Making it on merit

Civic Action,Knowledge brokering01 Jul 2010Mark Holmström

What is it like to grow up male and middle class in a city where everyone sees a career in information technology (IT) as the road to success? Nicholas Nisbett, a social anthropologist, hung out at a cybercafé in Bangalore popular with young men and took an IT course with them at a private institute.

A review by Mark Holmström.

Many of these young men have humble origins (Dalits, and sons of factory workers, a tailor or auto-rickshaw driver), but all have studied computer science and hope to find jobs in IT, at least in data processing or at a call centre, or perhaps something better.

Their identities are shaped by consumption – buying or sharing things like motorbikes and mobile phones. They build up networks of friends who already have or are looking for IT jobs. They spend much of their time chatting online to young women. These relationships can be intense, leading to phone calls, meetings, even marriage or the agonies of unrequited love. They also roam the city centre watching girls and drinking beer when they can afford it. Their foremost capital is knowledge and contacts. Friends help them to find a job in IT. If successful, they help others, though after a while they are likely to end up with better paid friends.

These young men make a show of rejecting caste, and see themselves as people trying to make it on merit in an imperfect meritocracy. They want to be part of the real middle class, harder working and more deserving than the poor, and more deserving than ‘posh people’, who have dubious morals and started out with greater advantages. Their urge to moralize everything (work, study, sex) is alive and well. They may be materialistic (you are what you consume), but ruthless go-getting cynicism is rare in this layer of society.

Nisbett criticizes theories of ‘cyberspace’, a virtual world where human relations are mediated by the internet. He argues that geography still matters, as does the local and historical context of people’s lives. The virtual world is no substitute for face-to-face contact.

The case studies of these young men, their ambitions, friendships and romances, are perceptive and sometimes moving. Like many outsiders, they are seduced by the image of Bangalore as a city transformed by IT and believe it holds great things in store for them. For them, IT is the only way up, and they are set on getting into the sector (‘not to study IT means to abandon hopes for social mobility’, p.159).

These young men are an important segment of the vast Indian ‘middle class’, with its meritocratic, relatively casteless ideology. Nisbett’s ethnographic study tries to give equal consideration to both an insider’s view (these men’s values and understanding of their situation) and an outsider’s view (including things these men are not aware of, such as new technologies, world markets and their effect on the job market). He does this without reducing or distorting their own experience or explaining it away (for example, by assuming that their class or gender entirely determines their world view).

Nisbett’s informants rightly believe that the best jobs go to people from privileged, usually high-caste families. Yet he might have been more critical of their assumption that IT is their – and perhaps India’s – one great hope. There is another Bangalore, a thriving manufacturing centre. Nisbett does stress the continuity between the new Bangalore, with its reputation for IT, and the older, industrial Bangalore. Many of his informants are factory workers’ sons. But this diverse industrial economy has more to offer than just history.

There are still excellent career opportunities outside the IT sector. Any computing skills needed for these jobs (such as computer numerical control and even computer-aided design) can be learnt on the job. The situation is similar in Hyderabad – also known as ‘Cyberabad’ – and Pune, two cities competing for the title of IT capital of India, but which also have a wide range of other prosperous industries. Indeed, IT may have been oversold.

This book’s main strengths are the sympathetic case studies of insecure young men, and the account of the moral self-image of this segment of the Indian ‘middle class’ (much written about, hard to identify). It sheds light on the possibilities and limits of social mobility, in a society which was always unequal but is now polarized in new ways.