Cheated on Gandhi Patel

Subhuman existence: the sociologist Jan Breman over half a century of field research in India

India shows that even in a modern economy, poverty does not have to decline, says sociologist Jan Breman.

Labor nomads on sugar cane plantations, workers at their machines in shabby sheds and panting rickshaw drivers - Jan Breman's India is the India of the dispossessed class. The non-western sociologist from the Netherlands calls them “wage hunters and collectors”, and this is also the title of one of his books - translated into German - that is reprinted in the voluminous volume The Jan Breman Omnibus has appeared.

This interview was published in: The Temperament of Homo Sociologicus. 2019. ISBN 978-3-948513-00-9. Many thanks to Jan Breman - the interview was conducted in 2009, see source * - and to Renate Brucker for this translation and editorial support!

Based on almost fifty years of field research, Jan Breman documents the rapid transition from rural society to urban world economy. His conclusion is that India is the worst possible combination of a rigid caste system and market fundamentalism. He described his first encounter with the landless in India in the 1960s as a “brutal shock”. He spoke of "subhuman existence" and the cane cutters there felt that the dogs were treated better than they were.

The textile industry had to become cheaper, factories were closed, unregulated workshops were set up, unions that had been founded by Mahatma Gandhi were abolished and social rights were lost. Breman sees a renaissance in social Darwinism. He also criticizes World Bank scenarios in which the informal sector is supposed to act as a solution.

India is a growth economy, but Breman notes regression. The textile industry had to become cheaper, factories were closed, unregulated workshops were set up, unions that had been founded by Mahatma Gandhi were abolished and social rights were lost. Breman sees a renaissance in social Darwinism. He also criticizes World Bank scenarios in which the informal sector is supposed to act as a solution. The Indian sociologist Sujata Patel calls his work "an ethnography of the working poor in India". Jan Breman has been Emeritus at the University of Amsterdam since 2001.

You have done a lot of field research, doing a lot of fieldwork in South Gujarat in India and on Java in Indonesia and doing half a century of globalization. They preferred ugly areas, the Dutch polders in the tropics, as you call them. Why?

“Well, Dutch polders can be very beautiful, but the areas where I go are actually not particularly scenic. They are polder areas, only it is warmer and there is more inconvenience. I didn't want to indulge in exoticism. I try not to make the areas I've been to more beautiful than they are. "


The introduction to The Jan Breman Omnibus closes with a characteristic of your work. You should write a “really global, non-Eurocentric history of work”. Do you recognize yourself in it?

“In the word non-Eurocentric? Yes absolutely. Social history as we have gone through it does not repeat itself. The transformation of society in the direction of industrialization, urbanization and economic growth that benefits a steadily growing part of the population ... It is not evident that such a process is emerging. It has to do with globalization. The assumption that poverty decreases when people are included in the modern economy is wrong.

In your opinion, has poverty not decreased?

“It can be seen that the economic growth process is accelerating. Only the proportion of the population that reaps the fruits of this is rather modest. There is a large proportion - around 30 to 40% - that are making little or no progress. This is, of course, an estimate based on my own field research, not based on official government statistics. I do not conclude that poverty is increasing; that would be a wrong assumption. The misery has decreased. The poverty that I encountered in the early 1960s - hunger, lack of clothing, housing options - has not increased. So it's not that the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. But those who weren't poor at the time have improved many times over. The gap between rich and poor has widened significantly. Every society follows its own principles. In India you can see the worst possible combination: a social hierarchy in which the idea of ​​equality has made little progress in view of the caste system, while this development is reinforced by a market fundamentalism that teaches that workers must be employed and laid off , depending on how it is needed. "

The acceleration

You have included both social class and caste categories in your study of village society. The upper caste children, the Anavils, emigrate to the USA, the middle caste, the Kolis, are looking for work in the city and the women are choosing a freer, urban identity. Doesn't that look very much like a film of the western modernization process running at a higher speed?

“There is acceleration, yes. But we also live in a unique time. The form of civilization that has dominated the world for centuries, the peasant community, has definitely come to an end. We saw this happen in Germany, in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, and now we see it all over the world. But that doesn't mean that this section should be followed by employment, training, more dignity and a better life. The big difference to Europe is that at that time, when workers were laid off in agriculture, there was a notion of a "class dangereuse" gave. It was feared that people trapped in poverty would pose a social problem to society and would be expected to resist and disrupt the existing social order. My colleague Abram de Swaan described this in his study Zorg en de state (1989, German translation: The caring state. Welfare, Health, and Education in Modern Europe and the United States. 1993). Why has poverty decreased in our own society? If you follow him, it's because the possessing class felt it was a necessary concession to get the poor underclass on board. This had to be done in order to raise the whole of society to a higher level.

We are seeing a step backwards in India. In Ahmedabad, the largest city in West India after Mumbai, the textile industry emerged as early as the last quarter of the 19th century. At that time, more and more large textile companies were established. These were factories that employed two to three thousand people who also received an employment contract. They were trained, their rights were extended, their working hours decreased from fourteen to sixteen hours a day to twelve to ten hours a day and finally to eight hours as we know it, in three shifts. Extra payments were made for overtime. There was a regulation for special social measures, such as health insurance, that included the whole family. In short, that was an existence as a factory worker as we know it from western developments. But in the last decade of the twentieth century factories closed and workers were laid off without compensation. The factories organized their work into informal part work, in shabby sheds on looms from the (old) factories. "

Through the same employers?

“Often by the same employer. I spoke to workers who worked on the same looms that were used in the factory. But now for less than half of the previous wages and for much longer working hours. What also had to go was their union, and this was a very important union that Mahatma Gandhi had founded in 1918. If the employer in these smaller workshops learns that someone used to belong to a trade union, then that is enough not to hire him. "

Was it optimism, this feeling of building up among the people there during your first field research in the sixties?

“Definitely among the factory workers. I met a class, people who have been put on the street and really feel cheated. The explosion of mutual hatred that broke out in Ahmedabad in 2001 is also related to these frustrations. A quarter of the working population consisted of Muslims, the others belonged to low castes, untouchable and backward castes who suddenly competed for a rare good, namely work. In this competitive struggle, the Muslims were made the target of a pogrom, with terrible consequences. "

You see a revival of religion in all castes. The Anavils are renovating their Hindu temples, the Kolis want to move up the caste hierarchy through religion, and women are troubled by the stricter religious rules. Why?

“The political importance of religion is increasing, that is an aspect of globalization. People cling more to their identity. There is no big gaping gap between Ms. Verdonk, Geert Wilders (Dutch politicians and populists who oppose immigration and Islam, E.S.) and what is happening elsewhere in the world. "

Do you think that the violence in Mumbai (2008 E.S.) is related to the clash of different religious cultures? Was the political scientist Samuel Huntington right with his idea of ​​a “clash of civilizations” after all?

“I would like to make two comments on what happened. First of all: you have not seen most of Mumbai, twenty million people live there. It is very misleading that we only got to see the fancy hotels. Then the second comment: There is an unjustified link between religion and crime. Huntington is an outsider with little knowledge of Islam who does not know how Islam, for example, contributed to the enlightenment in Europe. We in our western, enlightened fortress often see others as inferior. "

In an article published in 2007 in the journal Sociologie, you doubted that the international orientation would be a plus point for Dutch sociology. Do you see provincialism predominating there?

“The gaze is directed inwards. Globalization is mostly about the impact on Dutch society, or the analysis is limited to related western societies. No Dutch sociologist is doing research in Brazil. Anthropologists do this, but they also do research in the Netherlands. The anthropologists came back home while the sociologists never left. But like the first Dutch social scientist, S.R. Steinmetz, already said: "Who (only) knows one society, knows none."

You are a student of the Dutch sociologist Wim Wertheim (1908-1998). What traces has he left in your work?

“I think that I follow Wertheim's trail, that's how I am also seen. Wertheim was a judge in the Dutch East Indies, but he was quickly appointed professor at the only university that existed in Indonesia at that time, the Law School (Law school) in Batavia. He identified with Indonesian independence, which he was resented. In the 1970s, the media mainly criticized his position in favor of China. Above all, his work must be understood in terms of emancipation. He has always seen development aid as a continuation of colonial policy, whereby existing relationships of dependency are retained. I follow him in this.

India, Indonesia and China

You write yourself that the field research you did between 2004 and 2006 may be your last. Is that correct?

Field research is a very intensive scientific method with all kinds of physical inconveniences and health problems. The older I get, the more I reach the limit of my ability to compensate. The last time, between 2004 and 2006, I got quite seriously ill. When you're over seventy, and I am now, field research is no longer pleasant. Still, I went to China in 2008 and did field research again. On this basis I have to write my review of Mike Davis ‘ Planet of Slums revise again. Mike Davis comes up with very disturbing material. He paints a rather bleak picture of urbanization processes and the formation of slums. Three out of four migrants end up in slums and stay there. The idea that they are slowly making their way up is not true, and I agree with Davis on that. The objection is that he portrays poverty too much as a problem of violence. He also mentions Shanghai as a city where slums are forming on a large scale. I do not share this conclusion with him. I think the comparison between India and Indonesia and China on the other hand is very important. Those are the three societies this century is about. With regard to the size of the population alone - we are talking about more than half of the world's population. In China, the train to the cities is the greatest migration of peoples that has ever occurred in history. Everything that happens in China can be criticized, but the migrants who move from the country to the city are better off, they have a higher value than the masses of migrants anywhere else in the third world. If there is hope, it is probably there in China.

Jan Breman (born 1936) has been Emeritus at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research since 2001. Together with Parthiv Shah, he documented the dismantling of the textile industry in India in the photo book Working in the Mill no more (2004, Amsterdam University Press). An overview of half a century of his fieldwork is contained in The Poverty Regime in Village India (2007).


  • Jan Breman and Parthiv Sah 2004. Working in the Mill no more. Amsterdam University Press.
  • Jan Breman 2007. The Poverty Regime in Village India. Oxford University Press.
  • Jan Breman 2008. The Jan Breman Omnibus. With an Introduction by Sujata Patel. Oxford University Press.

Subhuman existence: the sociologist Jan Breman over half a century of field research in India

In: NRC / Wetenschap & Onderwijs, 07 maart 2009, p.4. Subhumaan Bestaan.

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SHORT VERSION The temperament of Homo Sociologicus: Read gravestones, attend African festivals in London, visit concentration camps and talk to textile workers. Or compare a burqa to a thickly packed Dutch marathon skater. Five social scientists are looking for new knowledge in a rapidly changing society. They want to see and understand. They are constantly and intensely interested in what people do and what they leave behind.

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