Sunday, December 17, 2006

Consumerism and dowry

I recently received an email from a reader of the "Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?" series I posted back in August and September. For a refresher, you can click here to go to the first entry in the five-part series, or to view all my posts tagged "consumerism," click here.

Nicoletta, an Italian woman beginning a PhD program in Indology, wrote to ask what I knew about the influence modern consumerism in Indian society is having on the practice of dowry:
Many scholars and commentators have stressed a correlation between the increase in dowry demands (and its murderous manifestation) and a more consumer oriented society in India, especially among middle urban classes. Is for this reason that the research project I'm about to start will be an attempt to take a critical look at global consumerism in India, linking it to the practice of dowry. What I want to try is to start reconstructing the "social life of things" belonging to the dowry list on a intergenerational bases ... I was wondering whether you know single scholars and research centres in India dealing with the issue of dowry from my same point of view and which can assist me in the field phase of my research project.
Here's an excerpt, with some modification, from my response:
Your research idea sounds very interesting.

You might be interested in checking out the following blog entry at POV, it offers a brief summary of a recent book by Vrinda Nabar called Caste as Woman.

As per your specific questions, unfortunately I'm not an expert in the area of your interest, so my suggestions are limited.

In terms of the concept of the "social life of things," I would recommend you read a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Halton called The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. It's now about 25 years old, but I think remains one of the best analyses of the way that we attach symbolic meaning to everyday material objects in our lives. It's focus is on the U.S., but theoretically I think it might be useful for you.

With respect to your research, I'd be interested in hearing more about the approach you plan to take. It sounds like you might, quite litrerally, inventory the items included in dowries across generations in particular families. Presumably you would, as well, compare changes in the make-up of dowries across families in order to understand how consumerism is more or less influencing the dowry practice in different castes, for example.

I would be very interested to see the extent to which modern consumer goods, especially those valued largely for their labels, are becoming a standard part of dowries.
I went on to tell Nicoletta that I would post an entry about her research interests, in the hopes that a reader or two might have some suggestions for her. I know there are many outstanding organizations in India working on reforming the practice of dowry. If you are a reader who has any familiarity with such organizations, please leave information about them in a comment to this post. I will make sure the information gets back to Nicoletta.

More importantly, I'd like to hear some discussion on this topic. Sociologically, the melding together of traditional practices with contemporary ones is one of the most fascinating aspects of globalization and the spread of consumerism. My guess is that there are parallel changes happening within the dowry practice. On one hand, among some segments of the population, the dowry practice is slowly eroding. But on the other hand, I suspect that Nicoletta is on to something--the way many Indians are embracing consumerism must be intensifying dowry practices, both with respect to the quantity and make-up of the goods constituting a dowry.

I hope some readers, more familiar than me on this topic, will share some thoughts.

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Prasanth said...

What I have noticed is that earlier, dowry demands were purely "money" based - such and such a sum etc. What I have noticed is that lately, it has morphed to demands like a fully furnished house, a car, land etc. Do note that jewellery and gold was always a part of the dowry. No wonder India is the largest consumer of gold in the world.

I was really taken aback when my mom told me that our servant maid paid 100 gms of gold and 50,000 Rs as dowry for her daughter. She must be making a maximum of 1000 Rs per month as salary and don't know how she managed to pay that amount!!

Dowry takes many forms and comes in many guises. Take "sponsoring" for example. When I was in engineering college, there used to be a group of guys (especially from Andhra Pradesh) who always seemed to be loaded with money. They had the latest motor bikes (having a bike was a great thing back then) and where the high rollers (so to speak) in the campus. Later I came to know that their "father in law's to be" sponsored their education! They paid for the college fees, their stay, bought them bikes etc. In some communities, families "arrange" once marriage at a very early stage and the girl's family sponsors the boy's education!!

gaddeswarup said...

I tried reading the paper by Siwan Anderson: "Why dowry declined with modernization in Europe but rising in India" but it is too technical for me. The journal reference is in this paper: