An ethnographic account of the new transnational class symbolised by the IT industry
Drawing on over 130 in-depth interviews and ethnographic research conducted with Indian IT professionals in Mumbai, Bangalore, Silicon Valley and South Africa, Smitha Radhakrishnan examines the specific practices, attitudes and beliefs that foster and give rise to a socio-cultural formation that she calls India’s ‘new’ transnational class. Through a process she terms cultural streamlining, Radhakrishnan demonstrates how IT professionals transform diverse practices constituting ‘Indian culture’ into appropriate difference — a generic set of ‘Indian’ cultural norms that are palatable to Western cosmopolitan culture. At the same time these practices, which move from workplace into the private sphere of the home, are constantly reworked, upheld, and rendered authentic and appealing to national and international audiences.
In the course of this exploration, Radhakrishnan creatively deploys terms such as ‘Background’, while infusing new and expansive meanings into other terms such as ‘Transnational’. The thematic organisation of the material enables readers to comprehend how and why a relatively ‘small slice of contemporary India’ has, nevertheless, been able to produce a global version of Indianness, obscuring in the process ‘the failures of economic liberalisation which have deepened class inequalities and provided mobility only for a select few’.
Almost all of the IT professionals who were interviewed claimed to come from “an ordinary middle class background’, a claim that the author finds suspect since it hides the fact that they come from a “certain background — an overwhelmingly homogenous elite background, that nonetheless makes a compelling claim to universality and relativity”. Further, the author notes that claims to middle-classness overlook entrenched caste divisions that have historically segregated India’s educational system, bestowing an advantage that is more difficult to acquire than wealth.
The discussion on how the notion of ‘background’ is gendered is extremely interesting, not only because of the specific details it has captured on how the IT professional women interviewed consciously reconciled the tension between the ‘global’ and ‘Indian’, but also for the methodological process that required the author to engage in detailed content analysis of her ethnographic data. Similarly, the discussion around the term ’transnational’ centre-stages, among other things, the fact that “geographic territory of India remains the privileged site of Indian culture even as this culture is actively navigated and mediated in other locations… The nation as a territorial and cultural discourse remains critical” and is central to her discourse on ‘transnational’.
Stressing the fact that Indian IT companies have produced a new breed of workers who considered themselves as traversing a ‘global work culture’, the author decodes the components that make up this global culture, emphasising and explicating concretely the particular manner in which the agenda of gender equity and empowerment have been variously operationalised by the industry and perceived by the employees interviewed. How IT workplaces end up creating their own binaries, including gendered constructions of ‘global’ and ‘traditional’ work is a significant contribution of the book to the discourse on gendered empowerment. The chapter on ‘Merit’ delineating the ideologies of achievement in the knowledge economy provides a thought-provoking account of the intensely internalised notion of how the Indian IT industry symbolises merit, which enables one to overcome the limitations of ‘background’ and leads thereon to personal transformation. Such concerns with the personal and the immediate shifts focus away from society rendering debilitating backgrounds [for the majority] invisible. “The rationality of merit is so deeply embedded within the logics of the IT industry that it especially convinces professional IT women that they work in a gender equitable industry in which each woman advances according to her own merit… even if women do not advance as often or as quickly as men, the system is not to be blamed”.
Family and work
The discussion of the articulation of self and individual accomplishment by the interviewees took on a very different shape between men and women when confronted with the imperative to marry and create a family. “The reiteration of the word balance among my interviewees conveys a sense of tightrope walking that reveals the necessarily tricky space these women inhabit even when their narratives seem to naturalise and normalise these balances”. A significant contribution of this discussion is its explication of how professional IT women “produce and stabilise the good Indian family as a primary marker of Indian culture”. In contrast to a ‘backward’ past where women either stayed at home or worked in routine, insular jobs, IT professional women consider themselves as bringing lessons and values of individuality, hard work and personal choices learned at work into the private sphere of the home, influencing dominant new notions of the family.
The chapter on ‘Religion’, where the author attempts to explore the discourses of religious beliefs and practices among informants across continents is informative and interesting. Yet, the discussion which is largely centred around professional IT women in South Africa [who otherwise were not part of earlier chapters], stands apart, being only tenuously connected to the rest of the book.
The book is no doubt an excellent ethnographic account of the ‘new transnational class’ symbolised by the IT industry. What is intriguing [particularly given the location of the author] is its lack of a comparative framework to comprehend how far and to what extent terms such as ‘background’ and discourses around these are peculiarly ‘Indian’? Similarly, how does an interviewee’s dilemma to choose between a career in India and/or join her husband in the U.S. be read as a choice that would decide ‘her Indianness’? Are non-Indian women not faced with such dilemmas? In several such instances the arguments sound laboured and overstretched.