The Need for Feminist Elite Studies
by Natha Wahlang and Otso Harju
Academically trained, upper-class and -caste feminists are in a unique position to have both the insider access and desire for social change needed to pursue an expansion of radical elite studies in India. A comprehensive sociology of Indian privilege would be both academically creative and important for future politics.
Have you ever wondered why there are various centers for the study of dispossession and social exclusion but none for the study of the rich and the savarna? A people’s archive of rural India but not of south Delhi? So much information and lingering “developmental” emphasis on poor women, but few reports on toxic masculinity in the bedrooms and offices of the rich?
Despite decades of radical theory and talk of “studying up” as a major sociological tool, research is still a largely top-down kind of business. By and large, marginalization is the “problem” that receives politically inclined people’s attention. “It’s because of how dominant the privileged are in society in general – we need to compensate by focusing on those whose voices are otherwise not heard”, some would say. Now this might be true (although patronizing), but while making that statement many themselves privileged people easily forget about the interactiveness it claims. For, to understand marginalization you have to look at its counterpart – privilege. Oppressed people are not downtrodden because of themselves, but because others are oppressive. If they’re not heard it’s not because they’re not speaking, but because others aren’t listening.
Thus research trends and popular conservative sentiments sometimes come to co-create in curious ways. A lack of sufficient academic focus on the problems of privilege helps the upper classes portray themselves as “aspirational”, less prone to sexism, sexual violence and all things bad – and generally fit to make judgments about and for the rest of the population. In gendered terms, while the focus is averted to the issues of marginalized people, well-off Indian men remain content in their self-assured violence while the women can only try to use class or caste to buy themselves free from the harshest forms of oppression. While the dominant strata of society are not seen as an acute problem, any real overhaul of inequality is unimaginable. This, arguably, is the most disturbing thing about India: the self-righteousness of those who have a lot. As Urvashi Butalia wrote in a memorable piece for New Internationalist five years ago, “India’s elites have a ferocious sense of entitlement”.
A society as unequal as India cannot be understood without scrutinizing and unpacking the ideologies and psycho-social mechanisms of entitlement. Academically, the audacity of the Indian upper classes and -castes offers spectacular avenues for the further development of a sociology of the feeling and violence of privilege. And, politically, the legitimacy of changing things is hinged on managing to end the portrayal of privilege as some form of (moral) superiority.
We currently do have a massive body of literature on “new” middle-to-upper class India, but the intimate mindsets, ideologies and justifications of privilege remain largely outside of its scope. And while “new Indian middle-to-upper class womanhood” has become a staple of contemporary Indian studies, male-ness and its harmful effects on women around it has this far not been studied in detail. Further ethnography is needed: We do not understand – or at least talk publicly about – exactly what kind of socializations, mechanisms of power, and discussions around class, caste, race and distinction currently go into making people think they are better than others, or that it’s “okay” to think that they are. We need to interview and observe people, to catalogue how they live, think, love, abuse, worry and protect their interests in a myriad of everyday interactions.
“The rich are much harder to get to”, many have said. This is true. One cannot just waltz into the dining rooms of Bandra or Banjara Hills, not without the right connections. The privileged have the resources to protect themselves from prying eyes. Whether it’s the walls around houses or the nepotist back-scratching, the upper classes quietly ensure their lives are not scrutinized by too pesky researchers. In her piece, Urvashi Butalia asked “who could study the rich?”.
What is interesting about the question and the (mostly non-existent) response to it in the years that have passed, is the inability to see that the answer is right in front of us: People like her could study the rich. They live in or at least on the fringes of that very same world. A large part of the Indian academic feminist crowd comes from well-off-to-very-wealthy, upper-caste families. This is not meant as an insult, or a cheap shot at someone just because they happened to be born into privilege. It is just a description of what things look like.
What we’re trying to express is not a cynical call for people to stick to “their” kind, but what should be seen as an opportunity. We often encourage men to use their male privilege in order to work against sexism in all-male spaces. This is sound logic that should be applied elsewhere: Academic feminists can use their class- and caste-related insider access to the upper sections of inequality, in order to bring information out to the public and thus instigate change. As feminists and gender scholars, they have the political desire and the academic knowhow, plus the connections needed to get things published. Further, they have the moral claim to being the people most suited for the task. Outsiders like the authors of this article – who’ve had the privilege of spending significant amounts of time in circles such as the ones discussed here – can be express a need for something, but are ultimately not suitable for instigating any profound change. We’re of course not trying to say that other kinds of studies should cease or even diminish; we’re saying everything should be studied.
Why we feel particularly academic feminists (as opposed to people in other progressive fields) could study privilege in a meaningful way is because they – as mainly women, non-cis or genderqueer – also know that being privileged in one way does not mean life is automatically easy in other ways. Inhabiting complex positions of both privilege and sexist oppression, these researchers can know both the good and the bad, and could personally benefit from breaking cultures of silence. Being public about how bad things can get “even” in elite circles would also help dispel the myth of “savarna” gender issues being somehow frivolous or not “real” enough. These might be “elite problems” in the practical sense of being those faced by privileged women and non-conforming people, yet that does not make them are not any less valid. Also, in their intersectionality and emphasis on lived life, feminist methodologies have the sensitivity needed to appreciate these multiplicities and contradictions of identities. “Purely academically”, moral complexity is in itself a fascinating and important site of study.
To instigate a push towards future feminist elite studies, teachers and researchers should always encourage privileged students to look at their families, universities, neighborhoods, friend groups and the workplaces of people “like” them, and study intersecting inequalities there. While these discussions do happen in classrooms, it is not been enough to create the needed levels of self-reflexivity and -criticism. The different reactions to the “sexual hall of shame”-list circulated in feminist circles illustrates this. Many voices from marginalised positions within Indian academic spaces pointed out how the privilege afforded by elite feminist intellectuals shaped their response to the list. For the most part, the calling out led not to constructive reflexions on privilege but to defensiveness. This is not the first time or context this has been called attention to, yet the same blind spots remain.
Thus, there needs to be an institutionalised problematization of what academia chooses and prioritises as legitimate problems as well as of the direction of the study of these problems. Privileged university professors, researchers – including senior feminists – need to systematically use themselves as examples in showing how privilege works in practice in their classrooms, offices and choices of words. We all need to call out privilege in our own everyday actions, and create academic mechanisms and disciplines that help make sure we do so. A central part of this would be the switch of directionality in elite understandings of social problems: the issues of discrimination by being should be as pressing and shameful as discrimination of.
Currently, this is hardly encouraged, which is lets the privileged of the hook and is deadly for independent and critical thinking. Studying “up” is harder than studying “down”, because studying power ultimately means studying the very definitions of what is true and false, good and bad. For privileged people, it is hard insofar it asks questions uncomfortably close to themselves, what they’ve learned to believe in, the comforts they’ve gotten used to. Yet for anything to get better, it has to happen. Young people have to be encouraged to tear down their seniors, tear down toxic cultures of “respect”, otherwise they themselves will repeat the mistakes of older generations when later possibly occupying (and, in the worst case scenario, feeling comfortable in) entrenched positions of power.
Thus, the polemic opening of this piece is not just polemic. We really do need a center for the study of the rich and the savarna. An institute for the study of entitled masculinity. Those living in upper-class India could set up their own web archives documenting sexist, classist, and casteist violence perpetrated by people around them, in order to just get the sheer magnitude of the issues down on paper. While the institutionalization of radical thought can be a step towards somewhat complacent centrism (as we’ve sometimes seen in the case of gender studies), a push as big as the one we need here cannot be done by any well-meaning individual. People with power, placed in strategic locations can work on dismantling their own privileges, but ultimately we need institutions that are bigger and better than the sum of their parts. Departments for the studies of the upper classes would be academically creative institutions and great reminders that those in power are neither “neutral” nor “normal”, even if their dominant positions might make them think so.
 The elite connection is of course in no way only limited to the feminist section of academia. What feminists have that most others don’t is an openly political discipline founded on a desire for anti-violence and equality in all forms. That is a resource to be used.
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