Good research rests on good questions: on good research questions, good interview questions - and good questions about questions. It is these latter ones, the meta-level ones, that I attempted to collect for today's post. I tried some of them with the students I tought and advised this spring; some more occured to me while reading their final papers.1 Whether you ask these questions about your own project or pose them to students: I believe they work best if answered in only one concise sentence each. Give it a try:

First step: finding an empirical puzzle and a research question (I am deliberately not talking "topics" here, since research built primarily around a topic rather than around "questions" and "puzzles" tends to be not as good)

1. Which incident or reading inspired your research idea?

2. What exactly puzzled you about this incident or reading?

3. What larger issue is that puzzle an example of?

4. Which questions does this puzzle put on the agenda?

5. Which of these questions do you want to answer?

6. How would an hypothetical sample answer look like?

  • 1. One of the joys of teaching this term was the chance to see actual (if small) research projects through from start to finish - a rare chance before you are tenured and have your own research students. Thanks to all of you students (and the staff at SIT New Delhi) for this opportunity!

Thanks to all who offered their help in reply to my last post about visualizing typological data. Most of you agreed that the recent hype about visualization and infographics almost completely neglects qualitative small-n data in favour of quantitative large-n sets. There are various reasons for this state of affairs: for one, much of this hype is driven by the fact that large government statistics are being put in the public domain (or by the availability of equally large private statistics generated through web 2.0). Secondly, small-n data lends itself nicely to narrative writing, rendering visualization a less pressing requirement. Lastly, such qualitative data tends to be far more complex than statistics, and its complexity can not easily be reduced through statistical generalization.

Reducing the complexity of small-n data is not impossible, however - and usually takes the form of typologies. The need to visualize these, and particularly to visualize them in an interactive way, arises from the fact that such typologies often suggest a rigidity which is never there in the data (as I wrote here). The reason for this deception is basically that the underlying cluster analyses - be they statistically aided or intuitive - always generate an x-fold typology if you ask them to so - even if the dissimilarities between types are marginal in comparison to their similarities. The irreducability of original data behind typologies is therefore what I would love to visualize, to give readers of my upcoming book1 a hands-on feeling for the flexibility of the typology of Muslim peace activists which I propose therein.

Recently, a friend in Delhi asked me a seemingly simple question: why are you in India? I found it a surprisingly hard question to answer - for once because it goes both deep and shallow, strangely enough. Today, I will try to answer it. Why do I want to devote my professional (and by extension a large bit of my private) life to India? This story has to start, I think, in Pakistan.

It has to start in Pakistan for two quite simple reasons. First of all, anthropologically, South Asia is one. This is beautifully displayed in a famous map by Himal South Asia, which turns the globe upside down (pictured to the right) and gives a compelling visual impression of this unity - rather than singling India out, as usual projections tend to do. This map therefore features in most of my teaching on South Asia to say that the subcontinent rests on solid shared foundations. Obviously the statement that "anthropologically, South Asia is one" can only also mean that "anthropologically, South Asia are many" - but what separates the many from each other is not necessarily a national boundary (though different political systems make a difference, I am not denying this). The diversity within India, within Pakistan, within Bangladesh, and even within the tiny Nepal is arguably wider than the differences between them. Thus reflecting on India from Pakistan is perfectly appropriate...

This blog post is a call for help: I need beta-testers, and bright minds, to help me realize my latest project. Anybody with experience in Gephi, Sankey diagrams and web design more broadly: please drop me a line!

What is this all about? Basically, I am in the process of finally publishing a book from my Gujarat project. The empirical core of this project was a typology of "Being Muslim and working for peace", comprising of faith-based actors, secular technocrats, emancipating women, and doubting professionals. Each kind of activist struggles with the ambivalence and ambiguity of the sacred in their own ways, and combine belief, belonging and behaviour differently. Throughout, my research was guided by the conviction that

Man’s behaviour in this world of men is not random. It follows certain rules which, while they are like everything human, historical and thus subject to change, acquire a life of their own. [...] The official behind the counter and the citizen before it are in a sense not unique personalities, but personae, masks, they are playing parts, roles. All the world’s a stage, or – more precisely, if less graciously put – the crystallization of rules into roles is the basic fact of society and thus of social science.1

This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Contemporary South Asia © Taylor & Francis; see publisher's version and entry in my publication list. The book itself is here.

Articles of faith: Religion, secularism, and the Indian Supreme Court, by Ronojoy Sen, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2010, xli + 237 pp., ISBN 0-19-806380-6

After independence, India established a ‘principled distance’ between religion and the state as part and parcel of becoming a ‘modern nation’. At the same time, India also saw the rise of Hindu nationalist forces which question this very distance. Both seemingly opposed trends share common roots, argues Ronojoy Sen in his detailed exegesis of Supreme Court judgments on religion: the court ‘significantly narrowed the space for religious freedom’ by ‘homogenizing and rationalizing religion and religious practices’ – which in turn ‘strengthened the hand of Hindu nationalists, whose ideology is based on a monolithic conception of Hinduism and intolerance of minorities’ (xxix, xxx). While identifying the link between exclusivist Hindutva and wider trends towards a more homogeneous and standardized Hinduism ‘as a religion’ is not that new, Sen manages to shift this debate from colonial to post-colonial times, and is the first to highlight the key role of the judiciary. This makes his book an important contribution to the study of religion, law and politics in contemporary India.