Eleanor Power: “What will the world say?”

The anthropologist speaks on how the “reputational poverty trap” impacts human progress.

Published : Aug 26, 2022 16:54 IST

Dr Eleanor Power of LSE.

Dr Eleanor Power of LSE. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

It is said that most people see three stages in a lifetime: birth, death, and what comes in between, which is the most important phase and which is, for most Indians, defined by the phrase “What will the world say?”

Fear of losing reputation is perhaps the most influential element that influences most of the actions of a nuclear or an undivided Indian family, especially among the middle class. Most Indians and those who study how Indians live, work, and communicate know this on the basis of strong assumptions and, in some cases, anecdotal evidence.

But now there is more certainty on this issue. According to a study by Dr Eleanor Power, an anthropologist from the London School of Economics (LSE), in rural Tamil Nadu “reputational poverty” functions as a trap for people so much so that it influences, challenges, and even changes—for the worse, in many cases—their behaviour, beliefs, collective actions, individual efforts, family relations and more.

Also read:‘The thrill of illusion is a trap’

Dr Power spoke to Frontline following her curiously titled public talk, “What will the world say?: Moral evaluation, gossip, and its consequences: The ‘reputational poverty trap’ in rural Tamil Nadu”, at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai in early August. Excerpts:

What exactly is a “reputational poverty trap”?

This is a new term. I coined it recently along with my co-authors Marion Dumas (London School of Economics & Political Science) and Jessie Barker (Aarhus University Interacting Minds Centre, Alaska Dept of Health & Social Services, Denmark). It builds on related work done mostly by sociologists looking at the social construction of status, but the term, at least, is new.

This is an idea that I’m just starting to explore, so all of this should be seen as tentative. I’m hoping to do more research over the coming years to build up more empirical evidence for these contentions.

Is this similar to the “poverty trap’‘ that economists refer to?

A “poverty trap” refers to a feedback loop, cycle, or more generally a self-reinforcing process by which those who find themselves in poverty stay in poverty, unable to break out. In development economics, it is applied not only to individuals or families, but also whole nations.

Economists, of course, have formal econometric definitions of it, which deal with how income (or wealth, or whatever your measure might be) at one point in time is related to income/wealth/etc., in the future.

The general idea is that below some threshold of income/wealth/etc., the poor are unable to accrue the necessary resources to start accumulating wealth and improve their lot. There are many different mechanisms that could lead to such a pattern, and a great deal of empirical work (both qualitative and quantitative) has sought to study poverty traps of different types.

By coining the term “reputational poverty trap”, I am simply making the same observation: people of low reputational standing may be unable to alter how others view them and improve their standing.

Here again, there could be multiple self-reinforcing mechanisms that could create such a situation. It could be simple inattention: if people just aren’t paying attention to what someone does, then their actions—however noble—might not result in much.

Or, it could be that people are convinced that they already know a person’s character, so that even if they do something which suggests otherwise, people’s view of the person may be so jaundiced that it doesn’t change their opinion.

Bias and discrimination could also be at work: if “that type” of person—whether that might mean a person of a particular gender, ethnicity, caste, class, etc.,— is always seen in a particular way, then there is perhaps little that can be done to change people’s impressions.

There is an important mirror image to this, which has been extensively studied: “cumulative advantage” or the “Matthew effect”. This is the rich getting richer (just as the poor staying poor), where a few prominent people seem to reap all the rewards.

So, we see this very uneven distribution: on one end, we have a select few people who get much of the clout and prestige; and on the other, there are those who, despite their best efforts, seem to be unable to improve their standing.

Similar processes that leave some people stuck without much standing can also help others accrue it. Just as some people might not have much attention paid to them, others may be the centre of attention.

This unevenness—the poor odds of being one of the lucky ones who achieve prominence and the risk of getting “trapped” with a poor reputation—may help explain why people are so concerned about maintaining their “good name”. If a tarnished reputation is so hard to change, it makes sense that people are preoccupied by that risk and do what they can to avoid anything that might bring them into disrepute.

What are the exact ways in which “reputational poverty” is influencing individuals, according to your studies?

In many areas of life, a person’s reputation is very important. A person’s reputation is something that is socially created. It is others’ collective impression of a person. Those impressions matter to how people interact with one another: if I think you’re a person of good character, I might be more likely to extend a hand to you, offering you some assistance when you’re in need, recommending you for a job, sharing some important information with you, etc.

In my research, combining the records that I have of people’s reputational standing with the supportive relationships they have, I’ve been able to show that being seen as generous and having good character makes it more likely that a person will have supportive relationships with others. So, having that “good name” matters.

And those supportive relationships also matter: just a few days ago a paper was published in Natureby Raj Chetty and others that showed that (based on American Facebook users) having more friends of higher socioeconomic status was essentially the most important predictor of upward income mobility for the poor.

So, the relationships we have with people are essential to our livelihoods, and those relationships are shaped by how we view one another.

What are the most important takeaways from your study in rural Tamil Nadu?

My work in Tamil Nadu has actually mostly been on other things. I first started working here with an aim to understand the social consequences of people’s religious practice. Many of my findings might seem somewhat obvious, but I think they are important empirical demonstrations: people who are more involved in the religious life of their community—including in very visceral, embodied ways, like vow fulfilment with firewalking, kavadi, etc.,— are not only more likely to be seen as being devout (having bhakti), they are also more likely to be seen as generous and having good character.

And people are more likely to say that they turn to them for help. Those relationships are often also mutually supportive and are often among people who worship together. What emerges from all of this is a picture of how people’s religious practice shapes how others see one another and the relationships they have with one another.

A more general observation from my field work, particularly in the villages where I have spent so much time, is just how perceptive, sharp, and discerning people are. There are no fools here: people are very well aware of these reputational dynamics and operate in the knowledge of them.

Is the “reputational poverty trap” a very Indian thing?

I don’t think so. “Reputational poverty traps” are very common, particularly in contexts where people consider what others think when they are forming their own impressions. And that’s something we do all the time.

A canonical paper by Matthew Salganik and others in Scienceon “cumulative advantage”, for example, looked at songs and how much more unequal the number of listens songs get when people are told how many times other people have listened to the songs than when they were not given that information. There are “unsung heroes” in all sorts of domains and places around the world.

That being said, it may be true that “reputational poverty traps” could be particularly pronounced or particularly consequential in India, given just how important a person’s “good name” is here. When so much happens through personal connections, that almost surely makes it easier for these self-reinforcing dynamics to play out (and for negative consequences to ensue).

Honour killings, mostly influenced by reputational risks, are a common phenomenon in many parts of India. Will your study help towards a better understanding of this?

Right now my work is still quite preliminary, so I wouldn’t want to claim to be able to explain something as complex as this.

Part of what I’m hoping to research in the future is what determines how “at risk” people are of falling into the reputational poverty trap. My thought is that some people are more concerned and more “at risk” than others: young men, for example, might be able to get away with more than young women.

Part of what I think accounts for people’s differential reputational exposure is their social capital: if you have a lot of people vouching for you, that might protect you from any bad gossip that might come your way.

And equally, if you don’t have many people there to support you, your concern about losing standing may be that much greater, making it more likely that you would undertake even a drastic action to try to protect the reputation of your family. I don’t think it’s as simple as this, but those concerns do seem to feature in many stories of honour killings.

Something that also influences how “at risk” people are is what others expect of them. This means that social norms are highly relevant: what is seen as expected or normative behaviour matters to how a person’s actions are judged.

If honour killings are happening in part because families think that that is what is expected of them, then one potential way forward is to work on changing those expectations. You may be personally fine with your daughter marrying a particular person, but if you think others will judge her and the whole family by extension, you may be driven to act in a way that counters your personal belief. When people act because of reputational concerns, we need to factor in how they think others think.

Interestingly, the self-reinforcing mechanisms that underlie the reputational poverty trap may be general, but if some people (for example, women, racial or ethnic minorities, Dalits, etc.,) are more likely to start off at some disadvantage, then they may be particularly at risk. Part of the reason that inequality on the basis of gender or race and ethnicity is found all over the world is because of the biased ways in which we view one another.

The sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway says that we put people in particular “frames”, and this helps make sense of the perpetuation of gender inequality, for example. Those “frames” may make it easy to trap some people in a “reputational poverty trap”.

Is religion a big contributor to creating a reputational poverty trap?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think this is something limited to religion or religious people. I think these processes play out in all sorts of social arenas.

You’ve said that the reputational poverty trap is aggravating social inequality and material poverty. But what are the remedial measures?

Much more work needs to be done to really understand the processes that propel some and restrain others. I have suggested a few different ways that could lead to a “reputational poverty trap”, but this needs to be made concrete.

We need to look first at the side of perception and judgement: how do we form our impressions of one another? And then we need to look on the side of action: how does our expectation of what others will think and do shape how we act in the world?

Finally, we need to study the consequences: how does a person’s reputation come to matter in the world?

All of these constituent points should also then be stitched together to understand the whole complex, dynamic process. Only then can we have a better sense of how to stop the perpetuation of this cycle.

One thing we could look to is recent research on regular poverty traps. A recent study by Clare Balboni and colleagues (“Why do people stay poor?” in the Quarterly Journal of Economics) used data from Bangladesh to show that direct one-off transfers of resources that got families above a threshold did help them escape poverty, suggesting that there was a real poverty trap.

If we wanted to be extra optimistic, this could mean that for the reputational poverty trap, giving people a leg up expanding the social safety net so that people are more supported (both in terms of material resources, but also in terms of access to services, etc.,) may help to keep people out of the “reputational poverty trap”.

This would be because people’s concerns about losing their “good name” (and falling into the reputational poverty trap) may often keep them from attempting those things which could help them gain standing and advance themselves (both in terms of their reputation, and in terms of their livelihoods).

People’s concerns over reputational fallout may actually keep people in both reputational and material poverty, so helping to mitigate that social risk may help both socially and materially. That is wildly unevidenced right now, though, so this is me going out on a limb!

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