Globalisation & India’s Middle Class

You may be wondering how this essay connects to a blog about Chile. On the one hand it doesn’t – I am just trying to empty out my overflowing hard drive and don’t want to press delete permanently. But as I upload this I can see that there are numerous parallels that can be made to the situation currently occurring in Santiago. Enjoy!

Effects of Globalisation Upon the Evolving Social Landscape of India’s Middle Class:

            Out of all the possible arenas one could choose to explore further, none (in my view) are more topically relevant than that of globalisation. It provides a good entry point towards understanding a culture that is not one’s own given that all the globe is experiencing it to some degree.  However, India is a nation so large and diverse that there are numerous factors effecting, and being affected by, the event of globalisation which make understanding it a convoluted lesson involving religion, history and socio-cultural constructs like caste. To help matters, I shall be focusing only upon the effects of globalisation upon the middle class strata of India’s mega-cities, and I shall be observing their present day state rather than their previous conditions.  Although there are many aspects to this issue, below I shall be examining only three and the part they have played in the construction of a new social identity.  I shall look at how identity is created, the changing physical environment including new work spaces, and the shared social anxieties that binds these people together.  I will use this data to make the claim that globalisation has evolved the middle class into a previously unknown class archetype.

I would like to begin by recalling my own memories from a trip to India in 2009. Before disembarking the plane I, like many other New Zealanders, envisaged an exotic land. My mind conjured up pictures of a ‘Jungle Book’ like world, with lush jungles, decorated elephants and small villages with women in saris balancing jugs on their heads. However I also pictured dense cities beneath a cloud of grey, whispers of terrorist activity and huge swarms of faceless people. In short, I hat two rather distinct sets of predispositions about India: the first being vivid and romantic and the latter dull and disconcerting. The India that was before me when I disembarked was neither.  As we raced through steams of traffic, I was terrified by begging children and transvestites, and by the cacophony of sounds, sights and smells that jammed my senses.  However when we arrived at my friend Swati’s apartment in a highrise block in one of Mumbai’s numerous outlying suburbs, it was cool and calm.  There was Big Bang Theory playing on the television and Swati’s husband Ashish was playing games on his iPhone (and this was before Apple became famous in New Zealand). I realised that there was a huge disparity between what I had imagined, experienced outside and what I was now seeing. As I soaked up the atmosphere during my month’s stay, it seemed as though there were multiple worlds existing simultaneously. There is no better example to visualise this juxtaposition than the case of my friend Swati, who would get dressed in jeans and labelled American tshirt before putting on her sari or salwar kameez over the top.

My friends Swati and Ashish represent Mumbai’s new middle class. I refer to it as ‘new’ because its current form has specific codes of practice that have formed over the last ten years or so (McGuire, 2011: 119). While it is not known whether the middle class has actually increased in number, what is clear is that their position is highly visible and thus it stands to reason that importance is placed upon appearance (McGuire, 2011: 119).  Its appearance in today’s India is due to economic liberalization that began in 1991 and prompted multinational companies to enter India in search of workers who could be hired at a fraction of the cost as elsewhere in the Western world (McGuire, 2011: 119).  The economist Gurucharan Das identifies these workers as educated English speakers who have thus been able to enter into positions of relative affluence due to the “the opportunities opened by technology and globalization” (2001, in McGuire, 2011: 119).  The new middle class includes multiple communities and values which are then brought together by shared educational and work backgrounds, and consumption patterns (Donner, 2011: 1).  Such rapid change has meant that actors are currently in the process of forming new identities based upon their class position, which is often expressed through modes of dress, language usage and choices of consumption (Donner, 2011: 2).  Anthropologist Meredith McGuire refers to these outward expressions of identity as a performance that is “constituted by consumer and entrepreneurial practices that are played out in public (2011: 120).  She gives drinking coffee in Barista coffeehouses as an example, whereby it is not the act of drinking coffee that constitutes membership to the middle class but the act of drinking there (McGuire, 2011: 120).  Status is then attributed. Further, the actor is attributed the characteristic of tenacity, of one who has worked hard,  as the popular notion is that being poor (or in poverty) is a choice made  by refusing to work hard (Gibson, 2011: 68).

The acquiring of status is not unique to India’s middle class – it naturally occurs during the process of social interaction.  Professor Robyn Andrews explains that social interaction forms the basis of ethnic identity and is “shaped through a dialectic between ‘similarity and difference’” (2010: 181).  Prejudices arise as status’ are judged – status’ regarding gender, age, ethnicity and occupation (Andrews, 2010: 181).  While Andrews uses the example of Anglo-Indians to illustrate her point, the claim that there is a “preconception of what others think of them, in turn, [which] helps them to form their idea of themselves” applies equally to the case of the new middle class (2010: 185).  While the Anglo-Indians use this to distance themselves from non-Anglo-Indians, the middle classes use it to separate themselves into a new group that is characterized by the weakening of traditional loyalties and obligations (Mishra, 2011: 175).   Numerous opportunities in the workplace allow the middle class to afford the plethora of consumption options available, therefore leading to the idea that more self-autonomy is possible through the avenue of class identity (Mishra, 2011: 175).  The acquiring of public status is known as a form of ‘social capital’ that thus allows for movement in the social sphere, trumping even caste-based distinctions that, until a few years ago, still held overarching importance in the balance of the social landscape (Gibson, 2011: 67).

It is precisely this indiscriminate nature of acquiring social capital that has lead to the dramatic urban migration that has taken place throughout India.  Mumbai is India’s largest population hub and the second most densely populated city in the world (Chalana, 2010: 1).  Its continued growth has been due to the appeal of mega-cities as a place to find more substantial employment, in order to increase one’s social capital, fund education or support family members that continue to live rurally. However, Mumbai has limited by buildable land so increased growth is impossible (Chalana, 2010: 2).  As such, a beautification process named ‘Vision Mumbai’ is underway that seeks to modernise Mumbai into a city of world-class distinction (Chalana, 2010:2).  The campaign is being lead by an American company that is following a global city model that has been followed by other mega-cities, such as Shanghai (Chalana, 2010: 2).  It requires the demolishing of entire dwelling areas to make room for shopping malls and supermarkets and, while including a housing plan for Mumbai’s lower classes, this plan fails to take into account how social identity has become intertwined with housing (Chalana, 2010: 3).  For example, chawls, which developed around the 19th century, allow for highly communal modes of living, while Jhuggi-Jhopri settlements allow for the successful merging of familial and economic responsibilities whilst having relatively a low environmental impact (Manish, 2010: 3).  Architect Manish Chalana describes these spaces as “defined by a complex realm of social practices (…) completely devoid of ‘the spectacle’ (…) these places are rich repositories of the city’s social meaning and cultural history” (2010: 5).  He further writes that “once the transformation is complete, a working-class neighbourhood with a rich history, sense of community, and vernacular architecture will be transformed into a space that reflects the culture of US-dominated global capitalism (Chalana, 2010: 6).  The areas of Mumbai where one could find certain trades, for example, will disappear along with cultural memories that were once traditionally allocated to architecture and temples, to be lost amongst a skyline of homogenous steel. I can attest that during my own time in Mumbai I could easily find a McDonalds or shopping mall – even in the more further located suburbs I visited – and then forget I was even in India.

This is made easier given that the format of employment is also changing. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Mumbai’s economy began to shift away from textile and industry to service-based roles (Chalana, 2010: 5).  This is nowhere more evident than in the rise of the transnational call centre. This work requires the metaphorical transportation of the employee from India, and are therefore “deliberately designed to assert the physicality of a new modernity and cosmopolitanism (read: Americanism) brought about by global technology, and to distinguish that modernity from the rest of the city” (Shome, 2006 in Mishra, 2011: 182).  Firstly, this allows for a distinction between the traditional and the modern, whereby the new is perceived as being better.  Secondly, on an anthropological level, it allows for the actors to be “temporarily in [a] foreign place while they still dwell in India” (Mitra, 2008 in Mishra, 2011: 170).  This has numerous repercussions upon the social landscape. Increasing levels of agency is contributed to by enhanced social position, less traditional restrictions and higher levels of economic power (Mishra, 2011: 173).  As individual autonomy is nurtured, the availability of choice allows for actors to choose for themselves what form their identity will take (Bauman, 2000 in Mishra, 2011: 175).  Thus, there is a considerable degree of privilege and glamour to be found working in a call centre that makes it particularly attractive for women, many of whom migrate to large cities looking for opportunities (Mishra, 2011: 181). This movement away from family, and the subsequent entering into employment, has allowed for gender-dictated norms and mobility to be affected by the entrance of global commerce (Mishra, 2011: 181).  Further, the ability for a woman to financially help or support her family introduces “a new discourse of honour” (Mishra, 2011: 181).

There are further areas which are impacted by employment in the call centre sector but most relevantly, the job itself requires an identity shift in the employee to function. As part of the job description, workers must undergo extensive training to neutralise their accents and to learn intimately American culture (Mishra, 2011: 182). They are given an anglicised name as part of their new “American identity” and work nights to “emulate the temporal rhythm of a different place” (Mitra, 2008 in Mishra, 2011: 183).  Knowledge of the United States comes to them via numerous avenues, however one notable way is from trainers who in some cases have never left India (Mishra, 2011: 90). Anthropologist Swati Mishra observes that America is labelled as “cool (…) the discussion is exciting and animating for everyone in the room” (2011: 190). Attitudes such as this, along with “mediated experiences of globalisation through American television serials and films (…) give rise to imagination of new possibilities in lives” (Youna, 2006 in Mishra, 2011: 195).  Amongst these possibilities are changes in dating and relationship patterns (including attitudes regarding sex before marriage), changes in attitude towards having friendships not based upon gender and changes in dress  – all of which are made possible given economic and physical independence away from their families (Mishra, 2011: 200-202).  Preferences for clothes that echo Western ideals of what is fashionable or ‘sexy’ shows how images and symbols of the West “are integrated into daily lives, considered as modern, desirable and thus defended as normal and part of a progressive life” (Mishra, 2011: 213).

With the growing power of status within middle class identity, comes a level of anxiety about losing social capital, and in many ways this is fuelled by the effects of globalisation.  Maintaining one’s lifestyle has taken paramount importance due to being adopted as part of their new identity (Donner, 2011: 2).  For example, Douglas Haynes highlights that financial responsibility to one’s family forces breadwinners to stress over their ability “to provide such unrelated products as life insurance, health tonics, and malted milk powders (Donner, 2011: 36). In this vein, it is possible to gauge the connection between consumption, class and the individual, which is increased by media and social interactions.  It is possible to witness this occurring on a number of levels across India, as detailed in the documentary ‘Nero’s Guests” which explores a recent phenomenon of farmer suicides that have taken place nation-wide.  In many cases, traditional caste-based employment has either disappeared or become too competitive, and so instead men have looked to farming as a viable option to make capital (Vasavi, 2009: 4). However, they are often inadequately prepared for the reality of farming (particularly using the Green Revolution international model) and so occurrences such as incorrectly using fertilizers and pesticides with adverse effects has become commonplace (Vasavi, 2009: 5 – 8).  As crops inevitably fail due to lack of support and education, debt mounts and many have thus been driven to suicide, which is particularly reinforced by the idea of losing social capital (Vasavi, 2009: 8).  Hayne’s argument that the “development of a consumer-oriented capitalism and the fashioning of masculinity [are therefore] closely intertwined” seems inarguably apt, therefore (Donner, 2011: 1).

The subject of desire for capital and consumption allows me to return to my friend Swati and the metaphor I alluded to at the start regarding the wearing of jeans beneath the sari. I remember wondering at the time why she did this, particularly on a hot day when she must have been so uncomfortable. I wonder what the point of it was, given that no-one around of us would have seen the jeans. I propose, finally, that perhaps the performance that McGuire alluded to earlier is perhaps not by definition always a public one.  Perhaps it gains strength just by existing at all, whether in the public sphere or privately, known only to the individual. Furthermore, its existence is one that is perpetuated and given strength by the actors who afford it power, which is made all the more easier given the environ in which it lives. Mumbai, like all of India’s megacities, is a changing metropolis that is evolving to meet demands from abroad and at home, from its residents who deem the modern and Western as progressive.  Identity and the economic landscape are therefore not mutually exclusive, as espoused by Marxist theory, and as such the effects of globalisation can be seen to impact cultural and social existences.



Andrews, Robyn (2010).  Chapter V: Social Interaction of the Anglo-Indians Within and             Outside the Community. 146302 Regional Ethnography: Asia Study Guide 2015.          School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Massey University: Palmerston North.

Chalana, Manish (2010). “Slumdogs Vs. Millionaires: Balancing Urban Informality And    Global             Modernity In         Mumbai, India.” Journal Of Architectural Education 2 25.    Academic OneFile. Web. 7 June 2015.

Donner, Henricke (Ed.). Being Middle Class in India: A Way of Life. New York: Routledge,          2011.

Gibson, Lorena (2011).  “Hope, Agency and the ‘Side Effects’ of Development in India and        Papa New Guinea”. 146302 Regional Ethnography: Asia Study Guide 2015.  School   of Humanities and Social Sciences. Massey University: Palmerston North.

McGuire, M.L. (2011). “How to Sit, How to Stand”: Bodily Practice and the New Urban             Middle Class.  In L.Clark-Deces (Ed.). A Companion to the Anthropology of India.     (pps. 45-61). Chichester, England: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Mishra, Swati (2011).  “Recasting Respectability: Habitus, Call Centres and the Modern   Indian Woman.”  146302 Regional Ethnography: Asia Study Guide 2015.  School of   Humanities and Social Sciences. Massey University: Palmerston North.

Vasavi, A.R (2009). Suicides and the Making of Agrarian Distress. In 146316 Visual        Anthropology Study Guide (2015). Massey University, Palmerston North: extramural.

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