel can be absent of ‘comments upon the state of the world’. Perhaps the ‘type’ is more appropriately consigned to the creative process. For instance, I have little doubt that Naipaul first had the ‘idea’ of denigrating revolutionary leaders before he wrote ‘guerillas’. On the other hand, the vicious ‘pettiness’ of everyday life manifest in ‘The House of Mr. Biswas’ seems very much a peripheral part of this sort of unvarnished descriptions. Perhaps I am wrong here and the ‘vicious pettiness’ was indeed a deliberate point. Even if it was deliberate, it was still very clearly made. So is the faux distinction that I draw about types of novels about intentionality? Can you comment briefly on this? And can you talk more about how you craft your own work?

For me, the story always comes first. The social critique comes as I am writing the story. The characters deal with certain situations, and if it is appropriate to comment on society at large because of what they’re going through, then I do it, but I really try hard to weave it in to the narrative rather than taking a big aside that goes on for pages and comments very obviously and loudly on that aspect of society. I’m always sensitive to what sounds natural and what is very obviously the author taking over the narrative, imposing her own voice on the voice of the characters – to me that is very intrusive and distracting and ultimately weak writing.

In response to the question soliciting your comment on whether most ‘authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly’, you intriguingly started with the phrase, “For me, writing is a therapeutic process”. Was that false start a ‘cousin-of-Freud’ Freudian slip? The point that I was trying to make was that our own histories sometimes make it hard to look at the world objectively, especially in a personal (and seductively powerful) medium like novel that allows, in fact, urges, a novelist to say more or less what s/he wants. Additionally, I think that novelists don’t use the novel to ‘understand the world’ but use it for delivering what they understand about the world.

I meant what I said when I wrote that writing is a therapeutic process. But not therapy for the writer in terms of her own psychological traumas – therapy for the writer as a person existing in a world, a universe, that is difficult and heartbreaking and joyous and eleventeen layers of complex; and coming to terms with all the multiplicities and the multitudes in that world, that universe. There are people that use the novel to exorcise their own demons, certainly. But I will stand by my assertion that novelists write novels to understand the world. When you’re writing or you’re undertaking any sort of artistic project, the process of creation is one that continues throughout the entire span of the project. It’s not that you think and think for five years and you formulate your theories and only then do you put pen to paper and what emerges is fully formed. As you write, your mind keeps working, your theories keep developing. Every day of writing my novel was a new day of discovery, of mental exercises and challenges and expansion and growth. I grew as a person as a result of writing my books. I learned what I knew about the world and what I didn’t. I understood my limitations and where I needed to go in order to overcome them.


Can you talk about how Karachi has influenced your writing?

You are not going to let me get away from that question, are you? Karachi is my inspiration. I couldn’t have been a writer in any other city in the world. Maybe I could now. Like a soldier going into her first battle, I’ve gotten my basic training in Karachi. Karachi is where the stories are. I am a bit of an amateur psychologist and never have I seen another city where people behave in the most contradictory ways. And yet when you examine their motivations and their thought processes, you come up with some amazing insights and illuminations about the human race. It is like a big…what’s the word I am looking for? a cauldron, a test-tube, a type of crucible…where the best and worst of humanity are all thrown together and the results are unpredictable, sometimes horrible, sometimes heartbreaking, but always amazing. I chronicle those results. That is the sum total of all my endeavors as a writer.

This follow-up interview was conducted via email. Questions and answers have been edited for style and content.

Interview: Bina Shah (Part 1)

27 Jun

Bina Shah, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna, is a noted Karachi based author, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories. Her first collection of short stories, Animal Medicine, was published by Oxford University Press in 1999. The collection was followed by a well-received novel, Where They Dream in Blue, that cataloged the return of an expatriate to Karachi. Ms. Shah currently edits the Alhamra Literary Review along with Ilona Yusuf.


How was it growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s under Zia-ul-Haq?

Weird and tense. I remember the day Bhutto was hanged. I was only five but everyone was terrified that there would be some sort of reaction. And there wasn’t. The streets were quiet. Later, I remember “Black Days”, but I didn’t understand what they were about. I touched on those days in my short story 1978 in Blessings where this young boy grows up in the Zia era—the feeling of being out in some sort of wilderness physically echoes what it felt like in this country back then.

You have spent a fair amount of time in the US. You spent your early years in Virginia and then upwards of five years in Massachusetts getting educated, first at Wellesley and then at the School of Education at Harvard. Can you tell us a little more about your time in the US?

Those were the years that formed me. From zero to five, you are absorbing everything and understanding how the world works. Getting your initial programming, so to speak.

When I returned for college and graduate school, it was a time of great freedom, of experimentation, trying my wings. The contrast between a sheltered upbringing in Pakistan and being in the hothouse environment of a Boston education couldn’t be greater. Both of those times in America made me who I am today.

Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What took you and your family to Virginia and what brought you back? What was their attitude towards your choice of profession?

My father was a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, and that is why we went there. We came back when he completed his studies, five years later. My parents are many things to me. They were young when they had me, and in a sense, the three of us have grown up together. They challenge me in ways that nobody else does; they are supportive of me but they will never let my head get too big. My mother, particularly, is good at deflating my ego! They are extremely pleased that I have turned out to be a writer because they see how happy it makes me. My dad always said I should be a writer and he never lets me forget that he was right. :)

What was your experience like attending an all women liberal Liberal Arts college in Massachusetts?

Absolutely fantastic! I would send my daughter there in an instant. You have your whole life to spend with men; you only get four years to spend it in an all-women environment. The amount of support, the building of self-confidence and self-esteem is unrivaled anywhere else. It was a very special time.

Your book Where They Dream in Blue deals with an ABCD’s visit to Karachi. How much of the book parallels your own journey? How hard was it for you to readjust to Karachi when you came back from the US in the 1990s? Can you tell us about some of the challenges?

The book attempts to deal with the questions that any person visiting their homeland would feel, especially Pakistanis who were raised in America. The questions that a Pakistani raised in Britain would have might be slightly different, but I think there are some things that apply to everyone. Certainly, I grappled with many of those questions myself. Adjusting back to Karachi in 1995 was nowhere near as difficult as adjusting to it in 1977 when the differences between the two countries in terms of culture and environment were far different. In 1977, there was nobody like me—a person who’d been raised in America. In 1995, there were starting to be lots of kids like me, who had gone for school there and come back. However, the challenge was the same here as it would have been for any young adult attempting to re-enter the real world after college: what am I going to do with my life?

You began your career as a Features Editor for Computerworld in 1996. That is fairly early in terms of the web revolution, and even the Computer revolution when it comes to Pakistan. Can you tell us a little more about the technology ‘scene’ in Pakistan at that time and how it has evolved in the past decade?

The technology scene in Pakistan was it its embryonic stages. The Internet had just come to Pakistan that year, and those of us who had been in America and used email got really excited about the Web and what it meant. People who were based here, especially traditional sorts of businesses, were suspicious and terrified of the new technology. So you had pockets of great understanding – we were like this little team, spread out across the country but keeping in touch through email and being astronauts in a way: “the Internet, the brave new world and then the larger landscape of resistance. But like they say in the space movies “resistance is futile”. Now everyone’s using technology in much the same way they were using it in the United States around, say, 1999. Mobile phones are part of that boom, by the way. We could be doing more – applying technology more to our everyday lives, rather than making an effort to integrate Blackberries and Wifi, it should all fall into place naturally – but it is always going to be that much more of an effort here.


The heroes of both of your novels, Where They Dream in Blue, and The 786 Cybercafe, are men. Arati Belle, in her review of Animal Medicine, writes, “Curiously, she seems to get into the skin of the boy in this story than any of the girls in the other stories” in reference to the story ‘Going Fishing.’ Was it a deliberate choice on your part to use male protagonists?

Yes, it was a deliberate choice. When you are starting out with your writing, the last thing you want is for everyone to ask you, “Well, is this about you?” Making the protagonist a man was the easiest way I could think of to sidestep this question, which gets very annoying to answer after the twentieth time.

The other reason for using men as protagonists is that there’s a practical consideration: in this society, men simply have more access to certain situations and locations than women do. I don’t like it, but it is true. How many women of a middle-class background do you know who would be able to set up a cybercafe on Tariq Road? So I bring women into the narrative, but then I try to highlight their positions/situations in society.

This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways – at least at that age – than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.

“In the novel, there is room for poetry, for tenderness and violence, for description and investigation, for analysis and synthesis; there is room for the portrayal of the countryside and of characters and of non-characters. That is, the man from within and from without.” Camilo Jose Cela, Nobel Prize-winning Spanish author once said in an interview when asked about the novel. Do you agree with what he says? What do you think is the range of the novel as a medium? What are its limitations?

I had to look up the novel in my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms to answer this question. The great strength of the novel is its freedom from limitations: style, structure, length, content. It is like this form that can absorb and make its own all the other literary forms around. If there are limitations to the novel, they exist in the limitations of the writer. A bad writer is going to write a bad novel, sure, but even a very good writer can be limited by her own limitations of experience, geography, knowledge of other disciplines, lack of worldview, and so on. The novel really challenges you to dig deep within yourself as a writer and bring out everything you know. It will totally exhaust you as a medium if you are not up to the challenge.

There are a variety of novels – the intellectual novel in the vein of Joyce and Rushdie, an elemental novel or the simple novel, the kind of novel written, for example, in the style of Dickens, or Balzac. (Cela) And then there are of course myriad hybrids. You, to me, have crafted two elemental novels. Firstly, do you agree with the statement and if so then can you tell us a little more about what went behind the choice?

Yes, I agree with your statement. My first two novels were very simply written. I think I simply was not ready to write a very intellectual novel. I was young, I was inexperienced, and I was not confident. I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion. I wanted to concentrate on my stories and my characters, and do a good job of that; I felt I owed that to the reader first and foremost. My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?

Most authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly. Their inability to come to terms with their own ghosts, their psychological traumas, and their inability to forgive themselves and others, often creates perversions that surface in the form of misplaced viciousness with which they deal with some characters. They are also trying to ‘understand’ the world and often ‘fail’ to understand it. Let me provide an example to illustrate the point. You listed Of Human Bondage as one of your favorite books in one of your interviews. The book is also a great favorite of mine. My friend Chaste recently provided a wonderful analysis of a facet pertinent to the question and I paraphrase his analysis here- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Can you comment briefly on the unduly broad statement with which I start this question by first pruning it and then analyzing it?

For me, writing is a therapeutic process, not to try and heal the writer of any psychological demons, but to understand the world around them in some way. By writing about issues, especially ones that bother me, that nag me, that are complex and not easily categorized or understood, I grapple with them and eventually arrive at a better understanding of them. As for being vicious towards a character, that is an odd thing to do. As a writer, I have love for all my characters, even the ones that aren’t particularly likable, because they are my creations. I try to make them play out the complexities of life that I see going on in the real world, not the ones in my head.

Can you now answer the question that I raise above with regards to your novel, The 786 Cyber cafe, that in the words of one of your prior interviewers is “centered on a story based on the infamous ‘other side of the Clifton bridge.” In response to which you said, “I think people on this side of the bridge are more narrow-minded in many ways.”

People are hemmed in everywhere by their preconceptions and prejudices. Just because you are rich and you are educated doesn’t mean you lack those preconceptions and prejudices. Nor does being rich or educated make you any more open-minded or tolerant. I believe the rich, the elite, those that live on “this side of the Clifton Bridge, which is a bridge that connects the richest parts of Karachi, Clifton and Defence, to the rest of the town on the Saddar side and beyond – think that their intellectual work is done once they have gotten their college degrees and taken the reins of their fabulous destinies as the nation’s leaders. Intellectually they are some of the laziest people I have ever seen: content to expound forever on whatever theories they formulated thirty years ago, without taking in anything else and considering whether their views are outdated or inapplicable today. When you are hungry, in all sense of the word, you stay humble. And humility goes hand in hand with open-mindedness: the ability to realize that your view is only one of many, and only an opinion at best.

Both of your novels and your current collection of stories have been published by Alhamra Publishing. And you edit Alhamra Literary Review along with Ms. Yusuf. Al-Hamra in Arabic simply means “the red”. It is of course usually used to describe the 13th Century “crimson castle” or Alhambra in Granada. Do you see the name ‘Al Hamra’ as an apt title for a Literary Review or for that matter a publishing house based in Karachi? And if so, why?

You would have to ask the publisher, Shafiq Naz, what was in his mind when he chose that name. I think he wanted to capture the idea that the Islamic world and Europe once had a rich, intertwined history in Moorish Spain. Literature is part of that cultural tradition. Maybe it is an oblique association. Going back to a time when art and literature and poetry was very grand and respected by kings and emperors. It is a good vision for a publishing house.

What is your vision for the Alhamra Literary Review?

We want to encourage Pakistanis to write; we showcase their talent and creativity. I would like to foster a future Booker Prize winner. That is my vision.


The late nineties were a tumultuous time for Karachi with MQM boycotting elections, political turmoil, and violence. Karachi has again recently been in the grip of a maelstrom. In the interim the number of Afghans has multiplied, Karachi beach has suffered a major oil spill, the political alliances have turned topsy-turvy, and the economy has sputtered on. Can you talk briefly about the past ten years in the political life of Karachi?

I am not comfortable commenting on politics, so I will take a pass on this question.

Since you are an author, it would be interesting to raise this question with you. I have traveled to Pakistan twice and extensively toured the cities of Lahore and Karachi. I came across some good bookshops but alas not a great one. Should I have searched more or is the bookshop scene really that modest? (Mayank)

The Liberty Books chain is doing great things for Karachi; they’ve brought the best of English publishing to the country, although at high prices. But I don’t really know how to get around that issue. I always find their bookstores a pleasure to be in; they are relaxing, inviting places, the staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and they’re working on promoting Pakistani writers with their new Book Club, which has hosted some fairly well-received launches of books, including my own. But a country like Pakistan really needs to have several excellent sources in each city for sourcing and obtaining books, and not just in the English language. Right now you have to really hunt for good literature. One day there will be a better bookshop culture, I am sure.

Every great city leaves some an imprint on the work of its writers. How has Karachi contributed to your writing?

I would think that is fairly obvious from my work!

Being a young Pakistani writer who writes about young people, how would you chronicle the changing values of the urban youths in the country? Is it difficult to strike a balance between the Islamic heritage and the McDonald culture? (Mayank)

It is not a case of ‘either/or’. It is a case of ‘and’. Understand that and you have understood the young people of Pakistan. They want choices. They do not want restrictions. But they want to choose both options, not to have to choose between them. This is the strength of Pakistani people of all ages: they are open to everything, influences from the East, the West, from Islam, from America, from Britain, from India. We are like big sponges and we are hungry for all of it. We absorb it all and then we distill it into something that is unique to us. I think that is magical and it should not be contained in any way.

Just following up on the title of your novel, “Where the dream in blue” – what color would you pick to describe Karachi? What color would be the dreams of Karachites?

Again, that should be fairly obvious! These days, however, I think the color of Karachi is brown. There is a lot of dust and mud and construction going on here.

Karachi has a multiplicity of cross-cutting ethnic and class cleavages – Sunnis Vs. Shias, Muhajirs Vs. Natives Vs. Afghans, Urdu speakers Vs. Punjabi Vs. Sindhi Vs. Pashto, rich vs. poor etc. Add to all of this a military, whose role according to Ayesha Siddiqui’s new book runs deep within the economy. What is the prognosis for its future?

Oh God, you are really asking me the easy questions, aren’t you? Karachi will survive everything. We already have. We will go on. Underneath everything, the people of Karachi want two things: to make lots of money and to be happy. To achieve both, you have got to get along with everyone else. We know how to do that, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Picking Favorites

Which is the last great book by a Pakistani author that you enjoyed? (Mayank)
The two books I really enjoyed most recently are anthologies: And the World Changed edited by Muneeza Shamsie and Beloved City edited by Bapsi Sidhwa. I am sorry I cannot give you a book by a single author. These ones were fantastic just for the sheer variety of good writing between two sets of covers.

You maintain a personal blog. What are some of the other blogs that you like visiting? (Mayank)

From the ridiculous to the sublime: a variety of friends’ blogs, including Jonathan Ali’s Notes from a Small Island, Greg Rucker’s Glossophagia, Jawahara Saidullah’s Writing Life, and the Second Floor’s blog (that’s the coffeehouse that I frequent). Then there are some gossip blogs I have to go to every day, but I won’t name them here because it’s too lowbrow and I am supposed to be this great Pakistani writer. I enjoy the PostSecret site. I like Anglophenia from BBC America. I used to go to Miss Snark, the Literary Agent every day too, but she closed that one down.

Where do you get your news?

I heard it on the grapevine, where else? Just kidding!

The interview was conducted via email. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for style and content. Questions ending with ‘Mayank’ were posed by Mayank Austen Soofi.

Interview (pdf) with Camilo Jose Cela from which the quotes were drawn.