Smitha Radhakrishnan, the LuElla LaMer professor of women’s studies and professor of sociology, is a feminist qualitative sociologist with a speciality in development, finance and globalization.
Drawing from interviews and ethnographic work in India and the US, she decided to center her new book around microfinance institutions in urban India. The book, titled “Making Women Pay: Microfinance in Urban India,” examines profit-driven financial practices that target vulnerable sections of the population and benefit the lending institutions.
“I was interested in the fact that policies that were targeting women and that were meant to help women always had unanticipated consequences,” Professor Radhakrishnan said.
In describing her motivation behind the book, Professor Radhakrishnan noted her avid interest in gender policies and recalled witnessing gender inequality within her immigrant Indian family while growing up. She went on to describe an experience in a gender and development class at Wellesley that led her to a significant realization.
“My initial interest [laid] in these questions of why gender policies that are supposed to help women often don’t. The more immediate prompting, however, was my students,” Professor Radhakrishnan said. “When we came to the topic of microcredit, students had a hard time being critical about it. It just sounds so foolproof, like a virtuous upward spiral that will fix everything. I wanted to make them understand that there are unintended consequences to things, especially when it comes to complicated issues like gender, race, caste and class.”
Professor Radhakrishnan’s project initially looked at the experiences of borrowers in the industry. Over the course of the research process, she gravitated towards understanding the interface between the company and the borrower and how that continues to impact female borrowers in a number of ways.
“I [eventually] look[ed] into the ideologies and conversations and historical moments and policies that went into building those institutions. So then there was a big chunk of the project that was historical which I really didn’t anticipate going in. And that was the hardest part,” she said.
The process of conducting research itself wasn’t easy. The project was time-consuming and took over 10 years to complete. Professor Radhakrishnan recalled the multiple rounds of revision that went into publishing a book on a complex issue as this one.
“I’ve probably done dozens of presentations about this book over the years, published smaller articles to develop the argument, [gathered] so much feedback from colleagues at conferences, friends. I’ve read so many drafts,” she said. “You just have to wake up every day and decide you’re gonna continue working on it, which isn’t always easy.”
Professor Radhakrishnan mentioned the need to delve deeper into colonial histories and microfinance literature that developed when the ethnography did not facilitate the research process in ways she had anticipated. While this approach was challenging, she stressed its importance in not just strengthening her research but shaping personal ways of thinking.
“Colonial histories delve into literature and resources that I never thought were relevant to the project. But it made it a lot stronger,” Professor Radhakrishnan said. “It is now very much shaping my future trajectory in terms of how I’m thinking about gender, economic institutions, finance and financial histories.”
Speaking on the range of issues detailed in the book, Professor Radhakrishnan highlighted what makes her work different from others in the field. She discussed the ways in which microfinance institutions target the most vulnerable of women and emphasized the need for people to think deeply about the lives of those women that are affected.
“I think my [work] is relatively unique in that there’s a lot of understanding and contextualization of the borrower’s lives. … I’m also looking at the perspectives and subjectivities of people who are at every part of the chain, including you and I, who might be supporting microfinance or critiquing it while having nothing to do with it …, [and] also the economic institutions themelves and how they were built,” she said.
At Wellesley, she wishes for people to understand that microfinance does not have a quick fix and people need to possess a certain curiosity to fully understand it.
“Microfinance is an industry; it’s not a handout. And like all other industries, the goal is to make profit. But that profit comes by absorbing vulnerable women, mostly Dalit women, into the larger financial system on unfair terms,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon us, as part of the Wellesley community, to be curious about those conditions and see what can be done to shore up social safety nets for women who lead vulnerable lives.”