Discuss the way urban middle-class identities have Essay

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Discuss the way urban middle-class identities have been debated in relation to changing kinship and consumption patterns


AN214: Anthropology of India:

Discuss the way urban middle-class identities have been debated in relation to changing
kinship and consumption patterns with reference to the ethnographies you read.


"Materialism is the new karma". (Pavan K Varma, 2005)

Whilst numerical estimates of the Indian middle classes vary drastically, media images
contribute to their portrayal as affluent consumers- participants in the IT boom in urban
centres such as Hyderabad and those revelling in India's status as a call centre
"superpower", particularly thought to symbolise a new urban middle-class. Varma's quote
encapsulates the astonishing effect mass culture is thought to have had upon Indian
identity, especially those who occupy this middle ground of consumption. This spectrum
ranges from the lower middle-class youth, such as the aforementioned call-centre workers
whose parents often experience a very different lifestyle, to the upper middle classes
whose educational heritage has enabled them to maintain their class status over a longer
period. Hence it is clear that the notion of an "urban middle class" within the Indian
context is uniquely problematic, being internally differentiated- encompassing great
variety in factors such as culture, language and religious belief, while of course
attempting to reconcile the existence of the caste system as a further, but importantly
distinctive form of hierarchy to class.

As Fernandes notes, the very question of defining what Beteille termed the "most
polymorphous middle class in the world", itself represents a site of political debate in
both academic and public discourses. Additionally there is a marked transition between
what is considered the "old middle-classes" and the "new middle-class." Whereas the former
has its origins in the "colonial encounter", the latter, since liberalisation policies
initiated by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s came to fruition, has become increasingly defined
by its consumption patterns, most apparent in an era of a global economy. Fernandes writes
that this overwhelming focus on consumption has somewhat neglected the impact of
structural socioeconomic changes in the middle classes.(Fernandes, 2000). At various
points these intersect with shifting economic conditions, such as kinship changes
affecting the upwardly mobile, however they are not always resultant of the status
jockeying of these newly prosperous classes. (Vatuk, 1972). Thus while the transformative
effects of liberalisation may appear to have directly visible effects upon the
restructured labour market, in the context of family life- locale specificities and
historical factors, as well as the advent of urbanity must all be considered. For instance
a shift in the values of the Malayali middle-classes can be partially attributed to the
implementation of colonial legislation instigating the abolition of polygamous practices
such as the Marumakkathayam system of inheritance amongst Nayar communities, whilst
increasing nationalist sentiment contributed to the diminishing importance of unique
matrilineal forms in Kerala in favour of the patrilineal inheritance that prevailed as a
middle class norm in the rest of India. (Arunima, 2003). Note that I have made no
distinction between "Nayar castes" and "a Malayali middle class", necessitating the
clarification of two dimensions: reconciling class with the alternative hierarchical
structure of caste; and related to this how the concept of a middle class has changed over
time. From this I will discuss how shifting values in India have created an affirmatively
dynamic middle class.

The Indian notion of caste is of something you are born into- I am considered a Nayar
because my mother is whereas in comparison one notes the relative mutability of class,
deriving more directly from economic and social standing, to become one of the most potent
idioms of identity, rank and political power in India. (Dickey, 2000). Being at the apex
of the caste hierarchy Brahmins also happen to occupy a disproportionate number of the new
software entrepreneurs. However these patterns of employment reflect long-standing
connections between caste background and educational opportunity and Harriss states that
in the "new economy" employers have idea what caste backgrounds their employees are from
and are thus not influenced by this in any way. (Harriss, 2003). Government policy would
certainly endorse such a positive outlook, yet in the domestic sphere one might contend
there is a refutation of such "progress", where it appears class has merely been
substituted for caste, as shown by the continued ambivalence over employing domestic help
amongst middle-classes, where the maintenance of a certain level of hygiene and order is
crucial to maintaining class status, but in entering this domestic sphere, servants bring
an implicit threat derived from "the juxtaposition of spatial and emotional intimacy with
class distance." (Dickey, 2000). Thus despite its illegality, caste still retains its
relevance in Hindu society and consequently public life, although now rather more palpably
in the form of positive discrimination - e.g. scheduled castes retaining quotas in schools
and universities, enabling them to gain skills through education, and ideally allowing
caste boundaries to ultimately be transcended.

Shashi Tharoor recounts the autobiographical tale of his youth when his childhood friend
Charlis, of a lower caste status was effectively banned from playing football. As time
went on the family elders eventually allowed this, but he was still strictly prohibited
from transgressing caste boundaries and eating with them at the dinner table. Finally as a
young man, Tharoor encounters Charlis, who has risen to the position of District
Collector, and when he is invited back, he is welcomed into the house and dines as an
equal. Tharoor makes the point that middle class views of caste differed even within his
own family- compared to the prejudices of the extended kin in rural Kerala, his own
attitudes were informed by his living and being educated in the urbane setting of the
Bombay metropolis. (Tharoor, 1997). By achieving a certain occupational status, Charlis
had become upwardly mobile, and we see a reflection in the phenomenon of the "Gulfan"
migrant who attempts a similar transition, in attempt to escape caste and transcend class.
Characterised by their comic depiction in Malayalam cinema, this diaspora have elevated
the status of their families back home in Kerala, despite often taking menial jobs
considered to be of a lowly status (Osella and Osella, 2000).

Both the above examples are illustrative of how the relevance of caste purity supposedly
decreases with economic advancement, not only at the level of the individual- the
boundaries of untouchability were to an extent negated by Charlis' newly acquired middle
class status, but also at a macro-level- as the results of liberalisation effectively
transform social relations. Hypothetically this could be read as a political denouement
extolling the virtues of an open economy, the final stage of a process of
industrialisation started with Nehru's steel mills. As neatly correlative as this appears,
it is clear such an assumption is a fallacy on several counts- there remain certain
spheres in which urban middle classes continue to stress the importance of caste, such as
marriage and also the unavoidable influence Hindu nationalism has had upon Indian society,
in particular its relationship to the middle class, both which will be examined in greater
detail further on in the discussion. However in order to elucidate certain strands of
debate, one must clarify how an affirmatively dynamic middle class has developed over time
from its colonial origins to its present incarnation.

The "old middle class" constituted a tangible remnant of those service or business
traditional classes who were "privileged" by their inextricable association to the
British. Many were employed in occupations such as government or civil service;
administrative positions which required a certain level of education, resulting in the
creation of an appropriately qualified English-speaking elite. It is suggested middle
class expenditure was denoted by an emphasis on scrupulous investment as opposed to the
perceived extravagance of contemporary consumerism. According to Donner, the old middle
classes were characterised by their "proverbial frugality", a somewhat austere term one
would perhaps associate with Mahatma Gandhi, in vivid contrast to public images of the
middle class as global consumers with high disposable incomes. Certainly my own father
recalls how despite his family's purportedly middle-class status, and his schooling in
British educational establishments, if new apparel were needed measurements were given to
a tailor who produced garments of a varying quality, for the vast majority there was no
concept of purchasing a ready-made, branded item. Of course growth in public culture has
altered this for the middle class, as described in accounts such as Conlon's that
documents emergent changes in Indian foodways in urban cosmopolitan centres.

Citing the emergence of Irani cafes where one might take "tiffin", as marking the end of
an era where the norms of social life discouraged the institution of restaurants (due to
traditional notions such purity of food preparation) and in a way displaced "the
psychological and moral obstacles to public dining" this "represented a transition towards
the "meal as experience"- an essential component for the evolution of a restaurant
culture".(Conlon, 1995: 102) In the 1960s entrepreneurs recognised market potential for
customers and growth in educated middle class with discretionary income, made the
publication of Bombay: The City Magazine with it's "Eating Out" feature the "juncture
between the traditional concern for finding satisfactory food in Bombay and the emergence
of a new "public culture"."(Ibid: 108) Echoing Fernandes' notion that it is only a small
segment of the middle class that provided the basis for this new cultural standard
portraying the consumption practices of a global consumer, Conlon writes the reviews
themselves "found a substantial audience who vicariously experienced the presumed
pleasures of the restaurant under discussion." (Ibid) A notable Bombayite Abbas decried
the emergence of fast food at the expense of the old Irani and vegetarian restaurants, and
this seems typical of criticisms derailing against the "corrupting influence" of Western
modernity upon "traditional values", or indeed viewing them as "manifestations of the
cultural consumption on the periphery of a euro-centered world capitalist system " but as
Conlon says this fits the "assumption that Indian public culture is merely a derivative,
if colourful, form of global modernity." (Ibid: 115) From his descriptions of Chinese
cuisine being made hotter and spicier to suit the tastes of an Indian palate, we see
glimpses of Singer's notion of a "highly selective process of borrowing…which seeks to
develop and incorporate novel elements". (Harriss, 2003: 328). In fact he notes that in
India globalisation is perceived "not as a cultural process that makes something new out
of that which is old" but conversely as a form of "traditionalization". (Ibid). However
Harris notes that this doctrine may have been informed in part by Singer's encounter with
a nationalist scholar of the time, thus possibly overplaying the Indian element in any
global equation. (Ibid: 329). Perhaps instead one should point to the impact of modernity
upon India as a reflexive two-way process. On frequent holidays to Madras when I was
young, I remember the first incarnation of MTV in India, where it was an imported channel
showing exclusively Western music and videos. A few years later years later the channel
had undergone a transition now being "MTV India", presented by ostensibly Asian "veejays"
speaking Hinglish- a combination of Hindi and English, and playing mix of music. Whilst
much of the format of music programmes and the production values have been maintained, the
actual content needed changing to suit an emerging Indian youth market.

Incidentally it is this younger generation that are mostly associated with these emerging
consumption patterns, and in light of Donner's conclusions on Calcutta's middle class, it
is apparent that this potential misnomer exists partly because it is the new jobs and
incomes of the younger generation compared to the relative poverty of their parents'
generation that has fuelled much of the retail boom, and where this is not the case
amongst upper middle classes- there is a tendency to attribute conspicuous consumption to
the fickleness of youth, even whilst the older generation actively participate. This
creation of a scapegoat in order to alleviate one's own in -group of perceived
culpability, is lent an additional dimension when one comprehends how middle classes in
Baroda understand consumption in moral terms. Van Wessel illustrates the morality of
‘new' consumerism and how it is considered negative by way of the presumed harm it
causes to sociality. There is a localised notion that "the pursuit of self-satisfaction
through consumption...(the modern)...conflicts with the emotional involvement with others
that he glorifies as part of village life (the traditional)" and thus urbanity is
perceived as a dehumanising artifice, where materialism is valued above intimacy. (Van
Wessel, 2004: 102).

Van Wessel also recognises that the middle-classes are no homogenous entity; there is
intra-class stratification, whether it be due generational differences, or a disparity
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