My Fickle Heart

Percent respondents judged as being "confident"

West Bengal86%
Tamil Nadu85%
Madhya Pradesh79%
Maharashtra, Goa74%
Andhra Pradesh66%
Uttar Pradesh64%
Jammu & Kashmir59%
Himachal Pradesh50%

         I must have a fickle heart. I am in love again, this time with West Bengal.  Last month’s passion Rajasthan seems a bit too vivid.  Bengal with its muted tones and bursts of greenery seems like a whiff of the bygone era. Of course having grown up with Sharatchandra and Bankimchandra novels, I was ready to fall in love before I landed at the Kolkata airport.  But really it was the taxi driver who gestured to me with an insouciant attitude to get into the taxi and find some place to stow my bag that won my heart as did the hotel desk clerk who handed me my key with full expectation that I will find a way of carrying my bag. 

          To my North Indian colleagues this comes as a rude shock; to me after the constant discomfort of people trying to carry my briefcase, it comes as a welcome relief. For someone who lives and breaths survey data, these impressionistic statements are odd. But I have come to realize that social stratification is so deeply ingrained that it seems to infuse even small gestures.  In Uttar Pradesh, young colleagues are horrified if I try to carry my briefcase.  In West Bengal no one expects anything else. In U.P. training hall, our interviewers would stand up every time some senior member of the training staff entered the room; in Punjab they barely bother to look up. 

          Having spent much of my life trying to document material basis of social stratification, I feel odd talking about social psychological aspect of social stratification but it would be silly to ignore the way in which social inequality is internalized. We had asked IHDS-I interviewers to rate the male and female respondents on their behavior with the interviewers and whether the respondent was confident in this interaction. Of course we recognize the dangers of such assessment. Does the respondent really lack confidence or is it simply the judgment of the interviewer who often comes from a socially and educational stronger vantage point? But regardless of where it stems from, it reflects how a representative of a formal system that is not a part of the respondent’s day-to-day life perceives the respondent. 

          The two graphs here present an interesting picture.  First, my impressionistic observation seems to be dead on at least as far as West Bengal is concerned. Male respondents in West Bengal are most likely to be judged as being confident by the interviewers, although Tamil Nadu and Bihar don’t seem far behind in swagger (oops I meant, confidence!).  Of course other state rankings don’t seem to quite match my personal impressions – possibly casting doubts on the validity of these observational data (or maybe on my perceptiveness!)

          Education helps increase self-confidence but it does not seem to be enough. Centuries of inequality can strip individuals of their self-confidence.  In a sensitive essay titled Passage to Adulthood: Perceptions from Below, Professor Sukhdeo Thorat writes about his early adulthood as a Mahar in a highly stratified village, 

“…. my opposition to discrimination was largely emotional, but it had another feature also: I was often not very confident about my actions. I used to feel that my feelings were partly right and partly wrong. When, for example, I avoided the dinner at the Sarpanch’s house, I was sure that I did not want to go, still I felt that there might be something wrong in refusing to join when the entire village was participating. This definite but uncertain state of mind was due to the fact that I did not understand the social questions in their entirety.”

     We also see it in interviewer evaluations respondents’ confidence by caste.  Education helps increase self confidence, or at least appearance of self confidence to interviewers, but forward caste respondents are judged to be more “confident” than OBC, Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim respondents at almost all levels of education under class 12.  Educated or not, a member of forward castes is judged to have plenty of confidence, but it seems to take education improve the self-confidence (or perception thereof) for the marginalized groups. 

     IHDS-II builds on this rudimentary assessment to include more interesting questions about social interactions, directly from the respondent’s vantage point.  Young respondents aged 15-18 are asked several questions about their interactions with people holding generational power and strangers. These include:

When a neighbour or some other older person asks you to do a task at a time when you are really busy finishing up your own work, do you tell them politely that you can't do this task at the moment or try to oblige them even if your own work suffers?

When someone breaks in front of you in a line, do you ask them to go to the back of the line or do you let it be?

[FOR GIRLS] If some men/man harass/es you or (eve) teases you on the street, do you usually speak up or ignore it? 

[FOR BOYS] When you see some girl being harassed or being (eve) teased by some man/men on the street. Do you try to stop them or ignore it?

     I can’t wait to see the results. But until the IHDS-II data are ready for analysis, I am still charmed by my West Bengal taxi driver, at least until IHDS-II starts off in another state and I fall in love all over again!

5-January 2012

© Sonalde Desai 2012