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India’s Middle Classes in Contemporary India: Analytical Essay

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Henrike Donner’s book ‘Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-class Identity in Contemporary India’ published as a series of articles, is an ethnographic endeavor into the Calcutta of the 1990s. With the data she collects through extensive fieldwork, she examines the lives of its middle-class women, and how their identities got shaped and morphed by the processes of globalization and the introduction of neo-liberal policies. Donner limits her field to two paras (neighborhoods) in Calcutta, in the period between 1995-2005, she details the domestic lives of these women. Their marital lives, kin relations, roles in homemaking, the birthing of children, and consumer lives are the aspects Donner observes. Her work brings into focus the urban home and situated within it the maternal lives which embody the distinct identity of a modern middle-class, Indian woman. She states, ‘Notions of local, kinship, family and motherhoods aren’t conservative reminders of tradition but sites of a wider transformation in urban India.’ This ethnographic inquiry seeks to situate global shifts in the specific, in turn contributing to a body of anthropological literature which would add to the building of theories on reproduction of class, global change, and gender theory by drawings comparisons, contradicting or supporting other findings. She argues in her work that ‘it is through women’s work as mothers that class comes into being’ (p. 182) Through it she presents an analysis of urban lives and middle-class practices situated in the sphere of the domestic, filling what she deems to be a lacuna in urban anthropological literature. (Donner, 2008)

Starting the book with a lengthy introductory chapter, she makes keen observations at a meeting in the October of 1995 at a Congress Party’s women’s group, situated in the neighborhood she chose for her fieldwork. Donner observes how class and ethnicity are cited to evoke respectability, and appropriate behavior and are even the deciding factors in case-by-case considerations, this is common to all the committee members. While the domesticities differ within the group which is composed of multiple ethnicities, a general disdain is shown for the public lives of women. While hearing a case of domestic violence, they are careful to distance themselves from the working class woman, defining themselves as ‘respectable middle-class women. The woman who draws an income from outside the home, although faces the same problems as them, case in point, domestic violence, she is not as respected. Even as there is evident internal differentiation, a distinction is even made in contrast to the ‘bustee lok’ (slum-dwellers), wherein the middle-class identity, is at stake to defend, the middle-class woman has to be more guarded about her reputation. The bias in favor of the domestic roles of housewives and stay-at-home mothers is attached to the notion of reproducing the perfectly ‘reputable’ middle-class family.

In the subsequent chapters, Donner covers the ethnography of the domestic spheres demonstrating how the introduction of neo-liberal policies visible shifts in the lives of these urban middle-class women who inhabit the multiple roles of mothers, wives, and consumers. Chapter two ‘ Of Love, Marriage, and Intimacy’, followed by Chapter three, ‘The place of birth’, Chapter four ‘Education and the making of Middle-class mothers’, and finally ‘Motherhood, Food and the Body’ as chapter five is arranged chronologically, giving a glimpse into the typical life cycle of the woman that inhabits Donner’s field. As an advantage of the choice of her para or neighborhood, the living quarters that despite displaying signs of modern housing with nucleated portions, accommodate different generations of the same family. Thus Donner is able to record the shift in the practices, attitudes, and ways of life as experienced differently by several generations of women within the same family unit. Their decisions about having children, birthing practices, the decision of the education of children, and the intake of food is described and analyzed, it reveals several characteristic shifts within the category of middle-class urban practices.

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Donner does not clearly state a research question and spends a lot of her words trying to locate herself within previous theoretical orientations. She makes a case for bringing together urban anthropology and anthropology of the household, to study a rarely researched subject. While the middle class itself has formed inflated public and academic rhetoric, been significant in the political sphere, has been the focus of economic growth and consumption projections, there has been a dearth of research on the middle class itself as opposed to the time spent by social scientists trying to characterize the category. Donner spends a significant amount of time within the households of her chosen subjects, including three-year-long visits and several short stays between 1995-2005. Through a series of formal and informal interviews over a long period of time, she establishes an intimacy with the women, wherein tales of determination, sacrifice, and resolve of participation in maternal roles are brought up. She is self-aware in her position as an outsider to the field of negotiating social networks, ‘linking local relationships and their transformations with wider socio-economic and spatial determinants.’ She talks about the gendered experience of being a female field worker moving through the public spaces of an urban environment and the ‘gendered city’, which strikes as particularly interesting. Donner intentionally restricts herself to the private lives of the women and cites structural limitations is accessing their public lives. Although this limits her study, it also widens the scope for further research on this aspect. She also lays down her intention of involving only females in her study and recognizes the limitations of her work by doing so. (Donner, 2008)

Donner picks two well-established middle-class neighborhoods for her study, Ganguly Bhagan, and Taltala, allowing a comparison and detailed study. The choice of the paras besides their unique geographical location with distinct architecture and demography is related to the centrality of the locality in the lives of the women as ‘a main site for social interaction.’ In a bottom-up approach, the neighborhood, its politics, and its histories are accessed through the smaller constituents of the family. The identity of the middle classes is marked by a politics of classification, the social interactions in Donner’s work confirm this.

The contemporary Indian middle class still grapples with the burden of the image of a class that represents universal and aspiring public interests of a newly economically liberated nation, practicing alongside a politics of exclusion and differentiation. (Fernandes, 2015) Donner’s contribution lies in trying to understand the macro changes and shifts in practices through the very private, social lives of urban Indian middle-class women living in an era of economic restructuring. In one of the chapters, she describes how the anxieties around job prospects of children with changes in the market, lead to massive tensions within the household over the specifics of the education and tuition for children. By accessing intimate territories, Donner also brings out well the role of grandparents in middle-class families in producing familial capital in the face of rising consumption and expenses. She notes a shift in birthing practices amongst generations from normal birth to cesarean births and natal homes to city hospitals, with the boom in private hospitals. This allows and legitimizes the modern woman from procuring a period of rest after birth, a break from household duties as women become ‘patients who undergo an ‘operation’,’ and thereby ‘gain extended periods of rest prescribed by their doctors.’ These changes in domestic relations, causing intergenerational conflicts are a direct result of economic restructuring, however, continuity is maintained through the reproduction of social identities and hierarchies thereby preventing radical transformations.

Donner goes in with several theoretically constituted categories of the ‘urban’, the ‘middle class, and the ‘maternal’ to understand the production and reproduction of class identities. The subjective understandings of institutions of marriage, phenomena of childbirth and reproductive change as well as education reveal the change in social relations brought by the policy changes. It is interesting to note the work that goes into the self-preservation of the middle-class identity in the face of economic anxiety and socio-economic competition. A reality, despite the 90s being rife with inflated media representations of the expanding and emerging middle class, marked by political promises of new prosperity by participating in the private economy and an image of a new middle class, ‘now free to break from the old restrictions and state dependency associated with Nehruvian state socialist ideologies and Gandhian moral norms of austerity’ (Fernandes 2006). Their ‘middleness’ is constituted through a relationality, marked by distinction from the rich but also the poor. (slum dwellers) The precarity of status and identity is navigated ‘built on carefully crafted distinctions based on lifestyle, status markers and claims of cultural and moral superiority.’ While ‘doing class’ as mothers and housewives, these women who are constitutive of a diverse, heterogeneous middle class, draw boundaries to differentiate themselves internally reproducing social hierarchies of caste, gender, and ethnicity. (Fernandes, 2015)


  1. Donner, H. (2008) Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-class Identity in Contemporary India. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.
  2. Fernandes, L. (2006) India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  3. Fernandes, L. (2015) India’s middle classes in contemporary India from: Routledge Handbook of Contemporary India, Routledge.
  4. Gupta, D. (2001) Mistaken Modernity: India Between Worlds, Noida: Harper Collins.

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