Analytical thinking and understanding Indian society

Let me shoot this straight. Serious hobbyists and professional social scientists from India should learn and follow modern developments in psychology, economics  and game theory, if they really want to make sense of the society. There is far too much insularity and special pleading when it comes to our understanding of the social dynamics at play. Our modern contribution to knowledge at large, and specifically to the study of our society, is marred by the sloppy thinking prevalent in the orient.

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Most people might find my initial remarks something very drastic. More over, people have every right to question my competence to make such an opinion. I won’t be offended if that is the case. Call me a Macaulayist for this crime if you must, but do hear me out. I opine that if we want to understand our social dynamics and contribute to knowledge pool of the world, the volumes on history, mythology, literature, art and modern sociology are only going to be of help as footnotes. They can utmost provide details of individual tiles in a jigsaw puzzle. But we won’t be able to view the shape from the angle we are viewing. We are not using the right tools or developing them, as far as one can see. For somebody who has more than working knowledge on the cultural history of ‘Indian society’ (or some aspect of it), I believe that reading modern psychologists like Richard E. Nisbett and Daniel Kahneman (Nobel laureate in economics, the author of “Thinking fast and slow”), mathematician cum financial analyst Nicholas Taleb (author of “Black Swan“, “Fooled by Randomness“) etc. will be more beneficial. Social psychology, economics, logic and mathematics (especially for game theory) should be a must read for budding social scientists and even historians. We need to nurture analytical ability, a pathetically under appreciated skill in Indian social science research landscape, as far as I have seen.

Let me give some context to this. Although formally trained in engineering/physical sciences, on the hobby side, I have always been a history buff. This probably started from the childhood days when collecting stamps, and later coins, was the cool hobby. It was indeed a curious thing to speculate, then find out from a library or GK books as to what a particular cultural artifact from a country’s stamp meant to them. Presence of a parent and relatives who had had many anecdotes and stories to tell about places and people outside the country where they worked, possibly catalyzed it. Most importantly, the anecdotal historical gyan always came handy in extempore speech and essay writing competitions. Browsing through the random pages of wikipedia remained as the favourite time killing exercise for quite some time until recently. Today the enthusiasm to read and amass details has waned a bit in favour of understanding and quantifying the nature of events. And this is because I have come to identify a fundamental shortcoming found in most oriental minds developed in its native cultural environment — it has a typical two scale dynamics.
What is this two scale dynamics? We work, and indeed very well, at the level of micro scale. We appreciating and often encourage diversities to a mind boggling level. Then we switch on to a macro scale where life is seen as a cycle of repetitions, be it karma or some mystic sense of timelessness. At best, we try to fit it to an already known theory. The problem however is that we are culturally untrained to work with the middle scale where the majority of knowledge production happens. This is where you connect dots and model. This is where you develop tools to quantify and analyze. The western mind, from the books I have read, works very well in this area. We are told not to venture much into this area because it is risky.

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Allow me to elaborate this point. It is well recognized that oriental people, including Indians of all ethnicity and religions, have a problem in understanding categories. We are culturally trained to see a continuum, which is possibly good for social cohesion, but certainly a handicap in dealing with concrete objects and ideas. In fact, we hate concrete ideas with sharp boundaries and are afraid of making the distinctions. In my opinion, this has consequences in our social outlook. Risk aversion is the motto of Indian society. ‘Sharmaji ka beta‘ meme did not come as an accident. In our society, the ‘ideal person’ is a weighted golden mean. The weight varies from place to place. It is a Master moshai — the upper caste, lower middle class, nominally irreligious (and yet culturally Hindu), sacrificing Bengali school teacher with calm mannerism — in Bengali society, while a Deenanath Babu — upper caste, pious, slightly wealthy, Ramayan chanting, Mukhiya type, Sarkari officer — in the Hindi heartland. All communities have such stereotypes, but in western societies these golden means only have a symbolic value, as a pillar of stability; you have to surpass them and are encouraged to do so. But in our oriental societies deviation from this golden mean are not generally considered as positive. The weights and values change only when there is an external pressure on the community. In short, in our societies failure is looked down than success is valued.


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Now the above said social dynamics has direct impact on the way we think. It discourages bold analyses, even in the academic disciplines where it is expected. As a result, we value getting along than pursuit of truth or bettering our understanding. I believe that even persistence of caste in urban spaces in this modern age has something to do with this attitude. Society believes that an inter-caste marriage implies a lowering of value from the ideal mean for the privileged spouse and hence failure. But then, for the less privileged spouse, it is again a digression from the mean which might award better mobility or success (for lack of a better word). A risk averse society does not value success to the extend it abhors “failures”. Hence even progressive values does not catch up fast. The general hatred towards wealthy capitalists, even in societies with no left wing roots, again is a permanent feature of this risk averse society. It happens in rich countries too, and higher in poorer societies. Yet in India we have it more as disdain,  than just anger. To top it all, our cultural discouragement for thinking in the middle scale, i.e weaving the observed diversity into a theory with ample explanatory power and without bothering whether it upsets the current notions, is really poor.

So here is my suggestion. Our problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, if we look them as diverse pieces arising from historical accidents. Neither will the ideologically motivated grand narratives help beyond a point. We need modern evidence based science and analytical tools. We need to learn to work in the middle scale.  Above all, enthusiasts of social sciences (other than economics) should broaden their outlook by learning economics, psychology and mathematics. The patterns are much more clear once you equipped with the details and stand above quantitative reasoning processes.


Menstrual leave debate: premise and a few numbers

The one interesting thing about taboos is that in effect they are universal. There are the social taboos and for people who have very few of those, often there are ideological taboos. Discussions on menstruation is, and have been, a social taboo. In India, this is linked to the ideas of purity and in ways remain more intense. A biological phenomena which is as natural as the word can defined to be, has historically been used as an excuse to exclude women from education, religious centers and even work places. The ‘Hindu culture’, or at least the dominant upper caste dogmas in this regard have been particularly vehement in restricting woman from participating in the public sphere citing menstrual  impurity.  The orthodoxy prevalent in other religions  and cultural groups too make similar restrictions though citing different reasons. In such a society, one might imagine that breaking the menstrual taboo is the radical thing. Perhaps not according to some women who endorses the idea of menstrual leave, as two Indian companies have introduced them.   Now there are debates raging on in the mainstream as well as social media. My short answer to the question is no, and  here I am opining about this idea as a man, very likely to be accused of mansplaining. At the very least this identity factor will not bode well with a certain section of left wing or liberal feminist ideologues unless I start with the mandatory confession on privileges. This is the perfect example for an ideological taboo — an onlooker whose experiences are different should have no right to comment, even if the ideas (s)he present are relevant, logical or simply indisputable.

There is no way to break out of this new left and liberal clap trap, though I do believe that supporters of first and second wave feminism (though not always the third wave) still has enough maturity and patience to tolerate and consider opinions on such issues which  incidentally might be coming from men too. The good news is that are quite a lot of women professionals, including those who consider to be feminists, completely opposed the move for same or similar reasons that I have in mind. This has not got into a gender war kind of situation so far, as there are as many articulate women on both sides of the argument. Now, I do not want to focus on the question whether menstrual leave is necessary,  as that is not something a person of another biological sex can address. The tragedy of today’s discourse culture is that even women who have argued this to  be unnecessary from a biological point of view have been accused of being ableists without engaging with the thread of their arguments. I want to look at the logical premise of this demand and its potential economic consequences.

Logical premise of the argument for menstrual leave

Here is how I understand the question.

Fact 1: A certain section of the work force undergoes severe to manageable discomfort on a periodic basis, which is part of a natural process.

Fact 2: Because of fact 1, their general productivity is some times affected, in addition to the work related stress.

Argument A: It is in the interest of employers to give paid or otherwise leave to those people affected for better and sustainable productivity.

Argument B: It is in the interest of society (and therefore to be enforced by the state) to grant paid leave to them during the period to remain anti-discriminatory since the ones who do not suffer are privileged and should not have a say in this.

There could be other formulations of argument B, but the crux remains the same.

In my opinion, one could make a case for argument A, provided it is left voluntary for the employee as well as the organization.  Any firm that wants to give a welcome signal to its employees, and is confident to meet the ends despite loss of a few (wo)man hours would naturally go for it. No law prevents a company from doing so. Therefore, there is nothing to debate about the argument as such.

Argument B is highly problematic. I can imagine people already beginning to point out the principle behind affirmative actions. In my view, this cannot be justified with the same principle. Consider caste reservation. The argument in favour of caste based reservation is that structural inequalities and social discrimination hinters the access to employment opportunity and education. The blame is on social prejudices and to a certain extend, its history. Reservation is a provision to set a level play until such prejudices vanish. In fact, the very key argument that many Dalit activists make is that it is not because we are less able, but larger society has not given us equal opportunity to compete at the same level. Nobody but nature can be blamed in this case, if at all. A good section of women argue that periods do not significantly affect their ability to work. In their view such moves will be considered as doles and concessions out of pity, which will only perpetuate more discrimination. I completely agree with them on that part, especially in the Indian context. This cannot be called positive discrimination since it does not address the taboos or social conditions which have restricted women’s access to employment. On the other hand, this cannot be compared with reservations for the differently abled people, as those provisions are made only in desk jobs or places where their disabilities do not hurt functionality. The present debate is about an across the broad law applicable to 47.15% of the population (sex ratio of 943) or more precisely 34.67% of the current work force (2014 estimate) and all future employees.

Economic impact

Consider the scenario in which a law demanding companies to grant menstrual leave is in effect. How would it work?

My prediction is that it would only benefit a very small percentage of urban and already empowered women in office jobs and will do much more harm to women at large. For one thing, it is not practical to demand firms that are involved in emergency services to adhere to this rule. A female surgeon, lawyer, site engineer  or even a nurse won’t be able to take advantage of it. If they do, this will automatically lead to significant reduction in recruitment of women. And at least in such cases, you cannot blame the employer as these jobs demand skilled people who should be present at crucial moments. Women involved in physically demanding jobs again will not be able to take advantage for the same reason, unless they are willing to work for a lower pay. Regular clerical jobs, certain kinds of sales jobs, back office jobs in media or advertisements, service sectors like call centers, teaching and software companies might be able to cope, if they want to. But even there, competition can create a dynamics in which an upper ceiling to the number of women to be recruited will come up and/or a reduction in pay or perks. It is estimated that only 13.4% of working women have regular salaried jobs. Out of this, the jobs which can cope with the rule in the best case scenario will be not be more than half. The one day paid leave will thus get reflected as a reduction by  equal or more amount of money in net Indian female workforce’s income. One might call this heartless or very inconsiderate. This happens not because of patriarchy but human self interest. I’m sure that even women bosses who have stake in their companies will take a decision to reduce or not increase the percentage of women employees for market reasons.

What are the numbers?

Let us consider a job which pays Rs. 25,000/- per month. Assuming 25 working days, in monetary terms this translates to a demand to raise salary by Rs. 1000/- or 4%. Busy firms will have to recruit more people above the current optimal number. This new recruitments will be proportional to the number of female employees. The actual cost could even be more than the 4% increase in salary per female employee. Now, in a competitive market businesses cannot run unless this is strictly reflected by an increase in productivity. And not all jobs can contribute equally towards improving the bottom line. So they will be forced to optimize. This could happen through an unofficial cut in net pay or through recruiting less women.

In my experience, one factor that many ideologues who argue that politics should always triumph economics (there are ethical reasons why some modes of economizing should not be encouraged) is their aversion or disability to understand numbers. Having a good quantitative insight about the situation at hand is not heartlessness. I want to point out an interesting, albeit a simplistic,  figure comparison to establish why such a rule can make smaller firms with significant women employee presence nonviable. Those who have taken a first course on probability might remember the birthday problem.

In probability theory, the birthday problem or birthday paradox concerns the probability that, in a set of randomly chosen people, some pair of them will have the same birthday.

If you have a legally guaranteed menstrual leave, in a firm with n female employees, what is the probability that two people will be on leave on the same day in a month availing the provision? This is not silly, as some people might imagine. Two guaranteed absentees few days a month, in a consistent manner can really create a big difference.

Let A be the event that two female employees out of n total number of them, take menstrual leave on the same day. P(A) is the probability that event A happens. Here again P(A) = 1 – P(A‘).   Assuming 30 days a month, we find that for  n = 7, the probability is more than half (53.08%). If n = 16, the probability is more than 99% (99.29). I shall consider the n = 7 case.

Let me try to put this in a plainer language. This means for a firm with 7 female employees — assuming that all does similar jobs, have similar abilities and that the natural cycles of potential employees are uniformly distributed — the chance that two women take leave on the same day in a month is more than 50%. This is given by probability theory and I did not make up this number. India’s mean female job participation ratio is approximately one third. Therefore 7 female employees doing similar job means a firm with around 28 employees in that horizontal would represents an average Indian firm. Obviously we are talking about a small firm here. Unless they consistently make a good enough profit with less hectic work load, they too will be highly constrained. This configuration implies it has 53.08% chance that on one particular day every month the strength will be 26 (instead of 28). Then there is 29.63% chance for the another 2 people  to be absent on some other day,  and 9.7% chance for yet another pair.  Apart from these chances, there are also a few 27 employee strength working days per month.

Now, let us consider a more progressive firm with equal gender participation and competence. We can assume the total number of people in this firm to be 28 (female : 14, male : 14).  With 14 women employees, the probability of two people being absent on the same day is 97.39%. In addition there is a 92.2% chance that on another day, other 2 women might be absent availing this provision, 81.54% chance that another 2 people are absent on  some other day, and 64.03% chance that this repeats once again on a different day. Further this probability series for pairs continues as 41.36%, 18.8% and 3.3% . Apart from these cases, there shall be days when office will work with 27 people.  Let me present to you a rough estimate of what these probabilities mean.

Sex ratio
No of two absentee working days/year
No of one absentee working days/year
Firm 1




Firm 2




Please remember that all these are apart from the regular leaves or sick leaves that people avail. There is no reason to believe that just because you have a paid leave per month , you won’t fall sick for some other reason. The competence of a firm which has to run 48 out of 300 working days (16%) with 26 employees  by default should  be much lower than one which runs 11 out of 300 working days (3.67%) under the same condition. If you were an employer, would you choose the second or might be inclined to reduce the number of women employees to the few who are indispensable? I bet even a woman entrepreneur will consider these figures seriously given that they might be up against firms with higher percentage of male employees.