Jindal School of Government and Public Policy (JSGP) and Social Science Press on 7 October organised a book discussion on ‘Classes of Labour: Work and Life in a Central Indian Steel Town’ by Jonathan Parry. Professor Parry has conducted field research in various parts of India on different topics. His first study was in a rural area in the sub-Himalayan region where he focused on the classic anthropological themes of caste, kinship and marriage. More recently, Prof Parry has been doing fieldwork on industrial workers in the central Indian steel town of Bhilai (in Chhattisgarh). The public sector Bhilai Steel Plant is now one of the largest steel plants in Asia, and has served as a magnet for a great deal of private sector industrial development. Part of the fieldwork has focused on shop floor organisation, but much of it has been conducted in the ex-villages-cum-labour colonies in which the workers have their homes. Prof Parry has also written more widely on the theoretical topics of death, the body, and exchange.
His book ‘Classes of Labour: Work and Life in a Central Indian Steel Town’ is a classic in 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 21 years, reads like an epic novel. Prof Parry looks at the 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.