Decolonizing the Scientific Method

Decolonizing the Scientific Method


Amitav Ghosh’s Challenge to Robert Merton’s “Normative Structure of Science”

In his novel The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh depicts two contrasting scientific approaches to malaria in Calcutta: one more spiritual, involving forces such as reincarnation and silence as religion, and the other more familiar to a Western mindset, involving the scientific method, experimentation, and science as a means to gain recognition. The first is led by the elusive Mangala and Laakhan, both impoverished and seemingly uneducated cleaners at a malaria lab, and the latter by colonial powers, British men such as Ronald Ross. While the work of men such as Ronald Ross align neatly with Robert Merton’s scientific norms, Mangala and Laakhan’s approach contradicts many of these norms, even though they are ahead of Ross’s discoveries. Thus, the novel provides an opportunity to analyze who Merton would deem a scientist, and reveals the colonial biases that lend to his norms being only applicable to scientific approaches such as Ross’s. Ghosh’s narrative also makes Mangala and Laakhan, the supposed underestimated and underrepresented demographic within the scientific community, more scientifically advanced than their British counterparts. I argue that in The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh reverses the expected roles and power dynamics between colonial powers and colonized people, thus presenting a contradiction in order to critique Merton’s norms as norms that only apply to colonial discourse. In this paper, I specifically focus on the norms of communism and universalism. 

To begin with, Ghosh writes Mangala and Laakhan as going against Merton’s norm of communism. As defined by Merton, communism is the idea that scientific discoveries are made public and shared within the scientific community, fostering a sense of competitive collaboration. Mangala and Laakhan utilize the concept of silence as religion as a main tenet of their scientific practice, contrasting Ronald Ross’ own desire for accreditation when pursuing scientific discoveries and therefore going against the norm of communism. Yet the manner in which Ghosh portrays each illuminates a conceitedness and shallowness to the norms that constitute a Western understanding of how science should or can be done. Ghosh first introduces the idea of silence as religion through the famous author Phulboni, reading from his own writing and revealing his obsession with the secrets and silence of Calcutta:

But here in our city where all law, natural and human, is held in capricious suspension, that which is hidden has no need of words to give it life; like any creature that lives in a perverse element, it mutates to discover sustenance precisely where it appears to be most starkly withheld—in this case, in silence.1

A telling phrase from this quote is the description of a “creature that lives in a perverse element”—if drawn in comparison to Mangala and Laakhan, it thus implies that they adopted their religion of silence out of necessity, in response to their environment. This perverse element could refer to their status of power amidst the British scientists, as people who have been colonized, who thus live in poverty and without a voice to begin with. Another important note is Ghosh’s choice of using Phulboni to deliver this information to the reader, and the choice to do so in lyrical prose. Even Murugan, a man obsessed with Ronald Ross and the one who first uncovers the secrets of Mangala and Laakhan, describes himself as enraptured by Phulboni’s telling. The effect of this on the reader is not to doubt Phulboni’s words but to consider them seriously, and also be absorbed by the magic and spirituality in the concepts he conveys and the way he conveys them. Therefore, even though silence amidst science violates the norm of communism, silence does not invalidate the science Mangala and Laakhan practice but makes it out to be holy and otherworldly, an elevated state of scientific discovery. 

On the other hand, Ross follows Merton’s norm of communism in his pursuit of fame. Merton states that egotism and scientific advancement can serve a mutual purpose: “The scientist’s claim to ‘his’ intellectual ‘property’ is limited to that of recognition and esteem which . . .  is roughly commensurate with the significance of the increments brought to the common fund of knowledge.”2 Ross, as a member of the Western scientific community, works in the tradition in which Merton founded his norms and so he decides to choose malaria as a research topic. Murugan recounts this to Antar, the main character of the novel (through which the reader experiences the story): 

[Ross] looks in the mirror and asks himself: ‘What’s hot in medicine right now? What’s happening on the outer edge of the paradigm? What’s going to bag me a Nobel?’ And what does the mirror tell him? You got it: malaria—that’s where it’s at this season.3 

Setting this description of Ross’s process side by side with the depiction of Mangala and Laakhan emphasizes Ross’s portrayal as superficial. Even the language with which Murugan describes Ross’s inner monologue serves to ridicule Ross, with colloquial phrases such as “What’s hot” and “What’s going to bag me a Nobel.” Outside of making this scene comical, it also feels out of place to a reader, especially because Murugan’s manner of speaking about Ross feels, in some ways, disrespectful to someone with prestige as a Western scientist. Another scene in which Ross’s egotistical nature is exemplified is in his own poetry, which Murugan reads: “This day relenting God / Hath placed within my hand / A wondrous thing; and God / Be praised.”4 Ross, in his own poetry, proclaims that his mission was given to him by God, “placed within my hand.” While there is certainly arrogance in believing one has been chosen by God, this explanation also contradicts Murugan’s own interpretation that Ross did his research for fame. Thus, to the reader, Ross also appears disingenuous in his retelling of his malaria research. Ghosh’s reversal of the respectability a reader would expect toward both Ross’s and Mangala’s respective group makes it so that readers end up questioning the value and validity which a Western audience places on different manners of scientific pursuit. Ghosh’s portrayals critique Merton’s norms as colonial, in that they only acknowledge a Western perspective of science.

Yet, it can also be argued that the colonial powers, who supposedly follow these norms well, also contradict them by not sharing their information with Mangala and Laakhan. Mangala and Laakhan are hired by Cunningham, one of the leading researchers on malaria, as assistants. When Farley, a visiting scientist, questions why Cunningham took on “untrained and uneducated” people such as Mangala and Laakhan, Cunningham replies that it would be “‘Far preferable, in my opinion, to being surrounded by overeager and half-formed college students. One is spared the task of imparting much that is useless and unnecessary.’”5 Cunningham directly states that because Mangala and Laakhan are untrained and uneducated, they do not need to be given any information—acting more like servants than scientific assistants. Cunningham, by taking advantage of them and simultaneously underestimating them, pushes forward colonial narratives that poor, uneducated people of color do not need access to knowledge to be helpful, that their purpose is mainly to help the British. The irony is that both Mangala and Laakhan are in fact much more advanced than Cunningham believes to be, so Cunningham’s exclusion of them from the scientific research he is conducting violates the norm of communism. However, Mangala and Laakhan do not perform scientific research in a traditional, Western way, so whether they are part of the scientific community in the first place (according to Merton’s norms) is called into question. Ronald Ross shows a similar dehumanization when first meeting Laakhan. Ghosh writes, “’This Lutchman’s a ‘healthy looking young fellow’ Ronnie notices: just the guinea pig he’s been looking for.”6 Lutchman is one of the many names Laakhan has employed to make him seem like a local to the places he’s traveled to, further showing just how little the British men know about the people working for them, and how little they care to know. Much like Cunningham, Ross also does not see Laakhan as human—directly stating he is a “guinea pig” and only using him for his own means. They’re both selfish in that they do not care about the wellbeing or education of their assistants, and this has a lot to do with the power dynamics where they believe they are entitled to human lives at their service. 

Ghosh’s perspective illustrates a flaw in Merton’s norms: He does not specify who has access to the scientific community, and whether that includes those who do not usually have access to scientific knowledge due to their exclusion. Are those who are considered part of the scientific community subjective under colonial perspectives, and is Merton therefore employing these perspectives when he states information must be shared between those in the community? Merton takes the composition of the scientific community for granted, and Ghosh’s portrayal of the exclusion of Mangala and Laakhan from this world sheds light on these assumptions. 

Another way in which Mangala and Laakhan are shown to go against Merton’s norms is through their contradictions with the norm of universalism, because of the way both their identities, especially in terms of spirituality, affect their scientific practice. Merton defines universalism as a form of equal opportunity:

The acceptance or rejection of claims entering the lists of science is not to depend on the personal or social attributes of their protagonist; his race, nationality, religion, class, and personal qualities are as such irrelevant. Objectivity precludes particularism.7 

Referring back to the idea of silence as religion, this is where both Mangala and Laakhan’s scientific knowledge depends on “the personal or social attributes of their protagonist.” In this case, these personal or social attributes are spirituality and nationality, both being closely tied together. Silence as religion can be tied to Mauna, an aspect of Hinduism that refers to silence: a state without an “I,” revealing a true self.8 Mauna can also be compared to the forced silencing of Mangala and Laakhan by colonial powers, and how Mauna is a form of reclaiming that silence into a silence of power that their scientific pursuits depend on. Murugan states:

Fact is we’re dealing with a crowd for whom silence is a religion. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We don’t know who’s in this and who’s not; we don’t know how much of the spin they’ve got under control. We don’t know how many of the threads they want us to pull together and how many they want to keep hanging for whoever comes next.9

Contrary to what a Western perspective would expect from silence and what Merton’s norms expect from scientists, Mangala and Laakhan in fact hold power over every other character in the novel. Ghosh reverses a reader’s expectations of who is in control, because Mangala and Laakhan are such elusive characters throughout—completely lacking the ego Merton alludes to through communism’s pursuit of fame, and which Ross and Cunningham exemplify. And their spirituality has a direct influence on their science. Their findings are kept secret and they leave even Murugan, who has been researching them for years, thrown in a loop. As he states, “We don’t even know what we don’t know.” The Western audience (Murugan, Ross, Cunningham, Antar, and even the reader) is left completely powerless to Mangala and Laakhan, whose work at the intersection of spirituality, magic, and science leaves them out of the loop and struggling to piece together the puzzle. 

An additional example of spirituality intersecting with science is in Mangala’s preoccupation with reincarnation. Mangala’s scientific pursuits all stem from a desire to search for the Calcutta Chromosome, which allows for the possibility to reincarnate and essentially live forever. Here, it’s germane to note that when Murugan speaks of Mangala, he says she does not reveal her experimentation or her intentions to others because “She’s not in this because she wants to be a scientist. She’s in this because she thinks she’s a god.”10 In this sense even Murugan doesn’t define Mangala as a scientist because her intentions are not to share scientific knowledge with the world and because she does so for spiritual reasons—Murugan’s interpretation coincides with the idea that Mangala is betraying Merton’s norms of communism and universalism, and thus she cannot be considered a scientist. Yet even Murugan seems to contradict himself when he describes Mangala’s scientific procedures, which all seem typical of what a Western perspective would imagine a scientist to do. Murugan describes Mangala discovering weird side effects to her treatment, and as a result she “became more and more invested in isolating this aspect of the treatment, so that she could control the ways in which these crossovers worked.”11 This entire process of finding something odd and then isolating that oddity (the independent variable), to control it (using dependent variables) can easily be transferred into a colonial interpretation of the scientific method, with the presence of a question, a hypothesis and an ensuing experiment. This tension Ghosh presents blurs the line between scientist and magician or god, and through this Ghosh is arguing that the strict norms Merton presents are flexible enough to encompass even more definitions of what a scientist can look like or do.

Furthermore, not only does Mangala’s science depend on her spiritual identity, but it also depends on her class and lack of formal education. The following quote is especially relevant when set in contrast to Cunningham’s perception of Mangala being easier to control because of her lack of education:  

You also have to remember that [Mangala] wasn’t hampered by the sort of stuff that might slow down someone who was conventionally trained: she wasn’t carrying a shit-load of theory in her head, she didn’t have to write papers or construct proofs.12 

Both Cunningham and Murugan compare Mangala to conventional scientists with a Western scientific education, but Murugan says that this is a strength of Mangala’s science, as she is not held back and has an entirely different perspective. This can also be put in relation to the concept of silence as religion, in that Mangala reclaims some of the negative effects of colonization into her own scientific power. Mangala finds new ends to the silencing of the colonized—in part through exclusion from education and class privilege—whose silence becomes  something she can use to in fact be ahead of the colonizers, again reversing Merton’s expectations, i.e. expectations that can be equated to colonial assumptions.

Many narratives of those who have suffered from colonialism understandably focus on the lack of control and oppression the colonized people face—yet Ghosh’s novel portrays a refreshing reversal of these power dynamics. This reversal surprises the Western characters within the novel, who do not even know they are not in control and assume they are because of their colonial power, and it surprises the reader, not expecting these seemingly minor and silent characters to have so much power. Merton’s norms restrict the scientific field to characteristics that do not take into account scientific work conducted by Mangala and Laakhan—yet their work is just as scientific, if not even more advanced than those who do follow these norms. Ghosh’s positive portrayal of how their spirituality and backgrounds enhance their work directly contradict Merton’s norms in a way that pushes to expand the definition of a scientist and who exactly can practice science and be a part of the community. Even Ghosh’s negative portrayal of those who do follow Merton’s norms, such as Ross and Cunningham, serve to show that these norms work only within a colonial environment, and even when they do, they do not enhance these men’s scientific discoveries nor make them any more scientists than Mangala and Laakhan are.

  1. Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery (Picador, 1996), 25.
  2. Robert K. Merton, “The Normative Structure of Science,” in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (University of Chicago Press, 1973), 273.
  3. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, 54.
  4. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, 41.
  5. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, 147.
  6. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome,  74.
  7. Merton, “The Normative Structure of Science,” 270.
  8. Bhagavan Sri Ramana, Happiness and the Art of Being, 19-21.
  9. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, 218.
  10. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, 252-253.
  11. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, 249.
  12. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, 246.
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