Revisiting “Bureaucratizing Sensitivity”:  A Conversation with Julia Kowalski

By Julia Kowalski and Monika Lemke

Virtual Edition 2022 Bureaucracy and Tactics

In this abridged interview with Julia Kowalski, she discusses the research that went into to her PoLAR article “Bureaucratizing Sensitivity: Documents, and Expertise in Northern Indian Antiviolence Counseling”, published in May 2018. The article drew on Julia’s field work at a family counseling center in Rajasthan, where staff balanced their roles as family counselors and paralegal service providers to their clients, both of which require documentary work of a different kind. In this interview, Julia provides insight into how competing cultural beliefs and desires about the family coming from individuals, NGOs, and state institutions, such as law, are reflected in the contrasting forms of counseling, and the documentary work these require. Here, Julia highlights how each set of documents, DIRs and counseling notes, lent themselves to a particular kind of narrative. Her work demonstrates how bureaucracies, and bureaucratic documents are layered with ideology, including those animated by local class-based hierarchies at counseling centers. Even the seemingly rote and standardized tasks of bureaucracies are rich contexts to analyze how the documents they produce, which tend to be associated with instrumental, condensed, and economical forms of communication, mobilize desires underlying their work. In this case, complex and layered underlying expectations about the family and marital life, from manifold sources, including the counselors themselves and the ma’ams who oversee their work, are reflected in the process of producing these documents.

Monika Lemke:  I wanted to begin by asking you how you came to think about the relationship between the NGO that you studied and the state governance which set the terms of bureaucratization.

Julia Kowalski:  Initially, I didn’t go to the field to study the state; I went to the field to think about the role that representations of the Indian family were playing in making sense of modernity. Everywhere I went, I found the state, which, looking back, is not at all surprising, in the context of India, where the state has long governed through the family. More generally, as well, when we think about liberal democracy, the family plays a really central role in disciplining and governing.

In some ways, the bureaucratization stuff was a surprise to me, but it took me a while to sort out the work that was happening at these centers. There was the work that was happening as a part of this Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), which works by generating documentation that goes to a court and must be completed in a particular way.

Then there is counseling, which also requires documentation, but in a different form. It was more flexible than the documentation of the domestic incident report (DIR). It also was enmeshed with state expectations, like the cultures of audit that we’re familiar with as university workers. You at some point must present some form of documentation to show that you’re using the funding that the state has given you.

I would say that it took probably about half my time in the field to start to parse out the differences between these two different practices, because on the surface, they look quite similar: a counselor sitting and talking to women and their families. The way that I was able to eventually sort them out is precisely because the paperwork was so different.

One thing I could do to help the workers at the centers, because I can read and write in Hindi, was fill out the ledgers and address envelopes, that have copies of forms, that are going to be sent to families. It was through that activity that I started to realize the distinction between these two sets of activities that the counselors did. Once I had that sense, I started to see that in fact, the interactive practices were quite different as well. In both cases, there’s this elicitation of family narratives about harm, neglect, distress, abuse, but those interactive spaces were oriented very differently. When they were being disciplined by the domestic incident report, counselors worked with a printed-out piece of paperwork with blank spots to be filled in, whereas during counseling, the counselors took notes on blank sheets of paper. So, that’s where this all comes from in terms of thinking about where is the state.

This is also complicated, because India in many ways predicts some of the debates and concerns that we’re seeing in places like the United States about how to blend anti-carceral feminism with a desire to discipline and punish people who abuse women. This has long been a set of concerns in India stretching back to Independence and maybe even a little bit earlier: this ambivalence about the extent to which the state is a good partner for women’s movements, whether the state is a reliable partner in preventing, and addressing violence against women in its many forms.

Especially in Rajasthan, there’s just so many different institutional spaces that have complex relationships with the state, where the state is a partner in some ways: the point of the institutional space is to avoid direct engagements with the court systems or with legal systems, and at the same time, the threat of engaging the legal system is what coerces recalcitrant family members to participate. There’s a lot of different layers of complexity where the state crops up in a lot of different forms. The sensitization discourse in some ways reifies the role of the state and oversimplifies some of the fluidity of those other kinds of relationships in ways that I hope the article addresses.

Monika Lemke:  Absolutely. I want to hear a bit more about how the state governance of the family was expressed through the sensitization discourse and these bureaucratized functions within the NGO.

Julia Kowalski:  Yeah, and it’s interesting, because the term “sensitization” comes into legal institutions in India, from transnational efforts to mainstream gender, in development and in law. It got laminated, like these transnational terms always do when we’re talking about rights or violence, onto existing understandings about who’s best suited to hear voices of the vulnerable, or how best to bring marginalized perspectives into state institutions that are maybe not set up to hear those. The whole concept of sensitization is so optimistic about the capacity of the state, and these transnational legal organizations, to engage these things.

One way we might think about this is that, starting with Independence, India worked really hard to develop a robust set of systems for social welfare, though the implementation of those systems has been a little bit patchy. One result of that is that the unit of the family comes to stand in to perform a lot of social welfare functions. Over the sixty or seventy years since Independence, what we really see is both an effort to institutionalize the family in certain ways to perform those functions, and at the same time, you have a growing set of concerns in the women’s movement in India, and globally, who believe the family is actually pretty harmful space that those women need to be protected from. You see that tension play out in these counseling centers, and in a lot of other spaces.

One result is this effort to structure the family to be supportive in certain ways. An example is the laws that exist in India that penalize adult children for not caring for their aging parents, which is another way of enforcing the family as a space of social welfare in the absence of more robust public social welfare programs. Then, at the same time, you see this recognition that the family internally can be rigidly hierarchical in parts of North India. It makes demands on women to provide welfare for others, which can impede them in other arenas of their life, be highly coercive, or even abusive.

I think we even see that in the way that the PWDVA itself is structured. The act is not a criminal law. It’s not designed to punish abusers; it’s designed to maintain women’s access to resources in their families. The law itself has this deep ambivalence about whether the family is something women need to be protected from or whether the family needs to be protected to support women, because there aren’t a lot of other social safety nets that could catch, say, a woman who has multiple dependents, dependent children, who is going to get booted out of her marital home because she launched a criminal case.

Again, none of the provisions of the law is implemented in any way that’s even close to perfect or fully effective at this time. That division of the law itself is also dancing on this knife’s edge, saying, “okay, we have this classically liberal feminist vision of pulling women out of the family and supporting them and protecting them visibly through the state, but then we need the family to take care of these women at the end of the day, and, as the state, we’re going to enforce that.” I think sometimes we consider this family space as a liminal interstitial space between the state and the individual that sometimes falls out of the picture, especially when we’re thinking about domestic violence, which tends to demonize the family as a space of harm.

Monika Lemke:  I think it really resonates with a lot of the core themes of your piece, because the raison d’ètre of this NGO is struggling with that same tension between the family unit as a source of harm and the family unit as something a basis for social welfare, among other things. In your article, I felt there was a concern that the bureaucratization of counseling kind of eroded that capacity for those softer interventions.

Julia Kowalski:  Or, at least, if it doesn’t erode the capacity, it makes it hard to see those interventions as a form of expertise that is valuable and worth institutionally supporting and sustaining, yes.

Monika Lemke:  Yeah, it makes it harder to see.

Earlier, you made a comment about who is best able to hear the plight of women, the notion that “sensitivity” is an institutionalized recognition of gender-based understandings of inequality specific to Jaipur’s women’s rights network. On that topic, maybe I could hear a bit more from you about the bureaucratic function of sensitivity and how this might play into the worker’s impressions of their work and how it situated them in relation to their clients?

Julia Kowalski:  Yeah, so I think I hear you asking, how did the experience of having their sensitivity bureaucratized by these legal interventions fold back into their lived experiences as workers and people trying to help women and fix families?

After I’d written this article, I did a bunch of follow up fieldwork. I spent about three or four months back in the field, hanging out with some of the counselors I knew particularly well, one of whom I later hired to work as a research assistant. She was between gigs. We hung out a lot, interviewing other counselors, and it was really interesting, because I got to hear her reflect on the work she had done as a counselor since I was doing fieldwork back in 2010.

One thing that was particularly interesting that she kept bringing up was the extent to which some of these legal frameworks resonated with her. She found it incredibly empowering—I find that word very problematic, but that’s the word she used—to have access to all these legal interventions, and to have this picture of all the opportunities available to a woman who is facing conflict in her own home, and to be able to offer that to other women, and to play this role in in the lives of a client—feeling just like they played a role in that person’s story. But at the same time, she’d had these moments where, without getting too much into her personal life, she herself faced a great deal of family conflict in the time since I had been in the field with her previously. In fact, she was in the process of separating from her husband not long after this particular visit. Occasionally, she talked about feeling like knowing all these legal frameworks required her to become a kind of person who was bad at managing conflict at home.

At the same time—and I wrote about this a little bit in an article in American Anthropologist—it gave her husband new forms of nastiness to mobilize when they fought. He would say things like, “Whoa, look out, here comes the Women’s Commission,” if she was standing up for herself at home. Of course, every relationship is both deeply personal and overwhelmingly structured by political economy, but it was just really revealing watching her move between these two positions. I think that captures something about the way these tensions get internalized by workers themselves, who see, in a way that it took me a long time to see, just how high-stakes even seemingly minor interactions with these families in conflict can be, and how hard it is to move the needle even a little bit when you’ve got a big extended family that’s in conflict, maybe also with the entire natal family of the female client, and are getting worked up about things that seem both very important and not important at all.

Another aspect of what motivated the article in the first place is the way that the sensitization rhetoric completely reinforces existing class hierarchies in these institutions. It can clearly reproduce a sense of who is the ultimate authoritative person here. It’s the volunteer ma’am, the organizer, the person who is relatively elite, who is hiring and paying the counselors, who is ultimately the arbiter of whether the counselors are doing their jobs correctly, whether they are correctly sensitized, or taken an interest to use the “right” language. A lot of these organizers used sensitivity in the sense of taking an appropriate interest in gender, politics and gender. I think that’s the other piece of this.

Monika Lemke:  Your article goes into detail about a particular conflict between those roles. How exactly were the counselors censured by their supervisors, and what was the kind of discourse that scaffolded what an appropriate response to their clients was going to be?

Julia Kowalski:   Yeah, there’s the example in the article of the board member for this organization who had in the past been really involved in the day to day functioning of the site but wasn’t anymore because all these women are highly professionally accomplished, brilliant women. They either have jobs, or they’ve retired from jobs, but they’re still doing work. Some of them are former university professors. Then they have other causes that they’re also involved in.

So, this particular person totally eviscerated the counselors for doing what they thought was their job. It’s upsetting to be confronted by your boss and it’s also frustrating to feel like you’re getting in trouble for doing things you’re supposed to do. I think that was a particularly overt instance, which upset people enough that they talked about it for a couple of weeks afterwards. Somebody who’d been on leave for a couple days would come back and the others would tell them, “Oh, you know, such and such ma’am came and yelled at us about…”. And again, it gets at this tension that animates these institutions, in that a former counseling client had returned to get a domestic incident report.

Basically, you have someone who had supposedly been a settled counseling case, although every single person who works at these institutions will point out that these settlements can be entirely provisional. Nonetheless, they had returned, seeking legal intervention via the PWDVA. This particular organizer was really furious that the counselors had done that, because legal interventions are supposed to be this backstop against which counseling takes its authority and force. She felt like they had failed this client, but the counselors thought that they were doing exactly what they were supposed to do.

The line “We don’t tell the woman what to do” is true across a lot of different sites that do marriage mediation in India. “Our job is to help facilitate her figuring out what she wants to do. Maybe guide her a little bit in that conversation, we might guide her, but that it is really our job to hear from her and help her find her path.” I never heard of a woman who came in and said, “I am scared. I want out of my in-law’s house,” and heard them say “No, go home.” And similarly, if a woman came and said, “All I want to do is go back to my in-law’s house, I just want them to stop insulting me all the time.” I never heard counselor say “Nope, that’s it—you have to leave.” So anyway, they thought that they were doing what they were supposed to do, facilitating the desires of this client for counseling, and then counseling for legal intervention once the client told them that they wanted legal intervention. But this particular organizer—and organizers were also super heterogenous—felt like this was an institutional failure.

Another place you see this debate about the implementing the PWDVA is in the wider network of organizations, which these organizers are active in. Some are closely allied with political parties. Some are agnostic, not personally agnostic, but they are not aligned with particular political parties. Some are more explicitly leftist. Some are plugged into religious networks, others see themselves their work is more secular, but they all network together and work together at a city-wide level. They will often have these sessions where people will come in from Delhi and talk about implementing the PWDVA or, talk about capacity building, to get funding from the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) etc. In those meetings, the organizers, these ma’ams, talk and talk and talk about who’s qualified to be counselor, and argue a lot. At one two-day long meeting I attended this was a central topic of debate. What kind of degree does a counselor need to have? What kind of background does she need? Is counseling a kind of social work, is it psychology, is it just helping? Should you just be good at giving advice naturally, somehow? All of this debate, and the whole time, a counselor is just sitting against the wall.

On that subject, people who are counselors do not, at least at the organizations that I knew the best, grow into organizers. They might be facilitated into other kinds of careers by their connections with these women, but they don’t become organizers. It has elements of client-patronage, this sort of relationship.

Counseling takes place in relationship to a hierarchy that counselors are very sensitive about; they don’t want to criticize their bosses, whom they have a great deal of respect for, but this is also a space where you hear these kinds of criticisms and concerns getting aired. You also see it in the white papers that get written and assessment reports of these counseling centers, many of which are funded by government schemes in some way, either by federal government funding or by state government funding.

A lot of the cosmopolitan, activist scholars were brought in to evaluate these places. They’ll sit in on a few sessions, or they’ll talk to counselors, and they’ll come out of it, and they’ll say, “These counselors are inadequately sensitized, they’re just sending women back to the family,” “They don’t fully understand women’s rights, they’re not respecting privacy,” and so on. Again, I think those things are sometimes true. In many cases, counseling centers might be improved by taking on some of that feedback, but it gives this picture where the counselors are these interesting in-between figures where, on the one hand, they’re kind of experts, they address the families, they serve as experts. Then they’re also targets of intervention themselves from the perspective of their organizers. This position lets them do really interesting work, in some ways, but it also subjects them to these forms of discipline.

Monika Lemke:  I’d like to ask you about this key distinction between the sense of agency that’s implied in how the counselors are tasked with narrating a dispute, as to simply documenting one. I’m so curious about the use of this term of narrative inequality as a phenomenon that’s experienced by counselors as they navigate the narrating role and this documenting role. What guided toward you towards narrative inequality as a way of encapsulating how bureaucratization altered counselor’s capacity for claiming agency?

Julia Kowalski:  Narrative inequality comes out of linguistic anthropology, specifically from Jan Blommaert, a European anthropologist and sociolinguist, who has really looked carefully at things like the production of asylum claims in Europe. One reason why I find this concept really helpful is that it can help tease apart the different axes of inequality that are at play in these spaces, and, in turn, the different kinds of language ideologies or semiotic ideologies that lie behind those axes of inequality.

One thing that gets tangled up in both efforts to create gender sensitivity, and efforts to analyze it, is that you often have multiple ideologies about what interaction means, how it acts on the world, what constitutes a text, what makes the text authoritative. How does the text move? Why is this kind of text particularly well-suited to move from space to space? Why can’t counselors just send six pages of freehand notes to the magistrate? Why does it have to be a formatted document? Why do specific people have to sign it, and what do all the signatures mean? The answers to all those questions reflect ideologies about language, which are always plugged into a wider grid of the political economy of social distinction. All of that is in flux and getting referenced and reproduced every time.

One thing that is so striking about sensitization rhetoric is that it is a recognition, by the law, by people lobbying for certain kinds of legal interventions, of a certain kind of narrative inequality. It recognizes that the state, or the institution, is not sensitive to women’s needs; there’s something problematic about how the state listens. States are abstract entities, they don’t have ears, but there’s something about how states are listening that marginalizes women who are seeking support. To oversimplify a little bit, there’s a recognition that changes have to be made to tackle that narrative inequality.

Then there are these other dimensions of narrative inequality that are not overtly acknowledged, for example, the ability of counselors to narrate themselves as experts authorities in front of wider audiences. Outside the counseling center itself there’s also the dimensions of inequality within the counseling centers and ideas about who ratifies what, and where text goes after it’s been ratified. All of these reflect different ideologies about what narration and narrative do in the first place.

I think one thing that gets lost, if we’re only thinking about narrative inequality, in the sense that the sensitization rhetoric means that the state can’t hear women, is that the job of these institutions is to create greater legibility to sensitize the state through making women’s voices or vulnerable people’s voices more legible. What we lose is the fact that these other dimensions of narrative inequality point to other ideologies about language and text and narrative. I think that’s powerfully demonstrated by the kind of narrative mobilized in the service of counseling, which is often about enacting and generating relations in the context of narrating them. At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s future oriented. It’s about performing familial relationality. That’s hard to do.

It’s also hard work to facilitate that in a counseling session, bringing in lots of different voices. It’s about letting different narratives sort of stand. Counselors often explicitly discourage clients from fixating on what really happened. In my initial period in the field in cases, I began asking “What happened? What do you think happened?” and the counselor I was speaking with would always say  something like, “we can’t really know what happened.” That’s not the point, to forensically uncover what happened. The point is to facilitate a narrating together of the family in the future that better sustains and supports the client. That’s a very different ideology about how narrative is facilitating an improved future for a client, than the language ideologies that animate producing a DIR, which is a report of incidents that happened in the past. In the DIR, the counselors are verifying, to help support this case, together with other evidence that’s been collected by a lawyer and all sorts of other stuff that is going on at the magistrate level. Here, the counselor’s job is really to be a sensitive listener, in the sense of, “We could hear this person, and we can translate and support her existing case for the court.” That’s a very different idea about how interaction is acting on families.

Again, some of the counselors I knew who did this work would say that they actually felt a little uncomfortable, because they didn’t have the institutional support, and it wasn’t really their job, to investigate these cases fully. As a result, they often felt that the narrative was constrained, compared to what was available in their other work. They were accustomed to getting lots of different perspectives on the conflict.

The DIR required them to really say something like, “Okay, right, well, she said, her mother-in-law insulted her and her husband,” or “Her husband wouldn’t give her school fees for the children. She was made to eat alone. Also, in the heat of a quarrel, her sister-in-law hit her,” and that’s it. That’s the story. What sensitization rhetoric reveals is that there’s also an inequality between those different ideas about what narrative does. It’s not just about which individual family member is the most audible or legible to the state, it’s also about whose vision of what it means to narrate, what narrative does and how it acts on subjects and how it acts on relations is seen as the most expert and the most valuable.

Sensitization rhetoric recognizes one form of narrative inequality: that women can’t fully or accurately be heard by the state. It recognizes unequal appraisals and evaluations of different kinds of narrative practices happening in counseling centers, and then it creates new modalities of narrative inequality by undervaluing the kind of documentation and bureaucratic labor that has to come to stand in in these resource strapped institutions for sensitization or sensitivity listening or being sensitive, or sensitized. I think the value of an analytic tool like narrative inequality is that it lets us take each of these kinds of phenomena and lay them side by side. It helps us see that there’s a bunch of different modalities of inequality that are bouncing off of each other and enforcing each other.

Monika Lemke:  In the article, you contrast the language of the counselor’s report with the DIR, which tended to focus on the client. As I read it, I felt that it was possible to imagine that a client might be uncomfortable with the DIR’s emphasis on her narrative, especially when it stands to be granted priority over all others. What to make of that?

Julia Kowalski:  Yes, and it’s also worth remembering, the women who are coming into these centers to get the DIR, they’re coming from a different pathway. They’ve already decided. It’s a one and done thing, as opposed to counseling where people may come back. Most counseling cases get resolved in about two months’ time, but some went on and on and on. Some cycle back over time, in ways that were a little unpredictable. By contrast, the person who’s coming to get a DIR is already a person who’s made a set of decisions about what they need and what they want to do with their family going forward. They’ve talked to a lawyer, maybe a magistrate, or sympathetic family members who help them start the case in the first place. By the time most women come to get this piece of paper, they’re already experts in performing the narrative of abuse that they need to perform. Some were folks who are pursuing court cases under the PWDVA would bring huge files of paperwork with them. The counselors reviewing those cases would actually cross-check what they bring to the DIR to make sure it matches existing evidence that the person had already given. They were concerned is that if there was a slight slippage between the two, it would undermine the case.

All this is very different from counseling case. Family counseling cases have multiple family voices, whereas the DIR had these multiple texts that were participating in the construction of the six sentence-narration of incidents of domestic violence. In my book manuscript, I have a chapter about a case that came in which the woman really couldn’t write her story. It made the counselors really suspicious of what was going on.

They were concerned that this was a spurious case, potentially that the family was like pushing her into a divorce to facilitate getting material resources. They seemed to be reacting to the fact that at that point in the case, they felt that this woman should have been able to say, here’s what happened, here’s what happened. Instead, the counselors were working to elicit a narrative from her. Again, they were prevented from doing the kind of counseling work that they wanted to do with that client. This was somebody who was clearly in distress, but her parents seemed very fixated on getting her out of this marriage, so they can get her into another marriage. That troubled the counselors a lot. Aside from scolding the parents a little bit and working hard to elicit a narrative from this woman so that the DIR could be filled out enough to support the case, there wasn’t much they could do.

Monika Lemke:  That’s so interesting. In the example that you’ve outlined, it speaks to me of another kind of bureaucratic expertise that they would have. Here are the counselors on a mission to help women be successful in making her case, which is at odds with their judgment about what appears to be an authentic and credible narrative, based on the patterns they find in their work.

Julia Kowalski:   I think that’s helpful to think about because we tend to see bureaucracy, speaking to the anthropology of the human rights and development, as bit monolithic. I think it’s helpful to recognize that there’s a lot of different elements of what it means to be an expert in bureaucratic contexts.

Julia Kowalski is an assistant professor of global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, where she is also concurrent faculty in the Gender Studies Program and Department of Anthropology. Her research focuses on the intersections between interactive practices, gender, kinship, and politics in north India. Her book Counseling Women: Kinship Against Violence in India will be published this October.



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