Ambition, Naked, Muted, and Mediated: Exploring Young Adult Aspirations in the Fast-changing Global South

Title: 1155 | Ambition, Naked, Muted, and Mediated: Exploring Young Adult Aspirations in the Fast-changing Global South
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Hanna Kim, Adelphi University, United States (organizer, presenter, chair)
Dyotana Banerjee, Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, India (presenter)
Mona Mehta, Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, India (presenter)


Studies of developing Asia show that opportunities have emerged alongside dramatic economic changes but, as with many globalising processes, these have come with psychic, social and environmental costs. It is a truism that avenues for self and economic transformation are not available to everyone. In this atmosphere where aspirations emerge but their actualisations are limited by structural and social factors, what about young adults who are negotiating their roles as earners, young householders, or students? What shapes the goals that youth hold for themselves, their families, and community? In seeking to fulfill their ambitions, what supports or thwarts the life trajectories that young people are dreaming for themselves? Can ambition be a productive category for enquiry, one that more intimately conveys what people at the crossroads of possibility and reality are experiencing?

This panel draws attention to the youth of western India, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. It explores their experiences and offers insight into aspirational desires. The individual papers make connections between local opportunities and global happenings: from young artisans’ efforts to create a sustainable life despite economic and geographic marginalisation; to the hiding and un-hiding by lower caste and rural youth migrants of their caste and religious identity via social media; to the relationship between academic mobility and youth identity; and the leveraging of religion and gender issues to navigate economic challenges. This focus on young adults and their narratives of living through tumultuous changes highlights ambition as a category of analysis and a barometer of the possible.

Panel Abstracts:
Brave New Ambitions: Youth Artisans and the Quest for Sustainable Living in Kachchh, Gujarat
If a customer pays 10,000 Indian rupees for one hand-loomed rug, its young weaver is able to support his extended family. Far away from the weaver’s home, someone is seeking to purchase a rug that distinguishes her living space from others whose furnishings were bought at a “big box” store. If her need aligns with the weaver’s own, this would make an ideal match. This equation depends on the balancing of many factors including the questions of how the weaver, living in northwestern India and speaking no English, can meet the potential customer; and, how does the weaver know the aesthetic preferences of the Western “eco-organic” customer? This paper probes the heralding of sustainability for artisan producers and their customers by looking closely at what constitutes sustainable living and what makes this achievable in specific economic and social contexts. From recent ethnographic research in Kachchh, Gujarat, this paper looks at models of artisan support that aim to balance the ambitions of youth seeking economic and creative independence with the material obstacles they face. This includes the factors of access to knowledge, education, and capital. The aspirations of youth artisans are circumscribed not only by limitations of resources but by expectations of the liberalising economy that rest on hierarchies of bodies, manufactured desires, and power. As young artisans come to an awareness of this reality, their hopes to live lives of dignity and solvency offer ways to conceptualise ambition in the context of the global marketplace for hand-crafted items.

A 'Casteless' Collective: Marginality and Aspirations in the New Dalit Politics in Ahmedabad
This paper analyzes how youth from marginalized castes negotiate their political and economic aspirations in the physical and digital spaces connected to rapidly transforming Indian cities. My ethnographic study conducted between August 2016 and June 2019, in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, focuses on a recent Dalit movement led by Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM) (translated as National Dalit Rights Forum), and shows how this collective conducts its political activity in the space-caste matrix of the urban neighbourhoods. A part of the study is based on social media ethnography that analyzes RDAM’s work documented on social media platforms. My research reveals a paradox in the reach and rhetoric of the movement. The movement was initially organized to protest a rural caste-crime and to demand agricultural land for the rural Dalit households. The participants, however, are mostly the urban and economically upwardly mobile Dalit youth whose narratives in-person and on social media reveal their constant attempts to move away from the rural and to align their aspirations and anxieties with those of the urban middle class youth of all castes. The youth participation in RDAM appears to be ‘casteless’, rather than ‘anti-caste’. I argue that despite the movement’s critique of neoliberal political arrangements, urban Dalit youth participation seems to be heavily informed by its aspiration to be a beneficiary of the rapidly transforming urban market and its peculiarly casteist consumer culture. The promise of economic agency associated with neoliberal subjectivity makes Dalit youth aspirations and the demands of RDAM contradictory.

Youth in Neoliberal Times: Shamans, Land and Rabari Occupational Trajectories in Gujarat
This paper examines recent occupational changes and aspirations of Maldhari (pastoralist) youth operating across the urban-rural matrix in western India. How should we understand the aspirations of young Maldhari men, particularly from the Rabari community, who are increasingly giving up their traditional occupations related to cattle rearing in favour of becoming informal financiers, entrepreneurs and government employees? What do these preferences tell us about the particular challenges of neoliberal politics manifesting in jobless growth, for instance, and the invention of varied coping mechanisms to navigate this challenging economic landscape. From ethnographic research, this paper considers a number of recent strategies and responses of Rabari youth to sustain their caste identity and ambitions. This paper tracks the popularity of Rabari shamans, bhuvas, as innovative brokers engaged with the emerging political economy of land and real estate development in and around Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. Bhuvas are performing beyond traditional ritual roles as they interact with their especially youthful (mostly male) audiences who are wrestling with issues of land transactions; community identity and pride; and economic challenges. This paper also examines Rabari popular culture as reflected in songs and music videos on social media; on religious recitations such as the 'regadi'; and the popularity of caste stickers. Resisting the temptation to unpack these trajectories within the framework of either euphoria or frustration, this paper reflects on particular rural-urban transformations, socio-economic mobilities, and coping mechanisms of Rabari youth whose ambitions are visible but not necessarily always within reach.

This panel is on Tuesday - Session 06 - Room 3
This panel is not available on Catch-Up

Go to Room 3