Word Box

Some definitions from Nirantar Trust that, hopefully, open up our worlds more than they circumscribe them.


Most of us know schooling to be the process by which people (children, normally) learn. This could be in formal or mainstream institutions – school spaces – or non-formal or alternative spaces for learning, religious schools, schools for learning particular skills or vocations. Schooling, therefore, takes on the meaning of a structured process of learning, where some people impart knowledge to others (that is, teachers to learners). There is a certain hierarchy maintained and relationships of authority and power involved in this process. In addition, the space of the school serves to create an atmosphere where learners are disciplined into following certain rules or norms, and are punished or excluded if these rules are broken. Schools and the processes of schooling become a site on which certain hegemonic or dominant ideas of society – political, social, cultural, economic – are communicated to learners, through interactions between teachers and learners, or between learners, or from textbooks. Schooling becomes a process by which the ‘ideal’ subject can be modelled. For example, in our textbooks we see and learn about healthy, fit boys who are patriotic, respectful of parents, who will take on professions that will further the development of the Indian nation. The process of schooling reflects the social relationships of power, which exist in society as a whole, and does not encourage questioning of these relationships. However, through schooling, learners also see how they can move between different positions of power. Learners may not always be less powerful than teachers for example – a high class boy in a wheelchair may be laughed at by other boys from less well-to-do background; male students may be able to bully female teachers, or Dalit boys may often tease Brahmin girls.


Heteronormativity as a word emerged in the early 90s, popularised by social scientists and sociologists, to help understand, and question, the most common phenomenon (and feeling) we all grow up with – that heterosexual lives are ‘normal’. Heteronormativity lobbies for a mass ritualization of heterosexual tropes – like romantic and sexual attraction to the opposite sex – and believes it to not just be ‘normal’, but also ‘natural’. As a phenomenon, it considers other sexual expressions and identities to be unnatural, and historically, has used legal and social measures to stop mainstream expression of non-heterosexual impulses. It is also the reason society thinks certain sexual impulses/practices are “bad” in the face what it prescribes as “good” (reproductive, monogamous, cis man-cis woman).
Heteronormativity polices not just sexuality, but also gender roles. For example, a woman should be doing a kind of work and a man another, and the two to be continuously separated is a heteronormative organising principle of society.

There is a number of contemporary writing and research around LGBT family units also prescribing to certain heteronormative beliefs (the LGBT fight to legalise same-sex marriage, for example), which just helps us see the all-pervasive nature of the phenomenon.


There is no one definition for the word ‘queer’. Queer addresses all those who are outside the man-loves-woman-loves-man narrative, and includes transgender/ transsexual persons and intersex persons. The word queer has an advantage over other terms like LGBT because it captures many shades and forms of sexuality and gender. Ranging over a wide spectrum, queer includes people whose sexual identities are still evolving, along with those who may not have fully formed sexual identities at all. Also, there are many people who choose not to associate themselves with any particular sexual identity.

Another way to understand the word ‘queer’ is to see it in relation to an individual’s perspective/ point of view. This applies to all those who challenge mainstream ideas and practices related to sexuality and gender. In queer perspectives, sexuality is not something that can be restricted to heteronormative standards, nor can that standard be taken for granted. This way of looking at the world is not just about acknowledging equal rights for all, but is about questioning and changing societal, mainstream norms around sexuality and gender, in their very essence. It’s not necessary that someone with a queer perspective will be attracted to same sex people only, or is a transgender person, much in the same way as not only women can claim a feminist perspective.

There is also the question of appropriate language and sets of pronouns that queer folx may prefer, or should be addressed through. Some languages do not ascribe a gender to a noun. However, gendered pronouns, say in the English language – he/ she- are rooted in heteronormative gender identities, and imply, by default, certain gender roles that are increasingly being seen as limiting of individual self expression. Conventional pronouns can be seen as impositions on those with non-binary gender identities. One of the commonly used gender-neutral pronouns used by gender nonconforming communities is ‘they/ them/ their’. Language, much like people, cultures, practices that it seeks to serve, is something that changes and evolves over time. Today, ‘they/them/ their’, is recognized as grammatically correct singular pronoun. There are many other pronouns as well, like ‘ze/ hir/ hirs’ (pronounced zee/ here/ heres) or ‘ey/ em/ eir’ (pronounced ay/ em/ airs), among others.


As Dictionary.com exclaimed rather disarmingly, ‘the language around gender and sexuality is exploding!’ Around for centuries, and derived from the traditional ‘folks’, Folx is an inclusive gender neutral term used to describe anyone who is non-normative and marginalized. This may not be restricted to people with marginalized sexualities and gender expressions, but also those marginalized by their political and social caste, class and race positions. The addition of ‘x’ in an already existing word to denote non normative identities is also being put in practice in other words like ‘womxn’ and ‘latinx’. Interestingly, in the seventeenth century, ‘folks’ was used by writers to refer to pirates, robbers, highwaymen and vagabonds. Basically, social outliers.


The idea of the nation is around 200-250 years old, born in the modern age, when countries and kingdoms began to take on a new political form – the nation-state. The nation has become so powerful an idea that today we cannot think of ourselves without belonging to a nation. Nation has been defined by a feminist historian as ‘a group whose members on the basis of some combination of beliefs in a common origin, a common history and a common destiny, constitute themselves into a community and lay claim to a specified territory and political representation, ranging from cultural autonomy to political statehood.’ Further, nations are constructed around an imagined sense of being unique, different from other ‘nations’. Therefore, the critical aspect of the nation is that it is an ‘imagined community’ that constructs a sense of being unique and different from other nations. Nationalism is understood as an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy and identity on behalf of those seen to constitute an actual or a potential nation. The representation of nations as domestic units with a cast of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters and the use of the language of familial relationships has also meant that many women along with men have been willing to die for it. Nationalism, therefore, is infused by enormous passion and devotion from members of the imagined nation state.

There has been a lot of academic work on the nation and on women and gender. However, the assumption has been that gender has little to do with the important questions of national politics. More recently, feminists in newly independent nations in Asia, in particular, have explored the role of women and gender in the construction and maintenance of the nation. Since nations are not ‘natural’ but imagined and invented, their self-representation through gendered language and imagery can and has acquired a range of powerful meanings. For example, in Nazi Germany, the image of the Fatherland contributed to communicating the power of the nation. Similarly, the idea of Mother India (Bharat Mata) as a female body to love, possess and protect has been well known in our popular culture and literature. The nation thus acquires gendered characteristics—as a feminised soil, landscape or boundaries over which masculine movement and conquest takes place. Lastly, the nation becomes gendered through social constructions that support a division of labour in which women reproduce the nation biologically and symbolically, and men protect, defend and avenge the nation.

An important arena of feminist analyses of the gendered nation has been in examining the notion of boundaries. It has been argued that women embody the borders of the nation as markers of the ethnic or national difference between nations. This is the context for the violence they are subjected to at moments of conflict—as in the partitions of India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Feminists have also seen how women are symbols of the national culture, and specifically subject to both sexual violence and control and disciplining of their sexuality as markers of the group’s innermost identity and honour. Recent studies of the nation, especially from a feminist perspective, have looked at the manner in which traditions are invented, on the basis of selected elements of a culture, to form unique national communities. That is, a particular nation becomes defined by certain specific traditions shared across a community. For example, if we think of the tradition of the pativrata (devoted to husband) wife, this idea gained popularity and use in the nineteenth century when the nationalist movement was being formulated. This idea reiterated the uniqueness of Indian women, and the fact that Indian women, and by extension the Indian nation (which is devoted, above all else), was superior to the west. We can see here how gender is a central element in the ‘invention’ of tradition – as tradition is reproduced through women’s bodies and behaviour. However, the project of nationalism is predominantly a masculine one. The concept of the nation is a specific form of male community, one that is yearned for by men over many long years and that arises from the ‘call of the blood’ and ultimately envisions the nation as a community of soldiers – it is a brotherhood of men.


In social sciences or development, we use the term ‘instrumentalist’ when schemes, policies or programmes are designed and implemented only looking at results that can be achieved and measured. The term actually comes from philosophy, and is a belief that the value of any particular theory does not lie in its ability to capture ‘truth’, but lies in its usefulness for understanding and predicting phenomenon. For instrumentalists, theories are best seen as ‘instruments’ that help us make our way through a world that’s constantly changing. Instrumentalism values a theory’s end contribution, and indicates an orientation to ‘end results’ over ‘processes’. For example, someone with an instrumental orientation to education would gain rewards from marks received rather than knowledge attained, or the changes on a person’s thinking, in their lives, choices, relationships from what they have learnt. Someone who speaks of gender and education in an instrumental way would only be concerned with the number of girls enrolled in school and not the substance of a gendered classroom. Instrumentalism leaves little space to consider processes that have value that cannot always be measured, such as the joy of learning or the empowerment that should accompany democratic processes.

Pedagogy/Critical Pedagogy/Digital Pedagogy

Pedagogy is the term used to describe strategies, methods and approaches used to facilitate learning. Critical pedagogy is also interested in facilitation of learning, but it is primarily concerned with the processes of how knowledge is produced, and communicated to learners.

A conventional understanding of learning is where the relation between knowledge/teachers and learners is one of authority and power. Learners are not expected to think about or question the knowledge they are given. With critical pedagogy, learners are encouraged to question social norms and dominant beliefs and practices, and become independently critical. Critical pedagogy explores the relationship between power and knowledge, and questions whether conventional educational practices serve dominant interests. For example, we could question whether what we learn about the family in school, about mothers and their roles or responsibilities serves to promote the dominant idea that a woman’s primary responsibility is to her home and family. A critical curriculum acknowledges the importance of socially and culturally distinct knowledge – knowledge that comes from different people in different social locations, like women, Dalits, tribals, Gujaratis, queer folx and so on. It also attempts to think about how learning can happen in different places and ways – at home, where one lives, what work one does, who one interacts with and so on.

As modes of teaching learning have moved online over the past decade, digital pedagogies are emerging. But digital pedagogy is usually perceived as using digital technologies for teaching and learning, an idea that creates the false notion that tools, by themselves, can facilitate learning.

Digital Pedagogy is not just about using digital technologies for teaching and, rather, about approaching those tools from a critical pedagogical perspective. So, it is as much about using digital tools thoughtfully as it is about deciding when not to use digital tools, and about paying attention to the impact of digital tools on learning.


Over the last few years, the term discourse has become so popular and so common in the social sciences that it is hard to talk about social life or relations without it. Discourse can be understood as a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic, or, what can possibly be viewed as the ‘truth’ related to that topic. Discourse is how reality as we know it is defined – a discourse affects our views on all things. For example, two notably distinct discourses can describe or talk about those involved in a radical movement, by describing them either as ‘freedom fighters or ‘terrorists’. In other words, the discourse we choose determines the words, expressions and perhaps also the style in which we communicate. Discourses are systems of thoughts, ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices – these are fluid, and change with place and time, social and political conditions. These systems of thought simultaneously construct the subjects in a system, and the entire worlds in which those subjects exist, act and speak.

What is the ‘truth’ is determined within a particular discourse. Discourses therefore have a crucial role in wider social processes that determine what becomes acceptable and normal. For example, if we think about the discourse of beauty that is so powerful in our everyday lives. This discourse, or system of thought describes who will be a beautiful person: beautiful girls will be fair and thin, beautiful or handsome boys will be tall, muscular, fit. We see or hear these rules or norms repeated in our everyday life – in what people say, in movies, TV advertisements. These ideas effect social institutions like marriage. Here we see how through discourse, people are included or excluded. Girls who are not fair are not considered beautiful, perhaps they will be teased in school or at home, they may not be able to find marriage partners. In discourse, power is ever present. To have power within a discourse usually means following the rules and maintaining the norm. By practising the right things, behaving the right way, becoming what is normal or acceptable within the discourse, one achieves power. Discourses hold the power to discipline us into particular ways of thinking and acting. This disciplining may or may not be by use of force – like a learner in school being punished for breaking a rule . Within the discourse of beauty, for example, we can see how individuals also discipline themselves. Girls who are not fair will often make themselves believe they are not beautiful. Our own notions of beauty are therefore determined by the dominant discourse. Discourse limits the choices individuals have within social life – so in the discourse of beauty, if you are not fair, it is difficult for other people also to think that you are beautiful. Power in discourses exists in all practices and relationships. One is not always controlled by power, one may also challenge or resist it through different practices, or use power productively. For example, one may use fairness creams to change one’s complexion, or use other opportunities to act, or challenge oppression.

This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. The concept of discourse emerged in the 1970s and 80s when claims that there was one theoretical approach that explained all aspects of society began to be questioned. Instead of searching for one truth, the attempt was to see how there were many truths within society, and at how different truths are produced and sustained. The idea was that truth and knowledge is plural, contextual, and historically produced through discourses. The notion of power within Foucault’s concept of discourse was also quite different from earlier understandings of power. Earlier, power was seen as something one dominant group or class held over another – a king over his people, a factory owner over the workers. Foucault’s concept of power held that power was like a web – it was not just in one place, and it did not only flow in one direction. Power was everywhere, in all relationships, social structures, institutions like school, religion, family. Power could be asserted by different people at different points. Power was not only oppressive or negative, but could also be positive, and generate transformation.

Prepared by Nirantar, A Centre for Gender and Education, New Delhi, India

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