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Response to Review of The Making of the Middle Class: Toward a Transnational History

E. P. Thompson once observed that ‘it is difficult to anticipate problems of readers who are inattentive’.(1) What author would not agree with that? But we also understand that a reader’s ‘inattentiveness’ might be a function of our own failure to be sufficiently clear or engaging. The opportunities for a reader/reviewer to miss the point are particularly rife in the case of a multi-authored collection of essays – in this case, one examining the role of the middle class across the globe during the last two centuries. We know that reviewing such a volume is not an easy task, so we are both pleased to have an opportunity to respond to Dennis Gilbert’s review and reluctant to be too censorious about what we perceive as misapprehensions on his part. But, given that our volume situates the theme of the middle class as provoking, rather than precluding, political and historiographical debate, it seems appropriate to present a brief response to some of Gilbert’s criticisms.

Gilbert begins by arguing that as a whole our volume seeks to understand the formation of the middle-class as a historical process playing out independently in different national contexts. But that was precisely what we did NOT propose to do; indeed, a major portion of the introduction is devoted to critiquing leading works on the middle class that we believe are flawed precisely by what we might call a ‘local variation on a dominant theme’ approach (pp. 5–14). The overall objective of the volume is to understand the historical formation of the middle class as occurring in a historically connected terrain across the globe. As Mrinalini Sinha writes in the afterword, ‘each chapter demonstrates from its patch of the earth the particular manifestation of a phenomenon that, from the perspective of the whole, appears inescapably enmeshed in larger connections and linkages’ (p. 387). Obviously there are local specificities; however, the key point is that such variations are not a product of isolated, culturally peculiar circumstances but how the cases are situated in the larger transnational process. Given that Gilbert defines the nation as the ultimate category of historical and sociological analysis, he reads each chapter in isolation and thus forecloses the possibility that, in the last two centuries, the meanings, subjectivities, and practices of being middle class were mutually – and coevally –constituted across the globe.

We were also surprised that Gilbert faults both the editors and the contributors of the volume for dismissing, indeed resisting, the need to historicize what he calls the ‘material foundation’ of class formation.(2) Specifically, Gilbert urges us to read Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (or surely to re-read it since he cannot possibly imagine that we have not yet gotten around to it). Thompson understood class as a historical phenomenon happening over time and defined by ‘the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems and institutional terms’.(3) Readers should be advised that at least one essay in the volume, Daniel Walkowitz’s insightful discussion of ‘the middle class worker’ in the 20th-century United States, elaborates on how E. P. Thompson’s conceptualization of class formation serves as the bedrock for studies of middle-class identities. At the same time, Walkowitz aptly notes that Thompson’s prioritizing of productive relations can make his insights less appropriate to a middle-class milieu where attitudes about work and consumption sharply diverge from 19th-century patterns. Whatever debts historians of class owe to E. P Thompson, if they focus on an era when the workplace has a limited role in the formation of class identity, they need to incorporate the insights of feminist studies and new cultural theories.

Still, Gilbert argues (or complains) that ‘what most historians represented in this collection have absorbed from Thompson is his emphasis on historical process and culture’. Indeed, he tells the reader that that we – both editors and contributors – are embarrassed to recognize the material process of class formation.(4) Far from it. In the introduction and throughout the volume we are quite explicit in criticizing the tendency to see the historical formation of the middle class as mere abstraction, as a discourse or as a cultural idea. Simon Gunn’s essay specifically criticizes what he sees as an inclination in much of the recent British historiography to overlook the way certain aspects of middle-class networks and identities were crucial to the reproduction of middle-class fortunes and living standards. But at the same time we take very seriously the post-structuralist insistence that the existence and nature of a middle class cannot be revealed by a sociological description of occupations, income levels, or consumption patterns. Indeed, we want to argue that using such ‘objective criteria’, whether material or cultural, to determine who belongs to the middle class would engage us immediately in a trans-historical and ultimately self-defeating task in which certain immutable assignations, attributions, and characteristics have to be found in different historical contexts and geographical locations. Gilbert’s argument is very much part of a recent renewed interest in ‘empiricism’ (5); one that assumes that class identities and subjectivities are a transparent reflection of social configurations, economic developments, and structural changes. For Gilbert the middle class is a self-evident manifestation of an inevitable sociological reality as ‘all but the simplest societies require people in middling positions’. And as societies progress, he argues, they increase ‘the number of literate people with specialized skills’. Such processes, he concludes, ‘encourage independence and self recognition’. It is precisely this inevitability and transparency that the volume seeks to question. And it does so not by privileging the ‘cultural’ over the ‘material’, as Gilbert suggests, but rather by staying close to the formative power of discourse and structure while interrogating the different historical-material practices of middle class subjectivities. Thus, we neither resist nor ignore the material base for class formation. Rather, as the above discussion suggests, what the volume proposes is to combine materialist and discursive understandings of the historical formation of the middle class.(6)

In a similar vein, Gilbert contends that we are ‘skeptical’ of grand historical narratives, and thus privilege class self–identification over macro-contexts when discussing the formation of middle-class identities. ‘But how, he asks, is the emergence of the middle class to be explained without some notion of macro-context?’ – a question we regard as entirely reasonable. Once again, he offers the guidance of E. P. Thompson by arguing that the formation of the English working class depended upon the consolidation of the Industrial Revolution (as did, by extension, all modern class formations). But as Chakrabarty first argued over a decade ago, Thompson’s continued adherence to a certain linear view of history – that particular processes emerged first in Europe and then gradually everywhere else – makes even his most brilliant and influential work problematic for those studying the world beyond ‘hyper-real Europe’. Both the editors and contributors to this volume (including those who focus on North America and Western Europe) regard this teleological perspective as relatively unhelpful for a historical rethinking of modernity and middle-class formation.(7)

In other words, we do not see the formation of the middle class across the globe as the product of a single, unfolding historical process, but this does not mean the volume rejects macro-historical contexts as constitutive elements in the formation of the middle class. A careful reading of the major themes of the book suggests that contributors intimately connect middle-class formation with macro-historical contexts in the last two centuries: European imperial/colonial rule in Africa and South Asia; industrialization, urbanization, and the expansion of the service sector in Latin America and the United States; revolutions in Mexico, France, and the Middle East; development, state formation and Cold War politics in Canada, the United States and Latin America; populist experiences in Latin America and the formation of a public sphere across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. To give but one example, Sanjay Joshi suggests that the ‘fractured modernity’ that characterized middle-class formation in colonial India offers a way of thinking about the emergence of the middle class on a global scale, far more so than the imagined middle class of the Eurocentric perspective. These major historical developments, however, lie outside the definition of grand narratives proposed by Gilbert since he seems to assume that grand narratives arise in the geographical location called Europe. This perhaps explains his inattentiveness to the assertion, both in the introduction and in Mrinalini Sinha’s afterword, that thinking transnationally about the middle class offers an opportunity to reinstate grand historical narrative as part of our historical inquiries into modernity, capitalism, imperialism, and post-colonialism. By doing this, we seek to avoid the fragmentation and depoliticization of historical interpretation without reinscribing Eurocentric, masculinist, and exclusionary tropes.

We regret that even after reading The Making of the Middle Class, Gilbert persists in arguing that middle-class modernities must be historically explained as originating first in the West (that is, Western Europe and the United States) and then spreading out to other societies that are anxiously waiting to receive this irresistible gift. Modernity, he writes, ‘may be a less than perfect reflection of the realities of Western societies but Western priority and non-Western imitation seem hard to deny’. It is this inevitability and confidence in teleological understanding of modernity that our volume, along with others across the disciplines, is trying to question.(18) One consequence of our position is that we cannot and do not offer an unambiguous definition of modernity, something that Gilbert finds troubling. But we remain convinced that the crucial task is not to offer a geographically clear-cut definition of modernity, as Gilbert suggests, but rather to question it as a world historical problem. And we do so in the volume by looking at how, throughout the world, middle-class modernity was defined by colonial practices, gender hierarchies, class segmentations, racial categorizations, and religious allegiances. And, if this is the case, and we strongly believe it is, the volume thus invites the readers to critically consider whether or not it is necessary to continue treating the middle class as the prerequisite for a ‘post-class’,  globalized society.

It may well be the case that the volume does not advance our understanding of the historical formation of the middle class and modernity ‘terribly far’, as Gilbert argues, but his very review of our book is further proof that entrenched assumptions about modernity are still with us. And these are precisely the assumptions the volume wants to put to rest so that we may understand modernity not as a (singular) and irresistible gift from the ‘West’ to the rest of world, but as a world-wide problem in which different historical actors have contributed transnationally to the ideas, experiences, and institutions that defined modernity in the last two centuries.


  1. E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (Harmondsworth, 1977), p. 302, as cited by Dipesh Chakrabarty. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, NJ, 2008), p. xvi.Back to (1)
  2. Gilbert argues that ‘there is no heavy theoretical lifting going on in this collection of short empirical essays’. We suspect that the theoretical inspirations for both editors and contributors are outside the charmed circle of what Gilbert considers theory – throughout the volume the essays engage critically with postcolonial, post-structuralist, and feminist theories.Back to (2)
  3. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1991 [1963]), pp. 8–9.Back to (3)
  4. It is also worth noting that we, unlike previous studies of the middle class, embrace the fuzziness of the middle class. Contrary to what Gilbert suggests in the review, we see such fuzziness as provoking, rather than precluding, historical analysis. Finally, were Gilbert inclined to consider the question of class formation at greater depth, he might do well to start by reading the critique offered by Joan W. Scott of the notion of experience naturalized by social historians, among them E. P Thompson. See Joan W. Scott, ‘The evidence of experience’, Critical Inquiry, 1991, 17 (4), 773–97.Back to (4)
  5. For a discussion on this ‘return’ see Joan W. Scott, ‘History-writing as critique’ in Keith Jenkins, Sue Morgan, and Alun Munslow, Manifestos for History (London, 2007), pp. 19–38.Back to (5)
  6. As Barbara Weinstein has argued ‘Deconstructing the Eurocentric assumptions that underpin the concept of the periphery or of underdevelopment is a worthy pursuit, but it does not necessarily help us understand how, historically, those images and ideas got translated into economic advantages for some, and disadvantages for others.  By failing to address the history of economic inequality, we thus run the risk of having a great deal to say about the genealogy of race, class, and gender discourses that undergird hegemonic power, but of having very little to say about the material disparities that are probably the most distressing consequences of the hierarchies they produce’. See Barbara Weinstein, ‘Developing inequality’, The American Historical Review, 113, 1 (February 2008), 9. Back to (6)
  7. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, p. 48.Back to (7)
  8. See, among others, C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins; and Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World; and A Colony of Citizens. Mrinalini Sinha. Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Durham, NJ, 2006).Back to (8)