Restoring Agency to Class: Puzzles from the Subcontinent

Author: Ronald J. Herring; Rina Agarwala


Class explains much in the differentiation of life chances and political dynamics in South Asia. Yet in the subcontinent class has lost its centrality as a way of understanding the world and how it changes. Indian intellectuals have been a major force in the eclipsing of class through discursive strategies of constructivist idealism. Formalism in social sciences finds class relations elusive and difficult to measure. Market triumphalism eclipsed concern with rehabilitation of “weaker sectors” and redressing of exploitation as measures of national success. Class analytics, however, continues to serve two critical functions: disaggregating development and explaining challenges to rules of the game. Restoring agency to class requires attention first to relations that structure choice in restricted or expansive ways. Global forces have altered people's relations to production and to one another, as have changes in the political opportunity structure, with significant effects on tactics and outcomes. Knowing how to aggregate or disaggregate classes is more complicated than ever. Nevertheless, alternative understandings of class structure are more than academic: they reflect the strategies of political actors. The difficulty for class analysis is to illuminate the conditions under which interests of those disabled by particular class systems may be inter-subjectively recognized and acted upon politically at the local and/or international levels. Appropriate and robust sociopolitical theory for this purpose is illusive, but no more so for class than for other bases of difference — caste, community, identity, gender—that likewise seek to explain transformation of locations in social structures to effective collective agency.
Regions: South Asia
Countries: India

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December 2006
© E.D. Starin