My dissertation, It Will Become: Modern India and the Labor of Aspiration, defended in June of 2013, and now being turned into a book manuscript, uses mixed methods to study how inequality is reproduced at the intersection of wealth and poverty. Introduction available here. Drawing on two years of fieldwork at three private golf clubs in Bangalore, India’s “Silicon Valley,” I critically interrogate interactions between wealthy club members and the poor caddies who carry their bags on rounds. 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.
Primarily a study of everyday life and the struggle for subsistence in a city flush with new money, these findings shed light on the structural limits to India’s enduring commitment to trickle-down-economics in the reform era. Absent robust industrial policy, mass jobs programs, and adequate investments in public health care and education, servitude of the kind caddies perform remains one of the most viable ways to get by, if not ahead, in the “new “ India.
A second project will again assess the impact of elites on society. I plan to analyze how, if at all, the current economic crisis has transformed the politics, ethics, and ambitions of rank and file salaried professionals in the world of finance. My plan is to track the practical training and early career trajectories of a small group of men and women presently enrolled at top-ranked business and economics programs in the U.S. and abroad. In the first instance, I am interested to know what these would be analysts, brokers, accountants, lawyers, and other aspiring professionals learn in business ethics courses presumably updated and revised in light of finance violations revealed in late 2008 and after. Eventually, I will want to evaluate how efforts to reform the industry from within and without bear on informants’ day-to-day activities in the firms and businesses where they find work.
These two projects—one that looks at how bootstrap narratives among the Indian elite structure aspirations and livelihoods of the disadvantaged; the other at how newly revised moral standards in the area of finance guide the activities of rank and file professionals—reflect not only scholarly interests, but also personal concerns. I am driven to understand how differently situated actors in the global economy either reinforce or 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.