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'Not just a housewife': Gender, Class, and Labour in the New Economy of Urban India



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This thesis presents an ethnographic study of young lower middle class women’s engagement in the new service economy in Delhi, India. Following the economic restructuring of the 1990s, the emergence of a ‘New Middle Class’ in urban India has been widely and popularly noted. The newness of this middle class, scholars have argued, is based on the emergence of ‘modern’ lifestyles, characterised by new multinational jobs, new consumption of global goods, and indeed new behaviours and attitudes. The salience of gender in the formation of this New Middle Class has been highlighted through studies of middle class women’s entry into higher education and skilled service work.

In this thesis, I explore the emergence of women’s employment as a practice of class ‘distinction’. I focus specifically on the lower middle classes, where gender and class relations are particularly subject to change, conflict, and contestations. In a ‘liminal’ position as neither working class nor securely middle class, young women gain entry into low-level service work in cafés, call centres, malls, and offices, rejecting the alternative trajectory of getting married and being ‘just a housewife’. Conscious of their lack of capital, they undertake skills training and mould their ‘habitus’ to mediate belonging in the new economy. However, these negotiations accrue costs over time, resulting in their movement in and out of precarious employment.

These ethnographic findings fracture the singularity of the narrative of women’s ‘aspirations’ in the new economy, instead highlighting that young lower middle class women are ambivalent about their employment. Through narrative analysis that emphasises the inseparability of relations of class and gender, the thesis contributes towards nuancing the theory of ‘distinction’, suggesting that the process of seeking distinction for those in liminal positions is characterised by both pleasures and injuries in the context of socio-economic change.





Desai, Manali


gender, class, labour, south asia, india, employment, new economy


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge scholarship