One of the concepts most commonly evoked in order to characterize and explain the zig-zag trajectory of political dynamics in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the “middle class.” Yet there is no scholarly consensus on a fundamental approach to identification and measurement of the middle class. Rather, the category of the middle class is both a category of analysis – long debated within social theory – as well as a category of practice – routinely deployed in political behavior and social distinction. In order to better conceptualize and understand the formation and role of Iran's middle classes in the country's sociopolitical dynamics, theories of class formation in the global South should be rearticulated away from a reified notion of the middle class as a transhistorical subject. To do so, this chapter is divided into four sections. First, internal debates over the role of Iran's middle classes in the country's recent political history are assessed and data from the 2016 Iran Social Survey is used to test a long-standing demographic assumption on the class dynamics of electoral behavior. Second, the tradition of theorizing the social power of middle classes is reassessed, drawing on the growing scholarly attention to the heterogenous origins and differentiated internal composition of middle classes across the global South. Third, a typology is proposed of four middle classes across the twentieth century shaped by varying state attempts at “catch-up” development. These types are then applied in a revisionist telling of the making and unmaking of middle classes in postrevolutionary Iran. Finally, implications of this framework beyond Iran are sketched out for global waves of protest in the twenty-first century.
Thanks to Zep Kalb and Dan Tavana for advice and assistance in the preparation of this article. Additional thanks goes to Ching Kwan Lee and Michael Goldman, both of whom provided comments on an early draft during a workshop held in Istanbul. Final thanks goes to the anonymous reviewers whose comments and suggestions aided in the development and clarification of key sections of the article.
Harris, K. (2020), "Unraveling the Middle Classes in Postrevolutionary Iran", Eidlin, B. and McCarthy, M.A. (Ed.) Rethinking Class and Social Difference (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 37), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 103-134. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0198-871920200000037006
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