Dissertation Abstracts

The Castedness of Bengali Middle Class: An Ethnographic Study

Author: Bandyopadhyay, Sarbani , sarbani.bandyopadhyay@gmail.com
Department: Humanities and Social Sciences
University: Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India
Supervisor: Professors Kushal Deb and Rowena Robinson
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: caste , bhadralok , Bengali middle class , Partition
Areas of Research: Stratification , Biography and Society , Political Sociology


Sociological studies of urban India in terms of its complex systems of social stratification have been rare. More recently, India’s burgeoning middle class has begun to occupy attention both in the academic and in the popular spheres. This study proposes to look at the intricate interactions of old and new systems of stratification in urban West Bengal, in particular in Calcutta to try and understand the ways in which caste, class and gender operate in the making of the urban middle classes. Studies on caste in India have tended to confine caste to rural areas and as a prominent feature (although in declining significance) affecting the life chances of villagers. Such studies have generally tended to underplay or ignore the possibilities of existence of caste in urban India particularly among the middle classes. The middle classes have been portrayed as the class that has disavowed caste in public and has been hence seen as by and large caste-free. Bengal, Calcutta in particular, has been seen as that region where caste has relatively much less role to play compared with other regions of India. Books on caste hardly have any references to Bengal.
My readings on Bengali colonial and contemporary history and that of the bhadralok made me uncomfortable with the non-recognition of caste and its roles in the making of the bhadralok including the bhadralok middle class. It is true that compared to the rest of India casteism and caste violence is by and large absent in Bengal and political mobilisation still does not have any major basis in caste. This is significant, and is worthy of closer analysis. How has caste disappeared from the public imagination and popular discourse of the urban middle classes, particularly of the Bengali middle classes? Is there any evidence to suggest that it emerges in particular if less obvious and visible ways? How are social boundaries drawn among the middle classes? What is the role of gender, marriage and caste in the insertion of difference among the middle classes? Is it in fact possible to suggest that the very disavowal of caste in the public realm may enable its reproduction in contemporary urban West Bengal?
Conversations with Dalit and 'upper' caste participants and participation in the activities of several Dalit organisations in Calcutta prodded me to explore the hidden complex lives of caste, middle class and middle classness. I realised the best method to study these would be the life history one supplemented by other methods including that of being a participant observer in the Dalit organisations and their activities. The life stories, the activities participants and organisations engage it, the positions they adopt help me study the charting of individual and social selves through a scripting of caste and middle classness.

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