Artisans In India Are The Second Largest Employment Group, After Agricultural Workers
Interview with Aruna Ranganathan
(Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business)
December 14, 2017
Interviewer: Vivek Nemana
Vivek Nemana: How would you characterize your work and what motivates your research?
Aruna Ranganathan: I am interested in how people in low income occupations in developing countries understand their work and how they make economic and work-based decisions. In particular, a lot of people in these occupations have unique skills and types of knowledge even though they might not earn high-wages. I'm interested in how these people approach their work, think of the trade-off between the meaning they get from their work and the money, and how their workplace decisions might also be informed by the communities and societies that they are embedded in.
VN: Interesting. How did you get started going down this path of research?
AR: I am from India and I've always been interested in low-income occupations from a policy perspective. For my dissertation I was keen to study handicraft artisans, because they constitute the second-largest employment group in India after agricultural workers and because they're positioned in the bottom decile of India's income distribution. I became really interested in this question of how artisans understand their work and how they make workplace decisions, as a starting point for understanding policy solutions that might work to upgrade artisans’ livelihoods.
For my dissertation I began with fieldwork in several artisan clusters across India -- in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha -- before I landed on Karnataka and chose Channapatna as my field site. And across these handicraft clusters I was beginning to notice a common thread or common pattern: artisans cared deeply about their work and products in a way that traders of the same artisanal town who sold art products but weren't involved in the production process did not. I started paying attention to the specific ways that artisans were approaching business decisions and how they differed from traders in the same town. It was then that I uncovered this interesting and seemingly counterintuitive observation that artisans were giving price discounts to foreigners and buyers like me who were distinctly not from the region, as compared to the prices they were charging to local Indian buyers. In contrast traders were charging prices aligned with neoclassical economic predictions...what we would expect, where they were charging buyers from high-income backgrounds and foreigners much higher prices. For my dissertation I supplemented 8 months of fieldwork with a field experiment and surveys and this led me to this theory that people who identify with their work might care a lot less about financial gains when they are transacting with discerning audiences. Artisans become attached to their work output and the products that they make, and they want their products to go to a good home, and as such, they give discounts to buyers whom they perceive as being discerning such as foreigners. The welfare of their products means more to them than the money that they make from their work, despite being in a low-income occupation. And so, that's where all of this started. This theoretical idea now continues to sort of captivate me.
VN: Yeah, it is such a fascinating paper, and really such fascinating ideas. I'm really interested in this idea of discernment. How does that get communicated when the buyer comes from a really different context than the artisan. There has got be some kind of shared language there, I would think?
AR: I was curious about this as well. From my fieldwork, artisans in particular seemed to identify discerning audiences in two main ways. The first is that they saw a buyer who buys a lot of handicraft products, and probably wears or carries these products wherever they go, as being discerning. For instance, when I was doing fieldwork, I had picked up handicraft jewelry and bags from clusters across India. I was wearing them when I visited artisans in their homes and workplaces to observe what they were doing. Artisans would see my wearing of handicraft jewelry or carrying a handicraft bag as a sign of discernment. And they would ask me where I had bought these products, and what materials were used in the products. So that led me to this idea that a material display of handicraft products is seen as one dimension through which artisans identify discerning buyers. The second one that came up in interviews was that artisans also saw discerning buyers as those who had traveled from far away to this one artisanal town to buy from artisans. So with respect to foreigners, they would often ask them where they lived or how far they had traveled. For them, coming from far away to visit artisans in their towns was also seen as a sign of discernment. These were just two indicators that I then used to operationalize discernment in my field experiment. I'm sure there were more, but these were the ones that came up in my fieldwork.
VN: That's really fascinating. And also to see that there's a pattern across these different communities. I'm also curious...could you talk a little bit more about the production process itself? One imagines the artisans get input from the traders, from their own traditions, their own creativity, just in terms of what to make and how to make it. How does that tie up with the value that they're placing in their own work?
AR: Is the question how artisans come to identify what is good work for them?
VN: Yup, I mean what is good work for them. Especially in the context of the inputs that they're getting about their work, for instance feedback from the trader saying, "Can you make more of this style?"
AR: For artisans, and in general for artisanal communities, I think the notion of good work really stems from norms and beliefs held by the occupational community, as well as their own relationship with their work. My sense is that communities develop standards of what constitutes good work over time. In Channapatna, the products that have a glossy finish…they could be seen as good work. And that's complemented with artisans' own creative process as they're making their own products. What I found was that the more artisans were involved in the production process, the more they became attached to their products, and the more they valued their products. The more creative autonomy the artisans had over every single creative decision that goes into making their products, the more they would begin to value their products. So for example, some artisans in Channapatna did not make all the products that they sold from start to finish. They would outsource some of the phases of the production process. And I noticed that these artisans valued their products a little less than artisans who were doing everything from sourcing their raw wood to seeing their products take a final form. And so, I think it stems both from their craft heritage and their involvement in their craft community, but also from how involved they are in their own work.
VN: One thing that's really interesting, which you mention in the paper, is that the outsiders or the foreigners, in addition to being discerning, there are also markers of class, which is something that the traders pick up. In addition to discernment, how do you think that these indicators of class played into the way artisans were pricing their work with discerning buyers?
AR: That's interesting. When I first started observing the pattern that artisans were giving discounts to foreigners, I thought this was just based on class or status differences. Perhaps they value the foreigners more, so they're giving them better prices than they're giving to the local Indian buyers. Initially I thought it was just class or status, until I discovered that I was also getting these discounts. I saw myself to be somewhere in the middle, because I look Indian and I could speak the local language but, they could tell that I wasn't from that particular set of villages or district. But I was still getting discounts, sometimes greater than what they were giving the foreigners. That made me think it might not be a story solely about class or status. In the experiment I conducted, I had three categories of buyers purchasing similar products from artisans and traders, two categories of discerning buyers in particular. One category being foreigners, and the other category being Indian local buyers who wore a lot of artisan products. The third category, the control group, was just Indian local buyers who dressed as the locals normally would without these markers of attachments to craft products. What I found was that the artisans gave the greatest discounts to the Indian buyers who wore the handicraft products. They gave them 50 percent discounts compared to the control buyers. They gave the foreigners 25 percent discounts. So the way I interpreted this was that artisans give the greatest discounts to the Indian buyers wearing the craft products because these buyers very starkly displayed discernment. They had obviously visited many other handicraft clusters to purchase handicraft products and they obviously cared about the art because they were wearing these products. In contrast, being from far away or being a foreigner was a weaker indicator of discernment. Artisans still gave foreigners a discount, but not discounts at the same level as they were giving Indian buyers wearing these handicraft products. So I think my overall take is that while class and status might factor into notions of discernment, they definitely aren't necessary. And I think it would be nice going forward to think more about that, in terms of why class and status are factoring into discernment, and you know what are the underlying processes and mechanisms. I think a differently designed experiment could unpack that further. But what I took away from my experiment, which I think was really interesting, is that it is not necessary to be of a higher status social group or a higher class background in order to be seen as discerning.
VN: So your other work too, whether it's with the training or with the plumbers, it seems to really grapple with this idea about how knowledge about good work is shared and valued. Please correct me if I misinterpreted that -- but there's also a kind of, there persistently seems to be someone who gets left out of these shared understandings of good work. In your work overall, could you talk a little about the relationship between understandings of good work and inequality?
AR: I think you're right in thinking that there are probably losers who fail to meet or understand the meaning of good work. I think the way I think about it is that when understandings of good work become rooted in who you are rather than what you know, then there is ascriptive inequality built into the valuation process. I was thinking of your question more from the production side rather the consumption side, especially thinking about my other work about plumbers in India. In a lot of developing countries, people hold notions like "good carpenters come from Rajasthan" or "good tailors are Muslims." That can be problematic because a non-Muslim tailor, no matter how hard they try, might never be considered a good tailor because of their religion. So I think when evaluation processes are based on ascription -- who you are -- that becomes problematic. In the artisanal community, at least from the production perspective, both Hindus and Muslims were artisans...there weren't strict demarcations along religion or ethnicity, and good work was just what work was considered especially creative. Artisans were very quick to praise the work of their fellow artisans who they admired. So I didn't see much inequality in the artisanal community as much. Similarly, from a consumption point of view, if a discerning customer was one who only came from a particular class background, that would be problematic. But a discerning customer, in my context, was really only one who had knowledge about the product, something that could be learned no matter who you are.
VN: That's fascinating. And what about the role of standards here? You've done work on professionalized standards, and so with the plumbers, the thing that was changing was that there was a professional organization coming up. What is the most significant difference between informal understandings of good work that we saw among the artisans, whether that is rooted in identity or not, and these more professionalized standards.
AR: I think that professionalized understandings of good work rely much more on degrees, formal specifications, licenses and the like. So for example, an electrician who performs good work in the US is probably one who is going to be licensed. But when you think about developing economies, a lot of these modern professional institutions of licensing and certification don't really exist. So they aren't really markers of good work and...they don't help distinguish good work from bad work. In these contexts, informal understandings of good work are much more prevalent.
I think that a big distinction between formal and informal understandings of good work is how much the community plays a role in identifying good work. Going back to what I was alluding to earlier, artisans have, over generations, developed notions of what they think makes work good. And similarly in plumbing, you hear stories of what is considered good work at the level of the community, and they're shared by members of the occupation. Even as new members are joining the occupation, and they're going through an apprenticeship and this tacit knowledge is passed on from one generation to another, they get socialized into understanding what is good work. For artisans, being able to produce perfectly rounded shapes, for example, is considered very difficult. When artisans do that, they themselves feel very satisfied and their work is then also recognized more by their peers. Similarly, when plumbers are able to execute their job neatly -- I often heard stories about how some plumbers can get the pipes to work and water can pass through, but others will tackle their work in such a way that no one can even tell that repair work has been performed on the particular pipe, or in this particular building. So that would be something that distinguishes good work from bad work. And you know, these are the kinds of things that would be harder to see at least in more professionalized understandings of good work because professionalized understandings are much more bookish or theoretical. In contrast, grassroots, informal notions of good work are much more rooted in how members of an occupation go about the work rather than in formal knowledge systems.
VN: Right. Could you tell us about something that really surprised you over the course of your research? Maybe you've already said it but...
AR: Sure! So while doing fieldwork across many different low-income occupations in India in particular, I guess what has really surprised me is the meaning that workers in these different occupations find in their work. So going into the field, I would have thought that in these contexts the economic imperative would be most salient. That these workers would prioritize financial gains and monetary rewards in all their decisions, and that money would be their biggest motivator. But consistently that is not what I found. I found that plumbers care deeply about their ethnicity-based identity, artisans come to love every piece that they work on and every piece that they produce. First-time women workers entering garment factories, for them work is much bigger than the money than they bring home. They value their independence and empowerment. And across these different occupations, workers really seek meaning in their work just like workers would do in other occupations in more developed countries. This, I found to be surprising because that's not what theory would predict. Theory would predict that a lot of work in developing countries, especially because it's low-income, would be driven and motivated by money. But a lot of my work challenges that basic idea.
VN: What makes low-income occupations in developing countries unique as research sites, especially in relation to the past? Also, what's your biggest pet peeve about the way that low-income work in developing countries is often talked about in American academia?
AR: I think what makes low-income occupations in developing countries especially unique is that often the work being performed is very skilled work, even though it's low-income work. This skilled work ends up not earning very much because of differences in the institutional environment or market conditions. For example, artisans in the US would surely charge a premium for their products because they're handmade, but this isn't the case in India. Similarly, for a lot of the construction trades like carpentry or plumbing, in the US context the work would be unionized and, you know, command at least a middle-class wage, whereas in India a lot of this work tends to be poorly paid. I think this actually makes for really interesting research sites theoretically, because we can begin to see the tradeoff between decision-making for love of work and decision-making for money. There are very stark trade-offs between these two goals of prioritizing the intrinsic value that you get from your work and prioritizing money in a way that might not be the case in a more developed context. Often, theoretically we think of people having the luxury to prioritize their work, and having the luxury to make decisions for the sake of love of work because you're earning a basic income that allows you that flexibility to make these seemingly whimsical decisions. But in India that's not the case, and what my work is beginning to show, is that even in these contexts, people will actually forego money for value that they seek from their work. So I think that's what makes these sites really interesting.
I guess my biggest pet peeve is that a lot of workers in low-income occupations in India are talked about as being naive. Not just in India but most of the developing world. That workers are naive, they don't know any better, and that's why they're making the decision that they make. A lot of the decisions that they make that we hear about are often explained as stemming from this naiveté and this, I think is misguided. Because I think it's true that a lot of workers in developing countries might not have that much exposure to global markets, but that being said there are systems and processes influencing how they make decisions. These might be different systems than what we see in the West, but they are reasonable systems and processes nonetheless. We need to do more work to understand what's driving the decision-making of these workers and what's important to them rather than simply characterizing them as naive.
VN: I'm really glad that you said that because this is also one of my huge pet peeves, this idea of naivete.
VN: Some of the work I do is on tribal communities in India and -- actually on how people, especially young generations approach work. And you see the same exact thing. The automatic assumption when a certain policy isn't working, or there is a kind of surprising pattern of behavior is that they don't realize what is the best decision to make here, right?
AR: Right. I agree! I'm really glad that you're doing work in this area as well and I think the way forward is for more of us to do work in these contexts because that's the only way to change perceptions in American academia, and change perceptions among policy-makers too. I think the more research we do, I think the more hope there is to really contribute to policy conversations. There is real room for sociologists to contribute to conversations that I think are dominated by economists.
VN: Absolutely. And I think that it's amazing that you're working on this. All of this is so fascinating.
AR: Thank you!
VN: Yeah it's really interesting for me as someone who is just starting grad school to see your work. So, who are your biggest theoretical influences? This is something that we might not end up including in the final interview, but I just wanted to ask about.
AR: Sure, yeah. So a lot of my initial training is in the field of industrial relations, and that's how I came into this profession. My bachelor's and master's degrees were in industrial relations, so I've been inspired a lot by some of the classic studies in IR that really focus on understanding the work being performed vis-a-vis the organizational and technological contexts in which they're performed. So, for example, the work of James Montgomery really gets into the work of cotton spinners. I try to embody a lot of those approaches in terms of how I think about my research. I've also been inspired by ethnographies of work, especially from the Chicago School. For example, essays by Everett Hughes really pay attention to people and the work that they do. Broadly, I think people spend so much time working, and it's a large part of your waking hours, but a lot of more macro-level studies investigate how work is done in organizations without really taking into account the micro-foundations of how people approach their work, and what is their relationship with the work. So that's what I try to do in my work.
VN: I know you're not coming from an economic sociology background, but I'm sure you're familiar with that's happening in the field. So if you could direct a research agenda for econ soc, what would we be studying more of in the future?
AR: I guess this probably wouldn't surprise you [laughter] but I think we'd definitely be doing more studies of work and markets in developing economies. I think that the rules of the game in developing countries are just so different. So for example with respect to price-setting, there is very little formal fixed pricing in these markets. There is much more haggling and prices being negotiated. And we know very little about price-setting in these markets where prices are negotiated. So I really think more research on developing countries is the way forward.
VN: Mmm I agree! This is the last question: would you offer a piece of advice for graduate students interested in the kind of work that you do?
AR: Sure. I adopt a lot of mixed-methods approaches in my work. I think it would be great for more and more graduate students to adopt a mixed-methods approach, especially to investigate the kind of questions that we've been talking about. Doing fieldwork, especially when you're studying work and employment in developing countries, is crucial for uncovering things that you might otherwise miss. Without fieldwork, you would have a very different perception of how work is organized, and you would miss sort of the most interesting things. So I think starting with fieldwork is crucial to uncover really interesting and novel findings. And then I really like to think of ways to deductively test theories that emerge from the fieldwork. So, either by designing a field experiment or trying to get data from organizations. I think this double-pronged approach that I've begun to call a full-cycle approach, starting with inductive fieldwork to generate theory and then testing hypotheses and theories deductively with quantitative data, I think, makes for really interesting and good research. So my advice to grad students would be to ask the difficult questions, do fieldwork and research in developing countries and then try to collect data to test the theories that emerge.
VN: I will be sure to pass that on! Are there any thoughts you'd like to add that we didn't go over today?
AR: No I think we covered a lot of interesting ground today. Thank you so much for reaching out to me.
VN: Oh no thank you so much for your time! This has been a really fascinating and enlightening conversation. It was really a pleasure to get to chat with you.
AR: Mine as well.