My first book, Narrow Fairways: Getting By & Falling Behind, draws on ten-plus years of deep ethnographic fieldwork at three exclusive golf clubs in Bangalore, India. The book focuses on the lives of poor and mostly lower-caste caddies who carry the golf sets of wealthy upper-caste members at these clubs. Members, as I show, among them industrialists, salaried professionals, and civil servants, publicly support fairness and equality, and yet routinely undermine these intentions in the way they relate to the caddies. Though members tout the merits of hard work and discipline as a means to self-improvement, they invariably obstruct paths to social and economic independence. Most notably, they refuse to grant the caddies status as employees, which would provide them with the benefits and guaranteed wages necessary for stability. As a result, the caddies have little choice but to cultivate ties of servility and deference, seeking handouts from members in order to procure health care, educate their children, and cover rising household expenses.
In 2014, while undertaking fieldwork on the first project, I started tracking a select few graduates of an English-language residential boarding school for poor and lower-caste children in South India. The school, founded in the late-1990s by a former Wall Street executive, prepares children to one day lift their families out of poverty and assume leadership roles in the society once they leave the school. Graduates, indeed, are successful. Almost all of them go on to competitive colleges in Bangalore. From there, they take high-paying jobs at local and international firms in India and around the world. In addition to following these personal successes, however, I want to understand the challenges graduates encounter in meeting the expectations to support families and solve social problems in their communities and in the country, more generally. With nearly 100 interviews now completed, along with several site visits on-campus, I am preparing two article manuscripts, one that is addressing the specific struggles of women graduates and another that is looking at the ideological assumptions that underpin most graduates’ thinking about poverty alleviation in a country riven by social and economic inequalities.
I am also laying the groundwork for new research on elites in Mexico City. I am especially interested in the ways in which the city’s elites negotiate social and physical spaces in light of real and perceived threats of violence. Living and working in middle- and upper-middle class neighborhoods like La Condesa, Roma, and Polanco, for example, one has a sense of elevated safety and security. But what kinds of work—physical, social, and mental—goes into making one feel safe and secure in these parts of the city? Beyond the immediate concerns of elites, though, I want to know more about the way individuals and groups with extraordinary means navigate a world of increasing inequality and elevated crime—a world, quite frankly, that elites have made.
These three projects—one complete, and the other two underway—reflect not only scholarly interests, but also personal concerns. I am driven to understand how differently situated actors in the global economy reinforce and challenge inequality. This larger objective is premised on the belief that sound, empirically grounded research on inequality can enliven public debate and move policy in a positive direction.