Work, performance, and the social ethic of global capitalism: Understanding religious practice in contemporary India

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This ethnographic essay focuses on the relationship between religious performances and the "strong discourse" of contemporary global capitalism. It explores the subjective meaning and social significance of religious practice in the context of a rapidly expanding mass religious phenomenon in India. The narrative draws on Weber's insights on the intersections between religion and economy, phenomenological theory, performance studies, and Indian philosophy and popular culture. It shows that religion here is primarily a means of performing to and preparing for an informal economy. It gives the chance to live meaningful social lives while challenging the inequities and symbolic violence of an imposing global capitalist social ethic. Unlike exclusive formal institutions that are increasingly governed by neoliberal rationalities, the religious event provides an open and freely accessible yet challenging stage for participants to practice and prove their resolve, gifts, and sincerity. In contrast to the focus on social anomie and the reactionary characterization of contemporary religion in identity-based arguments, this essay demonstrates that religious practice here is simultaneously a way of performing to and performing against a totalizing capitalist social order.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)283-307
Number of pages25
JournalSociological Forum
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2013



  • Capitalism
  • Informality
  • Performance
  • Phenomenology
  • Pilgrimage
  • Religion

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