Down with the social flu

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Are your friends really making you fat, suicidal and alcoholic?

DEVANGSHU DUTTA

CONNECTED
CONNECTED
Nicholas Christakis & James Fowler
Harper Press
338pp; Rs 499

WE ALL NEED someone to bleed on/… Why don’t you bleed on me?” In behavioural science jargon, the relationship Mick Jagger suggested is seen in a “core discussion network”. A study by the authors of Connected concluded that the average American has a CDN of around four people.

Christakis (a physician by training) and Fowler (a political scientist) are names to conjure with in public health policymaking. Individually, and in conjunction, they’ve contributed a lot to the theory of social networks. Like many other important results, some of their conclusions are stunningly obvious – their work shows that “birds of a feather” is truer than “opposites attract”. Social networks do usually consist of people with common interests.

Christakis and Fowler went further with “social contagion”. Starting with the basics, the authors of Connected explore the effect of networks on everything from back pain to suicide, to sexual practices and politics. Studying 50,000 relationships between 12,000 people, they stated that when one member of a network becomes obese, other members are more likely to gain weight. And this effect is more apparent among members of the same sex. The rigour of that finding is still being disputed. But it opened up new lines of thought about causality, and can be extended to depression, alcoholism and other forms of socially contagious behaviour. Some of their other findings are provocative, counterintuitive or both. For example, Christakis discovered recent (American) widowers are more likely to succumb to grief if they were married to white women rather than black.

Linking it Nicholas Christakis(left) and James Fowler(right)
Linking it Nicholas Christakis(left) and James Fowler(right)

Networks have been subjected to mathematical investigation since Leonhard Euler graphed the Bridges of Königsberg in 1735. Network theory is the daily bread of telecom and power engineering. But it was only in the 20th century that these tools were used to examine the web of human relationships. In 1967, Stanley Milgram conducted the “Six Degrees of Separation” experiment, showing that a message could be delivered to a random stranger through a six-person chain, where each messenger only knew the person he received the message from and the one he gave the message to – it confirmed that we are all intimately connected.

In the Facebook era, networks have grown exponentially. The concept of “capital” embedded in networks has also become one of huge financial significance. It’s a complex, fascinating subject. A thorough

understanding requires a background in the relevant maths. Of necessity, the explanations in Connected have been simplified to a point where the reader is asked to take a great deal on trust, but it is a nice and easy introduction. If you know the maths, you’ll probably want to follow up some of the cited work. If you don’t, you will, at least, be entertained and may be intrigued enough to want to learn more.


‘India Has Often Rejected A Politics Of Polarisation’

A new collection of essays attempts to canvass all of Indian politics and its paradoxes. Co-editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, 42, tells  Gaurav Jain what we need most of all in our political discourse is a sense of historicity and empirical rigour. Excerpts from the interview.

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO POLITICS IN INDIA
THE OXFORD COMPANION TO POLITICS IN INDIA
Ed. Niraja Gopal Jayal & Pratap Bhanu Mehta Oxford University Press
644pp; Rs 3,500

What was the main idea behind such a comprehensive political reader?
The idea was to obtain three things: a survey of our state of knowledge of Indian politics, an introduction to the questions we should be asking about it, and to bring distinctive viewpoints to each topic. We got not just political scientists but also economists and sociologists, as well as a mix of generations across the globe.

Which contributors particularly intrigued you with their essays?
There are the expectedly great pieces by people like Sunil Khilnani, Partha Chatterjee and Ram Guha. Two particular ones were Uday Mehta, who makes a subtle argument about our Constitution’s character, and Steve Wilkinson, on using data to study Indian politics.

Are coalition politics ideal or do we need more national-level parties?
We need to have some historical and empirical rigour. The period of so-called coalition politics has seen amongst the best performance by India in economic terms. One has to unravel this paradox. We also have to acknowledge the fact that the sharing of power by so many different constituents has created a more inclusive power structure. Of course, you could look at the downsides of coalition politics as well. There is another paradox that the proliferation of parties has also produced more ideological convergence. The essays in this volume will show how paradoxically power works.

What’s the real importance of nonpolitical institutions like the Election Commission, Parliament and NGOS?
The volume vividly illustrates our ability to engage in institutional improvisation. So there are stories of abject State failure, but there are also stories of remarkable institutional resilience. Non-elected institutions and NGOS can act as a check and balance. But their own authority and ability to do so varies considerably; sometimes they compensate for State failure, sometimes they reproduce it.

Photo : Trilochan S Kalra

Can ideas like secularism and internationalism still provide social justice and compete with identity politics?
Several essays reflect on the complicated strands that go into the making of India’s national identity and sense of self. I can’t speak for all the contributors, but there is a powerful strand running through these essays that India has often profoundly rejected a politics of polarisation.

Violence is becoming a favourite political tool for the disenfranchised. What is broken in the Indian political system that denies social justice to citizens?
There are plenty of things wrong with Indian democracy. The State’s institutions have been abject failures in some areas, while they’ve been successful in others. The issue of violence needs to be disaggregated. Something political scientists are interested in is enormous variation in violence over time and space. Often, you don’t get violence where you expect it, and often you get it where you don’t. Even a state like Bihar has seen great variation. We need a deeper understanding of why that’s the case. There’s no simple story about what’ll produce social justice. The first task is to deepen our understanding of all the relevant factors and bring some empirical rigour and conceptual imagination to th e debate.

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