#AsiaNow Speaks with Sara Dickey

Sara Dickey is Professor of Anthropology at Bowdoin College and author of Living Class in Urban India, published by Rutgers University Press and winner of the 2018 AAS Ananda Kent Coomaraswamy Prize Honorable Mention.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Most broadly, I explore what it is like to “live class” every day, at all levels of the class hierarchy, for Madurai residents as they navigate the inequalities of late capitalism. The book’s analytical frame emphasizes the role that moralized class identities and relations themselves play in producing the politics of class. Drawing from over 30 years of fieldwork, I concentrate on subjective aspects of class, examining both immediate and long-term impacts. My study reveals the material consequences of local class identities while simultaneously highlighting the poignant drive for dignity in the face of moralizing class stereotypes. I examine these processes in a variety of spheres—debt and credit, consumption, the valorized “middleness” of the middle class, marriage and weddings, food and philanthropy, and religious performance. Finally, the analysis stays attuned to local understandings of class, while also considering how to apply a Western-derived concept/system to a “non-Western” society. 

What inspired you to research this topic?

Based on what I had read as a student, I expected Madurai residents’ main forms of identity to be related to caste or religion. But when I first studied Tamil filmwatching in the 1980s, I soon noticed that people almost always referred to themselves in terms of class when making distinctions between themselves and others. Filmgoers (who were mostly poor) talked about themselves as illaatavanka, “people who don’t have.”And when I interviewed filmmakers in Madras, I heard the same kinds of distinctions—but in this case the distinction was “mass” vs. “class”—voiced in terms of the pressure to make movies pandering to “mass” tastes rather than making “class” films for the respectable audiences with whom filmmakers were at pains to identify. These discourses provided my initial impetus to think about people’s classifications of themselves and others, the politics of these identifications, and the impacts of such identifications on urban people’s lives.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

One early obstacle was the lack of an abstract Tamil term that aligns precisely with the Euroamerican English “class.” While a systemic form of inequality and identity that looked to my eyes like class was highly operative in Madurai, and was closely tied to a capitalist economy, asking respondents about “class” directly was difficult without a close gloss. That problem was soon solved by invoking concrete Tamil class categories, which are part of everyday parlance. They translate, for example, to “people who have” and “people who don’t have”; or “big people,” “people with resources,” and “poor people.” Later, by the mid-1990s, “people in the middle” was added as a local class category.

Two other issues posed significant challenges. The first was the methodological challenge of gaining access to the super-wealthy (as I discuss in response to the next question). The other was the representational challenge of portraying the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy in equally sympathetic terms. The latter was difficult not just because anthropologists are more often “aligned” (paternalistically or otherwise) with people who don’t have power, but because I come from a mixed-class extended family. My father’s family was very poor (in terms of white rural poverty in the 1920s and 1930s), and my mother’s family lost its economic security after her father left the family early in her life. Both my parents were the first in their family to finish college. On the other hand, they both became professionals and I grew up solidly middle-class but in a family that was highly ambivalent about whether it was secure. (Watching this ambivalence and the internal contradictions in my parents’ self-perceptions was also what first sparked my attention to class.)

In Madurai, I expected that getting people to speak directly about class difference would be difficult, especially among people of privilege, since I had occasionally run into that problem in my initial foray into studying class relations (a 1991-92 project on how domestic workers and their employers viewed each other). But, for the most part, people’s stereotypes about self and other were shared readily and vividly, so much so that I had to make certain that the people I quoted were comfortable with what I included in the book. Getting people to speak openly about class difference was notably easier than having them talk about caste difference—though often, of course, talk about class difference really became talk about assumed caste difference.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I built an entire chapter around one serendipitous confluence of events that centered on a banner I noticed while riding in an auto-rickshaw driven by my long-time friend Kannan. The banner featured a photo of a major industrialist, and invited the entire city (which has over one million residents) to his last child’s wedding. Posters were plastered in the city’s poorer neighborhoods as well. The key here was that all guests were thereby invited to the wedding feast. I wasn’t able to attend the wedding, but Kannan’s family did, and described the feast in glowing terms. 

I was interested in the intersections of philanthropy, food, and caste, and I wanted to talk with the industrialist himself about why he had invited the city—especially its poorest residents—to attend the wedding feast. I don’t have many contacts among Madurai’s elite, but I thought that through friends of friends I could arrange a meeting to talk with him about his daughter’s wedding meal. (It had been an auspicious occasion, a social good, yes?) But I had no luck. I turned to my colleague J. Rajsekaran, whose networks spread far more broadly and vertically than mine, and he was able to secure a meeting. 

Kannan, Rajsekaran, and I went to the massive factory, which seemed a mile wide when we were later given a tour. (Think Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes.) But when we first arrived, we were met by highly suspicious gatekeepers. I later understood that these men feared that we had come to contribute to the industrialist’s legal troubles. The further we got inside the complex, passed along from one administrator to another, the more mistrust we encountered. But when Rajsekaran and I were eventually ushered into the industrialist’s office, the boss began to laugh as soon as he realized I could speak Tamil. This wealthy man, rich but low-caste, spoke with us for two hours about his life, and at the end he invited me to meet the women in his family at home the next day. Two years later, he made a major contribution (as moy, a recorded wedding gift) to Kannan’s last daughter’s wedding.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I won’t try to list all my inspirations, since the book was written over a number of years and each chapter drew from a different body of literature, but here are some of the works and authors that have most fundamentally shaped my thinking.    

When it came to framing my work analytically at the end of the long process of writing the book, I was fortunate to come across two authors who helped put into clearer terms the largest points I wanted to make. An anonymous reader, to whom I am forever grateful, pointed me to Andrew Sayer’s writing on class and morality, dignity, and recognition. I was also compelled by Charles Tilly’s work on the “relational origins of inequality,” and reading Tilly, along with David Mosse, John Harriss, and Hugo Gorringe, helped me articulate my overarching arguments as I completed the book.

Chris Fuller has been a major inspiration for over thirty years, always pushing me to complicate my understanding of class, and of its relationship to caste. 

Interesting authors to read in tandem with Living Class in Urban India would most obviously include others who explore consumption and morality, including Mark Liechty, Amanda Gilbertson, Minna Säävälä, and Kathinka Frøystad. Less obvious but highly complementary pairings are Ananya Roy’s City Requiem, Calcutta—to my mind, one of the most powerful ethnographies of class inequality in India—and Markets and Bodies by Eileen Otis, who explores the power of social categorization within systems of inequality in urban China.

What are you working on now?

I have begun a project working with urban Hindu Nadar families, lineage groups, and caste associations. This grows out of the final chapter of Living Class in Urban India, which focusses on “fierce god” temples and possession rituals that are disdained by higher caste Hindus. That chapter explores what happens when one middle-class young man, a videographer, inherits the position of “god dancer” that he—despite his respect for his father, his lineage, and his ancestral deity—views as a “backward village practice.”

Nadars occupy highly disjunctive social positions, that is, statuses that carry distinctly different levels of honor and stigma. Historically viewed as one of the lowest-ranked castes, they have also become one of the wealthiest communities in the region. In Madurai, where no more than 15% of households are middle- to upper-class, most members of the large Nadar community are now middle-class by local standards. Considered almost as “polluting” as Dalit (“Untouchable”) castes, Nadars have been barred in the past from using community wells, temples, banks, and schools. Yet while these extreme exclusions occur less frequently today, the community’s caste position is often viewed with ambivalence by outsiders.

Nadars have utilized uravinmurai, local caste associations, for over a century to create “cultural improvement” for themselves and for others in a bid to gain social respect and reduce the stigma associated with their caste identity. Some of these organizations, however, support caste activities such as religious festivals that undercut Nadars’ middle-class identity in the public eye. I am interested in how such economic and cultural practices deflect or invite a prejudice that seems to remain just below the social surface, and I hope that documenting the recent history and activities of uravinmurai will help to reveal the extent to which economic success and cultural sophistication might indeed mitigate caste discrimination—or not.

Most broadly, this project will examine how members of a self-identified community negotiate their internal and public identities when they occupy disjunctive statuses, as well as how outsiders’ classifications of the group shape interactions with the community. For the first time in over three decades, I find myself shifting from the study of class experience to a focus on a single urban caste. This is also the first time that I have focused on religion in my research.