Saturday, May 31, 2008

Amartya Sen at UCT

Photo by Mark Oppenheimer

A History of Violence

David Ansara

Prof. Amartya Sen was at UCT to deliver the annual Nadine Gordimer Lecture for 2007. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, an Oxbridge and Harvard Professor, entitled his lecture “Poverty, war and peace”, speaking on two occasions to large audiences.

Sen made an early distinction between the Cultural approach and a Political Economy approach in understanding the root causes of global violence. His discussion on culture rejected the ideology of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, Samuel Huntington’s popularized theory of the mutual antagonism of the major religious groups in the world. The inevitability of conflict caused by such difference Sen believes is grossly overstated, jokingly referring to the theory as “Hate-at-first-sight” and “A nice way of misunderstanding nearly everybody.” Such mono-causal conceptions, he notes, deny the long history of interconnectedness that exist between these ‘civilizations’ in the form of trade, scholarship and art. Moreover, it brings a superficial idea of identity to bear. “There is a powerful tendency to forget how other identity factors are used to justify violence on a grand scale.” The 1st and 2nd World Wars for instance, grew out of the virulent nationalism of the great European powers. “A shared Christianity” he pointed out “did not stop Britain, France, and Germany from tearing eachother apart.”

In the political economy approach, Sen discussed the often-held perception that “poverty and inequality are a source of violence and that suffering brews intolerance and anger”. The rhetoric of fighting poverty, he claims, is used inappropriately, often suggesting that “if you remove poverty, you remove conflict.” He warns against the tendency to lump ‘like evils’ together at the expense of more nuanced evaluations of conflict. “Poverty and violence do have connections, but need to be investigated with what I call empirical strong-mindedness” he said. This is not to say that issues of poverty are trivial, but “just as virtue is its own reward, poverty is its own punishment. The relationship between poverty and violence is impossible to sustain.” Sen in turn calls for “humility in the social sciences” when approaching these distinct problems. By avoiding such simple binary explanations we can better understand the complexities of human behaviour.

As an example, Sen cites the city where he first attended university: Calcutta. The levels of violent crime there are lower than any city in India, yet the environment is incredibly degraded and poverty-stricken. This peaceful co-existence is remarkable, especially given the history of communal and religious violence that occurred in Bengal during Partition in the 1940s, (a mass-tragedy that Sen himself witnessed as an adolescent). He also looks at the severe deprivation of Ireland during the potato famine of the 1800s. The mass starvation there did not lead directly to violent revolt. “The Irish do not have a reputation for docility, yet these were years of peace.”

Sen’s cautionary advice on scholarship did not go far enough in explaining why violence flourishes in many parts of the world, yet is absent elsewhere. The Indian and Irish examples can hardly be seen as conflict-free, with both countries experiencing communalism and terrorism at one stage or another. The multiple variables leading to situations of violence are indeed difficult to narrow down, and Sen’s reminder of these difficulties is pertinent. However, it was hard to discern Prof. Sen’s own theoretical understandings of the clashes in our world. He did well to address questions of methodology, but did not attempt to reach for conclusions; an element of his presentation that was unfortunately absent.

- 2007

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff Dave. I just think Sen (and maybe you too) might be caricaturing Huntington's position a little bit. Calling it an "ideology" and saying it's "monocausal" doesn't seem fair to me. (That's not to say I accept the clash of civilizations hypothesis, it's just that I think the criticism is a bit misdirected).