Experiencing our Indian traffic can be quite an adventure. An outsider would easily assume that the average Indian is well versed with an extreme sport. And to a westerner, particularly, it would be completely chaotic, reckless, and dangerous. At first glance, there seems to be no order or structure to the way the traffic flows. But for the Indian, life happens and it works. We manage to get to our destinations (not considering safety, time, and efficiency). While there is a structure in place with road signs and road safety rules to regulate traffic, most often they are merely seen as suggestions for the individual driver to adhere to or to discard at his or her convenience or even better to shape it as the situation changes, for instance, in case of an accident, road work, or just during peak hours, which is ‘socially’ acceptable.
Among the various contemporary social theories that Elliot explores in his book, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction, I gravitated towards the theory of Structuration. The amusing social behavior on the roads drove home the point of this theory that society isn’t a one-way street of either/or. “The concept of Structuration underscores the duality of structure and agency. There can be no agency without structures that shape motives into practices, but there can be no structures independent of the routine practices that create them” (Elliot 2009). Elliot further summarizes that “Structuration theories seek to comprehend how individual action is organized with the mundane activities of practical social life, while simultaneously recognizing that the structural features of society are reproduced through individual action” (Elliot 2009). As I continued to reflect on this I found this theory applicable to today’s Indian society with its mixture of the old and new, the modern and the pre-modern, the urban and the rural. It is a collage of evolving structures, reflected and “reproduced by individual action”.
Socio-cultural norms and rules forming rigid structures dictate individuals choices and decisions and the reverse also holds true. A good example of this sort of social structure is the infamous caste system in India. Although the caste system, still finds dominant expressions in everyday practical social life in rural India, perpetuated by individual actions and choices, the contours of this social structure in urban India have becom increasingly subtle; influenced by ‘westernization’ in the post colonial period and ‘globalization’ in the post modern era, primarily through the agency of individual action “organized with the mundane activities of the practical social life” (for example: inter-caste living in apartment complexes). If Anthony Giddens posits in his theory of Structuration that “society is not fixed or pre-given, but rather the active flow of social life” then the theory also seems to elucidate a change in social phenomenon which, in this case, is evidenced in the Indian urban scenario and perhaps will eventually affect the rural scenario too.
Like the way we manipulate and negotiate our traffic to suit our needs and circumstances, to arrive at our destination, it seems that individuals, in response to the post-modern climate, are redesigning ‘laws’ of ‘doing and being society’. This may eventually obliterate the caste system as it is currently known and practiced. While such demise would be welcomed, in order to usher a possible new social order of equality and justice, one has to give credit to the fact that consensus to this social order and structure, inspire of its flaws breeding injustice, is what has maintained cohesiveness of the Indian society that is, otherwise, deeply diverse and fragmented. One also has to reckon with the idea of what India will be without the caste system for a social structure? And what will replace this social structure?
At this juncture, it is important to critically think about how the church as both an agency and a structure can influence this evolving social order in urban India. Jesus challenged the social order and structures of His day and ushered in a redemptive social order of the Kingdom of God. The Indian church as an agency is now challenged with a similar task of filling this ‘structural gap’ in an uncompromising way to bring forth an equitable, peaceful and just society. In converse, as a structure, the church has a greater role in providing some definitive boundaries that will enable individuals’ action for social transformation.
For now, a view of this terrain of evolving urban Indian society perhaps seems random, chaotic, and to a certain meaningless, with individuals within the system in an endless pursuit of utopia. However, like the westerner who must live in our world for a day or two to understand the rhyme and reason of this so-called ‘madness’ of erratic Indian traffic, the Christian also needs to experience social theory to better understand the social climate of the times in the world in which we live, and how he or she might contribute significantly to humanity’s progress towards Kingdom building.
Note: I believe in road safety but this is an illustrative mapping of my thinking on social theory so the interpretation should be within its intended scope.
Elliot, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. Kindle edition. New York: Routledge, 2009.