Column by Dr YRK Reddy - HRD Newsletter
What is your preference for
exercising favoritism?

"The kind of person called for by the present situation is one capable of breaking through the boundaries of culture and history, which have so far limited human growth. A person not indelibly marked by the tattooings of his tribe or restricted by the taboos of his totem: not sewed up for life in the stiff clothes of his caste and calling or encased in vocational armor he cannot remove even when it endangers his life. A person not kept by his religious dietary restrictions from sharing spiritual food that other men have found nourishing; and finally, not prevented by his ideological spectacles from ever getting more than a glimpse of the world as it shows itself to men with other ideological spectacles, or as it discloses itself to those who may, with increasing frequency, be able without glasses to achieve normal vision"

- Lewis Mumford in his Transformations of Man

Kinship arising from the extended family has tremendous advantages in poor countries like India. It has protected most of India from anarchy, famine and destitution. The web of relationships, checks and balances, incentives and disincentives ensure overall social security and risk management especially in the case of low and middle-income groups in the rural areas. Kinship preserves the uniqueness of our culture and values. It reinforces mutuality, protection, solidarity, and has been behind the resilience and patience of rural India against chronic deprivation, discrimination, poverty and hunger.

Some could argue that extended families and the obligations of kinship are inefficient. They restrict mobility for most of the members unless ordained by the patriarch. They confine members to work in the household and on the common property for common good. They do not provide incentives for excellence as each one fears “free riding” by the others. Obviously, they restrict pursuit of individual aspirations and hence a doctor, a civil servant, or a manager has to suffer from the pains of transition when he moves away to the city to pursue his own goals and the interests of the conjugal family. He becomes partially inefficient by having to fulfill the obligations of the extended families such as religious rites, family functions and celebrations and ceremonies that often clash with individual freedom and career growth. He has to overload his household with relatives that wish to stay for medical treatment, job search or education. These professionals may be better off by distancing themselves from the extended families – despite the research findings such as erosion in their altruism, tendencies to free ride and using money as a surrogate to fulfilling obligations and failure of duties.

The discernible problem with kinship in a world transiting from the agrarian/feudal to the professional/democratic is that it demands that those who have attained power and wealth or have reached high positions promote other members. Members of the group may want to believe that they had contributed directly or indirectly to the success. They feel proud, share joy, celebrate - and expect reciprocity. Wins by politicians and the promotion of their family members and relatives illustrate this at the extreme. Such expectations are the very basis of kinship that has survived centuries of our civilization. In poor countries where opportunities of any kind are far lesser than the population and monetary resources are limited, kinship thus leads to tremendous pressures for nepotism.

Thus, despite the advantage of social security, cultural bonding and risk management, kinship could create economic loss to the larger society, if it comes as a package with nepotism. Kinship promotes the interests of one subculture at the cost of the others. Competition amongst powerful kinship groups crowds-out the marginal ones and brings oligopolistic conditions that one notices in business. Thus, in most situations of employment, service providing, supply contracts, distribution rights, franchises, warehousing, dealerships, transport contracts, credit, concessions etc., kinship plays a significant role. Those who ignore the interests of kinship may suffer from disrepute and/or ostracisation, though a careerist or a businessman will evaluate these costs with the benefits of objectivity, professionalism or long term returns on his capital, as the case may be.

The urbanized and the westernized may be relieved from the ill effects of traditional kinship. Without the family customs, uneconomic relationships, obligations to attend prayer, birth, wedding and death ceremonies of dozens of relatives, they become more focused and efficient adding to the wealth of the country. (Except in the case of business communities which have mastered the situations to reduce overall transaction costs and derive synergetic effects of kinship with professionalism). Under normal conditions, the modern society, if not the economy as a whole, should be better off without kinship.

However, the conjugal families may not be totally free from social bonding and may seek beneficial relationship with another type of cluster. These new types of social bonding may indeed promote favoritism of a subtler variety. The networks arise from professional associations, industry lobbies, cultural centers, ethnic compacts, and other types of social groups. The brotherhood of religious sects, divine orders and alumni of premier institutes is an example. Comradeship among members of voluntary social organizations and clubs is another. The close-knit among elite civil servants is a further example. These tend to promote each other, friends and their families and competitively edge out others. In some organizations such as the Freemasons, which have been in the eye of many a storm in Europe, helping “brothers” becomes an important test for progress and respect. In the US it is reported that members of a club which are frequented by the CEO of Banks are benefited by higher credit of an average of 23%.

The alumni of Harvard, former employees of, say the IBM, the civil servants, career diplomats, the Freemasons, Lions, Rotarians etc may all be able to strengthen the ties among their members to act as a modern and more beneficial surrogate to kinship. In fact, members will find this social bonding more appealing than the rural one due to the material irrelevance of the latter, on the one hand and on the other, the relative anonymity, finesse and current relevance of the former. Additionally, the perceived net transfer for the urban professional and his conjugal family is adverse in the case of transactions with the sub units of kinship than with the social networks – overall economics will demand that the network replaces kinship.

The new mutuality results in favors of a modern variety such as a business by the spouses or children supported by a senior member of the network using his official position. Enron is replete with illustrations. Apart from the world of business, such favoritism is evident in research publications, research grants, highest of awards and honors, auditing, jobs or assignments in multi-lateral organizations and from “legacy preferences” proudly practiced by several schools and even the Harvard Business School, for admissions.

If one is not sure which type of kinship among the two is worse for the society, management experts may be quick to find a solution in “meritocracy”. This has an intuitive appeal as it sounds objective and promises pursuit of welfare. But it is not without its own set of owes. The term “meritocracy” was reportedly coined to describe a system of rule by ability than by class, wealth or social position. In fact, it was used for the first time, but in a pejorative sense, by Michael Young in his book “Rise of the Meritocracy” (1958). In this book, the status of an individual in the society is determined by IQ + Effort, but those who attain such a status become so elitist as to become arrogant and alienated from the masses – which indeed is evident from our brown sahibs in industry and the callous civil servants. A social revolution by the masses overthrows this meritocracy.

The real criticism of such a system comes from “critical social theory” which argues that meritocracy will be used as a front by those in power to legitimize a preferred situation by other means. They will decide on the criteria, standards, methods and measures, howsoever invalid. This is apparent when we note that favoritism followed by the cliques described above do pass off as a merit system – the host of job specifications, product specifications, the examination system are replete with questionable criteria that only favor the elite or the pre-chosen. Hence the adage “you show me the man, and I will show you the rule”. Pure meritocracies are virtually unknown and researchers say that the military may be the closest, at least at the lower ranks.

Thus, meritocracy may indeed be nepotism or favoritism by other means!

The answer may be that the entire social cluster of any variety must truly believe and adopt the Gandhian view of “trusteeship” and the ethicist view of “welfare”. If these are made the underlying values, and hence the rules to be followed in social bonding, one may be able to take the battle to a higher level of defining welfare and trusteeship at individual decision points.

February, 2004 Issue
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