Globalization, higher education, and women in urban India: a development ethics approach.

Author:Madhok, Bindu


The academic discourse on globalization in developing countries like India frequently focuses on the economic and political effects of globalization, ignoring the shifts and changes it has produced in the underlying values and perspectives of the people affected. Recently, scholars in the field of development ethics have drawn attention to the need to balance such empirical inquiries with a more normative approach: thus, globalization when studied within the ethical framework of development has given rise to general normative questions such as, "What should be meant by development?," "In what directions and by what means should a society develop?," "Who is morally responsible for beneficial change?," and "How should globalization's impact and potential be assessed ethically?" (1) Such a normative enterprise is not intended to be conducted in an empirical vacuum--instead, development ethicists recognize the irreplaceable value that comes from any normative account being grounded in empirical realities, in the absence of which it would, at best, be lacking in prescriptive power in specific contexts. Based on recent fieldwork in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), India, our interdisciplinary paper explores the specific challenges encountered by young, educated urban women in the wake of globalization and how they negotiate traditional norms and expectations as they seek to redefine their private and public spheres in their quest for fulfillment. We use this empirical backdrop then to ask and answer specific normative questions about the ethical impact of globalization in the context specified above. We believe that such a praxis-based approach will result in a thick moral discourse on globalization as opposed to a thin one which fails sufficiently to incorporate relevant contextual details necessary for a more complete textured understanding of such a complex phenomenon as globalization.


A new tidal wave of change in the form of globalization is sweeping across the Indian sub-continent, most notably in urban India. Enthusiastically embraced by some but vigorously denounced by others, globalization is an inescapable reality of life. Signs and symbols of globalization (cyber cafes, shopping malls, and cell phones) can be found everywhere. This wave has produced a sense of ambivalence among the masses. Policy makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and social critics continue to debate the merits and demerits of globalization. Those who welcome this trend see it as a long-awaited economic boon opening up new and limitless opportunities for self advancement, while those who reject its economic carrots and lure see it as a potentially dangerous social and cultural force that is bound, sooner or later, to corrode the national fabric, its cherished value systems, and its social and political economy.

While the ripple effects of globalization are felt in almost all spheres of life in contemporary India, these are most palpable among college-going urban youth or the "netizen" generation, the constituency profoundly impacted by and eagerly poised to embrace it. To assess the impact of globalization and the specific attitudinal and valuational shifts among urban Indian youth, we focused on two distinct yet related target groups: first, a select number of young college students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, most of whom were women; and second, a select group of college faculty and administrators of both genders working closely with these students. Our study was deliberately conducted with a focused rather than broader range of target groups to allow for a deeper and more accurate understanding of the impact of globalization on educated urban youth, keeping in mind not only the innumerable social and other differences between the educated and the uneducated in urban areas, but also between female and male college students in these contexts.

The primary target group--the college students--were drawn from three premier centers of higher education in Kolkata: St. Xavier's College (a private, religiously affiliated, autonomous College), Presidency College (a flagship college within Calcutta University, a government aided public university), and Jadavpur University (a government-aided public university that arose in protest against the colonial outlook and legacy of Calcutta University and prides itself on being the first university offering technological sciences in the state of West Bengal). All three institutions boast a long and celebrated history of commitment to quality higher education. While St. Xavier's has multiethnic, urban, cosmopolitan, English-speaking students from middle and upper-middle class socio-economic backgrounds, Jadavpur and Presidency have a predominantly Bengali student body from middle and lower-middle class families drawn from urban, semi-urban, and rural areas in the vicinity. While English is the sole medium of instruction at St. Xavier's, instruction at Jadavpur and Presidency are in both English and Bengali.

In all we interviewed a total of 30 undergraduate and 4 graduate students, most of whom were women. In terms of religious demographics, the vast majority of them were Hindus, with the remaining few being Christians and Muslims. Linguistically and ethnically, they belonged to different communities reflecting the cosmopolitanism of the city. A striking commonality among these students of diverse backgrounds was their determination and ambition to chart successful career paths and lifestyles for themselves. Our interviews focused on their understanding of globalization, their envisioned career goals and options, and the challenges they encounter.

The second target group comprised college faculty from a cross-section of academic disciplines as well as administrators in the three institutions mentioned above. In all we interviewed a total of 18 faculty and administrators, the majority of whom were seasoned academics with over 10 years of teaching experience.

While there are many relevant empirical and normative questions to ask in any study of globalization, we begin with looking at both spontaneous and reasoned responses to more focused empirical questions and end with an ethical assessment of globalization in the context specified above.


Our first task was to ascertain how the principal target groups understand the phenomenon of globalization. As one might expect, we discerned a notable perspectival difference between the two groups. Students overwhelmingly viewed this new trend largely from the economic standpoint, seeing it as a welcome boon that yields potential personal dividends. The vast majority of students understand globalization as "opening of possibilities"--bringing people together and producing more job opportunities. A female student succinctly summed up her peers' general view: "Today's young people view globalization as opening new vistas of understanding and opportunities. We no longer think in a limited way. Girls no longer need to grow up to be just teachers but have unlimited career options available to them." A minority, however, regarded globalization as "neo-westernization." In short, the students' outlook on globalization was anchored in a micro perspective--i.e., understanding it primarily in terms of how this phenomenon affected them and them alone. (2)

Unlike students, university teachers...

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