“I Aim to Ask Big Questions: About Inequality, Injustice, and Power Structures” — 5in10 with Juhi Tyagi

Juhi Tyagi (Picture: private)

Juhi Tyagi has a PhD in Sociology from Stony Brook University, New York where she worked on resilience in armed movements. She is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie EU Fellow at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt, Germany. Before starting her doctoral program, Juhi worked for several years doing research and advocacy in regions of political conflict in India. She has a Masters in Development Studies from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. Her research interests include social movements, insurgency, complex organizations, gender, economic sociology, and development. She has published is several peer reviewed journals such as “Mobilization“, “The Sociological Quarterly“, “Economic and Political Weekly“, and “Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations“.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

I work on radical social movements. For the past decade and a half, at least, this issue has found constant mention in the media. Everybody has read or, if not, heard about the pervasive presence of violent groups. These accounts have almost always been from the state perspective, focusing on the need and type of military counter-operations against rebel forces. Think of what you have read about American intervention in Iraq, about state counter-insurgency operations against terrorists in Syria, in Columbia; the list goes on.

I introduce my topic to students by asking them how we define a terrorist and what constitutes a terrorist act. I ask them to consider what configurations of power and social structures lead to the creation of radical groups and their definition as terrorist. This is not a new question by any means. In fact, even a recent mainstream Indian film had a leading protagonist question the court about its definition of terrorism, asking why systematic violence against dalits or the annihilation of adivasis (tribals) in the name of development were not considered terrorist acts; despite fitting the broader definition of being an unlawful use of violence and intimidation.

As a sociologist my aim is, through an analysis of the largest radical movement in India, to investigate and understand these groups in their entirety, including the structural systems that facilitate or abate their formations. The Maoists in India, for instance, were formed under the name of Naxalites in the 1970s. They continue to operate in several parts of India, demonstrating resilience. I look beyond state narratives of violence, carefully analyzing the existing political economy, types of class and caste networks, and non-violent (hence often neglected) organizational mechanisms used by such groups. I find that violent movements sustain themselves only when they painstakingly spend time forming local organizations that create and work on class-based networks. When these village class-networks are left to operate relatively autonomously, it enables the movement to align their ideologies with local needs, adequately address people’s problems through effective communication channels, and create what I call long-standing infrastructures of protest.

In discussing my research, I try to infuse students with a sense of inquiry and curiosity about current systems of inequality and injustice. To enable students to systematically seek to analyse the operation of capitalism within which groups enter conflicts, to learn to identify the mechanisms operating within these systems that produce competing interests and certain development practices. It also nudges students, as critical individuals, to think about viable forms of resistance, like the implications of the Occupy movements eschewing organizations, which my research points are crucial in movement sustenance.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

I grew up in India. In the 10th grade, I began to help a friend’s mother with her research on obstetric health of rural women in the state of Karnataka, where I lived. What started as a summer project opened my mind to so many complexities. Women’s health was so deeply embedded within caste, class and gender inequalities. You couldn’t just create a government scheme that effectively improved the health of women without addressing patriarchy, low wages, and land ownership inequalities. A few years later, I enrolled myself for a Masters in Development Studies at the Institute of Social Studies (in The Hague), to go deeper into some of these issues. It was a great program. I interacted with activists, development practitioners and academics from all over the world and returned to India, inspired and armed with a broader perspective than before. I became determined to start working on and learning about other rural contexts within the country. I joined a small non-profit research team called Aman (meaning peace) that worked in areas of political conflict in India. This took me to states like Bihar and Kashmir. It was my five years spent in the villages there that pushed me to pursue my current research on radical movements. I could see that these regions faced persistent gender, caste, class and religious injustice, but had equally complex movements as responses to their situation. I had read about these movements in the newspapers where they had always been represented as violent actors coercing local people. It is really only when you travel to these areas that you see a more complex side to how they work.

When I began my PhD at SUNY, Stony Brook, I found a great mentor in Michael Schwartz. He was as excited and convinced in my research question about how violent movements sustain themselves—and we both agreed that the answer probably lay beyond focusing on questions that had been asked thus far, specifically the timing and type of violent acts by these groups. We hypothesized that groups that attained some degree of longevity must be doing something more, something that entangled their organization with the villagers – who were the entities that could best sustain the movement. This led to my inquiry into the organizational networks necessary for these movements to become resilient, and beyond that to ask if and when these movements won anything for the poorest they claimed to represent. Both Michael and I believed that any research should always aim to ask big questions: about inequality, injustice, and the working of power structures. That it should matter for understanding and improving the plight of the most immiserated. Working on movements that intended to overthrow existing unequal power structures certainly met that goal. 

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

I have relied on spending time in the field: both to define my questions and to find my answers. With a topic like mine, it can be both physically and emotionally draining to be in the field for extended periods, but for the same reasons, it can also always be very valuable and gratifying. I combined, in a limited way, the traditional style of ethnography, where you spend time observing people and their lives, with a more mobile open ended interview method that took me to over seventy villages. I spent time speaking with current cadre, surrendered militants and non-movement village members, using snowball sampling to locate these villages; some being in very remote areas located within dense forests. On several occasions, I failed to win the trust of the village and left without gathering any information. Building relationships with people takes time and in each situation there are different reasons for why people welcome you into their life and tell you their stories. Some were convinced by my previous work in the villages, some by my academic qualifications and research question, and others by the fact that if I as a single woman from the city had borne the hardship to live a village life for months, they owed it to me to tell me their stories. 

I lived in villages in three distinct districts where I conducted the field work for my current book, over a period of sixteen months in 2013-2014. I compared villages that had a sustained movement presence to those with an episodic presence and those that had no movement at all, both within and across districts. The logic behind this method was to control for structural factors, so that I could safely narrow down on other (non-structural) causal mechanisms that proved crucial in the sustained movement villages. Technically, this is known as using the method of difference and the method of agreement.

I also relied on archives such as district gazettes to build the historical context informing contemporary economic and social arrangements. Lastly, I created and worked with a unique quantitative dataset which would not only allow me to triangulate my results but also allow me to directly address most ‘terrorism’ scholarship that has been predominantly quantitative, based on the number of casualties and amount of property damage. Using my field observations, I coded all major English newspaper dailies in India for the years 2000 to 2012 that made any mention of the Maoists. But instead of coding for just casualty or violent data, I created an elaborate coding for organizational strength of the movement on the ground. So, if villagers were caught storing arms for the rebels in their house, I knew (from my ethnographic research) that this indicated the presence of informational networks of the movement on the ground. Hence, backed with my field data, I started to code every Maoist story for what it indicated of the relationship and organizational structure of the movement in the villages. If the Maoists were threatening or killing civilians for being informers, or blasting school buildings, for instance, I saw it as an indicator of negative or very weak movement-village relations.       

I found, in both my qualitative and quantitative analysis, that it was the creation of relatively autonomous local village organizations that ultimately helped sustain a movement. Areas with negative or weak movement organizational presence (plunging the group into indiscriminate and illegitimate violence, categorized as terrorism) failed to find longevity.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

This year marked 200 years of Marx. I was fortunate to be in Germany, which is host to several excellent conferences around it. This includes the large five day conference held in Berlin in May that attracted academics and activists from all over the world. Marx remains relevant today and it is necessary to debate and discuss the mechanisms and functioning of capitalism that he wrote about so extensively. My new project on how radical social movements affect the trajectory of capitalism is tied to a resurgence in these debates on forms and variations in capitalism. In this context, I have also found both historical accounts on processes in the rise of commodities such as cotton, like the book, The Global History of Cotton by Steve Beckett as well as anthropological accounts on the local functioning of global commodity supply chains such as Anna Tsing’s article, Supply Chains and the Human Condition, to be fascinating.

In my new project on movements and trajectories, I am comparing two predominantly cotton growing areas to understand their diverse trajectories to capitalism. One, a region that witnessed the presence of a radical social movement and another that was marked by its absence. The works and workshops I mentioned have inspired me to ask questions about how the production systems of certain commodities led to the creation of certain structures of social relations and inequalities, about how capitalism can and does use, and exasperate, existing inequalities to its end. Another piece that convincingly argues along these lines is Vivek Chibber’s book, Postcolonial theory and the Specter of Capitalism. Chibber’s new venture with Robert Brenner and in collaboration with Jacobin, the journal Catalyst, has also been publishing brilliant and extremely inspiring and relevant articles.      

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

If you mean, conducting research in different geographical regions and engaging with scholars and activists across various disciplines and countries – absolutely! I have been at the Max-Weber-Kolleg, which actively pursues the agenda of interdisciplinary exchange, for the past year. I have always found some interesting historical or theoretical insights to take home or interesting research methods that I could apply to my own work. Another advantage in cross-disciplinary or cross-regional exchange has been the emphasis it puts on you as a scholar to convey your ideas with utmost clarity and efficacy. With the crutch of jargons and discipline specific formulations gone, you become a clearer and more accessible thinker, and as a result researcher.      

My research has also gained from interacting with the world at large, in different geographical regions. I have spent a considerable amount of time in the US and now Europe. Taking the time to interact with local environments, talking to the recently arrived refugees in Germany or with minority groups in de-industrialized cities in the US has, for instance, made me think more globally about the sources of conflict, finding many links and connections. This has made me realize that there is so much more research we need to do!


Citation: “I Aim to Ask Big Questions: About Inequality, Injustice, and Power Structures” – 5in10 with Juhi Tyagi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.10.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/13350.


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