The "Caddie Question": Why the Golf Caddies of Bangalore Reject Formal Employment

My article on labor and resistance at golf clubs in Bangalore, India is now up at the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. You can find it here. The full article is behind a paywall, unfortunately, but if anyone wants a PDF of it, just shoot me a message. The book, alas, is another year from being out--the full ms. is due early August of this year, with more revisions to come, I'm sure. But the article here gives a taste of what I'm up to. Check it out. 


Elites and us

At the Eastern Sociological Society (ESS) Meetings in Philadelphia last weekend, Hugo Ceron-Anaya, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University, and I organized a three-panel mini-conference on elites. The idea for the mini-conference developed out of our mutual research interests, if also our chosen sites of investigation: Hugo has spent considerable time studying elites at private golf courses in Mexico City, while I've done the same at private golf courses in Bangalore, India. For our part, Hugo and I presented a paper on the way race, language, and citizenship, in addition to gender and class, influenced what kind of access we were able to obtain during the course of our respective projects. For a run-down on other topics covered in the mini-conference itself, plus another panel on elites and inequality the following day featuring Shamus Khan, Ashley Mears, Cristobal Young, Brooke Harrington, and Murray Milner, check out Jessica Sherwood's excellent review over at Medium

In India, same old story

Here's a short article, and a short clip, with a familiar story about growth and development in India. Though it's a new century, and a new economy, some things never change. There's plenty of money for private infrastructure, gated communities, golf courses, and hotels, but not education. Certainly not poor people. 

How did we get here?

There are a few "How the hell did we get here?" retrospectives floating around online and in print. Divided States of America, a new documentary from PBS Frontline, is among the best. It traces the Trump phenomenon back to Obama's first presidential election campaign and the ensuing launch of the Tea Party movement. The battles over the stimulus of 2009, health care 2010, and the government shutdown of 2013 are all detailed. The accompanying commentary and analysis of race in America is particularly good, I think, and also illuminating, especially the parts that highlight Obama's calibrated and sometimes awkward responses to the Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Charleston murders, and the criminalization of black bodies, generally. Find time to watch or listen, if you can.

Back to the Future

Something to do in dark times: talk to people, organize, get out of your comfort zone. Wise words from radical teacher and radical friend Jamie McCallum: 

Rather than dig deeper into our own familiar communities, we must go back to the uncertain future. That requires experimenting with the skills of organizing the undecideds, some of whom voted for Trump, and never taking our eyes off them. There are, of course, people doing this already. Groups like the Rural Organizing Project in Oregon, some strong unions in the South, and others are already focusing on recruiting more white workers into social justice movements. In Vermont, where I live, rural white workers are easy to find, and the handful of grassroots organizations here tend to prioritize organizing them into fights for healthcare, paid sick days, political change, against fracking, etc. Most recently, some of these organizations have collaborated to help welcome Syrian refugees into Rutland VT. It will not be easy to bring undecideds into an escalated fight. But it is the job of organizers to help people understand what is necessary to win, not offer them something comfortable to do.

More here




Red State, Blue Campus: What now?

I have an op-ed out today in the Des Moines Register. I give some thoughts on teaching and working at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa. You can read it here. In an earlier version, I had included a paragraph about some things I'm planning with my classes next semester, but there wasn't space for it. Hopefully, I'll have the chance to share these ideas in a future post. 

Whites for Trump? Not entirely

Here is yet another reason to question the dominant narrative of white nationalism or white identity politics winning Trump the White House, and tilting the balance of power in Britain, France, and other European nations—India’s own dalliance with right-wing populism in electing Narendra Modi, as well as the general support Trump receives in Indian society, overall. Two pieces worth reading on this point: one from Shefali Anand, Niharika Mandhana, and Saeed Shah, in the Wall Street Journal, and another, by Pankaj Mishra, in the pages of the New York Times. 

Water riots in Bangalore

This week a series of riots broke out across the city of Bangalore in response to a dispute with the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. The matter concerns the allocation of water from the Cauvery River, which runs through both states, and which gives sustenance to farmers and ordinary citizens alike on either side of the border. Back in 2013, as per this post at the Wall Street Journal, the Indian government issued an order allocating a majority of water from the Cauvery River to Tamil Nadu. In August of this year, the government of Tamil Nadu appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that Karnataka had yet to fully comply with the original ruling. The Supreme Court, as is its mandate, prodded Karnataka to release more water than it had done the previous few years. Residents of the state, particularly those living in Bangalore, are upset, and, hence, the riots. It is the weekend now, and things seem to be under control. For the time being, at least. 

Regular as they are, these sorts of water disputes are not my domain of study. I don't know enough about the particulars here to make a judgement, one way or the way. But I do have an observation, based on the facts as I know them. While residents in Bangalore are doing what they can to raise awareness of water scarcity in their locales, five-star hotels, golf courses, and other exclusive enclaves have quality water in abundance. It's a point barely ever raised. It is not that these elite spaces pay more for water, either. They don't. The golf courses where I conducted my research since 2007, for example, do not pay market rates on the water they take from tank beds and lakes around the city. Nor did they pay for the pipes that bring the water to the fairways and greens, in the first place.

I write this only as a reminder, then. So much talk of scarcity in the world today--in this case, water scarcity. But somehow, some way the most advantaged in the world get just what they need, and more, often at the expense of taxpayers, who, unawares, pay for it, even as they go without. That's what's going on right now in Bangalore. It's what's going on the world over. 

The "caddie question"

One of the chapters of the book I’m writing deals with the labor conditions at the golf clubs where I did my research in Bangalore. I’m currently reworking it into an article manuscript, which is giving me a chance to refine the argument. The matter concerns whether or not the caddies should be regularized as employees. The issue was first debated at a meeting held at the Bangalore Golf Club in July of 1896. The obvious solution was to pay them a salary, as one member in the room that day had suggested, as this would have the effect of “compelling them by fines to be present always.” The proposal was shelved, though, on account of limited funds. The club was only recovering 40 rupees a month in member dues at the time, and the burden of paying 20 caddies three rupees a month in salary was too steep, apparently: “The loss thus incurred to the club would not be justified by the advantage gained, even if the plan was a success.”

The question of employment was raised again in the fall of 1908, except this time as the “caddie question,” and yet this time, again, it was voted down: there was no money to pay the caddies on a regular basis. The same question was asked, and answered in the negative, one more time in September of 1946, when it was suggested that member dues increase to “pay caddies a monthly wage and not as casual labour as and when they came.” A month later, in October, it was put to the larger body of the club to decide whether to support a “basic wage” of 15 and 12 rupees as payment to regular and fore caddies, respectively. “It was thought that this would provide sufficient inducement and that players would be assured of caddies when required,” the minutes read. The majority of members thought otherwise, and, as before, voted the amendment down.

At no time in the subsequent 100-plus-year history of the Bangalore Golf Club have the caddies been named employees. The same holds true at the other two golf clubs where I did significant research, the Karnataka Golf Association and the Eagleton Golf Resort. Not that the caddies wouldn’t have a case, mind you. While they are not officially designated employees—club officials prefer to call them “casual” or “contract” laborers; or, as a few put it to me, “you know, like railway porters, free to come and go as they like”—they sure are treated that way. They must hand over personal identification, sign a register, wear uniforms, attend (unpaid) training sessions, and submit to the dictates of caddy masters, or paid managers, who police their behavior. 

Here’s the thing, though. Despite working conditions that mimic full-time employment, the caddies at all three clubs generally avoid talk of organizing in support of that very achievement. While they faced the usual challenges of collectively organizing—diversity of language, religion, caste, and community are certainly obstacles, as is the number of them, 300 or more, at each club—these challenges alone weren’t sufficient to explain their resistance to pursuing a path to employment. They didn’t want employment, it seemed. That’s the way they put it to me, at least. Rather, they preferred to be treated like the contract or casual laborers the clubs said they were. They really did want to come and go as they liked. They didn’t want to be told what to do. That they ended up being treated differently—restricted in their access to the club, demoted or suspended time-to-time, told what to do, where to go, and how much they could charge members for their services—wasn’t enough to change their minds.

As many labor scholars and activists have it, though, the trouble with informal or precarious workers is, well, the informality, the precarity of what they do. The point is to move these workers into deeper, more formal ties with prospective employers, whether public or private. So, how do the caddies end up not wanting this kind of formalization? That’s the puzzle I’m working through.

It comes down to two things, in my assessment. First, the clubs, as mentioned, refuse to call the caddies employees. That’s a convenience, for sure, but it’s also a useful rhetorical trick. Calling the caddies contract or casual laborers immediately neutralizes the claim to be treated this way. Second, is the arbitrary and indiscriminate way that the clubs go about exacting discipline and control over the caddies. It’s not all the time that the caddies face punishment or suspension for things they do or don’t do on the golf courses. And not all the time that they are told to go with one member or another, even if they have a round already set up with someone else who they know will pay them more. There’s enough autonomy, in other words, to give the appearance of full autonomy—indeed, if the clubs got to have things precisely their way, all the time, while never giving the caddies guaranteed wages, benefits, and other protections owed full-time employees, I think they would have some significant resistance to deal with. But they don’t, and that works in their favor. What limited freedoms and choices the caddies already have, they want more of the same. 

The last thing, of course, which is more an outcome of the previously discussed conditions, is the relationship caddies develop with individual members who they depend upon to provide them with social and economic security. And the more the caddies come to depend on any one member, or group of members, the less likely they are to rise up against them. 

So, in the end, the status quo prevails. The caddies do okay, but never well enough, and never with the full autonomy they desire, and rightly deserve. And the clubs go on treating the caddies as if they are employees, while refusing them that title. 

Back to school

In mid-July I signed a book contract with Oxford University Press. After the celebration, a drink, or three, and the kudos and all, it sunk in. There's work to be done, and not a lot of time, with a deadline to submit a full draft by February 1, 2017. There's inevitably some leeway in a deadline like this as things move along--a delay of a week or a month, even longer, is not unusual in the publishing world; some might say it's the norm. I would so like to be on target, though, but here I am, late August, and not much to show for it. Not yet, at least. 

Between signing day and now, I've been traveling non-stop. Some of it has been research-related--my two-week stint in Bangalore to catch up with the golf caddies I've been following since 2007 fits the description, obviously; likewise, a pair of talks at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association this week in Seattle--one Friday, at a "Precarious Work" mini-conference, and one Saturday, both on the topic of labor rights and exploitation at the golf clubs in Bangalore (more on that in a follow-up post). There's also been visits with family and friends in London, Seattle, and Vancouver. And there's been the necessary prepping of classes for the new semester ahead--two courses, to be exact, a freshman Tutorial class I'm calling "The Presentation of Self in Digital Life," and a standard class in the Sociology Major at Grinnell College labeled, dryly, "Contemporary Sociological Theory."

The new semester? It starts this week, beginning with an 8:30 a.m. get-to-know-you breakfast with my Tutorial students Monday morning, followed by back-to-back 45-minute advising sessions with each of them, which will carry over to Tuesday. Then there's a faculty meeting Wednesday, in addition to a few more meetings. Classes kick off Thursday, and we're away.

This isn't a grievance or a complaint. Quite the opposite, actually. I'm excited about the coming year. For the teaching, yes, but also the writing--this book project, love it though I do, is coming to a close. This past spring semester was relatively productive. and this one will be more so, I've decided. It'll require a major refocusing of energies and commitments, especially after the travel these last few weeks. But I'm ready. 


To the left a picture of the atrium at the cafe inside Diamond District, one of Bangalore's first gated communities, out along Old Airport Road, in the east of the city. This is where I conducted approximately 50 of my original interviews with the golf caddies at the Karnataka Golf Association (KGA). The first was recorded in the spring of 2008, a year into my fieldwork--back when Old Airport Road was simply Airport Road, before commercial flights shifted to the new airport in Yellahanka--and the last this past Sunday morning.

I'm here for updates and fact checking, with caddies and members alike, at the KGA, as well as at the Bangalore Golf Club, across town, and at the Eagleton Golf Resort, along the Mysore Highway--I had visited 18 golf clubs across the country, but these three are the primary focus of the study. The manuscript, almost complete, is due early 2017 to Oxford University Press, with a publication date a year later. There's another chapter to write, a conclusions, and a methods section. Otherwise, it's a matter of revising, updating, and fact checking. Hence, this latest visit.

And what a trip it's been: the interviews (300-plus), the learning and playing golf (badly), the whiskey on clubhouse patios with members, the home visits with caddies, the school visits with their children. In all, two and a half years living in Bangalore, over a span of nine years, nearly a quarter of my life, and now the end, or close to it. At times depressing, inspiring, frustrating, radicalizing--it's given me life, and a career. I'll miss it. 

Ezra Klein and the liberal response to Trump

Ezra Klein's post on Trump reads like a thorough and wholly effective take-down. Until, that is, you get to the end, where he says that Trump should be disqualified "because the presidency is a powerful job where mistakes can kill millions, and whoever holds it needs to take that power seriously and wield it responsibly." Klein, and many other liberals besides, neglect to mention the atrocities perpetrated on the watch of a number of other more "serious," "rational," and "hard working" American presidents. 

Recall Nixon's war in Vietnam; Reagan's military excursions in Latin America; Bush's crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continuing fallout; and Obama's doubling down on Bush's failed policies and the uptick in drone warfare in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. 

The point is that America isn't so much in the habit of putting in power the serious and venerable figures Klein has in mind. Trump's just more transparent and brazen in his disregard for the niceties that go along with implementing American hegemony at home and abroad.

Back in Bangalore

Today, Bangalore greeted me as only Bangalore can--offering me up to the bureaucratic gods, and landing me at Vodafone, where I got the run-a-round trying to get a SIM card activated--"No, sir. You need a letter." "No, sir. The photo must be this size." "Please, sir. One more hour." I made a total of four in-store visits in a span of six hours.

Each time I was greeted by a security guard whose only job it seemed was to press buttons on a tiny machine that spit out a number to customers wanting to get a place in line. I don't know what the guy would've done in the event of an emergency. Maybe run, like the rest of us. But it got me thinking--not for the first time--about the fact that thousands of men and women across the city and country perform these types of jobs. Not just menial jobs, either, but mind numbing, deadening, wholly unnecessary jobs. Wasted human potential, and a waste to the nation.

But, sure, I got a new SIM card.

Full circle

My first trip to India was in January of 2006. I was in Bangalore to give a talk on behalf of a professor I had worked with previously. A year later, again in January, I was back in Bangalore for the start of what I thought then would be a few months of fieldwork for my dissertation. From there, I’d fall back into normalcy in New York where I lived at the time, transcribe interviews, see what I had, and write something up. It didn’t turn out that way. I deposited my dissertation and graduated years later, in 2013, and ever since I’ve been working on a book manuscript. 

This summer I’ll return to Bangalore to share what I have of the book manuscript, which, finally, is getting into shape. There’s still a ways to go, mind you. Right now, I have a 30-page introduction and three chapters, each 40+ pages long (and which will eventually need to be cut down, I know). I’m working on another chapter at present, which I should have done end of this month, and another that’s well underway. Then, there’s a last chapter, followed by a conclusion. Plus, a methodological appendix. Maybe it’d be overly ambitious to have the whole thing done by mid-July, when I head out, but I can see the light now, and that’s not something I’ve been able to say up until now. 

The project started out as an investigation of Bangalore’s emerging new elite. My particular field sites were the city’s golf courses. Three, in fact: the Karnataka Golf Association, the Bangalore Golf Club, and the Eagleton Golf Resort (all of which know about this project, and consented this research). The club members I got to know, and who trusted me immensely in sharing their lives and this world with me, were interesting, compelling figures in their own right.

But it wasn’t until I got to know the golf caddies who worked with them that the members themselves and the world they had created in these private—yet government-subsized—spaces came into sharper focus. Over time, as I played the courses, hung out with members and caddies, visiting them in their homes, and traveling with them outside the city on occasion, what emerged was a study of what kinds of lives and possible futures were made at the intersection of wealth and poverty. The caddies, in the end, captured the bulk of my attention throughout the remainder of my fieldwork, and it’s their lives that figure most prominently in the book. This isn’t the usual study of poverty from below, I like to think. Rather, it’s a study of social mobility, or the lack of it, as a consequence of so much deference and servility offered in exchange for barely living wages and tips. 

I tell a story in the introduction to the book about the first time I played golf at the KGA, in the fall of 2007. I had hired a caddy I will call Krishna (not his real name). Walking up the seventh fairway, we got to talking. The whole time we were speaking in English. I wondered how he had learned the language. Not a smart question, in hindsight, but he delivered a perfect response: “My school is the KGA.” And right there, in that moment, I had something, a project. A project because I didn’t yet know what else Krishna and his peers had learned in this space all these years working at the side of some of the richest, most powerful people in the city. So, I ventured to find out. 

In the coming weeks and months before the book is published (2017 is the plan), I’ll share more about the project, how it got off the ground, what obstacles I ran up against, and, importantly, the lessons Krishna and so many of his peers shared with me. More soon. 

Austerity, opportunity, and solidarity

Gaja Maestri on the unexpected ways recent rounds of austerity measures in Rome are opening up spaces for solidarity building in support of Roma and other disadvantaged groups: 

... the example of the Roma in Metropoliz, together with other squats organised by the BPM and RAM groups, teaches mainly two important lessons, one about the effects of crises, and the other about the effects of Roma mobilisation for housing rights through class-based solidarity rather than ethnicity. Crises, as mentioned before, have an ambivalent character: they can exacerbate social conflicts, they can produce new cleavages, but they can also create the conditions for new forms of solidarity and productive contestations of previous divisions. The second lesson is about the possibility of changing the Roma housing situation by organising mobilisations on the basis of their socio-economic status rather than their ethnic identity. In a way, this supports Fanon’s ([1965] 2005) idea of the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat as opposed to Marx’s, as those that are revolting and creating new solidarities during the crisis are not Roma and Travellers in general, but the most oppressed among them. This aspect also opens the question of the extent to which the ethnic definitions employed by pro-Roma NGOs and international institutions, such as the COE or the OSF, really work for their integration, mainly in times of economic crisis.

Poor Economics

After spring break, my Sociology of Global Development class has taken up reading four books, one of them Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. I'm embarrassed to say that I've only skimmed it prior to now. I assigned it because I wanted to take a deeper dive into the mechanics of the argument, and take my students along, as well. It's good, I have to say, and with a fairly basic point. This, an excerpt from a chapter on health, sums it up well: 

The poor seem to be trapped by the same kinds of problems that afflict the rest of us-lack of information, weak beliefs, and procrastination among them. It is true that we who are not poor are somewhat better educated and informed, but the difference is small because, in the end, we actually know very little, and almost surely less than we imagine.

Our real advantage comes from the many things that we take as given. We live in houses where clean water gets piped in-we do not need to remember to add Chlorin to the water supply every morning. The sewage goes away on its own-we do not actually know how. We can (mostly) trust our doctors to do the best they can and can trust the public health system to figure out what we should and should not do. We have no choice but to get our children immunized-public schools will not take them if they aren't-and even if we somehow manage to fail to do it, our children will probably be safe because everyone else is immunized. Our health insurers reward us for joining the gym, because they are concerned that we will not do it otherwise. And perhaps most important, most of us do not have to worry where our next meal will come from. In other words, we rarely need to draw upon our limited endowment of self-control and decisiveness, while the poor are constantly being required to do so.

We should recognize that no one is wise, patient, or knowledgeable enough to be fully responsible for making the right decisions for his or her own health. For the same reason that those who live in rich countries live a life surrounded by invisible nudges, the primary goal of health-care policy in poor countries should be to make it as easy as possible for the poor to obtain preventive care, while at the same time regulating the quality of treatment that people can get. An obvious place to start, given the high sensitivity to prices, is delivering preventive services for free or even rewarding households for getting them, and making getting them the natural default option when possible. Free Chlorin dispensers should be put next to water sources; parents should be rewarded for immunizing their children; children should be given free deworming medicines and nutritional supplements at school; and there should be public investment in water and sanitation infrastructure, at least in densely populated areas.

So, to review: poor people are people, it turns out, who require--as all people do--decency and respect along with firm bases of support in order to live meaningful lives. Simple, not simplistic, and something we can all appreciate, rich, poor, or otherwise. Whether we do or not, and whether this motivates action to alleviate poverty on a grand scale--these are other questions entirely. But the mystery of poverty is really no mystery at all. 

Also see Duflo's TED Talk, available here

The Myth of Marginality

Working through the book manuscript on the lives of poor and lower-caste golf caddies--halfway there, aiming for a pub date in 2017--I'm reacquainting myself with some of the old familiar texts I leaned on in producing the original dissertation. Foremost in my mind, at present, is Janice Perlman's The Myth of Marginality. Originally published in 1980, Perlman's book is a study of the politics and experience of poverty in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the sixties and seventies.

Useful to the work I’m doing is Perlman's understanding of aspirations among the poor and working people she encounters. At one point she writes of her informants: “In short, they have the aspirations of the bourgeoisie, the perseverance of pioneers, and the values of patriots. What they do not have is an opportunity to fulfill their aspirations” (emphasis in the original; pardon the academic convention).

The lesson here, and throughout the book, is not one of personal choice and responsibility made and unmade on the margins of society--as if someone chooses poverty, in Brazil, in India, anywhere, that someone chooses marginality--but that there's an order to who gets to fulfill what aspirations, when, and where. A necessary lesson, I take it, not just for the book I'm writing; it's necessary, too, I think, as a window onto poverty, in general, and a clue as to what might be done about it. 

Puzzling "white man pathology"

Here's Stephen Marche in the Guardian taking yet another stab at why white males in the Midwest appear drawn to Trump and Sanders. Why Marche lumps Sanders in with Trump, I don't know. Balance, perhaps? Because, really, there's not much comparison between the two. Except for the color of their skin, that is, which is where Marche focuses his explanation of their interests in either candidate. Race, and that is it.  

There is nothing in this piece on unemployment or poverty in America. Nothing on the crisis in healthcare or the crisis in education. Nothing on the insecurity and instability many in this country face, whether white, black, or other. Nothing on racial inequality, really (though there is a throw away statement that connects a few white men playing cards in a casino in Iowa and cops shooting black men in open daylight, as if it were that simple). And nothing on Hillary Clinton, or her husband, or, for that matter, anyone else implicated in setting the US economy on a path that ended in the financial crash of 2008.

In other words, Marche’s explanation of voting interests among Midwestern white males is a non-explanation. It’s also a popular one, and I suspect we will see more of it in the months ahead. But it does make me think back to Ellen Willis's review of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, aptly titled, "What's the Matter with Tom Frank (and the Lefties Who Love Him)?” It’s a necessary antidote to the kind of critique on offer with Marche and others who write in this vein.

What Marche puts down to "white man pathology," Willis explains as a rational choice. In a country dominated by two parties beholden to corporate interests, neither of which takes much cares much for the concerns of ordinary workers, predominantly white voters in the Midwest do, and will, vote on purely cultural lines. The answer is not ridicule or cynicism, as is Marche’s tactic, but rather serious engagement with the root causes of anxiety and despair among white voters in this part of the country. 

DFW on Writing

I really appreciated this post by Maria Popova reminding us of David Foster Wallace's words on writing, and especially the bit about transitions, punctuation, and ease of reading.

From DFW: 

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.


The point where that amount—the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort—becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof.

Students take note. Profs who would be writers, as well, of course. 

Wealth Inequality in America

Showed this video today in class. Short, and not so sweet, it provides a nice primer on the bare facts of inequality in America today.  Now, what to do about any of it, is another question. Still, that we're asking this one on income and wealth distribution is something, I like to think.