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India Calling: Asst. Professor Humaira Mahi examines impact of globalization on consumers in the Indian market

News + Events : India Calling: Asst. Professor Humaira Mahi examines impact of globalization on consumers in the Indian market


As a business school professor and consumer researcher, I often get
asked questions on the relevance and direct impact of business research
in general and my research in particular. Given that consumption is such
a key component of today’s global economy, this is usually an easy
question to answer. 

Assistant Professor of International Business Humaira Mahi

Assistant Professor of International Business Humaira Mahi

Yet, as I have contemplated this question for the
last few years, I've come to realize that certain kinds of consumer research
can have a higher level of direct, immediate and visible impact on
people’s lives than others. So the response I gave before was enough
until about three or four years ago, but now I think about this direct
impact issue in a more immediate way.

Examining Consumer Research Issues

In recent years as I have contemplated this question, my research focus has shifted more and more towards examining consumer research issues among the lower-income group of consumers in India. I did not come to this research directly. Having grown up in India, I came to the U.S. in 1992 to attend graduate school in engineering. My move in 1992 also coincided with a very dramatic economic development in India. India liberalized its economy in 1991 from a socialist-based economy to a more free-market driven one, thus leading to a flood of new products in the market over the last 18 years. Because I was very interested in studying and understanding consumption, I switched from a Ph.D. program in engineering at Duke University to a Ph.D. program in business at the University of Minnesota . At Minnesota, I trained in behavioral and information economics but my interest in India’s move towards globalization made me want to examine how consumers and market structures in emerging markets evolve.

I see two Indias

My first project in India examined the historical roots of consumption as well as the level of cultural adaptation by Indian consumers and their attitude to the transitions occurring in the Indian economy. I also started an ongoing study of the impact of Indian retail on the market and on consumers. In the last four years, however, the impact question has became even more relevant to me given that India has grown considerably in the last few years.

The impact issue has nagged me more so lately because every time I visit India, which is at least once a year, I see two Indias: one India consists of an optimistic, upbeat, urban, relatively wealthy and educated middle class while the other India consists of a much larger number of Indians that make less than $2 a day (and by some estimates, in a country of 1.1 billion consumers, 700-million Indian consumers are low-income subsistence consumers living on less than $2 a day).

As anyone who has traveled to the world’s biggest democracy knows, these two worlds co-exist in a very visible way. You can go to a fancy shopping mall and be confronted by rows of slums along the way to the mall.  Another example is the impact of outsourcing on the Indian economy. We hear of a booming Indian middle class and of a dramatic increase in consumption because of outsourcing.

For all the hype, the people who benefit and are impacted positively are still a very tiny portion of who India really is. There is a lack of adequate academic research on the needs and wants of lower income groups who constitute such a large segment of the population.

Researching effects of urbanization and efficacy of health literacy programs

My two recent India projects are focused on studying the point of view of low-income subsistence consumers who constitute the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ segment.

Both studies have been supported by SF State Faculty Research Awards (2008, 2009). The work, mostly in the form of ethnographic work and interviews, is ongoing and conducted in South India, in and around the city of Hyderabad. A village on the outskirts of the city provides an interesting setting to study the effects of urbanization given that this village is rapidly becoming a part of the city’s given suburban sprawl.

The second project is new and seeks to examine the efficacy of health literacy programs in subsistence/poor communities in mitigating disease and improving consumption choices. This work is being done in collaboration with other researchers with expertise in information and communication technology (ICT) and healthcare literacy.

My recent research focus connects well with a recent stream of research within marketing academia termed as Transformative Consumer Research (TCR), which seeks to encourage marketing academics to work on topics such as social justice and poverty alleviation using marketing research tools. My work has also connected well with San Francisco State’s very visible emphasis on social justice and impact. The faculty research award support for these projects over the last two years has been very helpful in setting up these projects.

“One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) literacy program

Finally, I have realized that direct involvement and immersion with low-income consumers is a good way for me to see immediate impact. In 2008, I co-founded a foundation based in Hyderabad that seeks to help underprivileged men, women and children by providing affordable healthcare, literacy programs and job training programs that can move people away from poverty. Several initiatives have already been successfully implemented.

Currently work is being done on implementation of the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) literacy program in a village school slated to begin in January 2010. This work connects back to research in various ways: data collected from this program will be used to understand the efficacy and diffusion of literacy programs once they are introduced.

In conclusion, when asked a question about my research, I am now, in some tiny measure, able to connect the dots more directly about the impact of my research on people’s lives.

Assistant Professor of International Business Humaira Mahi wrote
this feature about her travel and academic experiences abroad in India for the 2009 International Business department newsletter.

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