Deaf Capital: An Exploration of the Relationship between Stigma and Value in Deaf Multilevel Marketing Participation in Urban India


This article ethnographically examines how some deaf people in urban India have begun to orient themselves toward the future by participating in multilevel marketing businesses. In the absence of other structural possibilities for deaf future-making, deaf Indians have turned to such businesses in search of social, economic, and moral livelihood. This article analyzes participation in one particular business and asks how participating within the business both enables and disables the cultivation of specific ideas of development. Particular attention is devoted to exploring the multiple registers of the concept of “deaf development” and how such development may be cultivated through multilevel marketing businesses. This article aims to make a critical intervention in medical anthropology studies of disability by arguing that disability (or in this case deafness) can function as a source of value, therefore highlighting tensions between stigma and value.

Sign for "development," in Bangalore variety Indian Sign Language drawn by Mr. Gopalakrishnan, courtesy of Michele Friedner

Sign for “development,” in Bangalore variety Indian Sign Language drawn by Mr. Gopalakrishnan, image courtesy of the author

Author Biography
Michele Friedner is a medical anthropologist who researches deaf and disabled peoples’ social, moral, and economic experiences in urban areas of India. She is interested in how political economic changes in India create new opportunities and constraints for disabled people in the arenas of employment, education, politics, religion, and everyday life. She also researches how international and domestic development initiatives both help and hinder disabled people in India as well as how international treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) impact disabled peoples’ everyday lives. Broadly, she explores how disabled people create inhabitable presents and futures as they navigate complex social, political, and economic structures that privilege able bodies. At the same time, she analyzes how disability actually enables new forms of value in late modernity.

Additional publications by the author
Friedner, M. (2015). Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Friedner, M. (2015). Multi-level marketing and disharmonious sociality in urban India. Contributions to Indian Sociology, (49), 1-25.

Friedner, M. & Kusters, A. (2014). On the limits and possibilities of “DEAF DEAF SAME:” Ethnographic Perspectives from Adamarobe (Ghana) and Bangalore and Delhi (India). Disability Studies Quarterly, 34(3).

Friedner, M. (2014). The Church of Deaf Sociality: Deaf Church-Going Practices and “Sign Bread and Butter” in Bangalore, India. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, (45), 39-53.

Friedner, M. (2013). Producing “Silent Brewmasters”: Deaf Workers and Added Value in India’s Coffee Shops. Anthropology of Work Review, 34(1), 39-50.

Friedner, M. & Osborne, J. (2013). Audit Bodies: Embodied Participation, Disability Universalism, and Accessibility in India. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 45(1), 43-60.

Friedner, M. & Helmreich, S. (2012). Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies. The Senses & Society, 7(1), 72-86.

Editorial Footnotes
If you liked this article, you might also be interested in the previously published articles in Medical Anthropology Quarterly that analyze impairment and disability, by Salih Can Açıksöz (2012), Sacrificial Limbs of Sovereignty: Disabled Veterans, Masculinity, and Nationalist Politics in Turkey, Seth D. Messinger (2010), Getting Past the Accident: Explosive Devices, Limb Loss, and Refashioning a Life in a Military Medical Center, Ruth Prince (2012), HIV and the Moral Economy of Survival in an East African City, and James Staples (2012), Culture and Carelessness: Constituting Disability in South India.

In addition, consider the previously published Medical Anthropology Quarterly articles that address economic development, by James Ellison (2014), First-Class Health: Amenity Wards, Health Insurance, and Normalizing Health Care Inequalities in Tanzania, and James Pfeiffer and Mark Nichter (2008), What Can Critical Medical Anthropology Contribute to Global Health? A Health Systems Perspective.

Interview with the author
1. How did you first learn about and become interested in deaf involvement in multilevel marketing businesses in India?

When I first started my dissertation fieldwork in Bangalore in the summer of 2007, no one was talking about multi-level marketing. Then, when I returned a year later for a full year, I was surprised to see that more or less everyone was talking about it. At first I did not understand what people were talking about or how the businesses worked—I spent much time with friends drawing diagrams on paper napkins and scraps of paper, staring at circles and lines, until I started to understand. The businesses all seemed to have glamorous and exotic names like Silver Venture but I did not understand how people were actually making money. I started tagging along with deaf friends to recruitment meetings and then I asked leaders if they would permit me to sit in on member meetings. Leaders were both excited to have me there and they were suspicious as well. They saw me as a potential recruit, as someone who could bring the business to the United States for them (international deaf capital!), but then they also worried at times that I was “spying” for another team and that I would somehow share their recruitment strategies with other deaf folks on other teams. It was fascinating to me how many businesses there were, of so many different sizes and scales, and how people were often involved simultaneously in more than one business. There was a sense that these businesses were particularly “deaf friendly” and the mingling of moral and financial economies was seemingly very productive—at least for those at the top of these businesses.

2. In this article, you mention that Silver Venture recruitment sessions were held in spaces that were otherwise structurally inaccessible to deaf people and multilevel marketing businesses are some of the only spaces in which sign language is valued. Do Silver Venture’s deaf members interact with non-deaf members of the business? Could you call the businesses “integrated”?

The relationship between deaf members and non-deaf members was one of the most interesting parts of studying deaf multi-level marketing participation. I am not sure if I would call the businesses “integrated” although, actually, perhaps they were. To answer this question, I want to think about the visual representation of these businesses: they are represented as pyramids with lines connecting people and there are convergences (see the diagram below). In this sense, yes, deaf people were integrated and there were hearing people above them and (hopefully) hearing people below them too. However, just as there is connection and convergence, there is also disconnection and divergence, and one has to think about what the lines actually mean. (In this sense, I find Tim Ingold’s work on lines to be very useful to think through!) In many cases, deaf people recruited their family members to join under them and so fathers joined under sons, in an interesting inversion of family trees and hierarchies. There was often a sense that deaf people had to get hearing people to join under them, as this was the way to ensure that the lineages would continue to grow; after all, there were a finite number of deaf people from which to recruit but an infinite number of hearing people.

Ultimately though, these businesses all had hearing leaders and while in some cases, as with Silver Venture, these hearing leaders seemed particularly invested in deaf peoples’ success in the business—they provided sign language interpreters and captioning for videos—it always seemed to me that it was hearing people who were deriving the most financial benefit. So, deaf people were “included” but then the broader question is, of course, who benefits from this inclusion? And in situations like this, we can really see some of the problems with language like “integration” and “inclusion.”

What was interesting too, in terms of this mingling of different kinds of economies and different kinds of spaces, is that many different kinds of deaf and hearing people joined the businesses. For example, many of India’s sign language interpreters joined the businesses too. And pastors and other religious and spiritual leaders also joined. Students at the sole deaf school in Bangalore with a deaf teacher were recruited by this deaf teacher to join businesses (although not Silver Venture). And everyone had to try to get along within the structure of these businesses.

Diagram of Silver Venture, by Mr. Gopalakrishnan.  Courtesy of Michele Friedner.

Diagram of Silver Venture, by Mr. Gopalakrishnan.
Courtesy of Michele Friedner.

3. In this article, you show how a multidimensional discourse of “deaf development” emerges through deaf participation in Silver Venture. How does the discourse of “deaf development” travel into broader communities? In the absence of meaningful state support and accessible employment opportunities, what alternative narratives of the future are created and used by deaf Indians who do not participate in businesses like Silver Venture?

Well, it seemed to me that most of my deaf interlocutors—whether they were students, workers, religious leaders, or representatives of deaf organizations—did participate in these businesses even if they did not join. Almost everyone went to recruitment sessions for these businesses as they provided a Sunday afternoon spectacle and a chance to see deaf friends and acquaintances. The discourse of “deaf development” was largely the same both inside and outside of multi-level marketing businesses although participants in the businesses were learning very specific language from each other and from leaders to express their desires. They were learning how to give snazzy PowerPoint presentations and how to talk about their hopes and dreams. There was also some interesting tension about desiring material possessions and whether it was OK to want to engage in consumption. Many of my interlocutors said that it was acceptable to desire material things and to consume because this meant that they could be “just like normals” and that they were signs or proof of development. To be clear, the discourse of “deaf development” did not start in multi-level marketing businesses—it could be found everywhere where deaf people were—but it seemed that multi-level marketing business participation inflected it in interesting ways by making it more explicitly consumption-oriented (and authorizing this orientation).

4. One the arguments you make in this article is that medical anthropologists need to attend to non-medicalized socialities and subjectivities that emerge in relation to social formations of disability. Can you say more about how you arrived at that analysis, and perhaps suggest some additional resources for reading (or viewing) along those lines?

When I first started graduate school it seemed to me to me that people, both faculty and fellow students, were quick to assume that I would use biosociality as an analytic and theoretical framing during my research. “Oh, you want to study deaf people in India? That’s biosociality!” However, when spending time with deaf and disabled Indians, I realized that for the most part my interlocutors did not think of themselves or their worlds through the lens of medical knowledges. My interlocutors, who were in many instances my friends, were not interested in understanding or knowing their deafness through etiology nor were they interested in discussing “how deaf” they were in terms of what their audiograms said. While everyone had stories of going to government hospitals and waiting on queues to meet with doctors in order to be certified with having a percentage of disability—in order to receive free bus passes—these stories were not foregrounded. In addition, my friends were not so interested in discussing why or how they were deaf nor were they interested in therapeutic or technological innovations that could potentially restore their hearing. I therefore strongly felt that using biosociality or another analytic that would privilege medical knowledge in the making of new subjectivities would be inaccurate. This is a position that is influenced by an appreciation of Disability Studies scholarship—which tends to take a combative position in relation to medical knowledge—although I do not see my work as a counter-narrative nor do I see my deaf friends as existing at odds with medical institutions. Simply put, I just don’t see the bio here.

In contrast, I am increasingly interested in how people negotiate socialities that are at times disharmonious. In this case, participating in multi-level marketing requires that my deaf friends engage in a great deal of “adjusting” in order to get along with each other. It seemed to me that my deaf friends were always together—in schools, vocational training centers, churches, cultural programs, and multi-level marketing business recruitment sessions and then meetings, for example. And there were many situations where it seemed like people did not necessarily like each other or have anything in common aside from the fact that they were deaf, yet, they had to find a way to get along. And even in the aftermath of Silver Venture’s fall—which was quite acrimonious for many people—people still had to spend time together. How do you create a world in which you are always with the same people, circulating through spaces together, even when Indian cities are rapidly changing? This is the kind of sociality I am interested in (and I write more about this in a short piece in Somatosphere and in an article in Contributions to Indian Sociology). Sanjay Srivastava (2010) writes about multi-level marketing in lower class areas of Delhi. For his interlocutors, because they are always moving and not settled in place, a business gone bad does not necessarily have effects for or on social relationships. In the case of deaf Indians, this is not the case, they are always together.

I think this is an exciting moment to be conducting research on deaf and disability socialities in anthropology. Anthropologists such as Mara Green, Terra Edwards, and Annelies Kusters are currently doing groundbreaking work on and with deaf people in multiple contexts. James Staples has done really transformative work with lepers in South India, analyzing transformative social bonds and what they mean for personhood. And Karen Nakamura’s new book, A Disability of the Soul, seems to me to be an excellent example of the tensions between medical and social knowledge when it comes to disability. Rayna Rapp and Faye Ginsburg are calling for attention to what they term “the new normal” in which disability figures heavily. As disability as a concept and category is increasingly made mainstream and coopted by political economic forces, it seems to me that it is an important time for medical anthropologists to interrogate the productiveness of disability.

Additional Resources
Neely Anne Laurenzo Myers’ (2014) review of Karen Nakamura’s A Disability of the Soul.

Srivastava, S. (2010). ‘Revolution Forever:’ Consumerism and Object Lessons for the Urban Poor. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 44(1-2), 103-128.

Ingold, T. (2007). Lines: A Brief History. London: Routledge.