Some Theoretical Considerations on Caste

Topics: Sociology, Caste, Caste system in India Pages: 18 (11192 words) Published: May 29, 2014
Dhaulagiri Journal of Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 7, 2013


Some Theoretical Considerations on Caste

Madhusudan Subedi

Caste as a system of social stratification was an encompassing system in the past. There was reciprocal system of exchange goods and services. With time, occupation and mode of generation of livelihood of various caste groups changed, and the traditional form of jajmani system fizzled out. This paper provides an account of changing perspectives of caste relations in social science writing and political discourse. The discourse of caste has been shifted from ritual hierarchy and social discrimination to an instrument to mobilize people for economic and political gain.

52 | Madhusudan Subedi

resources'. In this article, I mainly focus on some key theoretical debates on caste and its changing context.
Caste has been discussed in classical Hindu texts, in micro
level ethnographic accounts, and in large-scale surveys of attitudes and perceptions, and caste-based mobilizations. What is caste and how can it be defined? What are its core descriptive dimensions? How could it survive for so long and what keeps it going even in modern, contemporary times (Jodhka 2012)? Although these questions appear to be rather simple and obvious, the rich literature dealing with these issues do not offer any straightforward answers.

Social stratification is the ordering of social differences based on a set of criteria or just one single criterion (Gupta 2000). Caste, class, race, ethnicity, and gender are some of the pertinent categories of social hierarchy and differentiation in many societies. The term 'caste' means different things when used by different people in a variety of situations. What people mean by caste in everyday life is different from its meaning in the traditional literature or from what people consider to be its traditional and orthodox meaning (Béteille 1965, p. 45). Sometimes people mean ‘caste’ to be a small and more or less localized group, but the same word also can refer to a collection of such groups. This article starts with sociological and anthropological understandings of the caste system and its variations.

Keywords: Affirmative action, identity politics, ritual hierarchy 2. Issues in the Theoretical Discussion of Caste Systems
1. Introduction
The theme in this article is social stratification and social inequality. This is not a new issue in sociology, but this article will focus on caste, its context and position in people’s day-to-day life, relations among them, and the changes taking place in those relations. I believe that stratification and inequality is the most important issue in sociology, and the conditions of castes have been crucial when discussing Nepal’s social structure. My impression is that there has been a major change from treating caste as a rigid stratum to the current perception of caste as 'identity to negotiate power and

Caste may be defined “as a small and named group of persons characterized by endogamy, hereditary membership, and a specific style of life which sometimes includes the pursuit by tradition of a particular occupation and usually associated with a more or less distinct ritual status in a hierarchical system” (Béteille 1965, p. 46). Berreman (1967, p. 70) has defined the caste system as a “system of birth-ascribed stratification, of socio-cultural pluralism, and of hierarchical interaction”. With Sinha’s words (1967, p. 94), “caste is a hierarchy of endogamous groups, organized in a characteristic hereditary division of labour”. Hutton (1946) describes a functional

Dhaulagiri Journal of Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 7, 2013


view of caste system for individual members, community functions, and function for the state and society as a whole. Ghurye (1950) gives a comprehensive definition of caste. According to him, the six main features of the caste system are: segmental division of society, hierarchy of...

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