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Navigating the education marketplace: investigating choice amongst lower income families in Delhi, India

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

In India, a rapidly expanding private sector and concurrent government policy trend towards market-based reforms have led to significant changes across the education landscape in recent years. In this thesis, I present an empirically grounded analytic account of how the education market in India works at the micro level, focusing on how lower income households navigate the decision-making process for elementary education. Adopting a collective case study research design, at the core of the study are in-depth interviews with education market ‘consumers’ (parents/caregivers) across three low income localities in Delhi about the values, interests and constraints that shape the educational choices they make for their children, and how the decision-making process is experienced and negotiated at the household level. An inductive approach is used for the analysis of this qualitative data. 
Drawing on ideas and concepts from Bourdieu, as well as sociological research on consumption, I argue that parents’ quality perceptions were sensitive to signifiers of social distinction and other aspects of social identity, illuminating key drivers behind the growth of the private sector beyond a desire for education quality alone. At the same time, while all families faced significant challenges in both assessing and accessing quality education, families with ‘know how’ or other forms of capital were better able to utilise specific strategies for gaining admission to desirable schools. I also employ a gender lens to argue that, while the findings concerning family dynamics of decision-making indicate that ‘choice’ may offer mothers opportunities for greater voice within the domestic sphere, the gender order continues to shape both experiences of motherhood and girls’ access to schooling. 
As a whole, the analysis draws attention to the socio-cultural nature of choice in real-world market settings and the contribution of schooling choices to the reproduction of social and educational inequalities. In doing so the thesis troubles the core assumptions of rational choice theory, which underpins much market thinking in education, in particular the idea that parents are rational ‘utility maximisers’ whose choices will drive up school quality and result in greater equality of access to quality schooling.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Jul 2018


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