Secularism's names: Commitment to confusion and the pedagogy of the name

Jacob Copeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay takes up social and political questions of naming that are often ignored in studies of inequality or exclusion. What if South Asian personal names ceased to reveal demographic ‘data’ about their bearers, scrambling any attempt at automatic categorization? The focus here is on naming and/or renaming for ideological reasons, and in such ways that the identity of the bearer is deliberately blurred. Grounded in ethnographic work amongst committed proponents of secularism in India (principally rationalist, humanist, and atheist activists), the essay identifies two main strategies that activists use for the production of ‘disidentification’: purification of the caste and religious connotations of names, and multiplication of those connotations in the giving of boundary-crossing names. Common to each is a rationale that seeks to break the association between name and pigeonholed identity. However, acts of renaming, and non-normative names as such, can be and are contested. Thus, in order to clarify what is at stake in the domain of secular naming practices the essay also focuses on debates and criticisms from both within and outside it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (SAMAJ)
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2015


  • names
  • India
  • South Asia
  • secularism
  • atheism
  • caste
  • activism
  • meta-names

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