The Making of the Merchant Middle Class in Sri Lanka: A Small Town Ethnography

Luke Heslop

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis is an ethnographic study of middlemen and business families in a commercial town in central Sri Lanka. What I present is based on almost two years of ethnographic fieldwork, in which I followed entrepreneurial families as they started and developed various businesses, built new homes, found suitors for their children, extended their networks of effective social relations, and campaigned for political office. At the heart of the town, and at the centre of the project, is Sri Lanka’s largest wholesale vegetable market. Through an exploration of vegetable selling, I examine various types of work that transcend the boundaries of the market itself: the work of kinship within business families, in particular dealing with extending families and the task of producing new homes, the work of belonging and status among merchants, and the work of politics in a merchant town. These themes are explored in three ethnographic settings – in the households of business families, at work in the vegetable market, and at social and political gatherings.

My account of the activities of merchants and merchant families in Dambulla engages and builds upon a body of anthropological literature on the production of kinship, class, and politics in Sri Lanka against the backdrop of a much broader set of social transformations that have shaped Sri Lanka’s tumultuous post-colonial modernity; notably the war and development, economic and agrarian change, and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. The thesis provides new empirical data from ethnographic research into under researched areas of Sri Lankan social and cultural life, such as everyday domesticity and male sociality, as well as life and work in a small town in rural Sri Lanka. The ethnographic material also draws on theories from economic anthropology and economic sociology in its analysis. While some of the bigger questions in the thesis address identity and belonging among merchants, as well as the cultural implications of material change; throughout the thesis I also explore what goes on in houses, which relationships matter, how hierarchies are maintained and circumvented, how people make deals, leverage influence, protest, pursue strategies to get ahead, and transpose local issues onto broader political spheres. This, I argue, is the work that goes into the making of the merchant middle class.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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