Civic Proportions: Jill and Jagruti in Community and Society

“(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” – An HPA staff member

“… there is something both exhilarating and disheartening about the graph of civil society responses this year. At one level, the public outcry against the miscarriage of justice in the Jessica (Lall) and Priyadarshini (Mattoo) cases has truly been a spontaneous act of citizenship from people normally not given to acts of citizenship. At the India Gate rally for Jessica, for instance, there was no mistaking the anger, the yearning for something purer… But a curious theatricality underran the entire evening. People were acting in unconscious facsimile. Several people who took the mike that day referred to Rang De Basanti: at times it seemed more than the injustice itself, the film was their inspiration. It had not just intuited a latent public mood; in a curious twist, it had become the mood itself.” – Shoma Chaudhury, writing in Tehelka on 01.07.07

I. [Introduction]

Community : Society

A. Community

When I came to the communication program at USC Annenberg a little over a year ago, I was puzzled by what people meant when they used the word “community”.

Examples (made-up or otherwise) of such usage are:

1a. “The PhD community at Annenberg is tightly-knit, kept apart only by people’s busy schedules.”

1b. “Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods are unified by a distinctive feeling of community.”

1c. “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 4)

1d. “(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” (Member of the HPA interviewed by Ritesh on 8.14.10)

I asked myself: what do people mean when they use “community” in these instances? Is it similar to or different from the notion of “society”? In the India (Bombay) where I grew up, people hardly ever used the word “community”, let alone in the above manners. I am still in the process of grasping how “community” is used in America. In fact, the last usage example (1d), paraphrased from an interview conducted during our summer research with a member of the HPA, brought out most clearly one understanding of ‘community’. I tentatively put it forth as:

“a network of localized, neighbor-like involvements, geographical or virtual, through which one develops a sense of group identity, feels belonging with members of the group who are united by a sense of important purpose, and via whose goals and causes one contributes to the world-at-large.”

This understanding of ‘community’ is from the point of view of an individual member, and includes the aspect ‘contribution to a cause greater than oneself’ that is not lent to more generic understandings alluded in 1a-c above. For example, the understanding of “PhD community” in 1a does not suggest this aspect.

B. Society

What then do I mean by “society”? Let’s look at some examples of usage (made-up or not):

2a. “The PhD students at the University of Mumbai have formed a welfare society, where student grievances against absconding professors can be submitted.”

2b. “Bombay society is both snobbish in the high-rise hotels but endearing in the local railway cars, but the city still remain divided along communal and economic lines.”

2c. “The Cricket Club of India is a popular meet for Bombay high society, but it is clubs and societies in various colleges, organized around interests such as public speaking and drama, where the maximum equal participation occurs.”

2d. “… there is something both exhilarating and disheartening about the graph of civil society responses this year. At one level, the public outcry against the miscarriage of justice in the Jessica (Lall) and Priyadarshini (Mattoo) cases has truly been a spontaneous act of citizenship from people not normally given to acts of citizenship.” (Shoma Chaudhury, in Tehelka)

Given these examples, I’ll put forth the following understanding of ‘society’:

“a batholith of historically-rooted customs, values, relationships and arrangements one is embedded in, through which one enacts and negotiates, geographically or virtually, one’s identity, duty and life choices, and towards whose welfare one strives to contribute.”

Note that this understanding of ‘society’, while it is also from the point of view of an individual member, is also more generic compared to the above understanding of ‘community’.

Let me now try to articulate the differences between ‘community’ and ‘society’, and of their typically concomitant civic participation, by elaborating on two fictional cases, of Jill and Jagruti.

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Caveats, and a Perspectiver

I don’t mean to suggest that “community” is a sociological construct applied to America only, and “society” is one applied to India only. Far from it. I just want to suggest a positive correlation between the use of “community” (as understood above) in various American and generally, Western contexts; and the use of “society” (as understood above) in various Indian and generally, Eastern contexts. At the same time, I recognize that the West-East divide is increasingly hard to maintain.

Also the cases I describe below are fictional, are abstractions, not generalities, and might describe a more extreme rather than average person or situation. Both contain references to real life organizations and events (links are provided). Their main goal is to delineate a broad difference between usage and lived experience of “community” and “society”, and thereby suggest a corresponding difference in modes of civic participation and applicable theoretical constructs.

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II. [Cases]

Jill : Jagruti

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Community : Society

A. The case of Jill, as a member of multiple (as well as a civic-minded) communities.

Jill is 19, born and brought up outside of Columbia, Missouri, and attends community college in Columbia. She is a member of both the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) and Invisible Children (IC). She is a huge fan of the Harry Potter books, is an avid fan fiction writer, and heard about the HPA in a Harry Potter convention in 2007, when she was 16. The presentation got her really excited, but did not know how to contribute, since she was far away from the headquarters. In 2008, she learned about the HPA chapter in Kansas City. She drove up to attend one of their events, during which she saw the IC video shared by a fellow chapter member. She now wants to bring the IC Roadies to her community college.

Given that she has her own computer and internet connection at home, and given that her family is supportive of her interests, Jill began to spend a considerable amount of time contributing in as many ways as possible to HPA and IC. Growing up without siblings, in a relatively wealthy family, in a tiny, religious town, she longed to do something for the poor people in the world she saw on TV. Harry Potter entered her life when she was 10, and she immediately jumped into writing fiction about his adventures in sub-Saharan Africa and rural China. So it is easy to imagine her excitement when she actually learned about what the HPA and IC were doing. She loved the community she grew up in, but because she’s hardly traveled outside of Missouri, she also longed to be part of something larger.

On Facebook and MySpace she came across many people her age who were actively expressing their talents and individuality to improve the world in their own salient ways. Since she couldn’t entirely nor did she want to escape her geographical community—for she accepted and sometimes even practiced her family’s Protestant beliefs—she decided to become involved in virtual communities that helped real-world causes. The people from the Kansas City HPA Chapter whom she met on a regular basis became as close as what she imagined one gets to be with siblings, so she realized that not only was she helping the world, she was creating newer bonds of affinity for herself. She thinks of the IC as more of an activist organization, but the HPA as “a community that is active.” Harry Potter changed the world. So she reasons: why can’t she, along with a little help from her new-found friends at the HPA?

B. The case of Jagruti, as a member of a singular (“civil”) society.

Jagruti is 24, born and brought up in Mumbai (Bombay), India, and works as junior copy editor for Outlook India, a top-selling English weekly newsmagazine. She used to be a huge fan of the Harry Potter books, and loves Bollywood films. In college, she was a member of both the Book Reading Society which comprised many HP fans, as well as a key member of the Drama Society, where she was responsible for putting up a HP-inspired play satirizing corruption in educational bureaucracy. At Outlook, Jagruti oversees many social and civic movement-related press.

This interest was stoked when Jagruti chanced to be in Delhi on March 4, 2006, where she was one of 2500 people who participated in the India Gate candlelight rally protesting the unjust acquittal of the politicians responsible for the murder of model Jessica Lall in 1999. To her surprise, she found that many in the crowd were college students who, like her, were fans of the 2006 Bollywood film Rang De Basanti, which had inspired them to come voice their grievances against rampant corruption in society. Her friend had received a text message earlier that day about the rally and she had reluctantly tagged along, but Jagruti found herself stirred by the solemnity of purpose and sincerity of voices at the event. A few weeks later she read an article about how this rally had caught the attention of influential politicians and opinion-makers. Later in the year, in an important verdict, the guilty were sent to jail. Somewhere deep within her, just like the protagonists of Rang De Basanti, a civic voice had awoken. After college, she applied to be an intern at Outlook, determined to monitor and provoke youth civil / civic consciousness, and do her bit to improve the plight of Indian society.

In Mumbai, Jagruti, even though she can afford a car, braves the crowded local train (metro) to work. She feels more connected to the large mass of people, running the gamut of societal divisions along communal, caste and class lines. Jagruti, herself single, lives with her parents who are devout Hindus, and is proud of her middle-class upbringing, her respectable Bachelors degree, her part-Banya, part-Marwari descent, and her fluency in Marwari and Marathi, in addition to Hindi and English. In the local train, her composite identity along communal, religious, linguistic, class and caste lines, blends with the multifarious and immensely diverse identities of her fellow commuters. She thinks of her old love for Harry Potter and Rang De Basanti. That was fantasy and fiction, she reasons. This is reality and these are real people, rooted in their ancient values and customs, yet awash in a sea change of globalization and economic boom with its unequal shoots of prosperity. They plod along, living out their identities and functions as members of society, even as corruption, inefficiency and injustice continue to get meted out, for which civil protests such as the one she participated in, are a mere flicker of hope, quickly dashed by either pangs of hunger or middle class envy of high-society.

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III. [Discussion]

Jill : Jagruti

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Community : Society

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‘Spatial’ Civic Participation : ‘Temporal’ Civic Participation

The fictional, yet research- and reality-based cases of Jill and Jagruti are designed to highlight the notions of ‘multiple-community-identity’ and ‘singular-societal-identity’ that citizens in parts of the world as different as America and India are enmeshed in. The further point I want to tentatively put forth, if we are to grant the community versus society distinction, is that it gives rise to two different kinds of civic participation that we see across the globe.

<Best read vertically first, then horizontally>

‘Spatial’ Civic Participation ‘Temporal’ Civic Participation
I want to suggest that when one’s identity is governed by a sense of being part of multiple communities, themselves not connected by any concept or ideal, this might mean that one is embedded in a less historicized, more local, more immediate and more fluid system of meanings and actions. Whereas if one’s identity, albeit composite and multi-faceted, is governed by being part of a singular society, this might mean that one is embedded in a deeply historicized, less local, highly mediated and more rigid system of meanings and actions.
Further, when such a system has members who are relatively wealthy or at least above subsistence level (as is the case in America and some European countries), then the kind of civic participation that arises, whether or not it has links to events and objects of popular culture, is more spatial than temporal in scope. In such a system, the kind of civic participation that arises, whether or not it has links to events and objects of popular culture, is more temporal than spatial in scope.
What this means is that community members are more inclined to form identity-establishing organizations – more spatial than temporal entities – to enact, for example, social justice causes, because such additional complexity of organization is not already rooted in or been historicized into the community system. What this means is that members of society are already part of a set of complex, identity-preserving organizations. When they enact, for example, social justice causes, this manifests more frequently as events – more temporal than spatial entities, like waves jumping out of a sea of values, customs, relationships and arrangements, which constitute the rooted and historicized complexity of organization that IS society.
Communities which enact civic participation are in a state prior to yet aimed towards a state of rooted complexity – a state not intrinsically or normatively better or worse than a less rooted one – that characterize societies. Societies which enact civic participation are in a state posterior to the rooted complexity that characterizes them.
Such participation is more likely to create spatial orders of complexity and rootedness. Such participation is more likely to create temporal ripples and waves, over and above and yet changing established spatial orders of complexity and rootedness.

The general point can be abstractly made this way: History shapes complexity of identity, which influences the formation and pervasiveness of identity-bound systems of organizations, which in turn influence the modes of civic participation.

I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that America does not have a social reality that is not complex. That would be stating an anti-truism. However, what I want to point to and open up for discussion is how the simple variable of history, i.e., the length of passage of time, can give rise to facets of identity, that by virtue of their corresponding to divisions in values, customs, relationships and arrangements, become facets of what is distinctively a society. The key point is hopefully more clearly seen: various groups within society likely have a standard or singular relation to the larger entity that is society; whereas various groups or communities within a larger entity do not necessarily have a standard or singular relation to that larger entity.

More concretely, in the particular cases of India and America:

Indians – even when divided as Malayalis or Marwaris, of the priestly or the servant caste, be they urban-educated like Jagruti or rural-illiterates – all seem to have a singular relation to the abstract, universal-like construct that is a historical, social consciousness;

whereas

Americans – despite being divided as from Massachusetts or Missouri, being celebrities or construction workers, active community participants like Jill or passive community wayfarers – seem not to have a singular relation to any abstract, universal-like construct.

It might be objected that the abstract, universal-like construct to which Americans have a singular relation is that of the nation, that of a national American consciousness. However, that is not my point. The groups that make up Indian society are not ‘communities’ in the same sense that the groups that make up the American nation. America is a nation of communities, whereas India is a society of groups divided per many historicized facets. The communities that make up America do not seem to have a organically singular relation to America as a nation, but the groups that make up Indian society seem much more organically to have a singular relation to India as a society. A society can be a nation, but a nation need not be a society.

The point is delicate, and is in the danger of being over-argued. I shall have to stop here.

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IV. [Theoretical Points of Departure]

Community : Society

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Spatial Civic Participation : Temporal Civic Participation

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“Structures of Feeling” : “Lifeworld”

It might help to put my argument in conversation with actual theoretical constructs. What follows is mere ideation: even more tentative than the proposals above, yet hopefully thought-provoking.

Raymond Williams put forth the construct “structure of feeling” to refer to “what feels like to be a member of a particular culture at a particular time.” (Fiske, 1996). It is related to Hegel’s notion of “geist” without the attendant idealism.

I’d like to suggest that my understanding of “community” and “spatial civic participation” has affinities with the construct “structure of feeling”. Members of the HPA and IC, such as Jill, participate in communities that have arisen to meet the needs of and which reflect the mood of a certain moment in time – in this case, maybe optimism, the need to belong to a cause greater than oneself, and bonding with people via the unique affordances and conventions accompanying new media. In other words, HPA and IC are institutions that rely on the spatial civic participation of members of communities united by their being embedded in a single or various structures of feeling.

Edmund Husserl put forth and Jurgen Habermas developed the construct of “lifeworld”. Briefly, with the help of the Wikipedia entry on the subject, one way of interpretively collating their theorization is as follows: the lifeworld is both phenomenological and sociological, personal and inter-subjective. It is the “background environment of competences, practices and attitudes”, the “coherent universe of existing objects”, “consciousness… operating in a world of meaning and pre-judgments that are socially, culturally and historically constituted.” A lifeworld is constitued by the intersubjectively “accessible” and yet personal “historicities” of its individual members.

I’d like to suggest that my understanding of “society” and “temporal civic participation” has affinities with the construct “lifeworld”. Societies are lifeworlds, webs of intersubjectively accessible historicities. People like Jagruti are embedded in lifeworlds. While their actions may allude to the mood of a time, it is equally conscious of being an action that is rooted in a batholith, a society of shifting moods of time. In other words, temporal civic participation such as the Rang de Basanti-inspired protest is a surge or spike in historical time, an action by members of society united by a tacit assent to existing during a particular moment in their unfurling lifeworld/s.

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References

  • Chaudhury, S. (2007). Is this only protest theatre? Tehelka. http://www.tehelka.com/story_main25.asp?filename=essay01132007_p14-17PF.asp
  • Fiske, J. (1996). Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics. Univ of Minnesota Press.
  • Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A., and Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century