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Studying Class Dynamics in Rural Maharashtra

Contested Capital: Rural Middle Classes in India by Maryam Aslany, Cambridge University Press, 2021;pp xxi + 299, `895 (hardcover).

Maryam Aslany’s book Contested Capital: Rural Middle Classes in India is an excellent addition to the study of changing class dynamics in rural Maharashtra. The book focuses on rural middle classes and is the first major work on rural middle classes as it claims. This book emerges out of the PhD research of the author and is based on quantitative and qualitative study of two villages in Pune district. The author places the growth of industries in rural economy at the heart of her analysis
to explore the making of rural middle classes—one of the most understudied aspects of rural society.

Class, Caste, and Capital

Chapter 1 briefly engages in the debate on the roots of middle classes—from colonial to neo-liberal period—and simultaneously makes a case for the study of rural middle classes. Aslany constructs a composite index for identifying the middle class based on lifestyle, housing, occupation, social network, edu­cation, and income. Six classes (the lowest class, second lowest class, lower middle class, comfortable middle class, upper middle class, and upper class) of non-labouring households are identified that constitute the middle classes. This composite index computes the middle-class population from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS II) and notes the proportion of rural middle classes to challenge the urban bias in the study of middle class.

Chapter 2 provides a brief socio-economic profile of Maharashtra and of the two case study villages—Rahatwade (Haveli taluka of Pune district) and Nandur (Daund taluka). The former has Maratha preponderance and the latter has Malis and Dhangars with land distribution skewed in their favour. Nandur is more industrialised and irrigated. Both the villages have over 50% of manual labouring households who were eliminated in this study of middle classes.

Instead of locating the study of class and middle classes in one paradigm, Aslany opts for ‘‘critical pluralism.” Cha­pters 3, 4, and 5, therefore, eng­age with Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Pierre Bourdieu, respectively, to identify and make meaning about the nature of middle class in Nandur and Rahatwade. Chapter 3 places Marx at the centre to engage with the emerging class structure, relations of production, and livelihood diversification in rural ­India. Agriculture no longer remains the key source of livelihood in rural India and the processes of industrialisation have created new forms of economic div­ersification and livelihood patterns, something that can be seen in Rahatwade and Nandur. This chapter explores the non-polarised class structure, and class is used here to refer to class-in-­itself. Broadly drawing from Marx and simultaneously acknowledging the peculiarities of time and space in class formation, Aslany constructs a compo­site analytical instrument that uses lab­our relations, ownership of the means of productions, and modes of reinvestment of surplus to identify seven distinct economic classes as follows: (i) the landowning capitalist class, (ii) the new capitalist class, (iii) farm-owning skilled workers (straddling middle class), (iv) petty commodity producers (PCPs), (v) the farm-owning industrial working class, and two classes of labour, including (vi) the landowning labouring class, and (vii) the landless labouring class.

This chapter thus builds on the previous ones to highlight the centrality of rural middle classes in rural polity and eco­nomy. It also acknowledges the limitation of seeing the middle classes as ‘‘classes-in-themselves’’ and not as “classes-for-themselves.” Though a detailed exploration of the political dimensions of class (contradiction or solidarity) are not part of this book, Aslany hints that the straddling and precarious nature of middle classes may affect the development of class interests among the rural middle classes. She simultaneously flags that the Marxist understanding of middle classes as ‘‘unproductive’’ may not necessarily be correct.

Chapter 4 titled “Marketable Capital, Status and Rural Middle Classes” brings Weber to the fore. It briefly summarises and engages with Weber’s ideas on capital, class situation, life chances and classes (property classes, commercial classes and social classes), and also scholarship on India that makes productive use of Weber. Non-propertied capital such as education and skill differentials, social networks, and caste privileges are explored. The non-labouring households that are middle class are divided in nine different occupational categories.

The Weberian middle classes are broadly situated between big landowning farmers, entrepreneurs and rentiers on the one hand, and the landless and near-to-landless unskilled wage labourers and semi-skilled manual industrial workers on the other. (p 136)

While industrialisation close to these villages points, to opportunity and mobi­lity, it is also accompanied by precarity. Aslany notes, “Despite the possession of skills and education, therefore, the ‘class situation’ of the majority of industrial workers remains unstable, a possibility Weber omitted to discuss” (p 140).

Education (diplomas) is seen as a critical strategy opted to move out of poverty and agriculture. Despite caste becoming disassociated with occupation, caste clea­vages continue to affect the formation of ­rural middle class:

IHDS II data suggests that the income disparities within castes are the highest among the Forward Castes. The income distributions of the poorest 90% of the population in the three backward caste groups (SCs, STs and OBCs) are almost identical and they only differ significantly among the richest 10% of their population. Despite the income differentiation within caste groups, Brahmins and Forward Castes overall have a higher income compared to other castes in rural India, while SCs and STs are at the bottom of the aggregate income distribution. (pp 155–56)

The idea of non-propertied capital helps provide nuanced insights into the dyn­amics of capitalism in rural India. Aslany notes that landownership continues to be the most significant axis of caste inequality and “caste for certain acts as a gatekeeper for middle class frontiers” (p 157).

Chapter 5 completes the critical pluralist engagement on the question of rural middle classes with Bour­dieu. The chapter is titled as “Cultural Capital, Self Perception and the Middle-Class Identity in Rural India.” How rural middle classes distinguished themselves from members of classes below and above them are presented along with a critical exploration of consumption patterns of class that identifies itself as ­middle class.

Besides summarising some of the core ideas of Bourdieu like that of habitus, distinction, cultural capital, and field, his concern with symbolic representation is studied. Aslany identifies five categories of classes for analysis here: the poor, lower, middle class, upper middle class, and the rich, with the aim of identifying “class markers in rural India” (p 167).

The economy of cultural goods is exp­lored through the ambitions and aspirations of middle classes along with presentation and consumption. English is now seen as a global language of mobility and English-medium schools are preferred for children. Similarly, non-farm skilled employment is ranked much better than farming and agricultural lab­our. The key social markers include making of a living room (sofa sets, flat-screen televisions), the use of social media, possession of sofa sets, a certain style of treating their guests, their leisure activities, engagement in civic society, food habits and travelling, new building styles, and the purchase of cars and motorbikes along with the presence of other consumer goods (p 199). The chapter thus presents the symbolic and cultural markers of the rural middle class and an economy of cultural goods specific to the middle classes.

Enclosed Critical Pluralism

The strength of this book lies in its use of critical pluralism. Evoking classical thin­kers like Weber and Marx along with Bourdieu in the study of rural middle classes has produced some interesting and original insights. The book is indeed an important contribution—both in terms of its empirical enga­gement and theoretical pursuit. The freshness of this scholarship, however, leaves one wanting for more. One major drawback could be the enclosed nature of the chapters—Marx does not talk to Weber and Bourdieu without Marx, Durkheim, or Louis Dumont in rural India may provide a limited view of symbolic change and ass­ociated power politics. The discussion on caste for instance is limited to Chapter 4 (Weber) in a mecha­nical form and the challenges for middle-class solidarity that are hinted in Chapter 3, hardly mention caste. Can caste act as class-in-itself and hinder middle-class solidarity too?

Chapter 5, for instance, provides an interesting inventory of cultural goods and symbolic markers among self-identified middle classes. This makes Bourdieu seem apolitical and jarring. Some of the markers mentioned in this book, like the use of social media, are reported as high as 24% among manual labou­rers. However, the methods and data in this book overlook those depending on manual labour for their livelihood.

The two villages are also not the best representation of the situation of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). Nandur, for instance, has SC ­migrant workers and their deprived housing is noted by Aslany as “typical style of housing of the majority of Dalit agricultural labourers” (p 124). Housing sche­mes like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and subsidised public distribution system along with increased income due to migration have created a straddling middle class among the SCs and STs too, something the book totally misses by not following the villages of origin and economic status of migrant workers. We find something contrary in Prasad et al (2010), as they identify mobi­lity and economic changes among the SCs even in the relatively backward Uttar Pradesh, while they also draw on Bourdieu. I have noted such changes among the SCs and the violence they face due to economic changes in Marathwada (Waghmore 2013).

There are some minor errors in the book that could have been avoided. In Figure 1.4 on page 31, 3.02 is printed as 3.2 and 15.77 is printed as 15.17 and on line 4 on the same page, 35.8% should have been 35.81%. On page 34, there is ano­ther minor error in reporting either rural or urban figures. The total proportion of rural classes adds up to 67.94 and not 67.93 as mentioned. Similarly, on page 35, Table 1.12, the total adds up to 99.88 and not 100 as mentioned.

Class mobility and changes in rural India have led to newer and broader solidarities around religion and caste that need to be explored. Aslany’s book is a bold beginning in this direction as it brings the study of rural middle classes to the fore. Contested Capital: Rural Middle Classes in India will be an important reading for scholars, espe­cially for postgraduate researchers who dabble in mixed methods in social science research and are keenly interested in economic sociology.


Prasad, Chandra Bhan, D Shyam Babu, Devesh Kapur and Lant Pritchett (2010): “Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the Market Reform Era,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 45, No 35, pp 39–49.

Waghmore, Suryakant (2013): Civility against Caste: Dalit Politics and Citizenship in Western India, Sage: London.


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Updated On : 8th Aug, 2022
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