Michael Youngblood Wins 2005 Sardar Patel Award

Michael Youngblood Wins 2005 Sardar Patel Award

The Center for India and South Asia, and the Department of History, UCLA, felicitated Youngblood with the Sardar Patel Award, given for the best dissertation submitted at any American university on the subject of modern India.

The Sardar Patel Award for 2005 was received by Youngblood for his University of Wisconsin-Madison dissertation titled "Cultivating Identity: Agrarian Mobilization and the Construction of Collective Interest in Contemporary Western India."

The Sardar Patel Award was instituted in 1999 and first conferred in 2000. This annual award of $10,000, endowed by the Los Angeles-based organization known as the Friends of the Sardar Patel Association, is administered by the UCLA Center for India and South Asia. Dissertations are evaluated for their insights into the nature of modern Indian society, the grasp demonstrated by the writer over the scholarly literature, and the clarity of exposition and argument. The dissertation must have been completed at an American university in history, anthropology, sociology, literature, political science, or one of the other disciplines in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences.

Michael Youngblood, who received the award on June 11, 2006, earned his PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2004 under the guidance of his advisor, Professor Kirin Narayan. He completed his MA in anthropology at that same department and his BA in anthropology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. During his first visit to India, in 1986, he also earned a Certificate in Marathi Language and Culture from the Western Regional Language Center of Deccan College, Pune. Over the years, Youngblood’s scholarship has received recognition from a number of sources, including a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Fellowship, the American Institute of Indian Studies Dissertation Fellowship, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, the Percy H. Buchannan Prize for Writing on Asian Affairs, and the Christine Gerdes Award in anthropology at Lawrence University. In 2005, his PhD dissertation was recognized with the Robert Miller Prize for Innovation in Anthropological Research at the University of Wisconsin. While most of his research experience has been in India, he has also conducted field studies in North Africa, the Arctic, and in many locations across the US.

Formerly adjunct professor and Academic Director for India programs with the School for International Training (Brattleboro, Vt.), Youngblood currently lives in New York City, where he is an independent scholar and consultant. In his consulting work, he studies human interaction with environments, interfaces, products, services, and messages in order to solve usability breakdowns that result from inappropriate design. His clients include private sector businesses, public sector social services, and progressive non-profit organizations.

Following is an abstract of the award-winning dissertation:

"Cultivating Identity" is an anthropological investigation into the creation of political meaning and the construction of collective identity in contemporary Indian social organizing. Its object of investigation, a prominent movement called the Shetkari Sanghatana in India’s Maharashtra state, offers a excellent case study for examining the limitations of existing social movement theory and for developing an enriched understanding of the politics of social and cultural activism in India today. The study is based on two-and-a-half years of fieldwork conducted in Maharashtrian villages and among movement leaders and participants between 1996 and 1999. In both research and analysis, this dissertation delves into fields as diverse as politics, economics, organizational theory, folklore, and religious studies.

The Shetkari Sanghatana has been one of India’s largest, most influential, and most broadly popular agrarian movements. Emerging in the early 1980’s as a localized struggle for remunerative prices, the Sanghatana rapidly grew to become a highly successful multi-class movement with an active participant base that includes capitalist farmers, mid-level cultivators, smallholding peasants and agricultural laborers. This striking cross-section of rural society that makes up the Sanghatana’s performed community not only lies in stark contrast to the socially divisive movements with which India is often identified, it also defies most existing theory on social movements in general. Scholarly analyses of agrarian movements commonly suggest that the preconditions for organizational success and sustainability include a high degree of consensus on interests and an effective ideological unity. Thus, where movements exhibit an extremely wide socioeconomic base of support, most existing theory leads to conclusions that participants can only be behaving against their true interests – victims of false consciousness, beguiled by the skillful propagandizing of movement leaders.

In this dissertation I take a very different position, suggesting that successful mass social movements may often be better understood by looking at intra-movement contests over meaning and the movement’s shifting utility for differently positioned actors in different contexts of behavior and experience. Although the Sanghatana does enjoy some degrees of consensus and unity across its base, the more characteristic condition is one in which participants move in and out of the movement in accordance with their perceived interests and opportunities. Moreover, leaders are not exclusively empowered to frame the movement’s ideologies and agendas; ordinary participants also contribute to this framing.

Two key concepts are central to my analysis: ambiguity and negotiation. In their representations and dialogues on the movement, participants and leaders draw on a pool of shared multivocal symbols that are capable of expressing both divergent and overlapping contours of agrarian Maharashtrian identity. In this context of use, such symbols render the meaning of the movement itself open to wide variances of interpretation and subtle negotiations on meaning. One important window on this process of interpretive dialogue can be found in the symbols and rituals associated with a mythological demon-king named Bali, whose rule signifies for many a long-lost golden age in rural Maharashtra. Through an examination of modes of participation and participants’ negotiation on the meaning of Bali, I argue that the ambiguity of participant interests and collective meaning in the movement community has been beneficial to the Sanghatana’s effectiveness and sustainability. Contrary to reigning theoretical assumptions, my conclusions assert that ambiguity is neither a failing of the movement nor a failing of lower class subjects to apprehend the “rich farmer” agenda that the movement, in many respects, represents. Quite the opposite, Shetkari Sanghatana participants are highly aware of the interpretive variability within the movement. Subjects throughout the spectrum of the Sanghatana’s social base actively exploit these interstices of meaning, thereby contributing to the continuous crafting of the movement’s ideological contours and helping to define the range of social and economic objectives toward which the movement community struggles.

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Published: Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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