School of Social Sciences

Anthropology Professor Delivers Inaugural Lecture

From left: Professor Maheshvari Naidu with family, Kialan Pillay; Professor Kriben Pillay, Lisa Naidu and Creeson Naidu.
From left: Professor Maheshvari Naidu with family, Kialan Pillay; Professor Kriben Pillay, Lisa Naidu and Creeson Naidu.

Professor Maheshvari Naidu from the College of Humanities, delivered her inaugural lecture recently on the Westville campus.

Naidu, who is an anthropologist and Academic Leader of Research in the School of Social Sciences, delivered her lecture entitled ‘Academic Agnosticism: Unknowing and UNKnowledge Systems’ to a large audience of the professoriate, staff, family and students. Naidu looked at issues of uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and possibility in the context of identifying new research methods which take advantage of disruptive and experimental techniques.

‘Uncertainty as a kind of ‘not knowing’, and a comfortable (or uncomfortable) academic agnosticism which holds that we cannot know fully, can be engaged as a creative ‘human technology’ for understanding, researching, and when deemed necessary and responsible, for intervening in the world,’ she said.

‘Drawing on key themes in creative methodologies, we can mainstream and explore contemporary and more experimental sites of practices that feminist scholars have long been engaging in. What I like to call, imaginaries of the Uncertain, or in Arjun Appadurai’s vernacular, Uncertainscapes.’

The availability of large amounts of knowledge in what is dubbed as the ‘information age’ and the 4th Industrial Revolution, may not be producing a knowledgeable citizenry, Naidu argued.

She drew on the metaphor of ‘hyper-palatability’ which refers to the fine-tuning of foods by the industry to enthral the senses, override being satiated, and motivate eaters to consume more, stating that ‘we have arrived at a dangerous point in time, of Knowledge hyper-palatabilities, where so called ‘knowing’ and ‘knowledge’ is seductively positioned so that we wish to possess it and more and more of it, without really digesting what we have.’

The word ‘Unknowledge’ was coined by the economist GLS Shackle, and it appears in in the context of economic uncertainty. Shackle’s insight was the significance of imagination at the centre of economic dynamics. He felt that policy makers should base decisions on a wide range of scenarios even if they appeared to be in conflict, and ensure that those decisions are flexible enough to encompass new scenarios as they emerge over time.

Naidu also spoke about the theoretical contexts of discourses of uncertainty, and work within ‘an anthropology of uncertainty’, and showed how anthropology and ethnography could benefit from (academic)agnosticism and uncertainty. Her lecture discussed the work of seminal cultural anthropologists who drew on indigenous African epistemologies and intuitive methodologies, and medical anthropologists working within such a context, which reveals that uncertainty and certainty are not necessarily opposed, but  are negotiated and enacted simultaneously.

‘This kind of work focuses on synchronicity (and multiplicity) of ‘certain’ and ‘uncertain’ elements in scientific practices and reasoning, and the importance of reaching a platform of (partial) certainty on which responsible action can be articulated and implemented. So called certainty, even in fields such as in bio-technologies, is, made up of knowledge gaps, ambivalence and doubts,’ Naidu said.

She envisioned that students needed to be made aware of various Knowledge and Unknowledge imaginaries and, to have the ability to contest so called knowledge systems. Naidu feels that these classes could be envisioned as a place and space from where we think up more open futures and new pedagogical pathways. Just as increasingly teachers embrace, democracy, care and vulnerability in the classrooms, and construct a ‘risk-able classroom’, so too, could we embrace a discourse and pedagogy of uncertainty, she said.

‘This need not be an exercise blind to the social and situated realities of our students, but one mindful of the multiple inequalities that we are challenged to respond to, with our students. It would be naïve to think that this would be an exercise with overnight success, but incrementally, we would be able to build a critical mass of students who are able to embrace uncertainty and complexity in a radical classroom space, rather than a fundamentalism about knowledge production,’ she said.

Naidu pointed out that for the past two decades, ‘complexity’ has informed a range of work across the social sciences, with diverse schools of complexity thinking.  Using these ideas, Naidu suggested that teaching could perhaps, do with some ‘catching up,’ in and through a pedagogy of uncertainty.

This, she said, would point the way forward towards uncertainty/complexity-informed social science and probing a post-disciplinary, more ‘open’ social science that did not rely on established idioms and ways of thinking.

Naidu paid tribute to and honoured her parents, whose deep entrenched spirit and presence she said, was profoundly manifest through her loved ones present, and the meaning they held in her life.

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