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Friday, July 27, 2007

A negotiated individuality within the family umbrella

American style or Indian ishtyle? The Economic Times 24 Jul, 2007, Hamsini Shivakumar
Today it is not shocking that a five-year-old Delhi child asks her mom to “give me my space” and city teenagers routinely ask their parents to “take the chill pill”. Young and middle-aged executives follow the dictates of their career to places far off from their home-towns. Driving ambition seems the hallmark of the times and elderly parents with NRI children populate every big city in large numbers. With increasing globalisation and the march of American style consumerism in India, it seems inevitable that individualism as a value will grow even stronger. This is an alarm signal to many as it seems to signal the beginning of the breakdown of the family. And yet, various media surveys of modern teenagers and individualistic youth show a remarkable degree of conservatism and respect for tradition. So will Indians grow more and more individualistic in the next decade? And what form will this individualism take? Will we become more Americanised in our ways?
The answer seems to be both Yes and No. Yes, we will become more individualistic in our orientation and no, it will not be American style individualism Cross cultural psychologists who have studied the psyche of Indians and Americans postulate that there are fundamental and deep-rooted differences in the orientation of Indians and Americans. These differences originate from child rearing practices and thus affect the developmental psychology of Indians and Americans. Such cultural imprinting changes slowly and marginally over hundreds of years, if at all. The American adult is raised towards self-driven choices in various situations. The pervasive belief system is ‘I am responsible for myself, I owe it to myself’ and personal choices rule life. The culture pushes people towards self-help and a D-I-Y (Do-it-yourself) orientation to life. Relationships are essentially between equals and governed by rules and legalities.
On the other hand, the Indian psyche and world-view is built from a very different set of premises. There is little separation of the self vs others in the family (I and my family members are one). The individual is deeply embedded – is really a node – in a hierarchical network of family and others. Negotiated choices rule life. The culture pushes people towards mutual help and an O-D-Y (Others do it for you) orientation. Autonomy and achievement are for family esteem more than for individual realisation of potential. The emergence of individual preferences and fulfillment of the same within the family umbrella in urban India thus represents a negotiated individuality rather than any movement towards American style autonomy and independence. So, how will this negotiated individuality evolve? The forces of change for greater individualism in the next decade include:
  • Consumerism as a philosophy that constantly reinforces ideas of individual choice, preference and desire and provides legitimacy for fulfilling the same.
  • Media dominance coupled with rapid expansion of the fashion & glamour industry working in tandem to promote identity exploration and image projection. n Media driven activism blurring the boundaries between private and public and forcing the state to intervene in the private lives of citizens e.g., the child runner Budhia case.
  • Growing affluence, 24x7x365 working lives and paucity of time coupled with greater work mobility forcing a focus on and prioritisation of individual commitments.We can expect the following outcomes:

The continuing need to stand out and not be anonymous, be seen as ‘someone special’ will fuel the desire for self-expression, especially amongst youth. Fashion will become a powerful tool for this, expect spiky hair, strange haircuts, body piercing, tattooing, more bizarre clothes et al. The next decade will see everyone engaged in an ongoing quest to make ‘my personal statement’ through everything they own, use and wear. By the middle or end of the next decade, with huge growth in broad band connectivity, 3G phones et al, and a tech-savvy young generation, we can expect young people to explore alternative identities through avatars in sites like Second Life. There will be greater and greater demarcation and boundaries between ‘my space’, ‘my things’ and ‘your space’ and ‘your things’ even amongst family members. With high time pressure, people will seek their own ‘personal and private’ time for themselves to do the things that they want to do. New technologies and gadgets will enable each family member to escape into their own world.

The stereotype of the ‘new-age family’ will be one where each family member is around in the drawing room but each absorbed in his/her own gadget. This direction of individualism is inherently isolating, hence runs in opposition to the Indian cultural imprint, which is relationship oriented. Thus, there will be a corrective counter force that will compel people to seek a balance. People will use technology and also find other ways to maintain deep family ties and inter-connectedness. Three possibilities present themselves. The search for and membership of ‘like-minded’ groups and activities undertaken together will grow hugely and become mainstream resulting in explosive growth of clubs of all kinds. The internet will be a powerful enabler. Families will live in separate spaces but have deeply shared lives. E-mail, webcam, Skype, cell phones et al make it possible for people to live away yet know every detail of each other’s lives and consult each other on a daily basis. So, what’s the future? American style Individualism or fundamental change? No. Indian Ishtyle individualism or change with continuity? Yes. The author is a consumer trend spotter

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