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Discuss the Way Urban Middle-Class Identities Have Been Debated in Relation to Changing Kinship and Consumption Patterns

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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

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