1960's Portable Television with Antennas Up

Information Infrastructure: An Indian Soap Opera Story

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jun 15, 2013    •    1445 Views

Cable TV might have more of an impact than government programs on Indian women in rural villages.

Dominated by government programming, Indian TV has been around since 1959. But when cable and satellite arrived, rural villagers decided to sign up. Between 2001 and 2006, 30 million Indian households, maybe 150 million people or more, could see the world beyond their homes. The world they saw? Game shows and soap operas.

Many of these rural villagers were women in poor households with an average monthly income of $35. These women typically had 3-5 years of education. They accepted wife beating, little autonomy and son preference. Asked if it was okay to beat them if they cooked food improperly, many said yes. Before going out to get food, they asked a man for permission. Pregnant, they hoped for a boy.

Then though they started watching soap operas.

Indian soap opera families lived in a city like Mumbai. Typical women worked or even owned a business. Wife beating did not exist and women came and went as they pleased. They had fewer children and more education.

Studying the impact of cable TV with quantitative methods, University of Chicago and Brown University economists concluded that more than government programs, soap operas have elevated women’s status in rural villages. Soon after cable TV arrived, the women displayed less son preference, lower pregnancy rates, more autonomy and young children appear to have received more education. Women’s perception of the world had changed.

The theory is that soap operas changed local behavioral norms.

Economist Emily Oster Talks About the Cable TV Study in Indian Rural Villages

Yes, this is a feminism story. But also, it is about information. With the spread of modern technology through cell phones and TVs, an information infrastructure is creating a convergence of knowledge and norms between the developed and developing world.

From "The Power of Cable TV: Cable Television and Women's Status in India

Sources and Resources: Hat tip to Quartz for introducing me to the impact of soap opera on women in developing nations while the paper on which the article was primarily based and the source of the above graph is here.

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