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Need to look at caste from communicative practices: Murali Shanmugavelan

Murali Shanmugavelan

Oxford Internet Institute (OII), a multidisciplinary research and teaching department at the University of Oxford, recently launched a new module called Critical Caste and Technology Studies, which delves into the criticism of ‘castelessness’ and contemporary caste narratives from a communication and technology point of view.

Dr Murali Shanmugavelan, a post-doctoral researcher at the OII and whose work focuses on caste, race and gender in media and communication studies, delivered a lecture at the institute on Wednesday, October 12, introducing the module. Shanmugavelan, talking about caste from communication studies perspective, said that caste as a “social hierarchy and division of labourers restricts people’s access to fundamental rights.” 

“Caste cannot ensure social justice, equality, fellowships, fraternity and fairness,” he added. He further insisted that “Caste is not a community, it is an artificial category designed to actually create hierarchies.” Saying that scholars often conflate the two terms, caste and community, he stressed the importance of using correct terms.

Talking about the module, Shanmugavelan explained, “Critical Caste and Technology Studies is a new attempt to organise the field of anti-caste scholarship around the fundamental consideration of communicative practices.” He also mentioned how discourse around caste-related oppression, humiliation, and subordination often works in a negative and victimhood framework. He urged to reverse the lens and focus on how caste pride helps in perpetuating caste-based violence. He mentioned, “If viewed from a communication studies point of view, caste pride is the source of caste violence.”

“Caste is a constitutive part of social communication that encompasses cultural, political, economic, and developmental aspects of society. In all caste-affected societies, caste can either be the pervasive glue or the rupture depending on one’s caste-based ranking without which social interactions are incomplete,” he stated.

During the lecture, he also mentioned how people often argue that caste is a very rigid system. On the contrary, he emphasised, caste is adaptive and fluid and that is why it is able to re-manifest itself constantly. He stated, “Caste doesn’t necessarily manifest itself through extreme violence but it can unsettle someone through a simple question.”

He further explained how “communicative approach is a critical way of looking at the caste system which is more suited to today’s caste realities than other influential cultural, ideological, or sociocultural approaches.”

While talking about the syllabus Shanmugavelan told The Satyashodhak that the syllabus is deeply rooted in anti-caste, Ambedkarite-Periyarite politics through communications, cultural-technological perspective.

The Critical Caste and Technology Studies module, as stated on its website, seeks to understand how and why caste influences technology and how caste is influenced by dominant caste origins. It also analyses caste expression and oppression as a form of everyday communicative practice, especially in the digital age.

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