The Middle Classes: A Global Perspective

Term: Fall 2011

Subject Code: GANT

Course Number: 6245

Surging middle class aspirations and anxieties throughout the world have compelled anthropologists to pay serious attention to preoccupations with middle classes and middle class spaces, sentiments, life-styles, labors, and civic engagements. Not only has middle-classness become an increasingly powerful category for self-identification in many places, but "the middle classes" are also an increasingly common subject-citizenry hailed by political and corporate leaders. Ethnographically, we can see the anxious co-existence of middle classes -- not just between nations and regions, but within them -- playing themselves out in a fascinating array of moral politics, pitting against each other nationalists and trans- (or even post-) nationalists, social collectivists and "self-made" entrepreneurs, new and old economies, religious conservatives and progressives, and many others. The conditions of possibility that are giving rise to these subject formations, which are articulated in and through shifting terrains of gender, nation, race, caste, ethnicity, and empire, require an explicit theorization of the middle. In this course, we interrogate our understanding of what constitutes a "middle class" -- and class politics more broadly -- in this pivotal historical moment. We begin by reading classic theorists of class for their approach to those who are "between labor and capital." We then turn to ethnographic accounts of everyday life among the middle classes in sites that include gated communities in China, advertising firms in India, cinema halls in Katmandu, and suburbs in the United States. We also pay attention to different kinds of laboring and desiring subjects that include school teachers in Moscow, entrepreneurs in Barbados, and out-of-work youth in Egypt. Some of the key questions that we explore throughout the semester include: What analytical questions are raised about the category of "middle class" when its diverse referents, multi-faceted uses, and different historical contexts of emergence are brought into view? What is the role of the state in the formation, management, and/or privileging of the middle classes? How can we theorize the differences between, and similarities among, middle-class practices and affects through time and across space in a way that does not fall into a teleological understanding of the history of class?

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