Fear of numbers: reflections on the South African case

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Seminar Date
September 8, 2010
Arjun Appadurai’s The Fear of Small Numbers: an essay on the geography of anger (2006) draws largely on the case of India for empirical data. The ‘fear of small numbers’ that he discusses relates to the insecurity of contemporary societies, where ‘pollution’ of the national body by minority groups leads not only to irritation and discomfort but at times to the need for the obliteration of the pollutant. Neville Alexander (2008), similarly, said that ‘to define yourself into a minority corner in a situation such as the transition in South Africa is to play with fire in an almost literal sense’. Appadurai’s argument, when applied to and tested within the South African context, does not find an unproblematic fit. What it does do, however, is to ‘defamiliarise the familiar’, as Zygmunt Bauman put it (1997), that often neglected aspect of the sociological project, and allows me to bring together the past and the present in a different way. South Africa presents us with the fear of numbers, both large and small, determined by the needs of establishing, contesting and of maintaining power, and the ideological formulations required by each. Such an approach also demands multi- or even trans-disciplinarity and international comparative studies.
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