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Elite and Ethical: The Defensive Distinctions of Middle-Class Bicycling in Bangalore, India

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.