The Value of Comparison
Peter van der Veer is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity at Göttingen, Germany and Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University. He is the author of several books, including The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India.
This chapter focuses on those who live in the mountainous margins of civilizational heartlands and, today, in the border areas of modern nation-states. These peoples have been the typical subjects of anthropological research because of their remote, relatively isolated locations, the small scale of their societies, and their cultural differences from the civilizations that are adjacent to them in the plains. The chapter critiques forms of romanticization of those who live in the mountain areas that connect India and China and attempts to give a contextualized picture of anthropological thinking about hill people in this area.
This chapter discusses why Indian middle classes seem to have no compelling interest in improving sanitation for the poor, despite the fact that their own health is affected due to their close proximity to the poor. It examines some cultural theories of attitudes toward “the dirty outside world” and argues that these theories ignore the importance of caste and especially untouchability. It further argues that one cannot expect the poor themselves to improve their condition through participatory development, considering their internal fragmentation and the conditions of slavery under which many of them live. It compares the Indian situation with some theories about what happened in Europe with sanitation (and the well-understood self-interest in the common good) and in the United States with the abolishment of slavery. It ends with the revolutionary transformation of China in dealing with the life conditions of the poor.