Labour, sKills, Social networks and Mobilities in India (LAKSMI)


Christophe Jalil NORDMAN

Start Date: May, 2016
Status: Ongoing

Project Details

Department Social Sciences
Duration 6 Year(s)
Funding Agency(ies)

EU (nopoor project)





Venkatasubramanian GOVINDAN

Sébastien MICHIELS

Isabelle GUERIN

De Neve G.


Centre des Sciences Humaines (CSH, New Delhi, India), EqUIP-ANR project "Challenging Inequalities: an Indo-European Perspective" (CHALLINEQ, 2019-2022)

Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai (India)

Pondicherry University, Pondicherry (India)

University of Sussex (UK), Department of Anthropology (School of Global Studies)

Institute of Development Alternatives, Chennai (India)

University of Warwick (UK), Department of Economics

University of Oxford (UK), Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS)

The Cognition & Migration network

Team Antoni Raj
Christophe Jalil NORDMAN
Venkatasubramanian GOVINDAN
Email nordman AT dial DOT prd

Project Description


Inequalities continue to be one of the major challenges in the world. Although they are multidimensional, most researches focus on income inequalities and neglect other dimensions, such as the populations’ access to (non)cognitive skills and social networks. Innovations of this programme include: i. grounded and longitudinal methods for appraising these inequalities that duly account for the labour market functioning in all its dimensions, from the most individuals ones (skills) to the most structural ones (networks); ii. articulation of disjoint disciplinary approaches: development, labour and behavioural economics, structuralist approaches of sociology and anthropology; iii. combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. The pluridisciplinary research team of LAKSMI has extensive experience in working together in South India, where the weight of modern and traditional social structures make it an excellent school case to study inequalities in labour, skills and social networks.

LAKSMI aims at understanding the links between labour, skills, social and migration dynamics and social networks formation in South Asia. In a context of rapid socio-economic development in India, this programme explores how the formation of skills and social networks, especially those defined at the community and individual levels, influence the characteristics of individuals’ trajectories in terms of social status, employment and migration.

A first innovation of this programme is to propose grounded and longitudinal methods for appraising these inequalities that duly account for the labour market functioning in all its dimensions, from the most individuals ones (skills) to the most structural (social networks). We make use of first-hand longitudinal survey data directly collected by our team. This allows us to propose a pluridisciplinary and mixed method approach (quantitative and qualitative), that could easily be replicated in other contexts. A second innovation is the articulation of disjoint disciplinary approaches: on the one hand, development, labour and behavioural economics; on the other hand, sociological and anthropological structuralist approaches. While the former specialities, which include recent and fruitful advances in psychology economics, have provided new evidence that cognitive and socio-emotional skills are likely to have direct and indirect impacts on individual choices and outcomes in the labour markets, these approaches were too often disconnected from the analysis of social structures in which individuals are embedded. The second strand recognises that individuals cannot be considered outside of the social relations that make up the collective structure. While both approaches are often presented as incompatible, they rather have numerous points of convergence. Most behaviourists pay attention to the role of social norms and interactions, but without exploring the nature of these, while many structuralists emphasise structural origin of cognition and emotion, but without exploring to what extent they shape individual preferences and choices. The starting point of this programme is to recognise that both views are meaningful and need to be articulated so as to produce fruitful research advances in social sciences.

Research questions and case study

LAKSMI takes South India as a case study, but the research questions tackled in LAKSMI will be broadened to other South-East countries in the medium to long runs (the case of Bangladesh has already been investigated, see Hilger, Nordman, Sarr, 2018 ; Nordman, Sarr, Sharma, 2019).

India has seen impressive economic growth over the last several decades, cutting its poverty rate in half since 1990. But the recently evidenced increase in income inequalities results largely from the unequal sharing of the growth among the different segments of the working population. A large part of it still has limited economic opportunities because they were born at the lower end of the caste system. Traditional social networks based on family and caste ties hence continue to play a crucial role in determining individuals’ life trajectories (De Neve, 2016), but now coexist with new forms of relationships in the labour market and in social hierarchies (Guérin, 2013; Guérin, Michiels, Venkatasubramanian, 2015). The weight and burden of these social structures make it an excellent school case to study the interrelations between inequalities in labour, skills and social networks.

The LAKSMI project tackles the following main research questions:

  1. How does one reconcile the existence of a plurality of mechanisms in the role of social networks in individuals’ trajectories?

The programme tackles here the various dimensions of networks (individual, cognitive, socio-emotional, and structural) and their articulation with institutions such as gender, castes, classes, religion, and spaces when they come to influence decision makings and constraints at both the individual and social levels. In particular, we will define the features of individuals’ networks and understand if and to what degree social networks overlap with caste affiliation. LAKSMI then explores network evolutions over time and generations.

  1. What are the effects of social networks on job access and labour structures?

See below

  1. Does social networks formation and use hinder or foster social mobility?

See below

Specific topics

The formation and use of social networks

A large literature in sociology and economics has shown the importance of using parents, friends, and other acquaintance to search for job, to create a microenterprise or to help employers select employees. Many studies have also highlighted the essential function of social networks in developing and emerging countries, where institutional social welfare systems (unemployment compensation, social security) are weak or non-existent. Social and family ties are known to provide a range of benefits for individuals and households. These networks are crucial because they are often a private solution to market failures when there is lack of (or imperfect) information, i.e. lack of formal institutions channeling information about individuals, jobs or market opportunities. Social networks are in particular decisive in areas where markets do not exist, but also where markets exist but the costs of finding out about individual characteristics is high, especially in the labour market. A number of studies in different countries found that social and family ties hence provide informal risk sharing to poor and rural households (Nordman, 2016). This is because these networks are able to enforce social norms which in turn lower transactions costs, and reduce risks when mechanisms such as efficient contract enforcement are not provided publicly.

This programme takes a comprehensive view of the links between social networks, labour, and mobility, thereby going beyond usually one-dimensional approaches. LAKSMI starts by recognising that social networks are embedded in societal structures. Individuals’ choice between using weak ties, links with infrequent interactions or low intimacy or strong ties depends on their precise position within the social hierarchy. Social capital is then created through i) binding members of a group together (‘bonding’ capital), ii) connecting unconnected people (‘bridging’ capital), and iii) generating ties between the weak and the powerful (‘linking’ capital) (Vijayabaskar and Kalaiyarasan, 2014). This framework has not been tested with a mixed-approach, due to the difficulty of disentangling social and network structure – a gap LAKSMI aims to fill by looking at the concept and evolution of ‘social networks’ within the hierarchical societal system of rural South India.

Central questions LAKSMI are then: What type of networks are mobilised and by whom to access jobs? To what extent do networks act as inclusive or exclusive forces in job access? To what extent and how do networks interfere with labour trajectories and labour quality?

Castes and networks

LAKSMI provides new insights regarding the emancipatory power in urban and rural contexts in India, where past and new forms of community relations organised around a rigid social structure (e.g. the caste) represent a trap in which individuals are historically victims of patronage mechanisms maintained by the dominant castes. In India, maybe more than anywhere else, the issue of networks appears to be strongly embedded in a complex system of social identity, hierarchical organisation and traditional institutions. This programme allows providing a better understanding of the social and cultural interactions between these different concepts. Do networks enable individuals and social groups to overcome the caste-based, class-based, and gendered segregated job assignment system?

Cognitive skills, personality (socio-emotional) traits, networks and labour

Non-cognitive skills or personality (socio-emotional) traits have recently received significant attention as determinants of labour performance. In fact, these non-cognitive traits, referring to qualities such as motivation, leadership, self-esteem, social skills, etc., have in some cases been shown to be at least as important as cognitive skills (such as numeracy and literacy) for earnings and employment prospects. Theoretically, personality traits can have both direct and indirect effects on labour market integration and success. They can affect employability and productivity directly by being considered as part of an individual's set of endowments, or serve as incentive-enhancing preferences. Additionally, they can indirectly affect individuals’ social inclusion, for instance, through effects on aspirations, occupational choice and educational attainment.

Social networks formation is also shaped by individual differences. Some studies in psychology show that individuals with higher cognitive skills and those with certain personality traits (openness to experience, extraversion, and emotional stability) have access to broader and more diverse social networks, illustrating the endogeneity of network formation. But how far skills and traits are shaped (at least partly) by structures is still unexplored. Anthropological studies in India show that the interaction between skills and networks matters for job access (Carswell and De Neve, 2018). But most models in the network and structuralist literature rather assume exogenous structures in relation to the specific individuals’ attributes. More importantly, empirical knowledge on this is meagre, especially in the context of developing countries. How do one’s cognitive and socioemotional skills interact with one’s social networks in shaping individuals’ labour outcomes?

In India, social structure, institutions and norms affect individual labour, mobility, trajectories, or any other individual choices, oftentimes by constraining them. Up to now, the role of non-cognitive skills has been evaluated in isolation of the external environment, by purely focusing on their effects on individual choices and preferences, thereby neglecting the social structures in which the individuals evolve.

In LAKSMI, not only researchers would like to measure precisely what one usually neglects in the case of a developing country such as India, but also the idea is to show more broadly the existence of a plurality of mechanisms in individual decision making (both individual and social). Showing empirically whether or not cognitive and personality traits play on individuals’ choices enables us to open the black box of the various structural and institutional forces at play.

Networks and spatial and social mobility

Social networks affect mobility (spatial and social), positively, or negatively due to for example moral pressure by kin to obtain preferential access to jobs and business services (Nguyen and Nordman, 2018) or hindering adaption to changing global environments. These adverse effects of kin ties remain unexplored in India where social mobility often occurs through migration. Previous studies of labour migration stressed the importance of kin-networks, but contemporary migrations seem to be driven by extended community relationships and extra-community networks. This programme hence pays close attention to the complexification of the network structure and its potential differentiation among social groups (caste, class, gender) in terms of mobility.

Social mobility is here envisaged with a plurality of approaches through the lenses of gender, education, occupation, castes and class, and subjective assessments. Do social networks work as emancipatory or alienating channels for social mobility? What is the role of networks in shaping individual vs. collective mobility mechanisms?

Household and individual surveys in rural Tamil Nadu

The surveys of the LAKSMI programme are based on a plurality of methods and combine quantitative with qualitative approaches and data collection in the field of Tamil Nadu. Part of the empirical agenda under LAKSMI builds on the RUME data collected in 2010 at IFP as part of the "Labour, Finance and Social Dynamics" programme in Axis 3.

LAKSMI builds on two original quantitative surveys carried in rural Tamil Nadu: the ANR funded RUME survey (RUral Microfinance and Employment) conducted in 2010 and NEEMSIS (Networks, Employment, dEbt, Mobilities and Skills in India Survey) carried out in 2016-17 by the core LAKSMI team.

RUME was conducted in ten villages among 405 households.

NEEMSIS recollected information from 95% of the 2010 household sample, creating a household-individual panel data set. It covers professional aspiration and status, cognitive and socio-emotional skills, a social network module, individual migrations, and questions on the demonetisation policy in India that occurred during the survey implementation (Guérin, Lanos, Michiels, Nordman, Venkatasubramanian, 2017). Social networks were collected using a name generator that invites respondents (egos) to recall and elicit people (alters) with whom they maintain direct relationships, to delineate and gather information on the core members of the network. In addition, household and individual migrants who have left the RUME-NEEMSIS survey area since 2010 have been tracked in 2017-2018 to reduce attrition rates (which are now very low, at 4%).

Such diverse and first-hand quantitative material is hence absolutely unique in the context of rural India and constitutes part of LAKSMI groundwork. In the framework of the ANR-funded project CHALLINEQ (2019-2022), LAKSMI aims at implementing a third wave of NEEMSIS so as to produce exceptional three-year panel household and individual data. This third wave will offer a rare opportunity to observe the dynamics of interpersonal skills, social networks use, and socio-economic mobility over a 10 year period. Such longitudinal observations will be outstanding in a developing country context, a powerful tool to observe the perpetuating of inequalities in various dimensions.

In LAKSMI, qualitative approaches and tools are also considered as a rule of evidence, not only as a mean to illustrate or complement quantitative findings. Semi-structured interviews, life histories, network mappings, group discussions will serve to analyse a phenomenon in its entirety by making a contextualised and localised study of the complexity of the causal links and the multiple dynamic and contradictory interactions between different entities. LAKSMI assumes that around a hundred interviews will be conducted, given that size and representativeness are of minimal importance for a qualitative analysis: diversity of situations and data saturation are much more key. More specifically, qualitative analyses will be used on two topics: i) Reconstructing networks' stories, to identify the various uses of individual networks and to understand how they impact individuals' trajectories and mobility; ii) Self-perception of social mobility, to capture subjective perceptions of various dimensions of mobility. Interviews will also be conducted with relevant actors such as labour intermediaries, employers’ associations, etc., following the method developed in Guérin, D'Espallier and Venkatasubramanian (2015). This last step appears indispensable to provide a global picture of the use and the role of networks for various economic and social outcomes.

Main outputs

  • Survey reports
  • Academic articles and book chapters
  • Collective volume
  • Digital and longitudinal socio-economic data sets
  • Transcriptions of qualitative interviews
  • Videos
  • Training material for survey implementation and data analysis, disseminated notably through the Social Sciences Winter School in Pondicherry

Selected publications and working papers of the LAKSMI team

Carswell, G., De Neve, G. (2018), “Towards a Political Economy of Skill Under Liberalisation: The Case of the Tiruppur Garment Cluster in South India”, in Hann, C., Parry, J. (Eds.). (2018). Industrial Labor on the Margins of Capitalism: Precarity, Class, and the Neoliberal Subject (Vol. 4), Berghahn Books.

De Neve, G. (2016), “The Economies of Love: Love marriage, kin support, and aspiration in a South Indian garment city”, Modern Asian Studies, 50(4), pp. 1220-1249.

Guérin, I. (2013), “Bonded Labour, Agrarian Changes and Capitalism: Emerging Patterns in South India”, Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 13, n°3, pp. 405–423.

Guérin, I. D’Espallier, B. Venkatasubramanian, G. (2015), “The Social Regulation of Markets. Why Microcredit Fails to Promote Jobs in Rural South India”, Development and Change, 46(6): 1277-1301.

Guérin, I. Kumar, S. (2016), “Market, Freedom and the Illusions of Microcredit. Patronage, Caste, Class and Patriarchy in Rural South India”, Journal of Development Studies (special issue Microfinance and Women’s Empowerment), DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2016.1205735.

Guérin, I., Lanos, Y., Michiels, S., Nordman, C.J., Venkatasubramanian, G. (2017), “Insights on Demonetisation from Rural Tamil Nadu: Understanding Social Networks and Social Protection”, Economic and Political Weekly, 52(52), pp. 44-53.

Guérin, I., Michiels, S., Venkatasubramanian, G. (2015), “Labour in Contemporary South India”, In Harriss-White B. and Heyer J. (eds.), Indian Capitalism in Development, Abingdon, Routledge.

Hilger, A., Nordman, C.J., Sarr L.R., (2018), "Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills, Hiring Channels, and Wages in Bangladesh”, IZA Discussion Paper No. 11578, DIAL Research Paper DT/2018/11

Nguyen, H.C., Nordman, C.J. (2018), “Household Entrepreneurship and Social Networks: Panel Data Evidence from Vietnam”, The Journal of Development Studies, 54(4), pp. 594-618.

Nomura, S., Hong, S.Y., Nordman, C.J., Sarr, L.R., Vawda, A.Y. (2014), “An Assessment of Skills in the Formal Sector Labor Market in Bangladesh: A Technical Report on the Enterprise-Based Skills Survey 2012”, Discussion Paper Series, Report No. 63, South Asia Human Development Sector, Washington: The World Bank.

Nordman, C.J. (2016), “Do Family and Kinship Ties Support Entrepreneurs in Developing Countries?”, IZA World of Labor, 262, DOI: 10.15185/izawol.262.

Nordman, C.J., Sarr, L.R., Sharma, S. (2019), “Skills, Personality Traits and Gender Wage Gaps: Evidence from Bangladesh”, Oxford Economic Papers, forthcoming, doi: 10.1093/oep/gpy043

Nordman, C.J., Sharma, S. (2016), “The Power to Choose: Gender Balance of Power and Intra-household Educational Spending in India”, WIDER Working Paper 2016/61.

Vijayabaskar, M., Kalaiyarasan, A. (2014), “Caste as Social Capital. The Tiruppur Story”, Economic & Political Weekly, 49(10), pp. 34-38.

External Staff

Geert De Neve, anthropologist at the University of Sussex (UK)

Grace Carswell, geographer at University of Sussex (UK)

M. Vijayabaskar, socio-economist at Madras Institute of Development Studies (India)

Jeyaranjan J., economic historian at Institute of Development Alternatives, Chennai (India)

Smriti Sharma, economist at Newcastle University (UK)

Véronique Gille, economist, IRD-DIAL (France)

Enumerators/translators: Pazhani, Sithanandan, Mayan, Vivek Raja, Annamalai, Kumaresh (India)

Web links

  • RUME 2010 project:
  • NEEMSIS in South India:
  • Nopoor project:
  • Social Sciences Winter School in Pondicherry:
  • DIAL website:
  • IRD website: