Collidoscope: Of Adult Colouring, Elderly Guards and Common Property

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.


The radical history of adult colouring

A poster my friends and I are in the process of colouring. Credit: Trina Shankar

A poster my friends and I are in the process of colouring. Credit: Trina Shankar

Can colouring be a form of protest?

So the picture above has nothing at all to do with what I’m talking about, but it’s to let you know just how excited colouring makes me. I (re)discovered it around this time last year, and all I’ve thought since then is why did I ever stop? If you’re looking to take it up, this is my favourite book so far.

The adult colouring craze started, or so I thought, around early 2015 – to the point that there was actually a shortage of colour pencils in the market!

But apparently this isn’t the first time this has happened, and proof for this can be found in the music of none other than Barbra Streisand.

This song came out in 1963, at the peak of the previous adult colouring bang, writes Laura Marsh in a fascinating article in New Republic.

But 1960s colouring wasn’t quite what it is today. Today, colouring is sold as a therapeutic, calming hobby to balance an otherwise stressful life. But in the 60s, Marsh writes, colouring books were “genuinely novel and subversive”.

That’s actually how adult colouring started in the first place – the first book was published in 1961 called Executive Colouring Book, Marsh says. It was created by three men in advertising and made fun of the monotonous, even desolate, lives of businessmen. While the images themselves may not make the message clear, it’s impossible to misunderstand the captions.

“This is my suit. Color it gray or I will lose my job,” reads a caption next to a picture of a man getting dressed for work. Another page shows men in bowler hats boarding their commuter train. “This is my train,” it reads. “It takes me to my office every day. You meet lots of interesting people on the train. Color them all gray.” The rare appearance of a non-gray color is even more disturbing: “This is my pill. It is round. It is pink. It makes me not care.”

There were colouring books and counter colouring books from different sides of the spectrum, talking about communism, sex, national security, mental health and more. Marsh writes:

“There were coloring books that made fun of communists and coloring books that made fun of people who were scared of communists. Khrushchev’s Top Secret Coloring Book: Your First Red Reader caricatured Soviet leaders and life under communist rule, but was still deemed “objectionable” and banned in the United States Military. Meanwhile, the John Birch Society Coloring Book, which ridiculed conspiracy theorists and extremists, stretched the coloring book concept to its limits with a blank page, captioned: ‘How many Communists can you find in this picture? I can find 11. It takes practice.'”

All these differences basically meant that these books weren’t really for colouring – they were more a modified version of a political cartoon. Crayon sales didn’t increase. Of all the scans you can find online of the 60s colouring books, none of them is coloured in. So why did they kick off the way they did, enough for Streisand to devote an entire song to them?

One possible explanation, Marsh writes, could have something to do with the fact that adult colouring (a version of a children’s activity) came up around the same time as interest in Freudian psychoanalysis and child development was rising. It was a way of returning to your childhood (through the colouring) to reject the current state of affairs and try and build a new one.

The generation coming of age in 6os was also the first that grew up on wax crayons, Marsh suggests as another possible explanation. It was in the 1930s that the wax crayon industry had really taken off – the 1930s and 40s were the “golden age” of colouring (for children). Colouring was even still seen as a legitimate art class activity, before it was seen as hampering creativity.

Adult colouring disappeared again by the 1970s, Marsh writes. Colouring books slowly became about nostalgia rather than dissent, about an “artsy pastime” rather than social change. And while re-emerged adult colouring may be anything but political, I, for one, will be looking at my otherwise unused grey colour pencil in a whole new light.


Sleepless in Mumbai

A security guard in Mumbai. Credit: Harini Calamur/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A security guard in Mumbai. Credit: Harini Calamur/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What’s it like to be forced to live like you don’t belong?

Unfortunately, that question could make sense almost anywhere in the world today, though of course in drastically different contexts and to different degrees. In her article in the Economic and Political Weekly, Mouleshri Vyas is looking at migrant labourers in Mumbai, through the lens of elderly security guards.

A city like Mumbai is built on the work of migrants, but political discussions around migration still focus on the idea of an ‘impure outsider’. How does that affect migrant workers in the city?

For those familiar with the city, Vyas writes, one of the visible changes has been the presence of elderly migrant labourers working as security guards. However, not much research has been done on the elderly in the workforce. Through her personal interviews with elderly security guards, she has attempted to bring out what their lives look like.

Looking first at the employment patterns for the elderly in India, Vyas says that government data show a decline in workforce participation for the elderly but also an increase in the informalisation of work for this age group. This, she argues, is a result not only of India’s jobless growth but also of the easy entry into informal jobs for those from low-income households. In urban areas, the elderly workforce is found mainly in the service sector, where they are paid less than their younger counterparts.

Security guards in India are most often informally employed. According to FICCI data, there are about 15,000 private security companies and five million security guards operating in the country (to put that in context, the number of police officers is about 3.2 million).

It is not as though there are no regulations whatsoever for the security industry in Mumbai, Vyas writes. “A Security Guards Board for Brihan Mumbai and Thane District, constituted by the state government, works according to the Maharashtra Private Security Guards (Regulation of Employment and Welfare) Act, 1981 and has mandated rules for the companies, including minimum wage payment (monthly wages to range from Rs 10,705 to Rs 13,015, depending on the category of guard) and upper and lower age limits for recruitment and employment of security guards (18 and 60).”

However, in all the stakeholders deciding on the guard’s conditions of work, from the government to the companies, the guards themselves don’t figure. The regulatory system is also ineffective (and not because the authorities don’t know what’s happening, Vyas argues), and most places hire elderly security guards because they are paid less than the minimum wage.

The elderly security guards Vyas spoke to all joined the occupation because they had no other means of sustenance – they had never been a part of any social security or pension schemes. Their lives in the city are filled with repeated stories of struggle.

“Rajendra Kamble, who came to Mumbai from his village at the age of 30, worked at a textile mill and worked in the spinning department for eight hours a day. He recalls difficult times with noisy machines, smoke, heat and steam in the mill. He recollects it as “dangerous” work. While other departments had relatively better conditions, the spinning department was  the worst. After retirement in 2003, he stayed in the village for some years. He used to get Rs 782 as pension, which was highly inadequate to support the family. So, he returned to Mumbai and took up the job of a security guard in 2008. Initially, he started at Rs 3,500-4,000 per month and at present gets Rs 11,000 per month in a security company. He is anxious and is working under compulsion to feed his family and save money for his daughter. He finds this job to be better than that at the mill, because it has eight hour shifts and is not very difficult.

Vyas uses several narratives of this kind to make her point – that the privatised and heavily contractualised nature of the work means the elderly guards do not always get the stipulated wages and have to work in whatever conditions are demanded of them, given the precarity of their situation. The state has failed to provide them with the social security benefits that would allow them to stop working.

Most of these “migrants” have spent most of their lives in the city, Vyas writes, yet the city refuses to accept them. Their experience of the city is portrayed as “unsettled” even if they have built their lives there. Admitting this means rethinking the very idea of urbanity and city spaces.

“The image of the city as a place of energy and a social, political, economic, and cultural synergising ground does not seem to hold true. It is now a more competitive ground, under the control of the profit seekers, with large numbers of tired, insecure residents labouring day and night.”


Governing China’s common property resources

Irrigation in Yunan, China. Credit: Global Water Forum/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Irrigation in Yunan, China. Credit: Global Water Forum/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Does people leaving villages affect how the commons are governed?

That’s what Yahua Wang, Chunliang Chen and Eduardo Araral are looking at in their article in World Development. Their study on irrigation systems in China tries to assess whether rural out-migration has an adverse impact on how villagers collectively solve problems, specifically when it comes to common property resources used for surface irrigation. Given the rate at which rural-urban migration is taking place, particularly in the developing world, these questions aren’t inconsequential.

It took me a while to get used to the fact that they use ‘collective action’ to mean community governance, though it makes sense. Collective action immediately reminds me of social movements, but I’ll be using it here the way the authors have, the same way Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom has used it in her work.

Previous literature has answered a few questions on the subject, the authors say. They identify five mechanisms that explain the link between out-migration and collective action in the commons – leadership (talented people leaving could mean the lack of inspiring or agreeable leaders), social connections (the more people leave, the weaker social cohesion gets), a sense of community (linked to the second – people are less invested in the community and therefore won’t spend time thinking about the commons), inequality (homogenous groups have had more successful collective action endeavours) and resource dependency (if labour migration makes people less dependent on resources – in this case irrigation water – they are less likely to take part in community governance).

Their study is based on a survey of 1,780 irrigation households in 74 villages from 18 provinces across China. Labour migration, they find, does have an adverse effects on collective action when it comes to governing common irrigation systems. Villages with high rates of out-migration (more than 30%) had a much lower proportion of households choosing well or canal irrigation (that requires community governance) than those with lower rates, who instead largely went for rain-fed or lift irrigation.

This, they argued, and China’s high rate of urbanisation could be partially responsible for the decreasing rate of surface irrigation and increase in groundwater irrigation since the 1980s.

They also accept that there are other factors at play, also shown in their data analysis. A history of water scarcity, for instance, makes people less likely to depend on common pool resources for water. Villages that have seen conflict of one kind or another are also less likely to use collective irrigation techniques.

The authors’ results for China could be significant for other developing countries as well, and could have an impact on how policies aimed at increasing rural community governance and participation are planned.

That’s it for this week! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing to this weekly newsletter.

If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at [email protected]

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