Inequality in India: A Theoretical Evaluation

In my report entitled, Bonded Child Labour in the Indian Carpet industry,I identified three main groups of socially outcast people who have been and are greatly exploited for cheap labour in India; individuals from low castes, people in minority religions and ethnic minorities. These people are often forced to borrow money from wealthy business men and become indebted for generation. The children of bonded families are normally the victims of exploitation, working for years in abusive and dangerous environments. I cited three main causes for poverty and inequality as summarised by Anker (2004) as being a significant increase in population, government corruption and political and economic globalisation. In this essay I will use classical theories by Weber and Marx to explain the social inequality in India that leads to this exploitation within the Indian carpet industry.

Sociologist Max Weber offers an insightful analysis of social inequality that can be used to explain why certain individuals are exploited for cheap labour and why some do the exploiting. His focus was centered on social stratification and how society is formed based on individual motivation and social interaction, arguing that an individual's class is determined by economic power, social status and political influence (Livesey, 2008). Weber's dimensions of stratification; class, status and party and the power associated with them are pivotal to this evaluation. Firstly it is important to distinguish between status and class. According to McAll (1992), class is a classification based on economic circumstances whereas status is a notion of identity and worth, awarded to and upheld by a group of people. Unlike class, power within status groups is not awarded only by wealth but by factors of stratification such as religion, race, descent, gender and age (Grabb, 2007, p.54).

Economic circumstance in India is certainly a significant influence on social class. But as Weber points out, social roles and institutions also have a large influence on inequality within communities. In the book Political Economy of New Slavery, Anker (2004) supports Weber's view by identifying that factors such as gender, ethnicity, race and religion render certain people more vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. As mentioned earlier, there are certain personal characteristics that determine an individual's status and power. Discrimination based on those characteristics is culturally and historically determined (Swami, 1998). The status of the dalits, or 'untouchables' in India is the lowest form in the country; these people are not even considered as part of the caste system. They are explicitly vulnerable to exploitation and slavery. Once entrapped by the bonded system, these social outcasts struggle to escape but are often resigned to their 'fate' (Anker, 2004).

The acceptance of social status by bonded labourers is a result of what Weber classifies as illegitimate authority and obedience (Grabb, 2007, p.57). It is unthinking subordination, born from custom and convention. However he also points out that this subordination can be a result of fear for one's safety. Both of these factors are relevant to the tradition of abusive, slave-like bonded labour. This also supports Weber's view that social action and behaviour is developed by normative values that are created through social interaction of reflective individuals and is called irrational thinking (Turner, 2001). Weber's entire theory of action is in fact based on the ideas of rational (individual self-interest) and irrational (subjective factors) consciousness (Grabb, 2007, p.45). These opposing concepts are embodied in the behaviour and decisions made by institutions of power, groups and legal bodies (party) that in turn influence the dynamics of society and help explain the economic relations and social inequalities experienced by those individuals who are bonded into the Indian carpet industry.

Weber explained that organized domination, exercised by institutions of power such as governing bodies, order people's lives and remove individual choice. Although he emphasised the power of agency, he claimed that it was only possible within the confines of the institution structure (Allen, 2004, p.29). He argued that law and economic action require rational calculation as they influence each other. The developing rationality of economic capitalist systems demand that existing legal systems provide a basis for protection of the right of property ownership and productive process (McAll, 1992). In a developing country such as India, with its immense population, cultural and historical influences and distinct gap between classes, it is not surprising from a Weberian perspective that exploitation is ongoing and supported by political officials. This is exemplified by the fact that business men are able to find loopholes or explicitly break the law without restriction despite legal implementations regarding child labour. The lack of legal administration by officials in regards to child labour in India also furthers conventions on social behaviour and opinion that acts as social administration to subordinate groups (Turner, 2001). Weber explains that power is derived from the ability to control 'social resources', which include land, capital, social respect and knowledge (Livesey, 2008). The victims of exploitation do not rise against these injustices because they lack power and initiative to do so and actually believe that their situation is necessary (Anker, 2004).

Weber's perspective focuses strongly on the ability of individuals to influence their environment through social action. Although he was concerned with political activities on the growing foreign markets, exploitative industries such as the carpet industry have become exposed to powers such as the media, which have been instrumental in bringing about social awareness and change (Anker, 2004). This is an example of Weber's argument that social change is possible without class conflicts. As he said, power can only be sustained as long as there is only acceptance of its legitimacy and no opposition (Cohen and Kennedy, 2007, p.80).

Although Weber offers a detailed analysis of social relations and the multiple factors that influence social circumstances, he does not provide enough emphasis on economic power, which would help explain the influences of capitalism and globalisation. Although the different dimensions of social stratification are relevant and important, class is possibly the most important and needs to be addressed in greater detail. In contrast, Karl Marx offers a theory of inequality that focuses entirely on the class relationships in the capitalist system. At the very beginning of his workEconomic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844(as cited in Mikulak, 2007),Marx declares that all of human history and society is the result of material relations in production.

According to Marx there are only two classes; property owners (bourgeoisie) and people who do not own property (proletariat) (Grabb, 2007, p.16). People of both classes behave in a manner that best served their individual interests but the powerful class (where power is achieved through wealth) is inevitably superior to the working class citizens; they maintain property, retain surplus wealth and predominate society with their values and beliefs (Grabb, 2007, p.19-28). Marx argued that in a society of this nature, there is a large pool of demand for labour so that if a labourer resigns or is sacked from his job the employer has no trouble finding new workers from the "reserve army of labour" (Grabb, 2007, p.27). This diminishes the ability for an employee to exercise bargaining power thus eliminating any chance for improved working conditions or pay. Exploitation becomes inevitable and a revolution is unlikely. This is evident in Indian culture. There is an abundance of poor struggling families who are not only desperate for work, but are enslaved to it.

Most importantly to this evaluation is Marx's argument that capitalism inevitably expands globally due to materialism and increasing consumerism (Cohen and Kennedy, 2007, p.75). This economic globalisation is not a cause of poverty and exploitation in India but it does increase both poverty (and thus vulnerability) and the demand for cheap labour in this developing nation. Not only does the bourgeoisie class allow for labour exploitation, it also dominates the education sector of society by disallowing child labours to attend school (Swami, 1998). This forces bonded children to remain in harsh working environments for the majority of their lives with little opportunity for a different life. Furthermore, Marx's theories state that the interests of the bourgeoisie are a priority to the state, which is highlighted when political officials such as the Minister of External Affairs (MEA) publicly defends the tradition of bonded labour (Swami, 1998).

Despite these contributions to the explanation of inequality in India, Marx's theories lack the depth of exploration into social factors that influence human behaviour and outcomes. Marx's focus on economic relations within capitalism obscures individual social relations. As Weber observed, humans are social creatures with the potential to influence change in through a social dimension rather than simply through class struggle (Mikulak, 2007). Even though Weber focused less on economic relations, he was able to extend Marx's theories with a greater exploration of stratification, which is very important in realising why certain people are in a vulnerable economic and social position and how people of higher status, party and power are able to oppress or aid bonded labourers.

In conclusion, the social inequalities experienced by bonded child labourers in India are a result of multiple social and economic factors. These include cultural inequality based on class stratification and the influence of status and party. Weber is instrumental in explaining the role that powerful institutions play in ordering people's lives for economic purposes. His theories, though extensions of Marx's, illustrate a complex and dynamic role that social interactions place on social change and circumstance.

References

Allen, J. 2004, Power: Its Institutional guises (and Disguises), In ordering Our Lives: Family, Work and Welfare, eds G. Hughes and R. Fergusson, 2nd edn., The Open University, London.

Anker, Christien van den (Ed), 2004, Political Economy of New Slavery.

Gordonsville, VA, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, accessed online at

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Grabb, E.G. 2007, Theories of Social Inequality,5th edn, Harcourt Brace, Toronto.

Livesey, C. 2008, Social Inequality: Theories; Weber,Sociology Central,accessed online at . on 17/10/2008.

McAll, C. 1992, Class, Ethnicity and Social Inequality,

Montreal, QC, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, accessed online at

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Mikulak, M. 2007, Cross-pollinating Marxism and Deep Ecology: Towards a Post-humanist Eco-humanism,accessed online at. on 17/10/2008.

Praveen Swami, 1998, The MEA's Children, (article) accessed online at (.org/library/articles/frontline.) on 17/10/08.

Turner, Bryan S. 2001, Society and Culture: Principles of Scarcity and Solidarity,London, GBR: Sage Publications, Incorporated, accessed online at (.com/lib/southerncross/Doc?id=10080922&ppg=55) on 17/10/2008.

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