Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 4 of 5)

In the last installment of the “Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?” series, I concluded by suggesting that consumer capitalism, in order to maintain a constantly increasing rate of growth, reshapes or even breaks down existing cultural traditions. Without cultural traditions, from which people derive a sense of belonging, a sense of being loved, and ultimately their very sense of who they are, people turn to the consumer commodities of the marketplace to fulfill these needs.

Cultural change happens all the time. Historically, however, such changes come from the ground up. They emerge through people’s indidivual or collaborative efforts to solve the problems of everyday life. In a consumer society, cultural change happens largely from above. New cultural objects in a consumer society, the commodities that we consume in the marketplace, are produced by corporate executives who survey the market and attempt to “solve the problem” of how to make a profit. A new Maruti or the latest pair of Levis do not solve any problems of everyday life. If anything, they simply create new problems like planning for the maintenance and replacement of our newly purchased goods.
I ended the last installment in this series by proposing that Indians should be asking “What will the future India look like if change continues to be driven by a market orientation rooted in the culture of consumption?”

We in the West tend to assume that democracy and free markets are the solutions to the world’s problems. When a society embraces consumerism, so the assumption continues, its problems are solved for its people are finally doing well enough to have discretionary income to spend. India has democracy, it has free markets, and it is rapidly embracing consumerism. But is consumerism a good fit for India? What are the flaws with historical or present systems of provisioning of goods in Indian society? Are these flaws really overcome by the consumerist model of provisioning? And if so, do the new problems that the consumerist model brings outweigh the benefits gained by overcoming the problems with the old model? The following anecdotes are not intended to answer these questions, but rather to prompt further discussion about the questions.

Let me describe a few observations I have made about shopping in India that point to some potential obstacles to the development of a consumer society on an American scale.

Clearly India is working hard to make American-style consumerism take hold. Currently, however, except for the up-and-coming malls beginning to dot the landscapes around India’s major metros, shopping in India is largely a matter of visiting local markets with tiny shops, averaging only 500 square feet, and with pretty limited selection. In these venues, “browsing” in true consumerist style is definitely not facilitated nor generally practiced. Browsing is essential to a successful consumer society since it is through browsing that we make impulse purchases. If we purchase only that for which we perceive a need, then the consumer society becomes too dependent on marketing messages to convince consumers of a need for a product. Through browsing, however, we convince ourselves in ways that we perceive are free of the influence of advertising that we need or deserve something we had not previously intended to buy.

Street Retail in Ahmedabad's Night Market

I raise the possibility that consumerism may not be a good fit for Indian society because Indian retail models, many of which appear to be based on high employee-to-customer ratios, are simply not conducive to browsing. For example, in Bangalore one day, my wife and I decided to step into a toy store (the one on Brigade Rd. for those of you who are locals) with our two children—at the time aged 3 1/2 and almost 2. We were perplexed when we encountered a virtual wall of employees making it impossible to push one's way through the store. Employees actively discouraged our children from browsing by taking from them the toys they had picked up and placing them back on the shelves. My sense is that the high employee-to-customer ratio approach is based on a belief that the employee can best tell the consumer what he or she needs. Another example should illustrate what I mean.

Photo by flickr member "grande illusion"

Jewelry shopping in India is serious business, and given the cultural significance of gold, perhaps whatever I observed in jewelry stores is less an attempt to strive for American-style consumerism and more a function of unique cultural characteristics. Nevertheless, my observations are worth noting. As at the toy store, jewelry stores operate with a high employee-to-customer ratio. The customer is constantly tended to, whether providing a chair to sit in or a cup of tea to drink. But as with the tiny shops in a typical Indian market or bazaar, browsing is not possible. At the jewelry store, however, the reason has little to do with space and everything to do with the fact that over-attentive employees insist on bringing the products to the customer. In one case, my wife described to an employee the type of earring she wanted. The employee then proceeded to bring her styles of jewelry completely inconsistent with her expressed preference.

Another type of store that employs some of the same “overwhelm-the-customer-with-attention” techniques is what I suppose you could call the silk superstore, or textiles-only department store. Upon entering one such store, a chain in Kerala called Jayalakshmi, we were instantly bombarded with attention from at least 8 to 10 of the 30 or so employees working the main floor. We were instantly asked what we were looking for. In the practice of browsing, the consumer only knows what she or he is looking for after it is discovered. Discovering what one is looking for is challenging with an employee always at one’s heel. And if the customer has a purchase in mind, and shares this information with an employee, the employee then becomes the expert in determining what the customer wants.

House of Alukka's: A Major Kerala Jewelry Store Chain

Now, back to my point. These examples of what can best be described as awkward approaches to customer service are probably in some way an outgrowth of an attempt by India’s retail sector to woo the reluctant Indian consumer. In time, I am sure retail in India will develop new models that are conducive to more spontaneous consumerism. If so, then why is this a problem? Again, as I set out at the beginning of this entry, the problem has to do with the way that consumer capitalism forces the transformation of certain existing cultural traditions in the interest of expanding markets and constant growth. Top-down, market-driven change represents a homogenizing force. After a certain length of time, India will cease to look like India. Instead, it will look a lot more like American society.

Obviously Indians will still eat different foods, practice different religions, and speak different languages than Americans, and there will still be plenty of internal diversity (just as American society has racial, ethnic, and religious diversity). But all of the richness and diversity of India’s cultural traditions will be diminished. Rather than at the well or open-air market, Indians will find community at the mall or Wal-Mart, the way many Americans do. Americans lack a culture rooted in historical traditions based on religious, utilitarian, and other approaches to functioning in everyday life. Instead, our culture is rooted in the transience of fashions and fads manipulated by profit-seeking capitalists. The harder India tries to become a consumer society, the greater the likelihood that its culture will follow the same path.

Already, in the last ten to fifteen years, much of the richness of Indian culture has been diminished. Beautiful terra cotta vessels, once used throughout India to collect and transport water, have been largely replaced by brightly colored plastic vessels. Similarly, today one is hard pressed to find chai served in disposable and biodegradable terra cotta cups. Instead, train passengers receive their chai in plastic or paper cups. At a deeper level, as India’s rural regions become transformed by the forces of globalization, people are abandoning traditional handicrafts and other ways of life that evolved over thousands of years.

I realize that I am once again verging on a romantic and monolithic notion of Indian culture. I’ll take whatever criticisms come my way. But let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that India resist consumerism in order to preserve some quaint, idealized version of Indian culture. Instead, I’m trying to be provocative and to compel Indians to begin asking some difficult questions about what is most valued about India’s cultural heritage, about what is worth preserving, and about what parts of Indian culture are vital to what it means to be Indian, as diverse a set of meanings as that identity might hold.

In a way, these are some of the questions that Vroom, the character from One Night @ The Call Center who I discussed in the last installment of this series, was asking. Vroom is calling for India’s youth to question consumerism and to look inward for a more authentic sense of identity and source of meaning in life. I use the example of Vroom because his is likely a more credible, and definitely a more widely heard, voice than my own. In fact, some might argue that it is hypocritical for me, an American, to ask Indians to question consumerism’s hold on them. After all, Americans have long since embraced consumerism and accepted the commodified form of culture that comes with it. I would counter this critique by pointing out that in the U.S., except for the Native Americans who Anglo-Americans had largely obliterated by the early 20th century, there were no longstanding cultural traditions to protect. It was partly because of the lack of identity on the part of displaced British colonists that consumerism as a source of identity was able to take root in America.

The situation is fundamentally different in India. For Vroom, that India’s youth are embracing the consumer lifestyle is troubling because it is a lifestyle being sold to it by the same people who they are helping in the call centers. I think Vroom is contending that if the youth generation does not opt out of this lifestyle, they, as much as any multinational corporation or government economic policymaker, will be responsible for India’s failure to realize its real potential. In a broader sense, I think Vroom’s fear is that India, and India’s youth in particular, is becoming trapped in a consumerist lifestyle that once embraced cannot easily be abandoned.

In the final installment of this series, I will focus on the way in which American consumer culture creates a convenient bubble, within which the consumer is comfortably oblivious to the consequences of the consumer lifestyle. This is achieved, in part, by shipping off to other countries much of the dirty work—the resource and labor exploitation—involved in delivering to us our consumer goods. I’ll conclude the series by asking whether the same relationship will hold for India. Can India “ship off” the ugly dark side involved in the production of consumer goods so that its consumers can live in the same sort of denial as American consumers?


gaddeswarup said...

From http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1517142.cms
"Prasad, whose decisions to introduce earthen pots ( kulhads ) instead of plastic cups and khadi linen on trains won him rave reviews, said the turnaround was achieved by changing the old dictum -- hiking goods and passenger fares to minimise cost. "
I do not know how much this has been implemented.
About consumerism, I too noticed it in cities and some towns but I am not a trained sociologist and I am not sure how much of it is widespread in terms of percentages.
Are there any other reasons for the fascination with American culture? Why is Bush so popular in India?

Steve Zavestoski said...

Swarup, thanks for the comment and link. I recall the positive publicity around Prasad's decision back in May. We were in Ahmedabad at the time. This is exactly the type of thing I am advocating (even if I often sound too critical of the emerging Indian consumer society. What I mean is that it is an instance of Indians putting their collective foot down and saying that there are certain traditions that are too important to give up to economic or market decisions.

As for the spread of consumerism in India, even though rural villages don't have Bangalore-style malls, most do have all the mobile retail stores, Internet cafes, and sattelite TV--three information communication technologies that expose people to the consumer culture.

The Bush question is a tough one. I should preface anything I say by noting that there is widespread disapproval of him among India's Muslims. The rest of India may appreciate him because he is the first U.S. president to acknowledge India's new status as a global economic force.

gaddeswarup said...

Thanks for the kind replies. I will probably keep asking these naive questions once in a while. In many Indian blogs, people seem very certain about the problems and solutions. In a vast and diverse country like India, I am not so sure whether one can identify these very clearly. It will be enlightening see the views of trained outsiders.

dev said...

I am Indian and live in Europe. I do not feel that American style consumerism is the only available avenue for India. For example in Spain, Italy or Greece major supermarket and retail chains dot the cities, yet at the same time Europeans value fresh produce bought from the farmers market or traditional items bought from traditional shops. Tradition, heritage and family values are guarded with pride. Europe has had a rich, varied and diverse history and culture and somehow they have shown that in their societies rampant consumerism and the golden traditions can coexist happily. Call me a Europhile, perhaps I am. But, I see India with its rich culture and heritage, adopt more of the European style consumerism over a period of time.

Professor Z said...

Dev, Thanks for your comment. I hope you're right about India adopting more of a Euro-style model of consumerism. I'm not sure what sort of policies or practices might help guide India in this direction. Hopefully a deep appreciation of, and respect for, India's varied traditions will lead to a more guarded approach to consumer capitalism.

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