Accepted Paper:

Moral economies in a modern world: kinship, morality and power among the Boatmen of Varanasi (Banaras), India  


Assa Doron (The Australian National University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper examines the applicability of the moral economic approach to modern day, market-affected societies. The case study of the boatmen in the city of Banaras (India) serves to illustrate the need to consider not only the relationship between subaltern and the state, but equally important, the internal inequalities, divisions and struggles with the community of boatmen itself. As such, I argue that we need to investigate both old and new forms of kinship relations, ethical responsibilities, and strategies of resistance and self assertion in order to better understand concrete economic practices and structures of domination in modern day societies.

Paper long abstract:

The concept of moral economy has generated a lively debate across various disciplines in the social sciences. According to James Scott, the right to subsistence and the notion of reciprocity are central features of moral economies found in pre-capitalist agrarian societies. With the introduction of the modern state and market economy that these moral economies were disrupted, generating resistance and rebellion by the poor against such intrusions. In this paper I draw on Scott's model and examine the way in which a moral economy becomes a strategic tool for a marginalized group of boatmen in the city of Varanasi to appropriate and re-work the ritual space along the riverfront of the city. I demonstrate how under specific ideological and material conditions moral economies not only persist, but are reinvigorated to accommodate the changes of modern-day market affected societies. Such moral economies are largely based on oral tradition, community consensus, and kinship networks, in which boatmen attempt to defend their customary rights and practices to perform rituals, ferry tourists and pilgrims and earn their livelihood from the burgeoning ritual economy of Varanasi. Further, using ethnographic data, I suggest that we must apply the moral economic model in a critical manner that is sensitive to the social inequalities and internal divisions and struggles within the boatman community itself. Such considerations raise broader questions with relation to notions of domination and subaltern resistance in contemporary India.

Panel W002
Markets, kinship and morality