Understanding Middle Class in Theory:

  1. The classical sociological thinkers, Karl Marx and Max Weber, have written a great deal on the concept of class. Class was the most important category for Marx in his analysis of the Western society and in his theory of social change.
  2. Marx’s model of class is a dichotomous one. It is through the concept of class that he explains the exploitation of subordinate categories by the dominants. According to Marx, in every class society, there are two fundamental classes. Property relations constitute the axis of this dichotomous system – a minority of ‘non-producers’, who control the means of production, are able to use this position of control to extract from the majority of ‘producers the surplus product which is the source of their livelihood ‘Classes’, in the Marxian framework, are thus defined in terms of the relationships of groupings of individuals to the ‘means of production’. Further in Marx’s model economic domination is tied to political domination. Control of means of production yields political control.
  3. In this dichotomous model of class structure, the position of the middle class is only transitional.The middle classes for Marx were the self-employed peasants and the petty bourgeoisie. They were so described because they continued to own the means of production they worked with, without employing wage labour. Marx predicted that these middle classes were destined to disappear as the capitalist system of production developed. Only the two major classes, proletariat or the working class and the bourgeoisie or the capitalist class were significant in the Marxian framework of class relations.
  4. The other theorists of class have assigned much more significance to the ‘middle classes’. Foremost of these have been sociologists like Max Weber, Dahrendorf and Lockwood.
  5. Max Weber though agrees with Marx that classes are essentially defined in economic terms, his overall treatment of the concept is quite different from that of Marx. Unlike Marx, he argues that classes develop only in the market economics in which individuals compete for economic gains. He defines classes as groups of people who share similar position in a market economy and by virtue of this fact receive similar economic rewards. Thus class status of a person, in Weber’s terminology, is his “market situation” or, in other words, his purchasing power. The class status of a person also determines his ‘life chances,Their economic position or “class situation” determines how many of the things considered desirable in their society they can buy.
  6. Though, like Marx, Weber also uses the criteria of property ownership for defining classes, his theory provides a much greater scope for a discussion of the middle classes. He agrees with Marx that the two main classes in capitalist society are the property-owning classes and non-property-owning classes. However, Weber does not treat all the non-property owning individuals as belonging to a single class of the proletariats. The “class situation” of the non-property owners differs in terms of their skills. Those who possess skills that have a definite ‘market value’ (for example, doctors, engineers and other professionals) are rewarded better than the unskilled labourers. Thus, their “class situation” is different from that of the working class and in the Weberian framework, they constitute the middle classes. Further, unlike Marx, Weber does not see any tendency towards polarization of society into two classes. On the contrary Weber argues that with the development of capitalism, the white-collar ‘middle class’ tends to expand rather than contract.
  7. The later sociologists have tended to follow the Weberian line of thinking is their discussions and studies on the concept of middle class. Later sociologists have made a crucial distinction is made in the sociological literature between the “old” middle classes and “new” middle classes. The term “old” middle class is used in the sense in which Marx had used the term “petty-bourgeoisie” i.e., those who work with their own means of production such as traders, independent professionals and farmers.The term “new” middle class is broadly used to describe the skilled or white-collared workers/ salaried employees and the self-employed professionals. Even though they do not own the means of production they work with, they are distinguished from the unskilled blue-collar workers. Their incomes being much higher than that of the blue-collar workers, they can lead a lifestyle that is very different from that of the working class.

Rise of Middle Class in India

  1. The middle classes emerged for the first time in Western Europe with development of industrial and urban economy. The term middle class was initially used to describe the newly emerging class of bourgeoisie/industrial class.And later on the term was used for social groups placed in-between the industrialist bourgeoise on the one side and the working classes on the other i.e., the skilled professionals.
  2. The historical context of the development of middle classes in India is quite different from that of the West. It was in the nineteenth century, under the patronage of the British colonial rule that the middle classes began to emerge in India. Though they emerged under the patronage of the British rulers, the middle classes played an important role in India’s struggle for independence from the colonial rule. During the post-independence period also, the middle classes have been instrumental in shaping the policies of economic development and social change being pursued by the Indian State. The British colonial rule in India was fundamentally different from all the earlier political systems and empires that existed in the sub-continent. The British not only established their rule over most parts of the sub-continent they also transformed the economy and polity of the region. Apart from changing the land revenue systems, they introduced modern industrial economy in the region. They reorganized the political and administrative structures and introduced Western ideas and cultural values to the Indian people. As pointed out by B.B. Mishra.
    • The peculiar feature that distinguishes the Indian middle classes from their counterpart in the West is the context of their origin.
    • 7n the West’, the middle classes emerged basically as a result of economic and technological change; they were for the most part engaged in trade and industry. In India, on the contrary, they emerged more in consequence of changes in the system of law and public administration than in economic-development, and they mainly belonged to the learned profession”
  3. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the colonial rulers had been able to bring a large proportion of Indian territory under their rule. It was around this time that, after the success of the Industrial revolution, industrial products from Britain began to flow into India and the volume of trade between Britain and India expanded. They also introduced railways and other modern servicing sectors such as the press and postal departments. A large number of educated individuals were required to staff these administrative institutions. It was not possible to get all of them from Britain. So, in order to fulfil this need, the British opened schools and colleges in different parts of India, particularly in big cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.
  4. Over the years, a new class emerged in India. Apart form those employed in the administrative jobs of the British government they included independent professionals, such as lawyers doctors, teachers and journalists. According to B. B. Mishra membership of this “educated middle class” steadily grew in size during the second half of the nineteenth century.They were mostly concentrated in urban centres and largely came from upper caste backgrounds.
  5. Apart from the English educated segment, there were also other sections of the Indian society who could be called the middle classes. The most prominent among prominent among them were the petty traders/shopkeepers and independent artisans, the social groups that were called the “old middle classes” in the Western context. Merchants and artisans had always been separate social strata in the traditional structure of social stratification in India.As the economy began to change in response to the new administrative policies of the colonial rulers, many of the merchants moved to newly emerging towns and cities and became independent traders. This process was further accelerated during the post independent period.
  6. Though limited in its significance, the modern machine-based industry also began to develop during the colonial period The establishment of railways, during the middle of the nineteenth century, created conditions for the growth of modern industry in India. The colonial rulers constructed railways primarily for the transportation of raw materials required for the British industry overseas. The growing economic activity gave boost to trade and mercantile activity and some of the local traders accumulated enough savings and began to invest into the modern industry. The Swadeshi Movement started by the nationalist leadership gave a boost to the native industry. Apart from giving employment to the labour force, this industry also employed white-collared skilled workers. Thus, along with those employed in administrative positions by the colonial rulers, the white-collared employees of the industrial sector were also a part of the newly emerging middle classes in India.
  7. Though the middle classes in India emerged under the patronage of the British rule and their members were all educated in the English language and culture, they did not remain loyal to their masters forever. Members of the middle classes not only became actively involved in social reform movements, they also began to raise political questions and in the long run they came to question the legitimacy of the British rule in India. It was the members of these middle classes who provided leadership to the movement for independence.As Pawan Kumar Varma points out, ‘The educated middles-class elite; which provided all the leaders of the National Movement came to oppose British nde in the name of the most advanced bourgeois democracy; represented by Britain itself .
  8. The Indian National Congress, particularly during its initial years, was dominated by the professional middle classes.A majority of the active members of the Congress were lawyers journalists and educationists. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who is known to have transformed the Indian National Congress into a mass movement, was a lawyer and typically belonged to the professional middle class. Though Gandhi was able to bring peasantry and other segments of the Indian society into the fold of the nationalist movement, the leadership of the Congress party remained middle class and upper caste in character. According to Varma the British too were far more comfortable with the English-knowing, urban-centric middle-class constituents in the Congress than with the unwashed masses’.
  9. Though different sections of the Indian society had participated in the struggle for freedom from colonial rule, it was the middle classes that took over the institutions of governance from the colonial rulers. It has been argued that the end of the colonial rule did not mean a total break from the past Much of the institutional structure that had developed during the colonial rule continued to work the independence within the ideology of the new regime.Thus, members of the middle class who were working for the colonial rulers did not loose much in terms of their position in the institutions of governance.

Size and Composition

There are no exact figures about the size of this class during the early years of Independence.

  1. According to Varma to one estimate, its proportion in the total population was around ten per cent and like middle classes in other societies it was not an undifferentiated monolith. It had its unifying features, both in ideology and aspiration, but within this broadly defining framework it has its segmentations in terms of income, occupation and education.
  2. Apart from the middle classes, on the lower side, of were the vast majority of the agricultural poor, peasants and the landless. Unskilled and semi-skilled manual workers, skilled manual workers, petty clerks and employees such as postmen, constables, soldiers and peons were also outside the middle class domain.
  3. At the other end of the scale, the upper classes of the Indian society were the rich industrialists and capitalists, the big zamindars and members of the princely families. In between these areas of exclusion, middle classes constituted mostly of officers in the government services, qualified professionals such as doctors, engineers, college and university teachers, journalists and white-collared salaried employees in the private sector.
  4. In terms of income, the middle classes are also generally middle income groups. But income as such is not the only defining criteria. For example, a well to do illiterate petty trader could not be counted as a member of the middle class. Thus, more than income, it is education that was considered the common feature of the middle class in different parts of India.
  5. This middle class, during the initial years after independence, was also united by a certain ideology a commitment to development and nation-building. Knowledge of English too, was an important characteristic of this class.

Growth of Middle Class after Independence

India’s independence from the colonial rule marked the beginning of a new phase in its history. The independent Indian State was committed in principle to democratic institutions of secularism, freedom, justice and equality for all the citizens, irrespective of caste, creed or religion and at all levels – social, economic and political. To achieve these ends, India embarked upon the path of planned development. Plans were chalked out for the development of agricultural, industrial and the tertiary sectors of the economy. There was an overall attempt to expand the economy in all directions. The Government of India introduced various programmes and schemes for different sectors of the economy. The execution of these programmes required the services of a large number of trained personnel.

Apart form the increase in a number of those employed in the government sectors, urban industrial and tertiary sectors also experienced an expansion. Though compared to many other countries of the Third World the growth rate of the Indian economy was slower, in absolute terms the industrial sector grew many folds. Growth in the tertiary sector was more rapid Increase in population, particularly the urban population, led to a growth in the servicing industry. Banks, insurance companies, hospitals, hostels, press, and advertisement agencies all grew at an unprecedented rate, giving employment to a large number of trained professionals.

The next stage of expansion was in the rural areas. Various development programmes introduced by the Indian State after independence led to significant agricultural growth in the regions that experienced Green Revolution. Success of the Green Revolution technology increased productivity of land and made the landowning sections of the Indian countryside substantially richer. Economic development also led to a change in the aspirations of the rural people. Those who could afford it started sending their children not only to English-medium schools but also to colleges and universities for higher studies. Consumption patterns also began to change. Varma has observed that

  1. ‘Material goods hitherto considered unnecessary for the simple lifestyle of a farmer began to be sought. And lifestyles as yet remote and shunned were emulated.
  2. A new class has emerged in rural India that partly had its interests in urban occupations. The process of agrarian transformation added another segment to the already existing middle classes.
  3. In ideological terms, this “new” segment of the middle classes was quite different from the traditional middle classes.
  4. Unlike the old urban middle classes, this new, “rural middle class” was local and regional in character. The members of the rural middle class tended perceive their interests in regional rather than in the nationalist framework.
  5. Politically this class has been on forefront of the movements for regional autonomy.

Another new segment of the middle class that emerged during the post-independence period came from the dalit caste groups. Government policies of positive discrimination and reservations for members of the ex-untouchable/Schedule castes enabled some of them to get educated and employed in the urban occupations, mostly in the servicing and government sector. Over the years, a new dalit middle class has thus also emerged on the scene.


The emergence of the new middle class is an interesting development in the era of economic liberalization in India. In a celebrated study of the Indian middle classes, B.B. Mishra has suggested that the members of the educated professions, such as government servants, lawyers, college teachers and doctors, primarily constituted the bulk of the Indian middle classes. He also included the body of merchants, agents of modern trading firms, salaried executives in banking and trading, and the middle grades of peasant proprietors and renters under this category. This notion of the middle class has continued for years for the purpose of examining the role of the middle class in contemporary India.

  1. It has been argued that in the early years of the Independence material pursuits of the middle class were subsumed in a broader ethical and moral responsibility to the nation as a whole.A restraint on materialistic exhibition in a poor country was the ideal reflector in the character of the middle class.
  2. Changes have, however, occurred in the basic character of this class. Pawan Varma, for example, in his book The Great Indian Middle Class has initiated a significant debate on the declining social responsibility of the Indian middle class. It is in this context, that the idea of new middle class has been made popular in India.
  3. The current culture of consumerism has given rise to the new middle class. The economic liberalization initiated in India in the 1990s portrays the middle class as a sizeable market which has attracted the Multinational Corporations (MNCs), images of the urban middle class in the print media and television contribute to the prevalence of images of an affluent consumer.
  4. The spread of the consumer item such as cell phones, cars, washing machines and colour televisions has also consolidated the image of a new middle class culture. Advertising images has further contributed to perception.
  5. The new middle class has left behind its dependence on austerity and state protection. The newness of the middle class rests on its embrace of social practices of taste and consumption and a new cultural standard Thus, the “newness” of middle class involves adoption of a new ideology rather than a shift in the social basis of India’s middle class.
  6. Critics of this new middle class have pointed out the negative effects that middle class consumerism holds in the terms of environmental degradation and growing indifference towards socioeconomic problems of the country. However, proponents of liberalization have projected this new middle class as an idealized standard for a globalizing India.

Conclusive Analysis

Though the middle classes have always been among the most influential segments of the modern Indian society’ they were never as prominent and visible as they became during the decade of 1990s, after the liberalization process of the Indian economy began. Introduction of the new economic policy and increasing globalization of the Indian economy brought the Indian middle class into new prominence.

The process of globalization has also generated a lot of debate about the actual size of middle classes in India, their consumption patterns, and the pace of their growth in the years to come. It has been claimed that the size of middle classes has grown to 20 per cent of the total Indian population. Some others have put this figure at 30 per cent. Though a large number of Indian people still live a life of poverty, it is the middle classes that have come to dominate the cultural and political life in India today.

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