Caste and Inherited Status

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The study of social inequalities is one of the most important areas of sociology as inequalities in property, power, and prestige have long-term consequences on access to the basic necessities of life such as good health, education, and a well-paying job. Unequal resources between groups also influence their interaction with all the basic institutions of society: the economy, the political system, and religion, among others. An understanding of how inequalities arise, their forms and consequences, and the processes that tend to sustain them is essential for the formulation of policies that will improve the well-being of all in society.

All societies in the world are socially stratified (i.e. wealth, power, and honor are unequally distributed among different groups). However, they vary in the ways in which inequality is structured. One of the most frequently used bases for categorizing different forms of stratification systems is the way status is acquired. In some societies, individuals acquire status on the basis of their achievements or merit. In others, status is accorded on the basis of ascribed, not achieved characteristics. One is born into them or inherits them, regardless of individual abilities or skills. A person's position is unalterable during his or her lifetime. The most easily understood example is that of the prince who inherits the status of king because he is the son of a king.

Sociologists who study stratification use the idea of ascribed and achieved status to contrast caste systems with class systems. In class systems one's opportunities in life, at least in theory, are determined by one's actions, allowing a degree of individual mobility that is not possible in caste systems. In caste systems a person's social position is determined by birth, and social intercourse outside one's caste is prohibited.

The term "caste" itself is often used to denote large-scale kinship groups that are hierarchically organized within a rigid system of stratification. Caste systems are to be found among the Hindus in India and among societies where groups are ranked and closed as in South Africa during the apartheid period. Toward the end of this article, examples of caste systems will be given from other non-Hindu societies to illustrate how rigid, ranked systems of inequality, where one's position is fixed for life, are found in other areas that do not share India's religious belief system.

Early Hindu literary classics describe a society divided into four varnas: Brahman (poet-priest), Kshatriya (warrior-chief), Vaishya (traders), and Shudras (menials, servants). The varnas formed ranked categories characterized by differential access to spiritual and material privileges. It excluded the Untouchables, who were despised because they engaged in occupations that were considered unclean and polluting.

The varna model of social ranking persisted throughout the Hindu subcontinent for over a millennia. The basis of caste ranking was the sacred concept of purity and pollution with Brahmans, because they were engaged in priestly duties considered ritually pure, while those who engaged in manual labor and with ritually polluting objects were regarded as impure. Usually those who had high ritual status also had economic and political power. Beliefs about pollution generally regulated all relations between castes. Members were not allowed to marry outside their caste; there were strict rules about the kind of food and drink one could accept and from what castes; and there were restrictions on approaching and visiting members of another caste. Violations of these rules entailed purifactory rites and sometimes expulsion from the caste (Ghurye 1969).

The varna scheme refers only to broad categories of society, for in reality the small endogamous group or subcaste (jati) forms the unit of social organization. In each linguistic area there are about two thousand such subcastes. The status of the subcaste, its cultural traditions, and its numerical strength vary from one region to another, often from village to village.

Field studies of local caste structures revealed that the caste system was more dynamic than the earlier works by social scientists had indicated. For example, at the local level, the position of the middle castes, between the Brahmans and the Untouchables, is often not very clear. This is because castes were often able to change their ritual position after they had acquired economic and political power. A low caste would adopt the Brahminic way of life, such as vegetarianism and teetotalism, and in several generations attain a higher position in the hierarchy. Upward mobility occurred for an entire caste, not for an individual or the family. This process of upward mobility, known as Sanskritization (Srinivas 1962), did not however, affect the movement of castes at the extremes. Brahmans in most parts of the country were found at the top, and Untouchables everywhere occupied a degrading status because of their economic dependency and low ritual status.

The operation of this hierarchical society was justified with reference to traditional Hindu religious beliefs about samsara (reincarnation) and karma (quality of actions). A person's position in this life was determined by his or her actions in previous lives. Persons who were born in a Brahman family must have performed good deeds in their earlier lives. Being born a Shudra or an Untouchable was punishment for the sinful acts committed in previous lives.

Some scholars (Leach 1960; Dumont 1970) saw the caste system as a cooperative, inclusive arrangement where each caste formed an integral part of the local socioeconomic system and had its special privileges. In a jajmani system, as this arrangement between castes was known, a village was controlled by a dominant caste, which used its wealth, numerical majority, and high status to dominate the other castes in the village. Most other castes provided services to this caste. Some worked on the land as laborers and tenants. Others provided goods and services to the landowning households and to other castes. A village would thus have a potter, blacksmith, carpenter, tailor, shoemaker, barber, sweeper, and a washerman, with each caste specializing in different occupations. These were hereditary occupations. In return for their services castes would be paid in kind, usually farm produce. These patron-client relationships continued for generations, and it was the religious duty of the jajman (patron) to take care of others.

Although the system did provide security for all, it was essentially exploitative and oppressive (Berreman 1981; Beidelman 1959; Freeman 1986), particularly for the Untouchables, who were confined to menial, despised jobs, working as sweepers, gutter and latrine cleaners, scavengers, watchmen, farm laborers, and curers of hides. They were denied access to Hindu temples; were not allowed to read religious Sanskrit books and remained illiterate; could not use village wells and tanks; were forced to live in settlements outside the village; and were forbidden to enter the residential areas of the upper castes.


British rule profoundly affected the Indian social order. The ideas of Western culture; the opening of English educational institutions; the legal system, which introduced the principle of equality before the law; and the new economic activities and the kind of employment they generated all brought new opportunities for greater advancement. Although these new developments resulted in greater mobility and opened doors for even the low castes, those castes that benefited most were the ones already in advantageous positions. Thus, Brahmans with a tradition of literacy were the first to avail themselves of English education and occupy administrative positions in the colonial bureaucracy.

The spread of communications enabled local subcastes to link together and form caste associations. These organizations, although initially concerned with raising the caste status in terms of Brahmanical values, later sought educational, economic, and social benefits from the British (Rudolph and Rudolph 1960). When the colonial authorities widened political participation by allowing elections in some provinces, castes organized to make claims for political representation. In some regions, such as the South, the non-Brahman castes were successful in restricting entry of Brahmans in educational institutions and administrative services.

To assuage the fears of communities about upper-caste Hindu rule in independent India and also to weaken the nationalist movement, the British granted special political representation to some groups such as the Untouchables. They had become politically mobilized under the leadership of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and had learned, like other castes and communities, the use of political means to secure status and power (Zelliot 1970).

After the country became independent from British rule in 1947, the Indian leaders hoped that legislative and legal measures would reorder an entrenched social structure. A new Constitution was adopted, which abolished untouchability and prohibited discrimination in public places. In addition, special places were reserved for Untouchables in higher educational institutions, government services, and in the lower houses of the central and state legislatures.

What progress has the country made toward improving the lives of the Untouchables, who now form 16.48 percent (according to the 1991 Indian Census) of the population? Has the traditional caste system disintegrated?

The movement from a traditional to a modern economy—increase in educational facilities; expansion of white-collar jobs, especially in the state sector; expansion of the transportation and communication networks; increase in agricultural production (known as the Green Revolution)—has had a significant impact on the institution of caste. However, political factors have been equally if not more important in producing changes in the caste system. One is the democratic electoral system. The other is the state's impact on intercaste relations through its policy of preferences for selected disadvantaged castes.

The close association between caste and traditional occupation is breaking down because of the expansion of modern education and the urban-industrial sector. In India, an urban middle class has formed whose members are drawn from various caste groups. This has reduced the structural and cultural differences between castes, as divisions based on income, education, and occupation become more important than caste cleavages for social and economic purposes. However, the reduction is most prominent among the upper socioeconomic strata—the urban, Western-educated, professional, and higher-income groups, whose members share a common lifestyle (Beteille 1969).

For most Indians, especially those who live in rural areas (73 percent of the Indian population is still rural), caste factors are an integral part of their daily lives. In many parts of the country Dalits (the term means "oppressed" and is now preferred by the members of the Untouchable community rather than the government-assigned label "Scheduled Castes") are not allowed inside temples and cannot use village water wells. Marriages are generally arranged between persons of the same caste.

With the support of government scholarships and reservation benefits, a small proportion of Dalits has managed to gain entry into the middle class—as school teachers, clerks, bank tellers, typists, and government officials. Reservation of seats in the legislature has made the political arena somewhat more accessible, although most politicians belonging to the Dalit community have little say in party matters and government policymaking. The majority of Dalits remain landless agricultural laborers, powerless, desperately poor, and illiterate.

Modern economic forces are changing the rural landscape. The increase in cash-crop production, which has made grain payments in exchange for services unprofitable; the introduction of mechanized farming which has displaced manual labor; the preference for manufactured goods to handmade ones; and the migration to cities and to prosperous agricultural areas for work and better wages have all weakened the traditional patron-client ties and the security it provided. The Dalits and other low castes have been particularly affected as the other sectors of the economy have not grown fast enough to absorb them.

The rural social structure has been transformed in yet another way. The dominant castes are no longer from the higher castes but belong to the middle and lower peasant castes—the profit maximizing "bullock capitalists" (Rudolph and Rudolph 1987) who were the chief beneficiaries of land reform and state subsidies to the agricultural sector (Blair 1980; Brass 1985). They have displaced the high-caste absentee landlords who have moved to cities and taken up modern occupations.

Modern political institutions have also brought about changes in the traditional leadership and power structure of local communities. Relations between castes are now governed by rules of competitive politics, and leaders are selected for their political skills and not because they are members of a particular caste. The role of caste varies at different levels of political action. At the village and district levels caste loyalties are effectively used for political mobilization. But at the state and national levels, caste factors become less important for political parties because one caste rarely commands a majority at these levels. The rise of a Dalit political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, is evidence that Dalits are finally gaining some political power. They are particularly strong in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where they received 20.61 percent of the votes in the 1996 general elections. However, at the national level they have fared poorly, capturing only 11 seats (and 3.64 percent of the votes) in the 1996 general elections.

In the 1990s there were numerous instances of confrontations between the middle peasant castes and Dalits in rural areas. Violence and repression against Dalits has increased as they have begun to assert themselves. With the support of Communist and Dalit movements, they are demanding better wages, the right to till government-granted land, and the use of village wells.

In urban areas, caste conflict has mainly centered around the issue of "reservation." The other backward castes (who belong mainly to the Shudra caste and form about 50 percent of the country's population) have demanded from the government benefits similar to those available to Dalits in government service and educational institutions. Under electoral pressures the state governments have extended these reservation benefits to the other backward castes, leading to discontent among the upper castes.

Extension of preferential treatment from Dalits to the more numerous and in some states somewhat better-off backward castes has not only created great resentment among the upper castes but also has reduced public support for the policy of special benefits for the Dalits. In cities they have often been victims during anti-reservation agitations. That this is happening at the very time when the preferential programs have gradually succeeded in improving the educational and economic conditions for Dalits is not accidental (Sheth 1987).

As education and the meaning of the vote and the ideas of equality and justice spread, the rural and urban areas will witness severe intercaste conflicts. What is significant, however, is that these conflicts are not over caste beliefs and values, but like conflicts elsewhere between ethnic groups, have to do with control over political and economic resources.


Do castes exist outside India? Is it a unique social phenomenon distinct from other systems of social stratification? Opinion among scholars is divided over this issue. Castelike systems have been observed in the South Asian subcontinent and beyond (in Japan, Africa, Iran, and Polynesia). Caste has also been used to describe the systems of racial stratification in South Africa and the southern United States.

Whether the term "caste" is applicable to societies outside the South Asian region depends on how the term is defined. Those who focus on its religious foundations argue that caste is a particular species of structural organization found only in the Indian world. Louis Dumont (1970), for example, contends that caste systems are noncomparable to systems of racial stratification because of the differences in ideology—one based on the ideology of hierarchy, the other on an equalitarian ideology.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, caste as a ranked system exists in many societies. In fact, wherever ethnic groups stand in a hierarchical or ranked relationship to each other they resemble castes (Weber 1958; Horowitz 1985; Berreman 1981). As in caste systems, the identity of an ethnic group is regarded as being a consequence of birth or ancestry and hence immutable; mobility opportunities are restricted; and members of the subordinate group retain their low social position in all sectors of society—political, economic, and social. Social interactions between groups remain limited and are suffused with deference. Given these similarities in their social structures and social processes, caste stratification is congruent with race stratification and ranked ethnic systems. Below are some examples of castelike systems in countries outside South Asia.

In Japan, during the Tokugawa period (from the early 1600s to the middle 1800s), the Shogun rulers established a very rigid, hierarchical system that was maintained by force of law and other means. At the top were the shogunate warriorbureaucrats, their samurai military elite, and the higher aristocracy. This was followed by peasants, then artisans, and then merchants. At the bottom and separated from the rest of the populace there was a group of outcasts called eta (meaning heavily polluted) or hinin (meaning nonhuman) who were treated much like the Indian Untouchables described above. Eta were legally barred from marrying outside their group or from living outside their designated hamlets. These hamlets were called buraku, and their residents known as Burakumins.

Burakumins are indistinguishable in appearance from other Japanese. They faced discrimination because they inherited their status from people whose jobs were considered polluting and undesirable like butchering animals, tanning skins, digging graves, handling corpses, and guarding tombs.

The outcasts were formally emancipated in 1871, by the Meiji government (1868–1912). The descendants of Burakumins were identified as "new common people." However, they continued to face discrimination as their identity could be revealed through the household register system that included the ancestry of all Japanese families. Although now the household register is not made available to the public without the permission of the family, the identity of individuals is frequently revealed when families and employers conduct investigations for marriage purposes and hiring (Ishida 1992).

Rwanda, a country just south of the Equator in Africa and which has witnessed violent ethnic conflict is another example of a system of caste stratification. Before European colonization, political power was concentrated in the hands of the king and the pastoral aristocracy (Tutsi). The Tutsis constituted only about 10 percent of the population. Hutus, the lower caste of agriculturalists, formed the vast majority of the population. The lowest caste, known as Twa, were a small minority and worked as potters, court jesters, and hunters. No intermarriage was permitted between the groups. The Tutsis used their political and military power to maintain the hierarchical system (Southall 1970), particularly in central parts of the country. This hierarchical relationship was later reinforced under colonial rule and lasted until it was brought to an end in the 1950s (Newbury 1988).

As Gerald Berreman (1981) has argued, the blacks in America and South Africa, the Burakumin of Japan, the Dalit of India, and the Hutu and Twa of Rwanda, all live in societies that are alike in their structure and in their effect on the life experiences of those most oppressed. However, those at the bottom do not accept their condition willingly. Often too powerless to revolt openly, structurally similar forms of domination create common forms of infrapolitics—of surreptitious resistance. Rituals of aggression, tales of revenge, use of carnival symbolism, gossip, and rumor are all examples of the strategic form of resistance the subordinates use for open defiance under severely repressive conditions (Scott 1990). Finally, similarities also exist in the political consequences of preferential policies that culturally distinct societies such as the United States and India have adopted to reduce group disparities (Weiner 1983).


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