Can one infer the religious community to which an Indian belongs from his or her name? Intuitively, the answer would be yes: Indians and those familiar with the country certainly develop a pretty good sense for such inferences. And even though names remain only one among several clues (including dress, language, etc), names alone are sadly often reason enough to discriminate against people (for instance to deny Muslims housing). But most Indians also know the flurry of probing questions along the lines of "What's your name?" - "X" - "No, your full name?" - "X Y" - "Where are you from?" - "Z" - "No, I mean: Hindu?". Clearly, names are not always good indicators to gauge an individual's community.

Today's post sheds a probabilistic light on this problem. First, I discuss why it could be useful to infer communities from names. Next, I introduce a name matching algorithm which I developed to achieve this task (building on others' earlier efforts, and available for download below under the GNU Affero GPL license). Finally, I give a first indication of how good my algorithm works: what's in a name? Your comments are of course highly appreciated - and I apologize in advance for a rather technical post (which is in fact as much a writeup for my own memory as it is meant for you to read). Once I develop empirical applications of this software, I promise more lively prose...

This post concludes the tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 It addresses several issues faced by foreigners who do research in India (or elsewhere) as opposed to domestic scholars who research their own culture - and simultaneously problematizes this terminology. The lecture moves from the practical to the conceptual, picking four potential trouble areas: language, field relations, othering, and categories. The remaining posts of this series are here:

Description, interpretation, evaluation
Research questions, interview questions
Doing research as a foreigner

  • 1. More on this class here...

Hindi and Urdu - the languages in which most of my fieldwork will take place - are at once playful and beautiful, and on top of that rather sophisticated carriers of cultural meaning. After all, which other language invents meaningless words only to sound funnier, which other script omits crucial signs only to improve its aesthetic appearance? And who else invented a dedicated grammatical form to express that a verb's action is ongoing, with increasing intensity, and for the agent's own benefit (as opposed to: "ongoing, with steady intensity, for the agent's own benefit", or "ongoing, with increasing intensity, but for someone else's benefit")? Only Hindi and Urdu do this, to the best of my (limited) knowledge. And since I just finished a three-week intensive language course to prep up my conversational skills, I figured: what better time to blog about language and fieldwork?

Back in the days when I called myself a political scientist, my colleagues were regularly astonished why I made an effort to speak and read Hindi/Urdu at all. Don't people speak English in India? Well, "people" do, but of course not all. And neither are Hindi-English-Mixers equally comfortable with English for all topics: they might well work in English, but prefer to talk about rather intimate topics (such as those central to my PhD project) in their mother tongue. Now that I am officially an anthropologist, speaking the language is of course part of that big rite de passage called fieldwork, but I always found it odd if political scientist deemed language skills unnecessary...

The following book review first appeared in ASIEN / The German Journal on Contemporary Asia 118 (see entry in my publication list) and is reprinted here with permission. The book itself is here.

T. Benedikter: Language Policy and Linguistic Minorities in India: An appraisal of the linguistic rights of minorities in India

Münster: LIT Verlag, 2009, 232 S., EUR 29,90