Granted, nothing raises the academic red flag faster than the concept of the middle class.—Diane Davis, 2004
The epistemic ambition of defining, once and for all, the ‘real’ boundaries of the middle class is doomed to failure because it rests on a fundamentally mistaken conception on the ontological status of classes: the middle class does not exist ready-made in reality.—Loïc Wacquant, 1991
On my second visit to Rahatwade, a small village in western Maharashtra, in May 2015, I am talking, through my research assistant, with a group of men, a meeting arranged by the Village Panchayat. They are curious about my work, bemused to hear of my academic interest in their village. I tell them: ‘I am here to visit middle class households.’ The little of the village that I had seen did not register in my head as qualifying, categorically, to have any middle classes from the conventional theoretical perspectives. So, I threw the question out to them: ‘I was wondering if there are any middle-class families in this village? I would like to talk to them.’ The village guide's response surprised me. He looked around at the group of men, hands outstretched, and said, ‘Don't worry about that madam. We are all middle class!’
This book explores the formation and trajectories of India's rural middle class(es). Studies of the middle class are almost exclusively confined to urban contexts. This is particularly the case in developing countries, where it is assumed that cities, not the countryside, host the process of middle-class formation, effectively eliminating from view large numbers of rural households. Rural societies are rarely analysed in middle-class terms. There are theoretical reasons to explain this. Most influential social theorists, such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tönnies and Émile Durkheim, assumed a clear social distinction between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ societies, which in turn created ideal categories that made it possible to theorise the similarities and contrasts between pre-industrial and modernised industrial societies. While cities were assumed to be the chief sites of economic growth, industrial development and modernity, the rural world, embodying something primordial, represented a community that, by virtue of its isolation from the urban-based practices of capitalist development and experiences of modernisation, was considered to be classless by definition, bounded by kinship ties, family lineages, personal networks, and relative isolation.