Social Mobility and Inequality in post-reform India – University of Copenhagen

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Social Mobility and Inequality in post-reform India

University of Copenhagen and University of Delhi - Joint Conference

Most of the literature on inequality in India has concentrated either on caste or on poverty. There is almost nothing on experiences of inequality, ideas of equality, paths towards social mobility, and how this relates to democracy.  Indian social science has been dominated by Marx and Ambedkar, as against Tocqueville; and our solutions to inequality too have been divided into binaries like revolution or reservation. Tocqueville has been appropriated by social scientists in the context of political association and social capital, but it would be even more profitable to re-examine his work for its implications for the relationship between equality and democracy in India. 

In the context of caste, there is a large body of dalit literature that looks at feelings of humiliation and anger; and a growing literature on social exclusion, but much of this tends to be a formulaic reiteration of the varied axes along which disadvantage is experienced – caste, gender, class, ethnicity, disability.  We need far more ethnography on both hurt and aspiration.  

Equally this ethnography needs to be related to the ‘great transformations’ introduced by liberalization – the relative weighing of sectors (agriculture, industry, services) in terms of their propensity to perpetuate or alleviate inequality and not just in terms of their contribution to GDP; the manner in which durable inequalities are created and the factors which lead to fissures in the reproduction of these structures (see for instance, Tilly, Durable Inequalities).  While there is new work on the way in which caste perpetuates itself even in formal work settings in the modern industrial and financial sector, both in recruitment and behavior at work (see essays in Thorat and Newman), as well as in marriage (literature on caste-based matrimonials), we do not have very much literature on the contexts in which caste has disappeared or the role played by education – both primary and higher education, public sector employment, public transport like trains, social security programs like NREGA or the membership of political parties, religious or social organisations in enabling social mobility. We have flagellated ourselves too much over inequality to be able to identify spheres in which equality has made a small beginning or mobility has taken place so that we can build upon it.  

Nor have we cared to sufficiently distinguish economic and social inequality. While there has been a great deal of disquiet over the introduction of FDI in retail, we do not have, for example, any studies of whether and how formal employment, howsoever low-paid, makes a difference to the self-perception of those employed. Being a pizza delivery man in a uniform, a sales-clerk in a department store, a sanitation employee at the airport, or a beauty parlour masseuse is quite different from being a chotu in a kirana dukan, a full time domestic worker, or a maalish wali, in terms of the kind of self-respect that comes from nomenclature. We need to differentiate the axes of inequality – status and income – and see what contributes to each; as well as the manner in which technological changes like mobile phones affect opportunity and access. 

This conference will bring together invited speakers from India and abroad to discuss these themes. 

See programme

Contact: nandinisundar @, rkaur @

Contact: Ravinder Kaur,