Skip to main content
×
×
Home

The Dreams of Middle Class: Consumption, Life-course and Migration Between Bangladesh and Portugal*

  • JOSÉ MAPRIL (a1)
Abstract

In the past 20 years, Bangladeshi migration to Southern European countries has gained an increasing importance. Portugal is no exception, and today more than 4,500 Bangladeshis live in the country. One of the more interesting facets of this population, though, is their educational and economic profile. They come from what has been roughly summed up as the ‘new’ Bangladeshi ‘middle classes’. Their families are both rural and urban, have properties, and own businesses. Other members of their domestic units work in NGOs, and private and state owned companies. Simultaneously, they have considerable educational backgrounds, with college and university degrees, and most are fluent in English. But what was their motivation to come to Europe in the first place? And what does this tell us about the young Bangladeshi middle class? For these young Bangladeshi adults, it is through geographic mobility that one can earn enough economic capital to access the ‘modern’ and to progress in the life-course. By remaining in Bangladesh, their access to middle class status and adulthood is not guaranteed and thus migrating to Europe is seen as a possible avenue for achieving such dreams and expectations. The main argument in this paper is that migration—as a resource and a discoursive formation—is itself constitutive of this ‘middle class’.

Copyright
Footnotes
Hide All
*

This paper is based on my Ph.D. research in Anthropology, carried out at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, about Islam and Transnationalism among Bangladeshis in Portugal, funded by the Portuguese Science Foundation (FCT)—SFRH/BD/13237/2003. In total, fieldwork duration was 24 months: Portugal (21 months), Bangladesh (3 months), carried out between 2003 and 2008. Eighty Bangladeshis were interviewed, mainly in English (as we will see further ahead, a language with which my interlocutors are quite familiar) although, whilst in Bangladesh, a research assistant was hired to interview relatives and friends of my interlocutors (although I speak some Bengali it is only basic level and self-taught). During 2011, further research was done with new periods of fieldwork, in the context of a post-doctoral research fellow from FCT (SFRH/BPD/34357/2006).

Footnotes
References
Hide All

1 Knights, Melanie, ‘Migrants as networkers: the economics of Bangladeshi migration to Rome’ in King, Russel and Black, Richard (eds), Southern Europe and the New Immigrations (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1997), pp. 113137; Zeitlyn, Benjamin, Migration from Bangladesh to Italy and Spain (Dhaka: RMMRU, 2006).

2 The first Bangladeshi arrived in 1986 but it was during the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s that their numbers rose significantly, mainly because of the three regularization processes carried out by the Portuguese authorities in 1993, 1996 and 2001–2004. Bangladeshis are now located in the main urban centres like Lisbon and Oporto, among others (in spite of their presence throughout the country, the majority are found in the Lisbon metropolitan area). Their position in the labour market goes from the lower ends of the Portuguese economy to entrepreneurial activities related to ready-to-wear shops, restaurants and grocers. In down-town Lisbon alone, there are 160 Bangladeshi shops that employ 300 people, all Bangladeshis. In the first years, this was a young, male, adult migration flow but nowadays the scenario has changed considerably. Most migrants married in Bangladesh, brought their relatives to Portugal and then created their own households (bari), whilst maintaining strong links with Bangladesh. For a more comprehensive view, see Mapril, José, ‘The ‘new’ South Asians: the political economy of migration between Bangladesh and Portugal, Oriente, 17, 2007, pp. 8199.

3 Knights, ‘Migrants as networkers’, pp. 113–137; Zeitlyn, Migration from Bangladesh to Italy and Spain.

4 See also Janeja, Mapreet, Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food (London: Routledge, 2010).

5 See also Janeja, Transactions in Taste.

6 Shahidullah, Muhammad, ‘Class formation and class relations in Bangladesh’ in Johnson, Dale (ed.) Middle Classes in Dependent Countries (London: Sage Publications, 1985), pp. 137164.

7 See Chatterjee, Partha, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Post-colonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

8 Shahidullah, ´Class formation and class relations in Bangladesh’, pp. 137–164.

9 Choudhury, Serajul, Middle Class and Social Revolution in Bengal: An Incomplete Agenda (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2002); Huda, Zeenat, Problem of National Identity of the Middle Class in Bangladesh and State-Satellite Television (Warwick: Warwick University, 2004); Schendel, Willem Van, A History of Bangladesh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Janeja, Transactions in Taste.

10 Choudhury, Middle Class and Social Revolution in Bengal.

11 Huda, Problem of National Identity of the Middle Class in Bangladesh and State-Satellite Television.

12 Van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh.

13 Janeja, Transactions in Taste.

14 Following is a brief introductory note on the concept of class. The literature on the topic is so vast that space permits only a very schematic sketch of its main terms, as premised by Karl Marx and Max Weber. For Marx, the position of class is determined by a person's relation to the means of production, which in Marxian analysis translates into the existence of two classes: the holders of capital (the dominant group) and the sellers of the workforce (the dominated group). Marx recognized the relationship between economic status and ideology, but only as long as the privileges of class produce a dominant ideology. Due to such a perspective, the middle classes hardly received any attention from the author. The other genealogy to the concept of class has to be traced to Max Weber and his concern with the middle classes, or intermediate strata. For Weber, an intermediate class is a status position determined by several factors (not only by the ownership of property) and in constant competition. Class, for Weber, is thus related to a person's or group's position in the capitalist market, defined according to the relationship between production and the goods and services consumed in the market. This notion of class recognizes the importance of social status—lifestyles (education and socialization) and prestige—to class power and privileges. For Weber social identities are made in relation to consumption and less according to the kinds of work done. For a more comprehensive view on the debate on class see, Bottomore, Tom, Classes in Modern Society (London: Harper Collins, 1966); Liechty, Mark, Suitably Modern: Making Middle Class Culture in a New Consumer Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Ortner, Sherry, New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture and the Class of 58 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). In this paper I am adopting a notion of middle class as a cultural practice. Middle-class is a discoursive construction produced by subjects themselves in the course of diverse relationships of power within society. Mark Liechty, for instance, fuses a Weberian and a Marxist perspective through the influence of E. P. Thomson. Liechty argues, on the one hand, that middle classes can be ‘a domain of internally competing cultural strategies, systems of prestige (status), and forms of capital that are not, strictly speaking, economic’ and on the other hand, ‘this internal cultural dynamic is always also part of a middle class project to construct itself in opposition to class others, above and below’. For this author, middle class ‘is a constantly renegotiated cultural space—a space of ideas, values, goods, practices and embodied behavio[u]rs—in which the terms of inclusion and exclusion are endlessly tested, negotiated and affirmed’. See Liechty, Suitably Modern, pp. 15, 16.

15 The emergence of the ‘new rich in Asia’—the nouveau riche, the bourgeoisie and middle classes—is a topic that has received increasing attention in the past two decades. The main research interests lie in the political, economic and social importance of these intermediate strata, the complexities behind a notion such as middle classes and the way these have different political and social imaginings in countries such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Furthermore, they reveal the intricate relationship between all these different social segments and the construction of a class culture, modernity, integration in the global economy, consumption, labour market opportunities, and motherhood. See, Robison, Richard and Goodman, David, The New Rich in Asia: Mobile phones, McDonald's and middle class revolution (London: Routledge, 1993); Blanc, Cristina, ‘The thoroughly modern ‘Asian’ capital, culture and nation in Thailand and the Philippines’ in Ong, Aihwa and Nonnini, Donald (eds), Ungrounded Empires: The cultural politics of Chinese transnationalism (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 261286; Donner, Henrike, Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and middle-class identity in Contemporary India (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008); Fernandes, Leela, ‘Restructuring the New Middle Class in Liberalizing India’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 20 (1–2), 2000, pp. 88104; Fernandes, Leela, India's New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Liechty, Suitably Modern.

16 Osella, Filippo and Osella, Caroline, Social Mobility in Kerala: Modernity and Identity in Conflict (London: Pluto Press, 2000); Osella, Filippo and Gardner, Katy (eds), Migration, Modernity and Social Transformation in South Asia (New Delhi: Sage, 2004); Fernandes, ‘Restructuring the New Middle Class in Liberalizing India’, pp. 88–104; Fernandes, India's New Middle Class.

17 Ong, Aihwa, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Fuller, Chris and Narasmhan, HaripriyaInformation technology professionals and the new-rich middle class in Chennai’, Modern Asian Studies, 41 (1), 2007, pp. 121150.

18 Ong, Flexible Citizenship.

19 Amongst British-Bangladeshis the control and securing of residency and citizenship in Britain is part of what Zeitlyn calls ‘security capital’. See Zeitlyn, Benjamin, Growing up Glocal in Sylhet and London (Doctoral Thesis: University of Sussex, 2010). This same concept could be applied, for example, to the practices carried out by Bangladeshi migrants in Southern Europe, with the objective of securing Portuguese or Spanish nationality.

20 Fuller and Narasmhan, ‘Information technology professionals and the new-rich middle class in Chennai’, pp. 121–150.

21 See Caplan, Patricia, Class and Gender in India: Women and Their Organizations in a South Indian City (London: Tavistock, 1985).

22 Fuller and Narasmhan, ‘Information technology professionals and the new-rich middle class in Chennai’, pp. 121–150.

23 Fuller and Narasmhan, ‘Information technology professionals and the new-rich middle class in Chennai’, p. 135.

24 Fernandes, ‘Restructuring the New Middle Class in Liberalizing India’, pp. 88–104; Fernandes, India's New Middle Class. ‘The urban middle class labour market in Mumbai is characterized by increasing job insecurity, a trend towards the employment of contract workers. . .and sharp distinctions in income between different layers of the “middle class”’. Fernandes, ‘Restructuring the New Middle Class in Liberalizing India’, p. 89.

25 Fernandes, ‘Restructuring the New Middle Class in Liberalizing India’, p. 98.

26 See also Lakha, Salim, ‘The state, globalisation and Indian middle-class identity’ in Pinches, Michael (ed.), Culture and Privilege in Capitalist Asia (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 252276; Cole, Jennifer and Durham, Deborah (eds), Generations and Globalization: Youth, Age and Family in the New World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

27 Ferguson, James, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Osella and Gardner, Migration, Modernity and Social Transformation in South Asia; Cooper, Frederick, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

28 See Miller, Daniel, Worlds Apart: Modernity through the Prism of the Local (London: Routledge, 1995).

29 Osella and Gardner. Migration, Modernity and Social Transformation in South Asia; See for comparative purposes Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, ‘Mass media and transnational subjectivity in Shanghai: Notes on (re)cosmopolitanism in a Chinese metropolis’, in Ong, Aihwa and Nonnini, Donald (eds), Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism (London: Routledge, 1997) pp. 287319.

30 Rofel, Lisa, Desiring China: Experiments in neoliberalism, sexuality, and public culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

31 Cole and Durham, Generations and Globalization.

32 Osella, Caroline and Osella, Filippo, Men and Masculinities in South India (London: Anthem Press, 2006), p. 2.

33 Massey, Douglas, Arango, Joaquin, Hugo, Graeme, Kouaouci, Ali, Pellegrino, Adella and Kouaouci, J. Edward TaylorAli; Adela Pellegrino; J. EdwardTaylor Ali Kouaouci; Adela Pellegrino; J. EdwardTaylor, ‘Theories of international migration: a review and appraisalPopulation and Development Review, 19 (3), 1993, pp. 431466.

34 These 13 households were contacted after an initial period of fieldwork in Portugal and were chosen through a ‘snow ball’ technique. Contacts were made in Portugal and whilst visiting Bangladesh—in 2004 and 2007—I interviewed relatives and friends of migrants in Portugal. Through these I was able to interview other families with relatives abroad, though not necessarily in Portugal. By presenting data about these 13 households, my main objective is not to produce representativity but simply to portray larger processes—trends—through the particular (for the notion of ethnographies of the particular see Abu-Lughod, Lila, ‘Writing against Culture’ in Fox, Richard (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1991), pp. 137162.

35 Exchange rate as at 21 May 2005.

36 Janeja, Transactions in Taste.

38 The New Market was built in 1952–1954 as a shopping area for the new population of Azimpur and Dhanmondi, although it attracts costumers from all other areas of the city and surrounding areas. The market has 468 shops which include shops for books, stationery, watches, clocks and spectacles, leather goods and travel kits, grocery items, clothes, jewellry and electrical equipment. It is surrounded by several retail shops—for clothes, medicine, toiletries, cosmetics and souvenirs—and a market for fish, meat, fruits and vegetables.

39 See for instance: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3759396.stm [accessed 10 December 2012].

40 For similar examples from other contexts see Osella and Osella, Social Mobility in Kerala; Liechty, Suitably Modern.

41 See Osmani, Siddiqur, The Impact of Globalization on Poverty in Bangladesh (Geneva, International Labour Organization, 2005).

42 See also Rozario, Santi and Gow, John, ‘Bangladesh: return migration and social transformation’ in Iredale, Robyn, Guo, Fei and Rozario, Santi, Return Migration in the Asia Pacific (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 2003), pp. 4787.

43 For the notion of bideshi takas see Garbin, David, Migrations, territoires diasporiques et politiques identitaires: Bengalis musulmans entre ‘Banglatown’ et Sylhet, (Tours: Université François Rabelais, 2004).

44 See Footnote 2 in this paper.

45 See also Ballard, Roger, Desh Pardesh: The South Asian presence in Britain (New Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation, 1994); Massey et al., ‘Theories of international migration: a review and appraisal’, pp. 431–466.

46 Symbolic capital is a concept proposed by Pierre Bourdieu to describe those resources based on honour and prestige and it is linked to the ways in which individuals and social classes produce distinctions. It is different from social capital in that the latter is the aggregate of the resources which are linked to a network of institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition. See for developments Bourdieu, Pierre, La Distinction: Critique Social du Jugement (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979); Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘Forms of Capital’ in Richardson, John, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York: Greenwood, 1986), pp. 241258. For my interlocutors, living in continental Europe is produced, once in Bangladesh, as a source of prestige and status.

47 For other, similar, examples see Gardner, Katy, Age, Narrative and Migration: The Life Course and Life Histories of Bengali Elders in London (London: Berg Publishers, 2002); Osella and Osella, Social Mobility in Kerala.

48 These numbers were taken from the registrations of the Bangladesh Honorary Consular office, in Oporto, they include the dates of arrival of Bangladeshis and their families since 1989.

49 Yang, ‘Mass media and transnational subjectivity in Shanghai’, pp. 287–319.

50 See Islam, Nurul, Looking Outward: Bangladesh in the World Economy (Dhaka: UPL Press, 2004).

51 After the oil crisis in 1973, Bangladesh, together with other South Asian countries, was extensively asked to provide manpower for expanding Middle Eastern economies. The Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training was created in 1976, precisely to control the flow of labour from Bangladesh to several countries in the Middle East. In the beginning, the state took on the role of recruiting agent but soon transferred such responsibility to private agents, whilst maintaining a regulatory role. See, for a more comprehensive view, Siddiqui, Tasneem, Institutionalising Diaspora Linkage: The Emigrant Bangladeshi in UK and USA (Dhaka: IOM, 2004).

52 For a more comprehensive view see, Siddiqui, Institutionalising Diaspora Linkage.

53 Siddiqui, Tasneem, Beyond the Maze: Streamlining Labour Recruitment Process in Bangladesh (Dhaka: RMMRU, 2002), p. 63.

54 For an ethnography of this Sylheti migration and its historical persistence see Gardner, Katy, Global Migrants, Local Lives: Travel and Transformation in Rural Bangladesh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); For a broad portrait of Bangladeshi contemporary migration see Siddiqui, Institutionalising Diaspora Linkage.

55 For the notion of enchantment see Meyer, Birgit and Pels, Peter, Magic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and Concealment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

56 Ahmed, Imtiaz, The Construction of Diaspora: South Asians Living in Japan (Dhaka: UPL, 2000).

57 Ballard, Desh Pardesh; Portes, Alejandro, Migrações Internacionais: Dos Factos aos Conceitos (Oeiras: Celta Editores, 1999).

58 One lac taka is the equivalent to one hundred thousand takas.

59 Gardner, Global Migrants, Local Lives; Gardner, Age, Narrative and Migration; Siddiqui, Institutionalising Diaspora Linkage; Rozario and Gow, ‘Bangladesh: return migration and social transformation’, pp. 47–87; Kibria, Nazli, Muslims in Motion: Islam and National Identity in the Bangladeshi Diaspora (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011).

60 Samaddar, Ranabir, The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (New Delhi: Sage Publication, 1999); Chatterji, Joya, ‘The Fashioning of a frontier: The Radcliffe Line and Bengal's Border Landscape, 1947–52’, Modern Asian Studies, 33 (1), 1999, 185242; Rahman, Mahbubar and Van Schendel, Willem, ‘I am not a refugee: rethinking partition migration’, Modern Asian Studies, 37 (3), 2003, 551584.

61 Knights, Migrants as networkers, pp. 113–137; Zeitlyn, Migration from Bangladesh to Italy and Spain; Mapril, The new South Asians, pp. 87–99.

62 See also Cole and Durham, Generations and Globalization; Osella and Osella, Social Mobility in Kerala; Osella and Gardner, Migration, Modernity and Social Transformation in South Asia.

* This paper is based on my Ph.D. research in Anthropology, carried out at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, about Islam and Transnationalism among Bangladeshis in Portugal, funded by the Portuguese Science Foundation (FCT)—SFRH/BD/13237/2003. In total, fieldwork duration was 24 months: Portugal (21 months), Bangladesh (3 months), carried out between 2003 and 2008. Eighty Bangladeshis were interviewed, mainly in English (as we will see further ahead, a language with which my interlocutors are quite familiar) although, whilst in Bangladesh, a research assistant was hired to interview relatives and friends of my interlocutors (although I speak some Bengali it is only basic level and self-taught). During 2011, further research was done with new periods of fieldwork, in the context of a post-doctoral research fellow from FCT (SFRH/BPD/34357/2006).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed