Letting Go: The End (of the Start)

[Ed Note: We have been hosting a Book Roundtable on Swethaa Ballakrishnen’s Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility among India’s Professional Elite. We had the introductory post by Nick Robinson and blog posts from Akshaya Kamalnath, Nida Kirmani, and Hemangini Gupta. In this concluding post, Prof. Ballakrishnen responds to these comments. Law and Other Things is grateful to all the discussants, Nick Robinson, Prof. Rohit De and Leslie Nangle for making this Book Roundtable possible. We are grateful to Prof. Ballakrishnen for giving us the opportunity to host this discussion on their book.]

One of the hardest things about letting a manuscript go out in the world is acknowledging that no matter how long you spent writing it, it probably still does not capture everything you wanted to say. Yet, as multiple comrades have reminded me in the year since Accidental Feminism was sent to press: books are not meant to hold all knowledge, they are meant to be starters for the kinds of conversation one wishes to have. The wisdom of this perspective has offered new wealth each time this book has since been engaged with, and especially now with this online forum – its first formal academic review. I owe a special indebtedness to Nick Robinson, Rohit De, Dayaar Singla, and the student editors at LAOT for curating this exchange at various stages, and a swell of deep gratitude for the thoughtful comments from Akshaya Kamalnath, Nida Kirmani, and Hemangini Gupta that have sparked so many new starts and cleavages within this interconnected and generative dialogue.

Can Feminism Be Accidental | A running thread across each of these reviews, as it happens, traces the core deliberation that has complicated my own relationship to this project: is unintentional parity feminism? In continuing to question whether parity following liberalization is free market feminism, or if liberal feminism that does not threaten status quo or acknowledge its priors is feminism at all, Kamalnath, Kirmani, and Gupta ask versions of the very questions that I did not feel like I had the ultimate answers to, but that the findings from my study made me deliberate. My response in reading Kamalnath’s suggestion that this is free market feminism, however, reminded me again why that deliberation resulted in this version of several that could have become this book. If we are to see this just as a linear economic model, free market should have offered the same “advantage” in other contexts, which did not happen, as the comparative case illuminates. Yet, my real hesitation is that such a framing offers market an intentional valorization I do not contemplate (or necessarily trust). In contrast, I maintain – despite the ambivalence about the political stakes I lay out in the preface and conclusion – that there is usefulness of accident as a theoretical tool to talk about progress narrative because it opens other questions about our commitments to ideas of intention. Gupta is right in suggesting that these questions are provocative, but I hope the kindness with which she “thinks with the book”, alongside the “spirit of the preface” (which, as I recently said to someone, is where I left its imperfect soul), suggests that the incitement is productive. In that sense, this framing despite ambivalence is not accidental. At the same time, I am culpable against the sound critique that Kirmani raises that in luxuriating in this ambivalence, I do not answer fully the most interesting question I ask about feminism.

My tepid response is that I do not know if I could have answered this question in this book. Or, to add provocation, if answering that question is even necessary for its charge.

On the one hand, empirical work like this (that, as Gupta warns, I cleave into soon after the preface) that is responding within a disciplinary tradition is often stifled by the questions and methods that mold it, and the questions I framed and ended the book within were not the ones I was asking as the graduate student situating this project. Further, to the extent questions about intention and the production of feminism can be answered definitively, I am not sure it can be done with these data (or data, in a sense, at all). Besides, this work, as I think through in my methodological appendix, was produced by an ever-changing positionality that tracked patterns in the data and its implications for theory over the years: shifting the study to answer a question it was not designed to ask continues to feel forced. On the other hand, allowing a question that emerged from the study, offered new ways of reading its import and sitting with its possibilities. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that sitting with ambivalence as critical praxis has been hard, especially when trained in normative disciplines that urge definitive answers to categorical questions. Still, to the extent theory is predicated on the axis of its pursuit rather than the coordinates of its testable outcome, I hope there is value in these questions for others to extend, deliberate, return to, and, most importantly, reject. Here too, my stakes are not in the outcome, but the process.

Gender as (post-)structure | Speaking of disciplinary braces, the study’s early theoretical frame and design draw from three strains in sociological theory that were central to my training as a graduate student: Acker’s idea of the ideal worker (pdf), Risman’s construction of gender as structure, and Ridgeway’s theory of the background framework of gender. These disciplinary sources were really helpful to orient myself when I felt agoraphobic about the possibilities and extensions that would eventually become the book. I was introduced to Risman and Acker in a formative gender class the year before I started fieldwork in earnest, and Ridgeway, who was on my faculty, was an impressionable background for my thinking as I made my way as a newbie sociologist. I mention these influences because they shaped the ways in which I approached, analyzed, and attributed these sites. I also mention them because, as I say in my methods section, this would have been a very different book if my influences had been sourced differently: if I had trained elsewhere, or if I had started this research later in my career, when I was in other sites that were similarly complicated geopolitically (for a snapshot of these influences and orientations, see Unnikrishnan, Abdelhadi (pdf), AlDabbagh+Obrien). This is also why Gupta’s extension of a post-structural analysis, that makes space for speculative postcolonial futures, is so meaningful to (present-day) me.

The short response to her question about southern positioning and its influences (point #3), for instance, is that it was certainly shaped by the imagination of the global, but that this imagination was predicated on a diffused assumption about its cultures as experienced by actors (most of whom had not worked in any other country). As a result, it was not so much lived experiences of women in these global firms, but rather the rhetoric of their experiences that shaped this speculation (offering a corollary narrative that the consulting firms to explain away their lack of diversity: “but this is India”). Further, it was not about women, as much as it was about merit (which, interestingly, does not usually play out in this way for women), and, as I say in the book, it was not about advantage, as much as it was about lack of disadvantage. If I were to write from these data now, I think Ch. 3 (which deals with the mimicking and institutional isomorphism inherent in these firm cultures) would have tried to engage with the postcolonial implications of this borrowing, reclaiming and tagging of modernity more directly. 

Class/Caste/Care/COVID | I club these together, not because they are necessarily interrelated (although what can be unrelated from caste and class?) and not just because of my love for alliterations (that the book makes obvious), but because these were strains in the reviews that I too wish I had dealt more time on and with in the book (although writing anything about the pandemic would have meant not letting go of the book for even longer!). These lines of analysis also revert to themes in the methods section that I think are worth highlighting.

Although I speak about caste and class in the book as they revealed themselves from observation and implication, this was not a study that could have asked or reported from direct questions about these intersections given the (generalizability and anonymity) limits of the small sample that I was studying-up. But these data also allow us a chance to be read critically and with fragility.  For example, a thing might not exactly or directly be caste or class under the coordinates of certain kinds of data (e.g. an instrument intended to extract this data), but ethnographic observations, (especially with case comparisons, as in this case, that include attrition samples) without these direct specificities could still be telling us something about affective casteist and classist coordinates. In this regard too, Gupta’s idea of identity as networks rather than attribute offers new ways of thinking and looking for patterns. In gratifying synergy, and following this intuition, in other work, colleagues and I are tracking network data in other law school contexts to see how social capital gets made, transferred and accumulated through interpersonal ties (preview at LSA 2021!).

Finally, as this book reinforces across the chapters, this was neither a movement nor political, and it is not unique in being a professional project incapable of equitable emancipation. Still, I agree with Kirmani that any progress that does not change structural inequity is flawed and deserves our criticality. Similarly, I could not concur more with Kamalnath’s curiosity about the possibilities the pandemic might have introduced and her suggestion that any transformation from accident to intention needs to be deliberate. I am less optimistic, I am afraid, about the pandemic (especially in its terrifying new wave) not placing new burdens on already disadvantaged women. While I appreciate the idea that the pandemic could offer another re-set and introduce new chances at re-negotiating expectations, neither flexible work nor caretaking have been institutionally agnostic to gender. And here too, as Kirmani warns, structures of violence are unlikely to simply go away without deliberate dismantling. Even so, for this and other reasons, I hope there are new strains of research that deliberate on new ideas of ideal worker, and new notions of presence and work that may manifest in the post-pandemic world.

Speaking of the pandemic, having a book release in the middle of it can feel rudderless, and expecting for it to have attention in this era of languishing feels pointedly unrealistic. Still, these readings collectively speak of a generosity of time and sight that anchor its possibilities. Yet, what is true of letting books go in the world is true of other writing too: I know I have not responded to all of the rich comments and that there are more recursive extensions left unexplored. Even so, I let this go with comfort I draw from a parallel book’s thesis where we posit that fits and stops and pauses in conversation are central to theory building; that it is feminist method to not have full rebuttals, to instead let these ideas sit, temper, and have ways of meaning making in the world.

I hope whatever is not answered here leads to more conversations: this might be one end, but I look forward to other starts.

Swethaa Ballakrishnen

Swethaa Ballakrishnen is an Assistant Professor at UC Irvine Law School. Their research examines the intersections between law, globalization and stratification from a critical feminist perspective. They have a PhD in Sociology from Stanford University, a LL.M from Harvard Law School, and a BA, BL (Hons) from NALSAR-Hyderabad.

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