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Affirmative action and political economic transformations

Secondary education, indigenous people, and the state in Jharkhand, India

Rob Higham and Alpa Shah

This article proposes an anthropology of affirmative action that is embedded in analysis of the wider political economic transformations in which affirmative action policies emerge. It is argued that this historically situated approach enables analyses of the relative effects of affirmative action on processes of socio economic marginalization. The focus of the article is on the combination of preferential treatment policies and the provision of education as a state-led response to historical marginalization. These policies are explored in the context of adivasis (tribal or indigenous peoples) in Jharkhand, India. The analysis shows how, despite improvement in absolute educational outcomes among adivasis as a result of these policies, inequalities in relative outcomes are being reproduced and are widening. This is explained in part by market-led gains within the private edu cation sector for more advantaged sections of society that outweigh the predom inately state-led improvements for adivasis. The analysis demonstrates the limitations of contemporary affirmative action in affecting the relative position of socioeconomically marginalized groups in contexts where the state is losing some of its universal features and ambition.

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Daniel Sabbagh

In the United States, the expression “affirmative action” generally refers to a wide array of measures set up at the end of the 1960s by executive agencies and the federal judiciary. These measures grant some (more or less flexible) kind of preferential treatment in the allocation of scarce resources—jobs, university admissions and government contracts—to the members of groups formerly targeted for legal discrimination (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, sometimes Asians).1 In France, by contrast, the main operational criterion for identifying the beneficiaries of affirmative action policies (in French, “discrimination positive”) is not race or gender,2 but geographical location: residents of a socioeconomically disadvantaged area will indirectly benefit from the additional input of financial resources allocated by state agencies to that area as a whole.

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Upward mobility in a forgotten tribe

Notes on the "creamy layer" problem

Megan Moodie

Public discussions of recent demands by the Gujjars of Rajasthan, India, for inclusion on the list of the state's affirmative action beneficiaries have often veered away from the legitimacy of their claims and toward whether elite Gujjar leaders can speak for less educated and less affluent community members. This article examines how this latter set of questions-often described as the “creamy layer“ problem in reference to a group's elite who have “risen to the top“ and need to be “skimmed off“-can obscure the real workings of affirmative action on the ground and the limitations encountered by groups seeking upward mobility. Ethnographic research with the Dhanka tribe reveals deep concerns that upwardly mobile groups are in danger of downward mobility without the protection of affirmative action-based hiring practices, and that middle class elites within the tribe can be important political advocates for others within the community.

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Alpa Shah and Sara Shneiderman

This is the introduction to a special section of Focaal that includes seven articles on the anthropology of affirmative action in South Asia. The section promotes the sustained, critical ethnographic analysis of affirmative action measures adopted to combat historical inequalities around the world. Turning our attention to the social field of affirmative action opens up new fronts in the anthropological effort to understand the state by carefully engaging the relationship between the formation and effects of policies for differentiated citizenship. We explore this relationship in the historical and contemporary context of South Asia, notably India and Nepal. We argue that affirmative action policies always transform society, but not always as expected. The relationship between political and socioeconomic inequality can be contradictory. Socioeconomic inequalities may persist or be refigured in new terms, as policies of affirmative action and their experiential effects are intimately linked to broader processes of economic liberalization and political transformation.

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Scheduling tribes

A view from inside India's ethnographic state

Townsend Middleton

Venturing into an ethnography of government anthropologists themselves, this article interrogates the bureaucratic inner workings and actual agents of today's “ethnographic state." By engaging with the civil servants who verify India's Scheduled Tribes, I explore the politics of “tribal“ recognition from the inside out. This perspective lends timely insight into the logistical, political, and epistemological difficulties integral to the functioning-and current crisis-of India's affirmative action system. Weighing the demands of “tribal“ recognition through those that arguably know them best-government anthropologists themselves- this study examines the human dimension (and dilemmas) of the Indian state and its affirmative action system for Scheduled Tribes.

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Untangling the "transnational social"

Soft affirmative action, human rights, and corporate social responsibility in Brazil

Rocío Alonso Lorenzo

This article analyzes how diversity-managing and affirmative action policies targeting Afro-descendants have been introduced into Brazilian workplaces since the late 1990s. It does so by exploring how international regulations and global normative regimes, namely the human rights and the corporate social responsibility movements, have penetrated and shaped the way Brazilian companies deal with racial discrimination. Contending interpretations by executives, managers, and activists are discussed from the perspective of “new legal pluralism,” by looking at how these different actors use the norms to induce, subvert, or even evade dominant orders in specific situations. It can be concluded that, even with no legally binding force, global normative regimes have been particularly effective in creating new “sites of opportunity” for Afro-Brazilians. Conversely, the corporate social responsibility premise of going beyond the law neither challenges the ineffectiveness of the national legal system nor disqualifies illegal discriminatory market behavior.

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The social life of categories

Affirmative action and trajectories of the indigenous

Bengt G. Karlsson

In this article I examine the ways in which the term “indigenous peoples“ is reworked in a specific South Asian context. I focus on the new, hybrid category of “indigenous tribe“ in the Indian state of Meghalaya. I argue that we can think of the indigenous tribe category as a strategic conflation of two different regimes of rights or political assertions. The first relates to the existing nation-state framework for affirmative action as expressed in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, while the second relates to the emerging global framework for asserting the rights of indigenous peoples. While the benefits of asserting the status of indigenous tribes is obvious, for example, preventing other, nonindigenous tribes from owning land in the state, the long-term gains seems more doubtful. Both affirmative action programs and indigenous peoples frameworks are motivated by a moral imperative to redress historical injustices and contemporary social inequalities. To evoke them for other ends might eventually backfire. The larger point I seek to make, however, is that political categories tend to take on a life of their own, escaping their intended purposes and hence applied by people in novel and surprising ways.

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Developing a culture of marginality

Nepal's current classificatory moment

Sara Shneiderman

This article examines the complex relationships between marginalized communities, the state, and nonstate actors such as development agencies and social scientists in crafting the classificatory regimes that undergird affirmative action policies. Focusing on the current dynamics of “ethnic restructuring“ amid the broader political process of postconflict “state restructuring“ in Nepal, I suggest that international actors often unwittingly encourage the hardening of ethnic boundaries through development projects that target “marginalized“ populations defined in cultural terms. However, such interventions can also yield unexpected transformations in agentive ethnic consciousness. This ethnographic exploration of current classificatory processes in non-postcolonial Nepal provides an important counterpoint to material from the Indian context, where histories of colonial classification have debatably influenced contemporary categories-and their critique-to a significant extent.

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Manuela Ciotti

This article explores histories of social separation, impermanent encounters, and lasting political alliances between Dalit (“untouchable”) Chamar male youth and members of the upper-caste Brahman community in a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, North India. The entry of young Chamar people into educational institutions followed by political mobilization and, for some, the transition into employment, has led them to appropriate spaces often beyond the purview of previous generations. Against the backdrop of Chamar histories as agricultural laborers, powerless political subjects, and actors of religious marginality, new forms of masculinity, sociality, and class formation have come into being. The article focuses on young Chamar men’s involvement in village politics, particularly during the 2005 local elections. It is argued that village politics—rather than inter-caste friendships, which remain short-lived as a result of caste discrimination—has engendered an arena of sociality where caste-driven interest produce more durable social links between young low-caste men and members of the upper-caste community. As India’s political history illustrates, the episode of electoral politics analyzed in this article brings together differently situated communities within the nation, highlighting how the unresolved question of caste discrimination conflates with the compulsion to political power. If young Chamar men are the new protagonists in this history, their role is the outcome of broader changes in the consciousness around political participation and the opening up of democratic possibilities for minority populations in a postcolonial setting.

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The prépa de proximité

A French Attempt at Affirmative Action in Higher Education?

William Poulin-Deltour

French Republicanism prohibits the creation of American-style affirmative action based on racial and ethnic descent. Nevertheless, France has its own affirmative action programs based on socio-economic indicators in given geographical zones. Over the past ten years, there have also been experimental and informal efforts to diversify selective institutions of higher education. This article assesses, through ethnographic field work and in-depth interviews, one of these programs—the establishing of a classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles in a working-class and heavily immigrant suburb east of Paris. The article reveals that while local underprivileged students who attend the classe préparatoire are most unlikely to wind up in a grande école, they just the same receive essential instruction that readies them for university study. As members of the original teaching team leave and are replaced, however, the future of the prépa's mission is far from certain.