Monday 8 February 2010

TV succeeds where all else fails. Or does it?

In the introduction to Super-Freakonomics there is a section on how TV is rescuing Indian women.

Before they come to the boon of TV they give some statics and quote a couple of anecdotes. Then they inform that most government schemes for women’s uplift to have proved ‘complicated, costly, and, at best, nominally successful’.

So what was successful? TV.

Two American economists, Oster and Jensen, found that out ‘by measuring the changes in different villages based on whether (and when) each village got cable TV’ as the unlikely saviour rolled out over the Indian countryside.

The wording is important. Hence I quote: “The women who recently got cable TV were significantly less willing to tolerate wife-beating, less likely to admit to having a son preference, and more likely to exercise personal autonomy.”

After some speculation on the reasons behind this sea change and the veracity of survey the economists’ initial findings on women’s attitudes was based on, the book continues, “Rural Indian families who got cable TV began to have a lower birth-rate than families without TV. (In a country like India, a lower birth-rate generally means more autonomy for women and fewer health risks.) Families with TV were also more likely to keep their daughters in school, which suggests that girls were seen as more valuable, or at least deserving of equal treatment.”

There are two problems with this story. First, it’s old. We have heard a different version while growing up, in which the transistor radio proves to be the most effective method of family control in otherwise entertainment-starved poor families.

Second, it’s very likely that this research mistakes effect for cause and vice versa. Is it not possible that progressive households and villages got TV sooner than regressive villages? The authors do not tell us if there were attitudinal and behavioural differences before any of those villages had TV, and if being able to afford TV may have been the effect, not the cause, of women’s liberation.

Take a different, but closely related, change. In my generation the Indian educated middle class underwent an enormous population contraction.

I don’t have figures but I do have plenty of anecdotal evidence. Only one piece will suffice for now: My father has seven siblings; my brother and I have seven cousins (from our father’s side).

Now, did TV do that or the fact that my father and his siblings are all college graduates married to college graduates?

For that matter, one wonders if it has ever occurred to any economist to research if TV benefited women in the West as it supposedly did in India?

Just as TV didn’t come to the Indian countryside all at once, it didn’t spread over the West in one shot. The data on launch of TV and women’s development shouldn’t be very hard to find. But would anyone even think of linking them for developed countries?

I admit I haven’t read the original paper, but so wouldn’t most of the readers of the book. In such case, shouldn’t the authors have mentioned that possibility? Doubtlessly it must have occurred to them.

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