I wasn’t expecting my p. 99 – right in the middle of my methodology – to be particularly revealing. But as luck (or indeed Ford Madox Ford) would have it, on p. 99 we land midway through a description of my participants that speaks to the crux of my thesis:
Most of the students came from the same sub-caste, one that represents the vast majority of the population of the area around the branch. I have chosen not to disclose the name of the caste, as they are heavily concentrated in one particular area of Delhi – where my branch was located – and revealing this would make the branch potentially identifiable to those familiar with Delhi. I understand that this has scholarly implications, as my writing on this caste cannot be cross-referenced if it is kept anonymous, but this is a sacrifice that I am willing to make in the interest of protecting my participants’ anonymity. With regard to the positioning of the caste, there is great disagreement over which varna (the four main caste subdivisions) they belong to, with some claims that they descend from the Kshatriyas (second ‘highest’ caste) and other arguments that they are from the Vaishyas (the ‘third’). While their ancestral descent may be disputed, in Delhi this caste group have been labelled as OBC (Other Backward Classes) by the government as the caste is deemed socially, economically and educationally ‘backward’. Interestingly, this classification is not ubiquitous across India. In some states, this caste has been allocated ‘Scheduled Caste’ (SC) status by the government, a status reserved for the most oppressed peoples, usually those from the Dalit communities. Parallel to this, in 2008, there was civil unrest in another state of Northern India as this caste group rallied to be re-classified from OBC to SC, which would grant them further quotas for government jobs. While they may not be the most socially oppressed caste, there are widespread negative stereotypes in circulation of them as thuggish, uneducated and uncouth. There was a rumour circulating in the branch while I was there that Dominos no longer delivered pizza to that area as the delivery boys were too afraid. Although a facilitator informed me that this was not the case (Dominos were allegedly refusing to deliver as the road names were not marked clearly and they struggled to find addresses and deliver in the 30-minute timeframe that was promised by the pizza chain), the rumour was a clear indication of the types of assumptions made about this caste group (both by members and non-members). A Google search of the caste brings up links to a question posted in a forum asking why this caste is so feared in Delhi. Most of the responses chastised the caste members for being ‘unintelligent’ and only capable of responding to issues with violence, but one member of this caste took this as an opportunity to attempt to quell such stereotypes…
The aforementioned branch was one of several hundred branches of a non-profit English and employability training programme in North India and was the primary site for my ethnographic exploration of social mobility and English. Specifically, I was interested in the material, discursive and affective consequences of English speakerhood as a deeply embodied phenomenon enmeshed with wider historical processes and structures of inequality. As p. 99 suggests, caste – and its intersection with class, gender, race, colonialism – became the bedrock of my analysis.
Listening to the experiences of the students such as those described on p. 99 unearthed ambivalent feelings about their investments in English. On the one hand, they were deeply committed to pursuing a language that they had come to understand as their key to not only jobs but prestige, pride, (upward) marriage, and modernity (see also Highet 2022); on the other, there were recurrent moments of despair as they wondered whether this language framed as a resource could really live up to its promises; whether their transformation into an English speaker – a figure built upon colonial, class and caste stratification – could really help them counter their marginalisation and stigmatisation.
This is evident in the Domino’s rumour that I chose to illustrate the constant, dynamic presence of caste in these students’ lives, and which shows how the discursive ‘castelessness’, in Deshpande’s (2013) terms, of the middle classes obscures what is in practice a deeply consequential element of social organisation. In later chapters, I return to this to argue that this ideological ‘castelessness’ is a key part of what propels the discourse of social-mobility-through-English, as it reframes social mobility as an individualised pursuit, open to anyone, if only they try hard enough.
The problem, I argue later, is that these remain politically very difficult conversations to have, particularly in the current climate of rising suspicion of anything ostensibly ‘anti-national’; it is partly for this reason that I took the steps mentioned on p. 99 to protect my participants’ identities. This raises difficult questions – questions that I continue to grapple with – about the ethical and political challenges at stake in critical research and in our engagement with projects of social transformation.
Satish Deshpande. 2013. “Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category.'” Economic and Political Weekly. 48: 32–39.
Shivani Nag:It would be helpful if you could first introduce the book, what led you to this book?
Leya Mathew: This was my dissertation research, at that time, there was a lot of debate about low fee private schools in India. That debate was already happening. And I am from Kerala (South India) where there was a very heated debate about state-funded schools closing down because of private schools. But the academic debate somehow did not match what I was seeing around me. A lot of it was framed in the language of school choice. The school choice literature comes from a very particular historical context in the UK and the US, where school choice makes sense. But in India, school choice makes very little sense. I mean there is this whole body of very insightful literature, but it is misaligned with what is happening. That is what led to the research.
Shivani Nag: The book engages with aspirations for English and among parents. Like you said, your work is based in Kerala, and in the North (of India) certain stereotypes exist about English being a far more comfortable language for those who are from the South. There is a certain complexity of location in the book in terms of geography, you know the dynamics of class, caste, religion (Christianity), the nature of market, and the political leadership (Communist Party). How did you listen to and make sense of the voices emerging in your field, especially because there were also multiple things shaping these voices? Also, I found your choice of “moral aspiration” very interesting, could you share some light on that as well?
Leya Mathew You’re absolutely right, what poverty looks like in certain parts of northern India in comparison to some parts of South India can be very different. Kerala has a long history of development, it’s very contested. At the same time, the intensity of aspiration is noted by others about northern India as well. Aspiration does travel across geography but the specificity of how it manifests would of course be different.
As for moral aspiration, for the longest time the title of my book was Moral Aspiration. The current title came much, much later, after the peer review. While writing, I read Andrea Muehlebach’s The Moral Neoliberal. She’s writing about a very different context, it’s about volunteerism in Italy, but the argument she made was very striking. We assume neoliberal capitalism and its accumulative impetus to be divorced from the moral. But the moral is very central to how capitalism functions as well as to how people are making sense of what’s happening around them.
In my context, whether it was mothers or policymakers in Delhi or Kerala, their expression was very, very moral. So how do you write about a moral neoliberal with all of its contradictions? Because here, you have elites and non-elites using the moral but in very different ways and with very different effects.
When elites claim that they represent the nation, they do so on the strength of their moral claims. Those who study the middle classes have written extensively about the significance of the moral for middle class hegemonic projects. The privileged middle class comes to stand in for everybody else and their agendas come to stand in for national agendas on the basis of their moral claims. The moral becomes the basis of how resources are distributed. Those are the two aspects I was trying to emphasize with the phrase moral aspiration.
Shivani Nag: I also wanted to ask you about the debate on medium of instruction, which has often and rightfully so, connected to questions around access, the accessibility of knowledge for the marginalized and for the oppressed sections. If you look at the Thorat committee report that came out after allegations of caste-based discrimination of students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the key concerns and recommendations had to do with the language gap, non-familiarity with English and the fact that institutions were doing very little to bridge that gap. When it comes to English, different kinds of voices have emerged from within the anti-caste struggles. There are those who see in English an opportunity to counter a certain form of caste-ist standardization in regional languages. Both English and the regional language can be alienating and disconnected from the context. And, of course, others have also pointed towards the epistemological functions of language, and thus the need for the language of the oppressed to be brought to classrooms. Given these debates, I was wondering how would you reflect on the question of language and access, especially for the oppressed castes?
Leya Mathew My current project is on higher education, so these are things that I have been thinking about. In hyper competitive spaces like the IITs and AIIMS, questions around language can function very differently. In mid or lower tier spaces, English can work very differently. There’s something about how the space is located in relation to larger structures, we need to pay attention to that. The schools that I’m looking at in the book are really on the margins of society. As for epistemology, one of the things that I struggled with a lot is, what does epistemology mean when you can access the language only in its written form? These were also personal questions. I studied in a village and then a small town growing up, and I could only write in English. I learned to speak in English a lot later, after I went to college in the city. If you take all of this into consideration, then what are the kind of pedagogic and linguistic spaces that can be negotiated and created? Can we creates ones which are not just welcoming but which are also serious because there’s also a lot of desperate desire for learning?
Shivani Nag: I was also thinking about bell hooks in the context of race. When she talks about English, there is the sense of this being the oppressor’s language which is still needed by the oppressed to be able to talk to those in power. When it comes to languages in India, given the very complex linguistic context we have, it’s not easy for us to clearly identify which is the oppressor’s language. In the context of caste, it’s a particular form of standardized regional language which becomes the oppressor’s language. Then the colonizer’s language can, instead, become a liberating language; our context is very complex.
Leya Mathew: It gets slightly more complicated in Kerala, because the state, the Communist Party is saying exactly this. In the book I write about how the state says that we don’t want a prettified language, we want to intentionally bring the language of the oppressed into our textbooks, and they did that to some extent. But the way it functioned; it became a very perverse inclusion of the language of the oppressed.
Shivani Nag:The private-public divide in schools almost neatly translates to the English versus regional language, and the elite – non-elite private school divide to one between those students who are coming from contexts where English is almost their first language versus those for whom English would still be an imposition. Can the question of language in school can be split off from the concern for the common school system, given that our schools are so hierarchical, and divided so sharply?
Leya Mathew: Yes, it is an extremely hierarchical system. How to work with language education within this hierarchical system if you do not have the option of common schooling is something that needs to be engaged with seriously. I think the debate misses that point, you’re very right. Common schooling has been talked about from the very beginning (independence of the nation), but never been implemented. By now, we know that it will never happen. Any discussion on language education or, for that matter, anything to do with pedagogy has to take this into account. When we have this sort of hierarchical system, then what does it mean to make textbooks for the country? Or design instruction for our country? It doesn’t work. I’m sure that even within a common schooling system there would be hierarchies. But what we have are very institutionalized hierarchies which also distribute resources in very particular ways. You’re absolutely right, I think there needs to be a lot more discussion on this.
Shivani Nag:Since you brought in the question of pedagogy, there is also an imagination of the nation in textbooks. Another school ethnography around aspirations for English that I found engaging was by Shalini Advani and that book, Schooling the National Imagination, was located in the North Indian context. Given the concerns around language imposition that have again come up with the National Education Policy and the resistance from the southern states, how did the relation between language aspiration and a national identity unfold in your field?
Leya Mathew There’s a lot in Shalini’s book about how the nation is imagined, particularly through textbooks, but she also talks about how the classrooms themselves didn’t fit into that imagination because they were on the margins of society. I don’t talk about nationalism in the book but where it comes through most clearly is in the CBSC high school textbooks, the Main Course Book, where immediately, this techno-science nation emerges.
The other reason why I could not really think about nationalism in the context of my study is perhaps because the nation is implicitly Hindu, and Hindi-speaking these days. Sanjay Srivastava demonstrated some of it brilliantly in his book about the Doon School. My context was neither Hindu nor Hindi speaking. Your question makes me reflect on why nationalism did not come up as a theme for me.
There is obviously more sub-nationalism than nationalism in terms of language identities if you look at South India. For the Kerala State and for regional elites, and remember these are people who are bilingual and very comfortable with academic Malayalam and academic English, there is definitely a feeling of imposition (of Hindi), as well as mechanisms of responding and resisting. But these concerns are very distant for those who are not imagined as part of the nation to begin with.
Shivani Nag:When one tries to engage with questions around aspirations, looking at them not just in (marginalized) communities, but also in leadership, that is important.
Moving forward, I was also thinking about how the medium of instruction question in schools cannot be insulated from the question of medium of instruction in higher education. You know language diversity in school systems does not carry over to higher education. In India, higher education is even more exclusive, I think we can confidently say that at least 90% of it is in English.
Leya Mathew: And the sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture, all of that is only taught in English. Like I said, I’m studying higher education now and in a state (Gujarat) where regional-medium education is very strong. I see it unfolding in a much more complex way. These are high achievers from Gujarati-medium schools, they’ve made it to a premier college at the regional level. So those from regional language instruction may have other resources that they can mobilize. Another important factor to keep in mind is that this is also a time of increasing unemployment, when even a professional degree does not lead you to a decent job. What does the cultural capital of English mean if it just leads to a precarious labor market, so it’s complicated.
Shivani Nag:The whole idea of language and socioeconomic mobility must be getting affected in so many ways, with the decline in employment opportunities.
What were some of the major insights that emerged from your field research that perhaps also took you by some surprise? There are certain expectations that one has, I’m very interested in knowing what the surprises were.
Leya Mathew Fieldwork always surprises you. Even in my current project, I went in thinking that those from English medium schools would have everything lined up for them, and it was a big surprise to learn that English did not get you anywhere. In terms of the book, I think the most surprising part was, I thought if you were deprived and knew you were deprived, you would respond with anger. It seems very naïve now. At the Malayalam-medium school, there was a lot more hope and aspiration. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that and I remember having a lot of conversations with my supervisor about that. People’s lives always surprise us, there’s much more happening in anybody’s life than what theory can capture. And I think that’s also the interesting part of doing research.
Shivani Nag: Absolutely. The complexities, the nuances take very different kinds of shapes. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity of engaging with your work. It keeps reminding us to not be just rhetorical with research. It is important to listen to what your participants and the context is speaking.
One last question: educational research in India is focused on outcomes, achievements, certain statistical measures, how do you see the role of ethnography? When you try to convince policymakers, they want data or solutions in the form of step one, step two, step three, so if you go to them with a very rich ethnographic work, it impresses them, but it also makes it difficult for them to pick out two things that they can apply towards.
Leya Mathew Yes, policymakers want numbers and steps, but the policymakers I worked with were ethnographic in their sensibilities. Most of the people I’m writing about in the book, they were not looking for numbers. My issue was different. The issue of numbers definitely is there, I’m not discounting that, that’s definitely a hegemonic discourse. But we need to recognize that the critical is an equally hegemonic discourse. We need to hold these two hegemonic discourses together instead of pitting them against each other. It was very troubling to document how critical scholars ended up creating such violent pedagogies. Like you said earlier, one has to listen very carefully, not take anything for granted, whether it comes with the label of critical or radical, instead, really listen and observe and see what the critical turn is actually doing in the world.
In terms of what you can apply, it’s very simple, there should be a functional library, I mean people have been saying that for the longest time. But in a context where English is being understood as socialization, to remember that you also must teach how to read and write became a fresh insight. We have now come to assume language to be oracy or the ability to socialize, we forget that literacy is something that is taught and learned, not acquired. I’m not saying something new, but something that is being forgotten in a particular political economic context.
Shivani Nag:Any last comments or reflections on your journey from the field to putting it out in the form of a book?
Leya Mathew I’m grateful that it got published. I couldn’t have asked for a better series, when I read the series editors’ preface, I was very touched. I’m very, very grateful that it all came together. It’s also important to note that writing a book needs a lot of institutional support. Academic careers also, it boils down to numbers, what are your publication numbers and how does it work for NAAC and CAS. Unless there is institutional support, it’s extremely difficult.
As it so happens, page 99 of my dissertation is the conclusion of my first body chapter following the introduction. My dissertation, “Producing Prosperity: Language and the Labor of Development in India’s Western Himalayas,” is a linguistic ethnography of rural development work in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. This chapter, entitled “‘We Eat Their Minds’: Communicative Infrastructures of Development in Kangra,” serves as an orienting chapter for the entire dissertation. It examines the everyday communicative work of rural bureaucrats and NGO workers through which the state enacts welfare policies and programs in Kangra. I argue that rural development is itself a communicative project, one that is enacted through face-to-face meetings between villagers and development workers and which serve as the infrastructure for decision making, debate, and information dissemination. I enter this through an analysis of the pervasive narrative that rural bureaucrats and NGO workers are “mind eaters” (dimaag khaaNe aale)—people who drive others mad through excessive talking. Development officials and rural villagers alike deployed the discourse of mind eating to frame development work as what I call semiotic labor—everyday interactional projects of meaning-making. In this chapter, I delve into the language ideological assessments of development as itself a form of grueling semiotic labor—mind-eating—requiring incessant contestation over the meanings of need, deservingness, poverty, and prosperity. Semiotic labor is itself embedded in the political economy of multilingualism in Kangra, where three to five languages are commonly used in everyday life, and which are embedded in hierarchies of value. As the conclusion to my first body chapter, page 99 feels like a proper snapshot of what I hope the dissertation will demonstrate; yet, whether or not it actually does reach these conclusions is another question entirely.
This chapter has introduced the everyday labor of rural development in Kangra, which workers metapragmatically frame as “eating people’s minds.” Mind-eating, I have argued, serves as a narrative device through which to grapple with feelings of ineffectualness, and to guard against potential citizens’ claims. Workers across state and non-state institutions are themselves deeply intertwined, mutually reliant on one another’s social and material infrastructures in order to conduct their activities. Nevertheless, bureaucrats and NGO workers performatively constitute themselves as morally distinct in their everyday discourses, particularly regarding norms of exchange and extraction with beneficiaries. While the interactional nature of rural development makes state and non-state workers both reliant on forms of social and material exchange with rural women, both state and non-state bureaucrats frame their work as unidirectional, and thus incommensurable with gifts or hospitality.
Eating people’s minds entails face-to-face interactions in meetings, which involve a range of communicative practices that together I refer to as “semiotic labor.” Semiotic labor attends to the fact that development practice is talk-mediated, but involves far more than the mere dissemination of information. My interlocutors framed this primarily through discourses of awareness (jagrukta), which was both a goal and an activity that brought rural citizens into relationships of obligation with development institutions. The kinds of semiotic labor that my interlocutors performed varied across state and non-state institutions, and could be located in the format and performance of meetings, which are the primary technology through which rural development workers enact the bureaucratic and developmental imperatives of their institutions outside of their physical offices.
While speakers in Kangra are members of a multilingual society and have diverse linguistic repertoires, they differ in their ideological and practical usage of the primary languages in Kangra: Pahari [Kangri] and Hindi. Whereas state bureaucrats tend to use Hindi, and NGO workers Pahari, they nevertheless share a common language ideological framework through which they cultivate a sense of moral conduct. This framework associates language not solely with communicative ends but also with affective consequences. By speaking (or claiming to speak) in Pahari with rural villagers, public servants cast themselves as both practically efficient and morally inclusive. Their actual use of languages, registers, and conversational strategies, as I will show in the next chapters, are not peripheral to the logics of developmental governance in Kangra, but instead are central to the constitution and circulation of ideas of need, deservingness, and prosperity that become the contested ideological ground upon which decisions about policy are made and maintained.
What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?
My main aim in the book is to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the place of quality in contemporary capitalism. The book explores how colonial industries—and the forms of labor and organization that emerged within them—endure not only the formal end of empire but also changes in financial markets, technologies, and the climate itself. I argue that it is the pursuit of quality, as much as the pursuit of economic profit, that perpetuates colonial forms of marginalization and environmental degradation, including the plantation, into the present. Another key intervention of the book is to show how quality matters even at the bottom end of the global market. I illustrate how a push to shift from plantation-based to smallholder tea production has undermined the efforts of plantation workers to organize and secure both consistent wages and non-monetary benefits such as housing and healthcare. Paradoxically, laborers find themselves defending the colonially rooted plantation as an institution. They do this by asserting their ability to coax quality out of marginal plants and marginal lands. I hope to show in the book how the ideas of quality work to hold the plantation together, not just as a form of land tenure but as a more tentacular and spatially non-contiguous form of accumulation.
At one point you said that quality means many different things for different people, and that quality is far from a high-brow concern (178). I am wondering, how do you decide which qualities to focus on in this book? Why do you choose to focus on the quality of the relatively low-cost CTC tea, for example?
I didn’t start with quality as the focus of the project at all. This attention came later, while I was working through materials I collected in the Indian Tea Association archives. Over and over again, quality appeared as the object of analysis for industrial scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, and regulators. This made me think about what I knew about contemporary food studies, in which a great deal of wonderful work had been done about foods that were considered good in the sense of both refined or desirable taste and good in the sense of having been ethically or responsibly produced. What was evident in the industrial archive for tea was that quality was something that was actively being worked on—something that had to be produced—in the colonial project of Indian tea production. From that perspective, quality was not a more-or-less-than proposition. No tea—not even CTC—would have been considered as having less quality. Its qualities would just be understood differently. This led me to think not about what quality is—as in, how different consumer or producer groups imagine and sustain it—but what quality does—as in, how consumers, producers, and, crucially for my argument, the players in-between such as scientists, tasters, and brokers—work with quality. What I noticed was that these industrial doings-with-quality collapsed three different dimensions: the quality of bodies (particularly those of tea plantation workers); the qualities of materials (tea itself, but also soil and water and milk); and the qualities of markets.
Given that insight—that quality in the world of Indian tea is always already considered to be actively there—CTC turned out to be a better case study in some ways that higher-end single origin teas like Darjeeling or Assam. The misconception that I wanted to counter was that cheap things are cheap because they require less work, or because they possess less of something that other similar but more expensive things have. It turns out that CTC, the low-cost, dark, tannic basis of most Indian chai, is pored over, debated, and considered just as intensively as Darjeeling. More importantly, the CTC plantations of the Dooars, where part of my fieldwork took place, have been the site of perhaps the most intensive recent mass experiments on the quality of bodies, markets, and materials in all of Northeast India.
I am really inspired by the way you incorporate feminist STS scholars’ perspective in your book, it provides a refreshing way to think about the interaction between nature, market, and bodies. Can you comment a bit on how this perspective informed your project in and beyond this book?
I worked on Tasting Qualities concurrently with a School for Advanced Research-funded volume, How Nature Works, which I co-edited with Alex Blanchette of Tufts University. The group that contributed to that volume was collectively interested in seeing how the feminist conversation on more-than-human worlds might be enriched by feminist critiques of late capitalist labor. Again and again, work by scholars like Karen Barad, Michelle Murphy, Annemarie Mol, Heather Paxson, and so many others provided a lens for attending to tea’s material qualities alongside the gendered dynamics of production and questions of value, which I had begun to explore in my first book on Darjeeling tea. Since the Tasting Qualities project was about finding a way of thinking about capitalism and colonialism that challenged facile, linear understandings of commodity chains, this work was crucial. Analytically, I allowed me to put the sensory side of quality on an equal footing with the economic side. I should say also that this work also helped me think through the role of masculinity and expertise in producing quality.
In your book, you discussed how words, things, and senses intertwined with one another in tea brokerage business by focusing on how the communicative infrastructure, as a kind of fixed capital, created the grounds for the construction, circulation, and maintenance of qualities of tea. You also move between “historical and ethnographic registers, as well as between auctions, archives, plantations, and the offices of private and public operators in the industry” (19). Can you elaborate on how such communicative infrastructures are changed or reproduced by this shift of spaces, temporalities, and desires?
In 2009, I came to Nilhat House in Kolkata, India’s oldest and largest tea auction center, to ask how organic or fair-trade teas were compared by expert brokers to conventional teas. International certifications like fair trade and organic, it turned out, did not matter to the how the tea brokers at Nilhat House did their work, so I began to train my attention on how valuation was done more generally. I observed brokers tasting tea and selling tea in live outcry auctions much as they had been for the past 150 years. But a few months after I arrived in Kolkata, new government policies and corporate reforms began to change how Indian tea was traded. Specifically, the Tea Board of India, the government bureaucracy regulating the trade, initiated a major effort designed to control the cost of mass-market tea in India. Among other things, that effort featured a move from live outcry auctions to online, digital auctioning.
The form of those proposed digital auctions has shifted over the years, but the attempts to realize that reform gave me a good window into the communicative infrastructures that I’m concerned with in the book, namely, those that comprise the system of classifying and pricing tea. Numbers are one part of this infrastructure. Both lot and warehouse numbers used to delineate between different kinds of tea and the numbers that signify prospective—and then actual—prices travel back and forth among the spaces you mentioned. Those travels are archived in the ledgers of the companies that sell tea at auction and (until fairly recently) helped finance plantations by offering advances on prospective sales. Ethnographically, I observed how brokers coax quality out of those numbers through a complex choreography on the auction floor.
Words are also, of course, key to this communicative infrastructure, but the words I was interested in actually do not travel as extensively as the numbers. Before Indian teas are auctioned, brokers evaluate them using a glossary of some 150 English words. This glossary was devised at the end of the British colonial period by industrial chemists who aimed to subject the aesthetic judgments of brokers to experimental scrutiny. Like other vocabularies for describing commodities, these teawords performatively reproduce gendered and classed distinctions, but they do much more. When they circulate among brokers and managers, teawords subject plantation conditions to experimental adjustment. In the book, I study this experimental work by drawing on theory from linguistic anthropology and work in STS on processes of qualification in commodity circulation.
In the book, you made some provocative and, like you said in the book, seemingly counterintuitive suggestions. One of such suggestions is that tea bags that are created by blending different varieties of tea offers a certain kind of regularity and consistency of flavor and texture, and it is this kind of blended-ness that enables the quality of tea endure (chapter 2). Reading this, I couldn’t help but thinking about other blended flavors, and wondering how they too came to be seen as singular despite the fact that the ingredients are highly variable. Can you talk a bit about how do you see different actors in the tea industry shaped this kind of oxymoronic “consistency in variability”?
Tea brokers, who are also professional tea tasters, evaluate teas knowing full well that they will not be consumed by themselves. Nearly all tea that passes through Nilhat House will wind up in a blend, so what brokers provide to the market is a sense of what a particular tea’s qualities might offer to a blender, from color to cost. Blenders do their work behind very tightly closed doors, so it was not easy for me to observe that process in action. What was more interesting to me was the way in which brokers’ messages about individual lots of tea reverberated back to plantation managers and growers, either through direct contact with brokers or through interventions by tea scientists. Growers can now select clonal varieties of teas that—under the right environmental conditions—will have particular qualities that some blenders may desire.
Blending has a fascinating history. As I suggest in the book, the process of tea blending was bound up with a whole host of British colonial anxieties about health, race, and class. That blended tea from Indian plantations would become such an important component of British consumptive life was far from a foregone conclusion. In the debates about blending for the British market, as well as in contemporary debates about whether smallholder-grown tea can compete with plantation-grown tea, it is the prospect of blending that matters as much as anything. Frustratingly for anyone who understands the inequalities and injustices they embody, plantations remain the industry’s benchmark platform for providing blendable quality teas to the mass-market.
Page 99 of my dissertation about free and open source software in India begins with a description of children dancing at a community centre in a Bengaluru slum. This community centre is run by the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, who invited me to spend the weekend with them in October 2016. Following the discussion of dancing I transition to a conversation I had with one of the activists, a middle class man in his 20s I call Rohit. He told me that these are the children of maids before sharing that he always felt he should be nice to maids but he had not considered their lives outside of his home. Working with these children has shifted his awareness of their lived experience and he now visits some of their homes in the slum. I then discuss the fact that although the free software activists have come together to promote free software, that this centre:
…represent[s] their significant commitment to using their mission as a technologically defined group toward social ends. The fact that the software they are using on the old PCs in the centre is free is imperative to the activists. However, the activists accept that to the students who visit the centre, the nuances of free software are almost irrelevant within the context of their need for practical help with school, exposure to the possibilities outside of their habitus, and a safe space to relax and just be kids.
I suggest this ability to downplay the groups’ stated mission can be understood as an extension of Indian middle class activism which has historically used a variety of tools to ameliorate social inequalities. The page then transitions to the next section of the chapter outlining the history of the middle classes in India during British colonial rule.
This test holds for my example. Indeed, this page epitomises much of my dissertation. Namely that free software in India is a technology which is mobilised towards social ends by a relatively elite group of practitioners attempting to improve their nation on multiple fronts. Rather than creating software, the Indian free software community spends most of its energies in the social work of evangelising to students, government, and industry. My dissertation ultimately argues for contextualising technology within political, economic, and sociological contexts as a corrective for much of STS which, despite its many valuable insights into how technology is created and understood, overly focusses on analysing circuits and flows of power all the while gliding over and around the structures that create, maintain, and reproduce power. Rather than describing how different actors are connected within networks which constantly, simultaneously reshape themselves, by showing how technology has developed and been wielded in different times and places to different political and economic ends we are better equipped to work towards mobilising technology for a different and more equitable future.
Jasmine Folz. 2019. Free and Open Source Software in India: Mobilising Technology for the National Good. University of Manchester, Phd.
Jasmine Folz is currently a senior social researcher for a small consultancy in London called Alma Economics.
Page 99 of my dissertation is the first time in the dissertation that I provide an ethnographic example of how marginalized educated young men native to Pune assert their masculinity. My dissertation is an anthropological study of lower-middle class, college-going men in Pune, India, and the means by which they use Facebook to construct and rehearse their aspirational selves.
Though the passage does not mention Facebook in detail, the example that appears here of how young men comport themselves and display a masculine aggression in the city points to the continuities between their lives on and off-screen. Specifically, it alerts the reader to the kinds of techniques these men develop on Facebook to craft their masculine selves in order to accumulate and display social capital.
The passage appears towards the end of the dissertation’s first substantive ethnographic chapter, titled ‘Checking-in’ at another city, in which I examine how young men creatively subvert Facebook’s ‘check-in’ feature. Rather than using the feature as a recommendation service or pretending to ‘check-in’ at the city’s new spaces of urban leisure, they instead make visible the cartography of their lives. In doing so, they insist that the city they know on an intimate level is not erased from the Pune that appears on Facebook’s list of popular ‘check-in’ locations, one that is populated by trendy coffee shops, exclusive nightclubs and gleaming shopping malls:
I contend that the lines young men map on Facebook represent their desire to experience the city as a site of both pleasure and danger, as a place to be rebellious and be recognised, and ultimately belong, but on their own terms. On one occasion, as we were driving through the city, Rakesh revved up the engine of his Royal Enfield to produce a loud sound:
“Do you hear that? That is the sound of attraction! Everyone watches us. Even though making this sound is now banned in Pune, we do not care. We do not follow the rules.”
For Virat, his identity as a Punekar was articulated in relation to his knowledge of the urban terrain, for he knew exactly which chai tapri would be open at a particular time as well as the exact route to get there. This was a skill he described as lacking amongst other youth whose migration to the city had caused living in Pune to “become very expensive” in recent years:
“Most people who go to reputable colleges like BMCC, Symbiosis, Fergusson…are from outside Maharashtra. They are usually from places like Delhi, Bangalore. They have only been in Pune for two or three years. They do not know the roads like we do. We have been here all our lives.”
The processes of movement across the city through which young men assert their visibility and invite danger are tied not only to discourses of belonging but also masculinity. As mentioned earlier, this kind of propulsion of the body across the city was almost exclusively performed by men. According to Whitehead (2002), dominant notions of embodied masculinity emphasise “the ability to exercise control over space” (189).
The ways in which lower-middle class young men move through the city and the routes of their journeys – though not made explicitly visible on their Facebook pages – I suggest, are not disentangled from the map of Pune they inscribe onto the platform through their ‘check-in’ locations. Whilst ‘checking-in’ and moving from one place to another, they simultaneously draw out a specific way of being young characterized by pleasure and carefreeness; this stands in opposition to the lifestyles, new forms of consumption and academic ambition that upper-middle class and elite youth can afford.
My two interlocuters who feature in this passage, like many of the men who form the protagonists of my dissertation, are undergraduates enrolled in government colleges with dreams of obtaining IT jobs but limited means of achieving their aspirations. Their assertion for visibility takes a number of forms, including the selfies they post in which they make themselves singular, their strategies for acquiring Facebook Friends and ‘Likes’ through which they lay claim to large social networks, and as I discuss here, the city they make legible online.
Furthermore, this passage gives a sense of how the desire for recognition and respect among my interlocuters are tied to the physical environments they inhabit. Instead of seeking to escape reality or reach global networks through Facebook, I argue that they use the platform to enhance their local authority and make sense of their class positions in the city. This points to how their practices on Facebook are not formed in a vacuum. Rather, they are constituted by an interplay between the digital and the physical, with the intention that young mens’ performances of status-raising on Facebook ultimately leak back into their place-bound lives.
Whitehead, Stephen M. 2002. Men and Masculinities: Key Themes and New Directions. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Rahul Advani. 2019. Online and ‘real’ lives: The anthropology of Facebook and friendship among middle class young men in an Indian city. King’s College London, Phd.
My dissertation is an ethnographic study of India’s Aadhaar (foundation) program, a colossal technocratic project that seeks to redefine how the Indian state (over)sees its population. Under the program, the central government has collected the iris scans, fingerprints and select demographic details of nearly every member of India’s billion-strong population, and has linked these indices to 12-digit numbers that serve as unique IDs. Biometric information stored in a centralized database allows for ‘foolproof’ and instantaneous bodily identity verification. Until 2009, India did not have a standardized state ID that could be furnished across the country as proof of personal identity. My dissertation weaves together fieldwork observations from several sites, including biometric enrollment centers, government offices, and the Supreme Court of India. It explores how the laying of a new technological foundation for a ‘digital’ India necessitated an excavation and reassembling of the moral foundations of the relationship between the postcolonial state and individual.
Page 99 of my dissertation is part of a chapter that chronicles early pilot projects aiming to link welfare distribution to online biometric identity authentication. The page recounts experiments being carried out in Jharkhand, a relatively new state in Eastern India. As these pilot projects were being launched, a senior official at the Unique Identification Authority of India jocundly wagered in informal conversation with me that “if it works in Jharkhand, it will work anywhere.” Six months later, the very same officer, patently unamused, declared the state to be “a basket case.” Local officials were unmoved by the zeal and subsequent disgruntlement of their technocratic bosses. They grumbled that impractical plans had being foisted upon them by higher-ups far from au fait with life in Jharkhand. At best, the state enjoyed unreliable internet and electricity access, to say nothing of the digital literacy Aadhaar called for.
While page 99 of my dissertation is squarely ethnographic, on reflection, I find that it is haunted by some of the fundamental questions that inform the longer text. What is the relation between stately plans and what ostensibly results from them? What can an anthropological witnessing of—and attention to—processes of implementation contribute to an understanding of the fourth-order object (to rephrase Philip Abrams) that is the digital state? As I continue to ponder these questions, the page 99 test teaches me that dissertations are books in simmering potentia, but happily, not quite the finished product.
Vijayanka Nair 2018. The State of the Individual: Biometrics, Politics and the Common Man in India. New York University, Phd. thesis.
Page 99 of my dissertation, titled Multilingual Practices, Education, and Identity in Pune, India, is a first attempt at bringing readers into an ethnographically informed composite sketch of a partially fictionalized student interlocutor. The passage is from a chapter titled “Learning English while Learning in English” and in the chapter I analyze various examples of code switching in English across classrooms in multiple schools and education levels. I generalized the student, Siddhika, from interviews, days of participant observation, and excerpts from classroom recordings that exemplify code switching practices among Hindi, Sanskrit, English, and Marathi, the regional language of the state of India where I conducted my research. The context in which the switching occurs, whether it is in the form of morning prayers, instructional directives, or transitional chatter, was important for my research and analysis. The best way I could convey all of these aspects together, I felt, was if I brought readers into the classroom with me through narrative vignettes. More importantly, I wanted to allow my interlocutors and their experiences studying in and among multiple languages to speak for themselves as much as possible. The passage below begins my third chapter on how English language code switching practices contribute to attitudes and meanings attributed to different languages.
Pradnya Teacher leads the group of students upstairs, passing pictures of school events and motivational posters showing smiling cartoon animals telling students in English that it is good to help others and reminding them to wash their hands. The Mini KG, Junior KG, and Senior KG students stop in the hallway outside their brightly painted classrooms in the Kindergarten wing of the school. Rather than being in the school where there are so many students constantly moving around and making noise, Siddhika thinks to herself how she prefers to be at home with her aji, Marathi for grandmother, who sneakily passes sweets to Siddhika while she cooks her favorite foods. But she knows she must now start going to school like her older cousins and neighbors who carry around large books in their overstuffed backpacks. Being at school still makes her nervous though, that’s why aai, her mother, packed an extra change of clothes in her backpack today, just in case she wets her uniform again.
The intimidating Mangal maushi, which means “aunt” and is what the students are told to call the saree-clad women who help in their classrooms, tells Siddhika to place her backpack against the wall and line up. “Warghakade tev, backpack. Linemadhye ubi raha!” Mangal maushi announces in her booming voice, as Pradnya Teacher begins the morning prayers. “Good morning students!” Pradnya Teacher shouts over the din of all the students bustling to line up in the narrow hallway. “Good morning teacher!” Siddhika shouts along with her classmates. “Don’t yell, students! Answer quietly,” Pradnya Teacher retorts, “Stand straight. Hands at your sides. And start.” Siddhika begins reciting the national anthem and then Sanskrit and English prayers that they learned on their first day of class.
Page 99 also nicely provides a window into my writing process. I eased myself out of research by drafting ethnographic vignettes from my field notes to convey what life of burgeoning multilingual students is like in India. Reflecting on this practice in the process of beginning to write my dissertation now brings a smile to my face. I remember my confidence growing by returning to my notes and making cohesive analytical excerpts emerge to begin my writing stage. As this exercise increased my momentum and enthusiasm to continue writing, the lingering traces of imposter syndrome began to disappear.
It was after drafting this passage and getting favorable feedback from my committee that I then decided to use vignettes for prologues and epilogues in each chapter of my dissertation, honing my skill and passion for narrative writing to convey my research and analysis. My dissertation explores different avenues of multilingual life and studies in Pune, Maharashtra and after receiving constructive comments on this passage I more confidently included analyses from some unconventional methods such as map making and autoethnography throughout various chapters. I like to think that this passage is the first trial and permission I granted myself to creatively craft a dissertation that spoke to my interests in communicating my analyses, present my research experiences, and the voices of my interlocutors through thoughtful and novel ways.
Jessica Chandras. 2019. “Multilingual Practices, Education, and Identity in Pune, India.” George Washington University, Ph.d dissertation.
Jessica Chandras, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology
Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty
(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).
Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?
Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.
Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.
The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”
Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?
Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.
Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you?Continue reading →
Liza Youngling: In Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India, you analyze how the “India story,” which “recast Indian society as a rapidly globalizing frontier of capitalism and as a market for new buildings” (5) brings foreign investors into collaboration and conflict with Indian real estate developers. What makes narratives such as the “India story” such a powerful, market-making force? How does this narrative align with or diverge from other ways of representing/making markets?
Llerena Searle: I began working on this project because I was fascinated by the explicitly “global” aesthetic of the office towers, gated condominiums, and malls under construction in places like Gurgaon, a satellite of Delhi. I wondered why developers were building glass-encased buildings rather than drawing on local architectural traditions. I wondered why they were constructing expensive apartments in a country with an extreme housing shortage and low incomes. To understand what was going on, I had to train myself to see buildings as financial instruments. But I was also surprised to find that stories motivate construction.
The “India story” was my informants’ term for a collective narrative they told about India’s growth. Developers, financiers, consultants, and others routinely referenced predictions about rising land prices, GDP, incomes, foreign investment, consumer demand, and urban populations. This ebullient narrative positioned India as a frontier of capital expansion, and it motivated many foreign funds to begin investing in Indian real estate in order to position themselves in markets that they thought would grow well into the future.
The “India story” was so strong that fund managers often spoke of these decisions as imperatives: we have to be in India if we want to be competitive. Indian consultants would say, our cities have to grow if we want GDP growth. The power of the “India story” stems from its wide circulation: I trace its roots in stories told by a range of actors, from the UN to Newsweek and Goldman Sachs. Repeated often, it becomes commonsense. What’s more, it’s a useful story for many different people to retell: it serves a range of value projects, from attracting investors to growing market share, and it also serves to guide investors and developers as they decide what to build where.
One of the things that fascinated me about doing this research was how people in the real estate industry could transform problems – poverty, for example, which is a real impediment if you’re trying to construct and sell million dollar apartments – into advertisements for investment. The “India story” helped people do that. In conversations, reports, presentations, and brochures, industry members repurposed familiar modernization discourses to predict that Indian society – today “underdeveloped” – would change along a fixed trajectory, coming to resemble places like Singapore soon. I argue that the sorting, rating, and classifying work that these discourses do is central to making an international market in Indian real estate by making Indian society seem familiar but improvable.
Indian developers, foreign financiers, consultants, and others found common ground in the “India story,” but other market-making work was more contentious. For regulatory reasons, foreign investors had to partner with Indian developers who agglomerated land, sought government permits, and hired local consultants – necessary work for transforming Indian land into a commodity that could be invested in from abroad. The second half of the book looks at these unstable investor-developer partnerships and conflicts over how real estate should be practiced.
Liza Youngling: Your study makes a powerful case for the value of ethnographic research in our understandings of economic life, but you also note some of the challenges you faced in “studying up” with informants that were sometimes wary to share information they saw as proprietary or who did not want to give you the time of day. What can ethnographic research tell us about how markets are created and sustained that other methods cannot? What were ethnography’s limitations, if any, in this study, and how did you fill in the gaps with other approaches?
Llerena Searle: Before I began my anthropology degree, I studied urban and economic geography. I read a lot about gentrification and urban restructuring, but the point of view of real estate developers was, for the most part, missing from this literature. Scholars critiqued the effects of construction industry actions but didn’t provide detailed accounts of how it worked. In India in particular, scholars have given voice to those who have been displaced by new construction, but it seemed to me that without also documenting the voices of the powerful, scholars run the risk of attributing urban change to abstract forces like capitalism rather than to people.
I was drawn to anthropology precisely because methodologically, ethnography foregrounds people’s agency, experiences, and ideas, and enables scholars to tell fine-grained stories. It’s a method well-suited to the continual scholarly work of reminding people that market expansion isn’t inevitable or natural and that urban spaces aren’t just the backdrop against which human dramas play out. So, ethnographic fieldwork with real estate industry elites promised a way of opening up a key black box in explanations of urban, economic, and social change – and of pushing back against mainstream economic narratives that render economic life people-less, mechanical, or inevitable.
As you point out, doing ethnographic fieldwork for this project was challenging for a number of reasons that I lay out in my Introduction. My positionality (as a young, white, American woman) in a field dominated by men in a patriarchal society shaped my access to my informants – as did the competitive and secretive nature of the real estate industry. Of course all ethnographers face limits to what they can learn based on who they are and the subculture in which they are working. This limitation (which is really just a reality of social life to which anthropologists are attuned) – and the fact that collecting ethnographic data is time-consuming and personally taxing – means that one researcher cannot do it all. Understanding something as complex, geographically variable, and multi-faceted as the politics of land in India today will require numerous ethnographies.
That said, my main fieldwork strategy was flexibility: I talked with anyone who would talk to me, attended every event I could, and followed up every lead. I found that if real estate developers weren’t always interested in talking candidly with me, the bankers, architects, planners, consultants, and graphic designers who worked with them often were. I also broadened my idea of what constituted “data” beyond face-to-face interactions, using my linguistic anthropology training to combine textual and other forms of analysis. As both the products of numerous interactions and elements in ongoing chains of communication, industry documents were not just descriptions of how real estate markets worked but attempts to create markets. Analyzing them in conjunction with participant observation and interviews produced insights into the industry that I could not have gotten from one type of source alone.
Liza Youngling: In your chapter on constructing consumer India, you describe how macroeconomic growth projections are used to justify the development of luxury apartments, office buildings, and retail stores for an imagined “genuine resident” with “global” middle class tastes and income. When you returned to India in 2014, what was your sense of the lived experience of residents in places like Gurgaon? How did their lives align with or differ from those earlier projections of what life would be like in spaces built with an imagined ‘genuine resident” in mind?
Llerena Searle: It’s funny you should ask this because I’m headed to India in a couple of months to investigate people’s lived experiences in these “global” landscapes. It’s clear that the material trappings of elite urban life in India are undergoing rapid change. While developers have built new high rise housing complexes, malls, and offices, other companies have been rushing to sell appliances, paint, furniture, tiles, and modular kitchens to Indian consumers. An array of magazines, advertisements, and television shows model how homes should look and how people should act in them. I’m interested in whether, and in what ways, this influx of goods and media has restructured home-making practices.
As I wrote in Landscapes of Accumulation, images of domestic life displayed in advertisements for housing and home-related goods emerged from projections about the growth of India’s “middle class” and the assumption that consumer tastes and behaviors will converge between India and the “West” over time. So one part of the current project will be to trace out the corporate logics that animate the production and marketing of home décor.
But I’ve never been really satisfied with questions about whether daily life is really like the images that corporations produce or not. On the one hand, I’m mindful that there’s always a gap between the images in advertisements and people’s everyday lives; analyzing the former doesn’t necessarily tell us about the latter. Moreover, consumers are quite savvy about how fantastical advertising images are. Yet for me, the alignment between representation and reality is not the most important question. In Landscapes of Accumulation, I was really interested in how people use stories and images as tools for accomplishing interactional goals. Claims about building for “genuine residents” were not statements about the builders’ expectations about actual consumers but a way of signaling to investors that they were building for end-users, not speculators, and thus that the market was sound. Predictions about “global Indian consumers” were alibis that corporations used for expanding into India without changing their product lineup. Housing brochures featuring emblems of luxury were attempts to position developers and their projects as prestigious; they were never straightforward predictions of what life in the housing complex would be like.
So in the new project, I’m going to be asking less about whether daily life lives up to people’s expectations based on media depictions and more about what possibilities new material cultural configurations provide to residents. I’m interested in how producers and marketers frame new products as indexical of particular kinds of people, and I’m interested in what people do with these framings, how they position themselves in relation to them and use them in interactions to align themselves with and against other people.
Liza Youngling: The last section of your book includes an analysis of the different “quality projects” of developers, investors, and architects active Indian real estate market. As you point out, “quality” is a multivalent term; it can refer to the people who are anticipated to buy luxury apartments or frequent high-end shopping malls, to the materials and workmanship used in constructing buildings, or to the integrity and trustworthiness of the parties involved in developing land and constructing buildings. After identifying the multiple ways that claims about quality operate within and help construct the Indian real estate market, do you now see “quality projects” everywhere?
Llerena Searle: When I was doing participant observation with a European real estate investment fund, I was struck by the ways in which the fund managers discussed “quality.” The fund’s corporate strategy in India hinged on the idea of constructing quality buildings – which they felt were lacking in India. They told me that doing so would enable them to attract multinational tenants, charge high rents, maintain property values over time, and uphold the fund’s reputation. They spoke as though only they could recognize or reproduce quality, but I noticed that Indian developers were also very keen to advertise their own quality, particularly through ISO and other third-party ratings and by designing and advertising their buildings as “global.” Investigating these divergent quality projects helped me to understand how industry members attempted to create value by making claims to expertise, construction capability, trustworthiness, and other valuable traits which distinguishing themselves from competitors.
Not only were developers, investors, and others making competing claims to value, but what counted as valuable was up for grabs. Indian real estate developers and their foreign investor-partners disagreed fundamentally about where value lay in the real estate industry – whether in land agglomeration or building construction – and what practices would lead to profits. Thus tracing competing claims over quality allowed me to understand industry members’ attempts to construct power and authority on an uncertain terrain. Foreign investors did not just enter the market and reshape it as they saw fit; they encountered resistance from powerful local actors with their own established modes of working.Ultimately, there was a lot at stake in these claims: whether companies closed deals, how they shared profits, and who controlled the construction process.
But yes, since discourses about quality are means of contesting value and asserting control, they are everywhere. I’ve been fascinated reading about discourses of suzhi in China and about labor management techniques that inculcate neoliberal governance by appealing to quality. Perhaps quality discourses’ ubiquity stems from the neoliberal moment we live in – a corollary of proliferating rating schemes and audit cultures – or of the geographically distributed production and consumption systems in which we are enmeshed. As I explore in the book, even as quality discourses are central to markets and market-making projects, they draw on more than economic values. Claims about quality raise moral implications: inferior goods are morally suspect, and their producers are untrustworthy. So, when I encounter people assessing everything from schools to restaurants in terms of quality, I wonder, what project is that assessment a part of? What values is it invoking to do what interactional work?
Liza Youngling: You address the fallout of the global financial crisis for the Indian real estate market (and for its foreign investors) in your conclusion. What do you see the future holding for globally financed real estate development in India and other countries that are framed as frontiers of capitalism? Is the kind of spectacular accumulation that your informants sought to create something that remains on offer in India or elsewhere?
Llerena Searle: In the conclusion, I paint a fairly bleak picture of Indian real estate markets in 2014 and particularly of the partnerships between Indian developers and foreign financiers that I traced in the book. The Indian experience of the financial crisis differed significantly from the US experience since there was no mortgage crisis in India (most mortgages are not securitized) and Indian banks were not over-exposed to foreign credit.However, with the global credit crisis, a lot of foreign investors tried to pull money out of Indian real estate by selling shares in Indian companies and backing out of deals. By 2014, many of the people I had interviewed were no longer working in India or for the same companies. A lot of projects got stalled as construction costs escalated, debt financing became expensive, and the Information Technology industry, which fueled a lot of office space construction, stagnated. But real estate developers didn’t start to falter publicly until a few years later when Indian economic growth slowed and Indian consumers put off buying new properties.
So, on the one hand, the industry saw significant setbacks and reorganization. On the other, the industry and the “India story” seemed quite resilient. One prominent banker told me in 2014 that despite industry problems, the real estate “fundamentals” were sound; he punctuated our conversation with a familiar refrain about the strength of Indian economic growth and consumer demand for housing. A fund manager insisted that India remained a good “long term” investment in part because urbanization continued unabated. He cited a McKinsey Global Institute report which concluded that “India needs a new Chicago every year.” These were exactly the kinds of statements that I had heard seven years earlier, at the height of the market. Other firms found ways to transform industry distress into speculative opportunities. For example, the private equity firm Blackstone bought up $900 million in Indian properties between 2011 and 2014. I came away impressed by the continued power of the narratives that I describe in the book and of the developers, bankers, and politicians who circulate them. It’s depressing that relentless work goes into making money through ecologically and socially destructive modes of urbanization, but that work continued even as the financial crisis unfolded, and it continues today. I think that it would take more than an economic crisis to completely upend the real estate development practices that I studied.