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Identity and quality of life among Badagas in South India with reference to rural-to-urban migration and new media

Davey, Gareth (2017) Identity and quality of life among Badagas in South India with reference to rural-to-urban migration and new media. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,.

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The thesis is about the experiences of Badagas living in contemporary India as they navigate a society in flux, the extent to which change permeates and influences understandings of self and life. Badagas, like others in India, have been experiencing profound changes as new ideas, products, and ways of living have become widespread. An increasing number of people are migrating to cities in search of education and employment, and technologies such as new media now influence communication and interaction. To understand these new circumstances, the primary concern of the thesis is an investigation of the identities and life quality of Badagas in South India with reference to rural-to-urban migration and new media, an important case study of the impact of India's social and economic transformation on its people, and a timely update of the antiquated picture of Badagas in the literature. At an empirical level, the thesis unpacks how Badagas understand themselves and their lives in today's India. However, it is also about changing the ways they have been understood and represented in the literature. At a theoretical level, therefore, the thesis deconstructs and redefines the meaning of 'Badaga' portrayed in the academic literature, and rebalances inequalities of representation. The thesis, then, is an empirical and theoretical investigation of the meaning of being Badaga, a critical appraisal of previous writings combined with empirical research to advance new ideas.

To set the scene of the thesis, the first chapter introduces the Nilgiri and its peoples and their general depiction in the literature, and teases out some of the themes and styles which characterise writings. It also endeavours to identify what is already known about Badagas, and gaps in knowledge, to make a case for the empirical research in subsequent chapters. Chapter one highlights the numerous markers which have been used to differentiate Badagas based on the assumption in the literature that they are a distinct social group sharing a common history and culture. It also reveals the limitations of their portrayal based on the style and trends of social science in the first and latter halves of the twentieth century which reify a simple Badaga identity, an artefact which has since become a staple of the literature. Building on this introduction, chapter two reviews in further detail the diverse ways identity has been deployed in social science generally and the Nilgiri specifically, and the varied, loose, and contradictory ways the identities of Badagas have been documented. Similarly, chapter two also explores the varied meanings of quality of life and previous studies concerning Badagas. The chapter shows the majority of writings align with classical essentialist conceptualisations of fixity and rigidity, and 'the Badagas' as a category of difference has been framed in terms of homogeneity as a bounded group, isolation in a unique region, and speculations of identity change which mirror old-fashioned views of bounded undifferentiated cultures coming into contact, namely a minority group adopting the culture of the majority, as if change among Badagas is a product of the colonial experience. Similarly, regarding their quality of life, the majority of writings are concerned with imperial history and Western culture to speak for Badagas, which positions the changed way of life in the Nilgiri after the arrival of the British as important and superior to the past. Collectively, chapters one and two show previous representation of Badagas, although a rigorous and meticulous attempt at documenting their rich culture and history, is unsatisfactory in both theoretical and practical terms when it comes to understanding identity and life quality, a failure to offer terms with which to understand their complexity and diversity.

The methodology of the monograph, outlined in chapter three, provides a contemporary social constructionist approach to iron out the epistemological problems discussed above. It begins with an overview of the multi-site approach of the research, designed to overcome the limitations of previous studies which regard Badagas and the Nilgiri as local and bounded in an isolated region, essentially the removal of geographical barriers to appreciate Badagas as dynamic and mobile and to capture new forms of identities in flux in multiple situations, namely rural-to-urban migration and new media, that transcend bounded spaces. The next section of the chapter introduces the thesis's theoretical orientation, symbolic interactionism, employed to examine the shared subjective experiences, meanings, and lived experiences of Badagas in contemporary India with emphasis on agency, social process, and subjective experience, a deliberate move away from previous macro-level deterministic and functionalist trends in the literature. The remaining sections of chapter three describe the operationalization of identity in the thesis, data collection from forum posts and face-to-face interviews, data analysis involving coding and thematic analysis, and ethical considerations. The thesis's methodology, then, is an interpretative group of complementary methods-multisite ethnography, symbolic interactionism, thematic analysis, and reflexivity-focused on analytically disclosing the subjective knowledge and meaning-making of Badagas, and thus providing greater flexibility in understanding their identities and quality of life.

Grounded on this methodology, chapters four and five empirically investigate the identities and life quality of Badagas in two connected locations in a multi-site approach, the first online with Internet forum users, and the second in the real world with rural-to-urban migrants in Bangalore. Specifically, chapter four examines online portrayals and understandings of identity and life among Badagas in a virtual forum community, an online website with discussions in the form of posted messages, and the nature of the new type of community. It begins with a discussion of the paucity of media and visual studies of the Nilgiri and its peoples, the need for further research, and the role of media as a prime information source and facilitator of cultural change. Next is an analysis of the content of the virtual forum, a source of information about the goings-on of Badagas including their past and current circumstances which contain new material hitherto undocumented in the literature. As the first study of new media usage among Badagas, it shows they now have an online presence, a new type of Badaga social collective connected by online social interaction and notions of culture. Regarding identity, a strong sense of being Badaga was revealed in forum dialogues, as the study analysed how forum members articulated and expressed different understandings of their caste, reasserted perceptions of distinctiveness, and deployed identity strategically in activism when they constructed images of Badagas as victims of marginalization. While the findings seem to support, at least from the perspective of forum members, the reification of an overarching Badaga identity as something tangible, the forum discussions also revealed their abstractness and diversity, a heterogeneity of Badaga identities, particularly in lively debates and discussions in which images were contested, defended, and negotiated. Regarding quality of life, a negative depiction was a salient theme in forum discussions which centred on the demise and low profitability of agriculture, and there were also concerns about education and healthcare provision.

Next, chapter five is about rural-to-urban migration. It begins with a brief review of the literature about migration and the Nilgiri and Badagas, and then analyses empirical evidence using interviews with rural-to-urban migrants in Bangalore to understand more about their experiences of leaving their villages in the Nilgiri and living in the city, personal meanings of being Badaga. A key finding was changing notions of what it meant to be a member of their caste as they engaged the city, as being Badaga was malleable and in a state of flux. It revealed a new identity and collective, City Badaga, characterized by shared experiences of living in the city as Badagas, a phenomenon unique to their caste and not reported in the literature on migration in other parts of India or elsewhere. The study also uncovered the ways by which Badagas constructed distinctions between themselves and others, the specific processes and contextual determinants of identity construction and change. A negative depiction of life in the Nilgiri continued to be a salient theme, although the migrants painted a picture of contentment with life in Bangalore, particularly with employment, income, convenient-living, and access to education, grounded on notions of social mobility and personal growth. There was no evidence of any interference with their social and economic activities in the city or limits to their opportunities. In summary, the findings from the two studies show Badagas do not conform to the model of a closed and bounded tribal society in the Nilgiri with customary cultural prescriptions, the simplified view in the literature which ignores the complex lived realities of people with a Badaga heritage who have diverse experiences shaped by a range of circumstances. Instead, the findings reveal complicated, flexible, and pluralistic notions of identities and living circumstances which are thoroughly in flux and negotiated and contested across multiple spaces, characterised by openness and variation. Also, whereas the literature emphasised objective aspects of life quality, notably economy and standard of living, the thesis reveals subjective quality of life?their own perspectives of life and circumstances, and attention to subjective processes and meanings?an approach hitherto neglected in the literature.

The ?nal chapter concludes the thesis with a summary of the key findings followed by a consideration of their limitations as well as directions for future research. It discusses further the alternative conceptualisation of Badagas in the thesis as dynamic, fluid, and multi-site, much messier than conveyed in the literature. Also, as the thesis is about the lives of Badagas, it shows the research in Bangalore and the Internet forum revealed a rich array of information, a timely update as previous in-depth research was completed in the 1990s. The approach of the research means that the changes taking place in India and among Badagas are considered a cultural and personal process involving people and their understandings envisaged within their local settings and resources, and not simply about social and economic standards as often assumed in writings. There is no doubt Badagas are living in truly momentous times. Migration to urban areas and overseas, and the dramatic rise of technologies such as new media, grounded on broader transformation of Indian society, have shaped multifaceted changes in people's lives. The evolving local and global realities of the twenty-first century elicit fundamental changes in the meaning and expression of being Badaga, not only ways of living and social mobility but alternative notions of becoming and self-understanding.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Waldstein, Anna
Uncontrolled keywords: Badagas Nilgiri
Divisions: Faculties > Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
Depositing User: Users 1 not found.
Date Deposited: 25 May 2017 17:00 UTC
Last Modified: 01 Aug 2019 10:42 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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