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Tuesday 16 November 2021 at 3.00-5.00pm (BST)

This webinar will be held on Zoom. Please register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_CNDtdgNpQsKFPbcfSJ2gXQ 

Classes of labour: work and life in a central Indian steel town 

The Royal Anthropological Institute is pleased to present ‘Reviewer meets Reviewed’, a discussion between author Prof Jonathan Parry (LSE) and reviewer Prof Keith Hart (Emeritus at Goldsmiths; writer in Paris), which will be chaired by Prof Chris Hann (Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology).

Classes of Labour: Work and Life in a Central Indian Steel Town is a classic in the social sciences. The rigour and richness of the ethnographic data of this book and its analysis is matched only by its literary style. This magnum opus of 732 pages, an outcome of fieldwork covering twenty-one years, complete with diagrams and photographs, reads like an epic novel, difficult to put down. Professor Jonathan Parry looks at a context in which the manual workforce is divided into distinct social classes, which have a clear sense of themselves as separate and interests that are sometimes opposed. The relationship between them may even be one of exploitation; and they are associated with different lifestyles and outlooks, kinship and marriage practices, and suicide patterns. A central concern is with the intersection between class, caste, gender and regional ethnicity, with how class trumps caste in most contexts and with how classes have become increasingly structured as the ‘structuration’ of castes has declined. The wider theoretical ambition is to specify the general conditions under which the so-called ‘working class’ has any realistic prospect of unity.


The review

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 27, issue 2. June 2021, pp.418-419

Keith Hart


Jonathan Parry has been studying India’s Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) since 1993. This book of just over 700 pages has four parts: ‘Context’, ‘Work’, ‘Life’, and ‘Concluding’. Parts 1 and 4 taken together constitute a third of the whole, as do each of Parts 2 and 3. Part 1 introduces Parry’s research site, the classes of labour and the building of BSP; it also considers modernity’s dark side. Part 2 approaches class empirically, focusing on the labour elite and conditions for other BSP workers, private sector industry, and ‘the informal sector’. Part 3 turns to caste and class in the neighbourhood, then to generational differences, marriage, and death. Part 4 compares Bhilai with other industrial towns and considers why communal and ethnic conflict is relatively low there.

India became independent in 1947, when steel production was an essential ingredient for state capitalism. The Indian and Soviet governments agreed to build an integrated plant capable of producing 1 million tonnes of steel in Madhya Pradesh. BSP was constructed on land compulsorily purchased from ninety-four villages in Madhya Pradesh, usually involving the displacement of their inhabitants, was built by outsiders, and mainly employed migrants. The first batch of steel came in 1959, rising to 2.5 million tonnes in 1967, 4 million in 1988, and 7.5 million in 2011. By the mid-1980s, BSP had 64,000 workers; it had only 28,500 three decades later. Parry asks if it has been a ‘project of modernity’ or ‘a tragedy of development’? Probably both.

This epic work offers much material for reflection. First, unlike almost all anthropologists today, Parry situates his fieldwork firmly in the ideas that have driven India’s history since independence. Second, while the founders of British social anthropology considered ‘theory’ to be central to ethnography, he takes this much further. We get up front an exhaustive discussion of theories concerning the working class. Perhaps this discussion would have been better placed after and not before the ethnography.

Third, the ethnographic present has no place here. Things have changed so much that, for any question, Parry has to reflect not only on historical movement at the local and national levels, but also on his own voyage over time. Thus, he was at first not allowed into the plant itself and found a home in villages nearby. Early awareness of a deep-set labour dualism shaped much that he did later. Finally, he has served here the last rites for the fieldworker as a lone ranger in a pith helmet. We usually pay lip service to informants, assistants, and family ‘without whom’, but this was a thoroughly collaborative venture. There is no false modesty about this. Parry’s chief companion, Ajay, kept the show going through many absences, despite once being jailed as a subversive. His wife, Margaret Dickinson, a progressive film-maker, trained some disadvantaged local youths who later acted as field assistants.

Parry’s persistence and flexibility are admirable, but there remains an imbalance in the theoretical attention he pays to BSP’s two classes. There is no working-class unity here, only a deep cleavage between privileged plant employees and underprivileged contract and informal workers, many of them women. Yet ‘the informal sector’ and ‘unorganized labour’ do not make it to the book’s index. How separate are the two social categories, and is their relationship immutable? This requires a different kind of comparison than one focused on industrial labour alone.

The monograph does highlight fluidity of movement between the lower middle and upper working classes. This challenges Marx and Engels’ attempt to draw a firm line between the petty bourgeoisie and the factory proletariat, itself reflecting concern that their revolutionary class might be diverted by the ‘dangerous class’ (lumpenproletariat) with whom they often lived. Perhaps they also drew too firm a line between the sides here. Such fluidity is commonplace in Britain and many rich countries today. After 2008, capital in these countries paid off its debts with the state’s free money and downsized labour forces, introducing the precarious ‘gig economy’ for many. We don’t yet know if changes in class relations there since the 1980s are permanent or reversible. This book enables a much wider and more thoughtful comparison of these questions.

Parry has been faithful to the place and people he studied for so long and so well. He has also opened up a lens that makes the world we live in less opaque. Classes of labour is a magnificent achievement, especially for his honest reasoning, reflexivity, and packed reports from real life. It should be studied closely by Indianists, anthropologists, historians, and social scientists world-wide. Its research is unlikely to be replicated as a model. It does, however, shed new light on the promise, achievements, and contradictions of the ethnographic tradition, offering many lessons for how it could move on.