Just Tea?

An Ethnography of the Moral Economy of Assam Tea Production

Assam Tea

Black tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world. India, the world’s largest tea producer, manufactures about 30 per cent of the global tea production or 790 million kilos of tea annually. More than half of Indian tea is produced in Assam – the largest tea-cultivating region in the world (Mishra et al. 2012: 3-4). The largest portion of Assam tea is consumed in India itself. However, Assam tea is also the main ingredient of many popular tea blends consumed outside of India, such as German East Frisian Tea or English Breakfast Tea.

In addition to being a famous beverage, Assam tea also gained international attention recently regarding the precarious working and living conditions of the tea plantation labourers (Rowlatt & Deith 2015). This can be seen in the light of broader discussions about the moralities of economies and the critical questioning of structural inequalities generated by global commodity chains. The present PhD research project focuses on the moral economy of Assam tea production.


Moral Economies

Initially, the term ‘moral economy’ was used to analyse moralities of economies or ‘social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within a community’ (Thompson 1971: 78) or particular groups’ ‘notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation –  their view of which claims on their product were tolerable…’ (Scott 1976: 3). The term ‘moral economy’ has been related recently more to the transformation of socio-economic phenomenona (such as flexible capitalism) than single actors (such as ‘the crowd’ or ‘the peasants’). It takes various entangled and contradictory moral frameworks into account ‘…to understand the everyday-grounded logics of macro-economic (and political) processes…’ (Palomera & Vetta 2016: 428).


Research Questions

  • What are the different moral frameworks underlying the plantation economy of Assam tea?
  • How are different moral frameworks constituted, embodied, negotiated and transformed on tea plantations in Assam?
  • How are structural inequalities generated by the tea plantation economy in Assam and how are they maintained or challenged, for example, by forms of state regulation, moral sentiments or forms of protest?



The present study is based on twelve-months of ethnographic fieldwork in Assam between December 2014 and December 2016. The fieldwork included participant observation on different sites, such as on plantations, at protests, meetings and events as well as semi-structured interviews with tea plantation labourers, their children, tea plantation staff, managers, owners, activists, NGO representatives, trade unionists and tea traders.



Mishra, Deepak K. et al. 2012: Unfolding Crisis in Assam’s Tea Plantations. New Delhi: Routledge.

Palomera, Jaime and Theodora Vetta 2016: Moral Economy: Rethinking a Radical Concept. Anthropological Theory 16 (4): 413-432.

Rowlatt, Justine and Jane Deith 2015: The Bitter Story behind the UK’s National Drink. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-34173532 (last accessed on 28 February 2017).

Scott, James 1976: The Moral Economy of the Peasant. Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thompson, E.P. 1971: The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century. Past & Present 50: 76-136.