Center for Global Studies

Shifting Identities and Globalization in Contemporary India

February 26, 2009 Conference at George Mason University, Fairfax

Organized by the Globalization and Society in India Working Group, George Mason University

Sponsored by the Colonial Academic Alliance (CAA) and the Center for Global Studies, George Mason University


The one-day conference was aimed at critically analyzing the implications of the globalization discourse in India. The conference brought about a conversation among scholars who are working within the framework of identity formations and globalization in India.  Some key areas for this examination included: work related issues, the status of women in society, health consumption in India, the pharmaceutical and “traditional” medicine nexus, mediated images and shifting identities, class and caste (re)formations, and the inclusionary and exclusionary nature of the globalization discourse.  The conference was attended by more than 70 people, and included critical and engaging presentations of interdisciplinary research by Sociologists, Anthropologists, Media and Communication Studies, Cultural Studies, Conflict Analysis, and Management Studies scholars.




Panel One: Slumdog or Millionaire?: Globalization and the Marginalized in Modern India


The first panel was organized by Jeremy Rinker, a PhD Candidate at the Institute of Conflict Resolution and Analysis (ICAR).  It critiqued the conventional wisdom that when it comes to the plight of the marginalized within society processes of globalization will, on the whole, have a more positive effect than a negative one.  The panelists argued that when we look to contemporary post-liberalization India this assumption does not always seem to ring true in reality.  Discrimination in the networks of access that gender, education, and religious affiliation provide remains rampant in India.  Such discrimination presents major moral and policy issues to the Indian polity’s realization of a just society.  The papers in this panel addressed the structural violence of discrimination and oppression based on gender, education, and religious affiliation, thereby providing critique of the processes of globalization from below.  While the impact of globalization on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (also known as “dalits” and which constitute approximately 25 percent of India’s population) is mixed, a lack of critical analysis of globalization’s negative impacts on the lowest rungs of society has allowed traditional power relationships and identity politics to continue unchecked.   


The first and second speakers on this panel, Dr. Sonalde Desai, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland and Dr. Shailaja Paik, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Union College, New York, presented on the issue of education of dalits in India.  Both spoke against the general wisdom that getting the dalit girls to school is the most important step in educating them.  They proposed that it is when these girls are in school that genuine measures have to be taken to make sure they can sustain themselves in the academic environment through practices of equal opportunity and non-segregation based on clothing and appearances.  Jeremy Rinker, Adjunct Professor of Religion and Conflict at George Mason and Marymount Universities, presented on the narrative practices of Ambedkar dalit Buddhists.  He proposed that processes of globalization can not only impede, but also facilitate dialogue between dalit “haves” and dalit “have nots.” Positing a role for interfaith dialogue, where dalit identities as victims and Buddhists are free to interact, Jeremy argued that globalization has a positive role to play in reconciling the historical legacy of caste injustice.  Lalit Khandare, a PhD student in Social Work at Indiana University presented on caste annihilation in a globalized world.  In presenting on the challenges and opportunities for Jatis (castes), he argued that the impact of globalization on SC/ST communities has been mixed.  In proposing some ways to make globalization work for ending “untouchability” and caste-based discrimination, Lalit’s paper explored the agency of transnational rights networks. Dr. Suraj Jacob, Assistant Professor of Justice Studies, James Madison University was the discussant on this panel.  He raised pertinent questions and provided constructive critique of the panelists’ papers addressing marginalized communities.  Engaging the various social scientific lenses chosen by the presenters, Dr. Jacob stimulated valuable discussion on the scope and reach of such studies from below.



Keynote Address


The lunch break was followed by the keynote address by Dr. J.P. Singh, Associate Professor in the Communication, Culture, and Technology Department at Georgetown University.  Dr. Singh was welcomed by Dr. Peter Stearns, Provost, George Mason University.


Dr. Singh gave an entertaining and engaging talk on the paradoxes of the “new” India.  Opening with anecdotal stories of life and encounters in India, he appealed to the audiences’ common understanding of globalization and its everyday manifestations.  He than segued into an elaboration of the global and Indian economic markers both in terms of macro and micro numbers for the growing markets. These numbers were accompanied with a cautionary note, as he asked the audience to imagine not only the success these numbers provide but also the places for agency this success opens up.  He posited that we – academics, politicians, involved citizens, etc. – have placed ideological blinders where we can’t seem to look beyond the limiting view we are ourselves invested in.  Either as uncritical supporters of open market economies or overly critical and pessimistic viewers of global growth, we are limiting the potential of our own thinking and also hindering the possibilities of imagining new forms of agency for India and Indians.  He ended the talk with a story that invited all invested parties to imagine a new way of thinking, a thinking that operates beyond binaries of good vs. evil, colonial vs. neo-colonial and rather concentrates on spaces of potential change and improvement.



Panel Two: Re-working Conceptions of Work in India’s Post-liberalization Period


The next panel—organized by Bhavani Arabandi, Adjunct Professor of Sociology, George Mason University—presented challenges faced by workers in the restructured labor market in both the private and public sectors.  Since the adoption of economic liberalization policies in 1991, the Indian labor market has been hugely impacted and transformed by the entry of foreign investment, multinational corporations, and the growing domestic private sector.  While the globalization of services has benefitted some members of the Indian middle class that are professionally educated and technically skilled, it has disempowered workers in several ways.  The papers in this panel investigated the impact of globalization on work and workers in India.


The first paper by Bhavani Arabandi, Adjunct Professor of Sociology, George Mason University, discussed the growing job insecurity among global and domestic private services sector workers in India.  She argued that global competition and introduction of flexible management techniques such as non-standard contracts, increasing use of temporary workers, and surveillance systems, disempowered workers.  Organizations used a series of formal and informal normative controls to manage workers.  Her research finds, however, that the workers themselves do not think of these techniques in negative terms; rather they employ individual strategies to succeed in the “new” marketplace.  The second paper presented by Dr. Catherine Cramton, Associate Professor in the School of Management, George Mason University, based on a longitudinal study of 12 software development teams distributed across India, Germany and the United States, analyzed internationally located teams as being embedded in and influenced by organizational and institutional systems in local networks.  Her paper illustrated dialectical adaptation dynamics through which cross-national tensions around authority structures, reward systems and project control were transformed, and highlighted the central role of middle level managers in mediating stresses.  The third paper by Dr. Badrinath Rao, Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies, Kettering University critiqued the economic liberalization policies, particularly as they impacted the judiciary, for creating setbacks to the progress of worker rights in India.  His paper was an impassioned plea for action against circumventing the rights of the working class in order to create the “right” investment climate in India.


Panel Three: From “Magical” to Medical: The Medical Nexus in Contemporary India

The third and final panel of the day was organized by Nayantara (Tara) Sheoran, a PhD Student in the Cultural Studies program at George Mason University,  and comprised of three papers that addressed the current juncture of medicine—as understood and partaken of by both local and global audiences.  India, which has traditionally been recognized as a site for multiple medical practices has provided a space for medical pluralisms to thrive and prosper in the contemporary moment. As a biomedical laboratory, a medical tourist hot-spot, and a space where bio-medicine co-exists with ayurvedic practices; the Indian medical space warrants examination.  From how physicians and practitioners imagine their changing medical fields to understanding the local consumers understanding of medicine and contraception through media texts, this panel attempted to locate some of the major debates surrounding medicine and medical practices in India.


The first paper by Dr. Murphy Halliburton, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Queens College of CUNY, provided an ethnographic account of how practitioners of ayurveda respond to the new TRIPS regulations.  He also identified a key difference in responses based on where the practitioner imagines himself in relation to the global economy and new patent laws.  Daisy Deomampo, a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology, the CUNY Graduate Center, presented on the issue of transnational surrogacy.  She presented an ethnographic account of how local physicians’ discursive practices either highlight or draw away from discussions of kinship, motherhood, and identity as being redefined in birth clinics.  The third paper, presented by Nayantara (Tara) Sheoran, a PhD Student in the Cultural Studies program, George Mason University was a semiotic reading of the i-pill advertising campaign in India.  The i-pill is an emergency contraceptive that is heavily advertised in Urban India and provides a particular consumerist discourse for the public. This paper demystified the images and discourse within the advertising campaign to problematize the commoditization of contraceptive health in contemporary India.  Dr. Hugh Gusterson, Professor of Anthropology, George Mason University, provided constructive feed back as the moderator for the panel and encouraged a robust question and answer session after the presentation.


Conclusion and Future Research 

The conference ended with a reception and an opportunity for all the scholars to meet and mingle with each other.  It also allowed the Globalization and Society in India Working Group an opportunity to suggest a few areas for future academic collaboration.  These included:


Back to previous page