Class’ is one of the most intriguing problems and the most engaging dialogue in social sciences. While everyone thinks they’ve got a handle on it, there is still debate and disagreement even as basic agreement on ‘class’ as an important identity and its salience in studying stratification and social inequality withstands. Most fundamentally “class” implies some criteria of similarity, a standard feature, a qualifying criterion, a uniformity or commonality. The tenacity of class as an analytical tool, as a theoretical concept but also importantly as an embodied identity, a linguistic device, a commonsensical idea, and a social-political and public discourse makes it one of the most mutable and appropriable ideas. Perhaps it is harder to understand class than to invoke it.
In what follows I reflect on field experiences and vignettes to explore the underlying meaning of being middle class, and what this may mean for the study of class.
1. I am sitting across from my 38-year-old respondent—a woman dressed in a breezy shirt, and linen trousers. In the backdrop is a montage of pictures of her, her husband and two sons against what looks like a European backdrop, along with a few featuring them in their living room. We have finished with the interview schedule, and the recorder is off. She is sharing her experiences in a city built out of the peri-urban fringe. She reflects on her classed dispositions and tastes through highlighting the lack of it in others, the class others. She says, “it is never about the obvious things. It’s the subtle details where you can catch someone’s real class”. She continues, “everyone these days would know to say a Gucci or a Louis Vuitton and would want to be seen as carrying one, but most times their class is like the fake kopies (distorting the word ‘copies’ to resemble a vernacular accent) of these bags, the inseams show what they truly are…”.
I say I am not sure I have understood what she meant, so I ask her to elaborate her point. She obliges, “I mean there is a similarity between people carrying fake branded bags and the fake bags themselves. To an untrained eye, they’d seem like the original, but once you look inside the bag (and people), their inlays give away their worth!”.
She speaks to me, assuming I understand, empathise and identify with the values that she is expressing. Her reading of me as a middle-class individual is the foundation upon which she feels comfortable expressing her sense of distinction, rooted in deep value judgement of the class-other.
2. I’m exiting the gated enclave after this conversation and run into the guards at the gate. They ask me if I was here “on a call”, assuming I provide beauty service at home. I am intrigued and strike a conversation to better understand their assumption about me. The guard apologetically admits that he thought I would be a “beautician” since I was on foot, inside a gated enclave. After this, he starts apologising profusely, believing I am offended at being mistaken as an underclass worker.
He believes he has made a huge mistake in misreading my class. He makes his first assumptions about me based on watching me enter and leave on foot. However, when I share with him that I am a researcher, a student at a prestigious university in New Delhi, he revises his assumption immediately, reassigning me to a privileged class.
3. It is 8 o’clock in the evening, and my hopes of finding for-hire transport to the nearest public transit seem to be thinning. The main road is poorly lit and increasing my anxiety. At some distance, I spot a three-wheeler for-hire taxi (autorickshaw). I pace up to it and observe the auto-cabin lit up with blue and green neon lights. In the driver seat, I spot a young man, still nearing 20 or a little over it. The young man has earphones plugged into his Samsung Galaxy Tab. He is watching a Salman Khan movie. I observe the young boy sporting a Puma undershirt, a shiny bracelet, Puma shoes and a smartphone on his dashboard. I call out to him and request him to drop me at the nearest metro station. He refuses and returns to his movie. I request some more; he seems unfazed, and I am forced to give up.
I move a little further in my search for another auto. I look in both directions of traffic to spot one but to no avail—fifteen minutes pass. Suddenly the young auto-driver approaches from behind me and tell me he would take me to the metro station. I deride him for refusing earlier when he had to eventually agree. He says, “His movie ended and also, he knows I wouldn’t find another ride here at this time”. He says I don’t look like I’m from this city. I take the opportunity to strike a conversation with him. He reveals he is 17 years old, a migrant from Araria, Bihar. He had originally come to study at age 11 but noticed, “those who are well educated, are also busting their gut, So, what’s the point?!”. I argue education is not just to get returns; he dismisses me, saying, “Come on, now, who studies to gain an ‘understanding’, everyone is studying to make money. Even if I had studied more, I wouldn’t have become an engineer, now would I have?! I see your well-educated every day, selling themselves for as little as Rs. 20,000”. He shares that he has been driving for the past three years. He saved up enough to buy two auto-rickshaws. One he drives himself, the other has been leased on contract. He makes “good money”. He mocks me saying, “those who you think to know a lot are well-educated know nothing. They’re willing to follow any stupid mindless trend they see, no sense of their own. What use is their education?! They can’t survive a day on their own sensibilities alone”. He says he’s smarter; he has made it on his own. He shows me his Galaxy tab, his Samsung Phone, making sure to emphasise that it is the most recent model and that he has purchased this on his own. He says he makes Rs. 30,000-40,000 a month and ends with the statement, “I’m living the life that is same as that of those fancy “engineers”, in fact, only better”.
I asked him if he started driving at 14, did the cops never catch him for underage driving. He admits he still does not have a driver’s license, but that no issue. If the traffic cops catch him, he pays them their usual Rs. 100-150 and gets out of it. He says this is a city where no one has time, and everyone has money. One needs to know how to play the game. He refuses to take fare at my drop point, highlighting I’m not like that 20000-rupee-population.
Perhaps it is the fractured nature of the middle-class identity that needs more systematic scholarly attention. This fractured identity means that no one feels secure with their middle-class identity. It becomes a continuous project of maintaining a performative middle-class identity on an everyday basis. In this sense, precarity is a critical element of ‘feeling’ and being middle-class. This precarity is tied to the insecurity that one is enjoying comforts that stand on shaky grounds. It is insecurity tied to the acute awareness that one has to constantly keep reinforcing the ground through diversification of capital. It is an insecurity that acknowledges that the gains of class position/status need to be reproduced for each generation through consistently building a stronger ground, which still remains shaky, after all.
It is this precarity that alone becomes the basis of even identifying oneself as a middle-class individual. The middle class is the curious mix of feelings of being plagued by fear of losing their prized sense of comfort and distance from struggles of sustenance while simultaneously shaped by desires and aspirations of further distance from struggles of sustenance. Therefore, we find what Dickey (2012) notices in her work too, that ‘from autorickshaw drivers, masons, and occasionally cooks; too small business owners and merchants, office clerks, and teachers; to bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, and academics from colleges or university faculties”, everyone identified themselves as middle class as opposed to as ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. The point then is to look at what each specific context offers by way of experiencing these feelings of distance from subsistence and comfort that sits on shaky grounds. The difference for a country like India is that between subsistence and elite, there are numerous possibilities of experiencing these feelings in myriad configurations; for many other contexts, the possibilities are fewer, and so class appears as more clean categories.
Interesting in the above anecdotes are these feelings of precarity, of both belonging and not being secure in the class identity that features strongly. While for me, it was the self-reflexive realisation that I do not belong to the middle-class in the same way as my 38-year-old respondent or the 17-year-old auto-driver informed my approach towards the field as one where I couldn’t take anything for granted. At the same time, their perception of my embodied class markers (language, education, habitus) allowed them to look at me as one of their own. I am, in the same vein, acutely aware that the fractures that made my class performativity fractured and incoherent allowed for the interactions to flow where those speaking to me could assume authority over someone whose claim to class identity is incoherent, at best.
Further, what emerges from the anecdotes is that each one has their own criteria of being the middle class that is both fractured and questioned by the others who claim membership to it. Appreciation for consumer goods, and associated taste and finesse being the hallmark of classed individual, was reaffirmed by both the respondent and the auto-driver is not quite met by the researcher.
Even though both the respondent and the auto-driver invoked purchase capacity and the market’s mediation of taste and commodities as a signifier of class, both also simultaneously invoked a sense of specialised knowledge and discretion that they have while others with comparable means don’t. The basic criteria marked by consumer goods both added further qualifiers to who can be considered authentic middle-class. For the respondent, money isn’t enough, appreciation for consumer brands isn’t enough either; similarly, for the auto-driver, those bragging about their income and purchases are “willing to do anything for as little as 20k rupees”, lacking the moral grounding needed to be called middle-class. Clearly suggesting money isn’t enough. Both the individuals agree class is not so much in material but instead in non-material attributes and in feeling like one ‘belongs’ to the class.
Perhaps the study of the middle-class should focus on the affective nature of class as a way to remedy the analytical frustrations associated with class variables being inadequate by themselves—the anxieties, feelings and stresses associated with middle-class identity.
Dr. Smriti Singh teaches Sociology at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology and researches questions of space and social stratification, specifically in new-urban contexts in India.
The author wishes to thank the reviewer for their encouragement and helpful comments.