Sunday, January 13, 2013

Measuring social conservatism and social change

The widely reported UNICEF Report Card on Adolescents has survey evidence about persons in the age group 15-19 in India, for 2011. Adolescent boys were asked whether they think that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances, i.e., if his wife burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children or refuses sexual relations. The answer: 57% thought it was okay. There were only 8 countries in the sample worse than India: Sierra Leone (57%), Swaziland, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Uganda, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu (83%).

This isn't about war of the genders. The women suffer from Stockholm Syndrome: 53% of the girls in that age range agree. I think this is a very interesting litmus test about social conservatism in India. I wonder what the original sources are, and how we might see the variation in this number by income class and location.

Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times led me to The better angels of our nature by Steven Pinker (2011), which says:
In 1987 only half of Americans thought it was always wrong for a man to strike his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later 86 percent thought it was always wrong.
This is similar ("is it okay for a man to beat a wife") but also different (in the former case, it is only age 15-19 and it isn't as specific as a belt or stick). Also see Battlefronts.

This makes us see India in new light. From 1987 to 1997, the US got this number down from roughly 50% to roughly 14%. Let's not think in terms of crude historical determinism. This absolutely does not guarantee that the change in India over the coming decade will be similar. But it shows us the scale of social change that could arise over fairly short time-periods.

One of the most fascinating features of recent weeks has been the variety of politicians and religious figures coming out and talking about their social conservatism in the public domain. It will be interesting to see how well these pronouncements pan out with a young electorate. There has always been something odd about the mismatch between youthful India and its octagenarian leadership that peddles. Perhaps recent events will help make voters more skeptical about the present leadership.


  1. There's another problem. I was shocked to learn that Muslims have a separate 'personal law' in India!

    All India Muslim Personal Law Board

    And, looking into the history, the govt has repeatedly worked against the Muslim women, who have been asking for change for a long time, in the interest of votes.

    When the women are asking for simple changes to marriage laws, why can't the govt for once do the right thing?

  2. If 57% of those in the 15-19 age group think that it is okay for a man to beat his wife, I worry that the "mismatch between youthful India and its octagenarian leadership" that you talk about isn't really much of a mismatch.

  3. This is a bit harsh on the US or say the UK, but I see these issues morphing themselves in different ways over time. While it may not be okay to strike a woman (wife) with belt/stick now, it is still okay to characterize women in certain ways where these deep seated conservatism still remain. I am afraid I am not as optimistic as you are considering the extent to which this so-called social change in advanced nations you allude to still has not got many women students studying subjects that are considered 'men-only'. Of course, not by universities (that's a step forward) but by convention, implicit social organisation and importantly the role of the Church in families. It is one thing to say the state has changed, it is another thing to say that households have.


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