Elite and ethical: The defensive distinctions of middle-class bicycling in Bangalore, India

Manisha Anantharaman, Saint Mary's College of California


This article applies social practice theory to study the emergence of sustainable consumption practices like bicycling among the new middle classes of Bangalore, India. I argue that expansions of bicycling practices are dependent on the construction of defensive distinctions, which I define as distinctions that draw equally on lifestyle-based and ethics-based discourses to normalize bicycling among Bangalore's middle classes. With their environmental discourses and signage, middle-class cyclists make claims to being ethical actors and ecological citizens concerned about global environments. Their high-end bicycles and special gear enable them to maintain their social status in personal and professional circles, despite adopting what is an essentialized and stigmatized mobility practice in a social context where personal automobiles are a dominant symbol of respectability and propertied citizenship. These defensive distinctions are anchored in communities that facilitate social learning, skill-building, and the creation of collective identities. I highlight the importance of considering the role of ethical discourses in consolidating low-status social practices among high-status class fractions and discuss the implications of promoting sustainable consumption through the othering of the poor. By applying a social practice analytic to study middle-class bicycling practices, this article makes a significant contribution to the growing literature that investigates the applicability of practice-based approaches to environmental behaviors and sustainable consumption in a novel context.