In this post, I want to think about what the popularity of multi-level marketing businesses among Indian Sign Language-using deaf Indians means for how anthropologists and other social scientists analyze deaf worlds. In the current political economic moment, many deaf Indians are turning to multi-level marketing businesses for both livelihood and for imagining new deaf futures. There is the sense that such businesses articulate with deaf values such as working together, engaging in team work, and helping and supporting other deaf people. As a few of my interlocutors told me, such businesses are “good for deaf people” and they help deaf people fulfil their dreams. However, through joining such businesses and becoming members of distinct teams and hierarchical lineages within such businesses, deaf sociality becomes fraught and contested. More broadly, I argue that deaf multi-level marketing business participation provides an interesting site for (re)considering how we think about (dis)harmonious socialities. Indeed, it seems to me that while much medical anthropology scholarship has analyzed deaf and disability experiences through the lens of community and biosociality, it is important to consider how these might be categories that are highly ambivalent and tense in practice.
One Sunday afternoon in June 2009, I attended a meeting for a multi-level marketing business in Bangalore, India. The business was called Resource Happiness Power (RHP) and it had members, or in the company’s terms, independent representatives throughout India. It was never clear to me or to many of my interlocutors what products the business was selling. All we understood was that there was a one time payment of around 3000 Rupees ($55.00) and that after joining, independent representatives (the company’s term for members) were then responsible for recruiting other people to become independent representatives as well. The business was sustained by people recruiting each other and a structure that looked like both a pyramid and a family tree developed as more independent representatives recruited people to join below them. There were distinct lineages and teams within this pyramid structure. In the language used by this business and other similar ones (and there were many), independent representatives above you were your uplines and independent representatives below you were your downlines.
This meeting in June 2009 was specifically for current or potential deaf members. It was held in the open courtyard of the only college in Bangalore that hired sign language interpreters for deaf students (all attendees knew where it was). Deaf people of all ages and backgrounds, from coconut sellers to college students to Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) workers attended the meeting. I, like many other attendees, expected this meeting to follow the template of other similar multi-level marketing meetings which we had attended. That is, we expected to see a dazzling PowerPoint presentation discussing the importance of dreams and aspirations and videos attesting to the efficacy of the products (coins, microwaves, insurance policies, and energy disks, as examples) being sold. We also expected tea and samosas (or some other snack) at the end of the meeting. We expected an enjoyable Sunday spectacle.
However, this meeting was different. Mahesh, the man officiating at the meeting, stood in front of a portable blackboard and a small desk. Mahesh, in his late forties, worked as a manual laborer in a government industry (and he was lucky to have such a position as there were increasingly fewer such jobs because India’s public sector is shrinking). In a checked shirt and simple pants, he was not a particularly glamorous figure. The mood in the courtyard was tense as Mahesh pleaded for forgiveness. Why was Mahesh asking for leniency from those in the audience? Mahesh was the leader of the local deaf team of RHP and he had devised a plan that he thought would guarantee deaf members’ success in the business. He had promised deaf people that as soon as they had joined the business, he would then recruit non-deaf people to join the business under them and then the business would prosper.
Mahesh had convinced deaf participants that non-deaf independent representatives would be able to recruit other non-deaf people and as such the business would continue to grow. However, Mahesh had been unable to recruit non-deaf people to join the business, either as a result of his inability to communicate with non-deaf people or his inability to convince them of the merits of the business. He was also only able to recruit a limited number of deaf people. Therefore, more or less everyone who had joined had lost their money. And at this Sunday meeting, one by one, they came up and yelled at Mahesh. Indeed, one particulary angry man, presumably for whom the 3000 Rupees that he had paid to join was a great deal of money, came close to assaulting him.
As Mahesh pleaded with those in the audience to give him more time (and he was about to unveil yet another business plan), he appealed to deaf peoples’ sense of being members of a cohesive deaf sociality. That is, he repeatedly asked for “deaf unity,” “team work,” and “coordination.” The mantra that he uttered over and over was: “All deaf people are one.” As he apologized profusely for his failure to create a safety net, or a safety pyramid, for his deaf brothers and sisters, Mahesh informed those in the audience that his aims were noble. He said that his goal in joining RHP was to help and support other deaf people and to protect them, especially those who were poor and needy. Eventually, most of the angry people in the room calmed down. Mahesh described his new plan which would involve feverish recruitment of a set amount of people in a fixed amount of time into “locked” business units (I did not really understand). Some people left in disgust or confusion (or both) while others stayed and engaged in excited strategy sessions.
In his simultaneous attempts to appease angry deaf members and to find new recruits, Mahesh appealed to deaf peoples’ shared desire to “develop.” Mahesh felt that participating in RHP was a way to achieve “deaf development” and this is why he said he was so zealously recruiting people for this business. While conducting research with sign language-using deaf young adults in the cities of Bangalore, Pune, Delhi, and Mumbai, I often witnessed deaf people discussing the importance of “deaf development.” These conversations took place in diverse spaces including schools, vocational training centers, workplaces, and deaf churches. In discussing “deaf development,” my interlocutors were expressing a desire for presents and futures in which Indian Sign Language was more widely recognized and used, in which there were better deaf schools and employment options for deaf people, in which more deaf-run businesses, organizations, and even old age homes could be found.
In the absence of other possibilities for achieving “deaf development” (I will say more about why this is the case below), multi-level marketing businesses became one such potential avenue. Indeed, while conducting fieldwork, I was struck by the ubiquitiousness of multi-level marketing businesses. My interlocutors constantly discussed them and confusing arrays of acronmyns rolled off their fingers: “RHP (Resouce Happiness Power);” “SV (Silver Venture);” “GLP (Great Living Potential);” “YTH (Yes This Happens),” and “DD (Dream Days),” for example. It was difficult to keep track of who belonged to which business and many of my interlocutors belonged to multiple businesses. In addition, businesses quickly started and then ceased their operations with leaders cycling between them, leaving angry but often resigned deaf participants in their wake. However, deaf people were very much drawn to these businesses: many relished the dreams that they said that these businesses helped them to cultivate and many too told me that in the absence of state or family support for “deaf development,” these businesses provided them with opportunities. In addition, many of my interlocutors told me that such businesses allowed them to work with other deaf people to achieve both individual and collective dreams.
On the surface, deaf peoples’ participation in such businesses seems to dovetail with what has been written about deaf people in scholarly work. To date, conversations in Anthropology and Deaf Studies have looked at the emergence of deaf communities, social movements, and identity politics in both specific places and transnationally. Deaf Studies scholars have proposed the concept of a unique “deaf culture” or “deaf identity” that is based upon deaf peoples’ use of sign language and visual way of being in the world. Deaf Studies literature stresses that deaf people are oriented towards each other; Ladd (2003:167), for instance, writes: “For many, the signs ‘We’ and ‘Deaf’ are quite inseparable.” For Ladd and other Deaf Studies scholars, the deaf community is a harmonious “different center” in which sign language is a valued modality of communication and deaf values such as collectivism and collegiality are propagated (Padden and Humphries 1988). While scholars have analyzed how the deaf community is increasingly changing and in some cases under seige because of little state or international support, much of this work positions “the deaf community” as both a starting and teleological end point. Indeed, this representation of deaf culture, identity, and community lends itself very well to a theorization of deaf people as an example of a harmonious (bio)sociality both analytically and empirically. (I also want to note that much work on disability in the discipline of Disability Studies does not critically analyze the category of community. Indeed, the often-used slogan of both disability activists and Disability Studies is “Nothing about us without us,” without questioning what the “us” might be.)
However, my research with sign language-using deaf young adults in India has revealed that creating and maintaining harmonious deaf social, moral, and economic relationships requires significant amounts of work and that there are times when disharmony comes to the fore (as in the RHP meeting discussed above). I call the work that deaf people engage in “sameness work” and it is through this “sameness work” that potentially divisive differences such as class, caste, gender, educational differences, and geography are negotiated. Political economic change and structural barriers in India have created situations in which deaf people are required to engage in “sameness work.” These changes and barriers include a (public and private) deaf educational system which does not utilize sign language in classrooms and which does not allow deaf teachers to get teaching credentials or teach in deaf schools, an increasingly privatized employment context in which there are fewer public sector jobs and deaf people are hired under the murky mandate of corporate social responsibility, and no state recognition of Indian Sign Language. While there is a one percent employment quota for deaf people in public sector employment, there are increasingly fewer positions due to privatization and younger deaf people are unable to find jobs because older deaf people are in these positions.
In their attempts to seek out education and livelihood, many of my interlocutors attended NGO-based vocational training programs that targeted deaf people (some of them offering sign language-based training in computers, welding, electronics, and tailoring) and many often worked together in India’s many Information Technology Enabled Services corporations or in fast food chains. In these settings, deaf people are produced as a a “deaf group” by NGOs and the corporations that hire them and they receive the same training and are given the same jobs, despite differences in education and professional interests. However despite engaging in “sameness work” and shared desires for better deaf futures, deaf sociality was not always harmonious. This was especially obvious in the case of multi-level marketing scheme participation. Let me say more about this.
Participating in such businesses involves the creation of distinct hierarchies- someone has to be above you and you then have to recruit people to be below you- and they involve the creation of deaf “bottom of the pyramids,” as after all, there are a finite number of other deaf people to recruit. Through creating “bottom of the pyramids,” distinct class (re)production takes place as well. I saw this when I accompanied leaders of a business called Silver Venture to the south Indian city of Erode to recruit new members for the business. A recruitment meeting had been arranged by a local Silver Venture member and attendees were mostly lower class tailors, other garment workers, and manual laborers. The local Silver Venture member introduced the two leaders by saying “Look, they are deaf too. They have come all the way from Pune to talk about this business. They’re deaf just like us. Please pay attention to them.” This repeated reminder that the two leaders were deaf was an example of a signed phrase often repeated in deaf worlds in India and elsewhere: deaf deaf same or “I am deaf, you are deaf, and we are the same.” What was obscured, however, was the class difference between these two leaders and those who they were attempting to recruit. None of those in the room could afford to join Silver Venture as it was a particularly expensive business requiring around 30,000 Rupees ($550.00) to join.
Back in Bangalore, I witnessed much messy fighting between different deaf people as they competed to recruit other deaf people to join Silver Venture and other businesses under them. In addition, people were placed in Silver Venture lineages with people who they did not particulary like or who they had previous negative experiences with. For example, Chetan was in the same lineage with Minoo, a woman that he previously sold Amway products with and who he swore never to work with again because he thought that she was a thief. And Arman, a young deaf Muslim man wound up in the same lineage with Devananda, a deaf Hare Krishna teacher who Arman thought was disrespectful of his Muslim background. To be sure, those in the same lineages by and large managed to engage in “sameness work” and a seemingly harmonious deaf social, moral, and economic world was created. Indeed, Chetan told me that he had to “adjust” and Arman spoke about a tenuous peace that the woman who recruited him to the business managed to broker between him and Devananda.
However, as with the RHP meeting that I discussed above in which people came close to physically assaulting Mahesh, there were often tensions simmering below the (seemingly harmonious) surface and these constantly threatened to come to the fore. And the structure of these businesses, which included uplines and downlines and multiple lineages, served to fracture deaf worlds. Indeed, the experiences of my interlocutors—both those who participated in these businesses and those who shunned them—offer important insights into the importance of understanding the social, moral, and economic work that is required to create harmonious socialities. It seems essential that medical anthropologists analyze how individuals might engage in uneasy alliances and participate in unsavory lineages as they attempt to create more inhabitable presents and futures. Indeed, while I very much take the discourse of “deaf development” seriously, I also want to think about what kinds of “sameness work” is required on the part of those aspiring towards it. I argue that deaf sociality in India offers us an important example of the work that individuals must do to negotiate differences and produce themselves as members of a group. It also offers a productive site for understanding how sociality becomes a site for producing and extracting multiple forms of social and economic value. In this particular case of multi-level marketing, deaf sociality enables recruitment for these businesses to take place. More broadly, it seems to me that this is an example of how the much utilized analytic of (bio)sociality might obscure potentially divisive differences between people as well as the mechanisms by which these differences are (re)produced. While analyzing how and why (bio)socialities are produced is important, it also seems crucial that we attend to what forms of value are extracted through participating in such (dis)harmonious socialities.
Michele Friedner is a Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT’s Anthropology Program. She conducts research with deaf and physically disabled Indians and is revising a manuscript on Indian deaf young adults’ social, moral, and economic practices provisionally titled Signs of Value: Orienting to deaf sociality in urban India (Rutgers University Press).
Ladd, Paddy. 2003. Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Padden, Carol and Tom Humpries. 1988. Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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