In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Caste

  • Introduction
  • Untouchability
  • Contemporary Contexts and Emerging Perspectives

Sociology Caste
Surinder S. Jodhka
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0006


Caste is popularly understood as a uniquely Indian and Hindu system of social organization. In the sociological writings, it is often viewed as a “closed system” of social stratification in which social groups, often divided on the basis of their occupations, strictly follow a code of behavior prescribed by tradition regarding marriage and kinship alliances. Caste groups are unequal, ranked on a scale of hierarchy on the basis of their ritual status, from pure to impure. The hierarchy is sanctioned by the Hindu religious belief. Their “status” or position in the system determines with whom they can and cannot interact.

Introductory Works

The nature and practice of caste divisions vary significantly across regions. However, over the years, a textbook view of caste emerged that has also become a part of the popular commonsense understanding of caste. The caste system, in this understanding, is generally viewed as a system of social organization among Hindus. The early writings on the subject typically presented it as having certain peculiar attributes. For example, Quigley 1993 identifies three of them: “1. The Hindu world is made up of a number of castes; 2. Castes are closed social groups; and 3. Castes are hierarchically ranked on a purity-pollution scale according to their traditional occupations.” Another work, Ghurye 1932 (cited under Associations), identifies six core features of the Hindu caste system: segmental division of society, hierarchy, restrictions on feeding and social intercourse, civil and religious disabilities and privileges of different sections, lack of unrestricted choice of occupation, and restrictions on marriage. However, as Quigley points out, the empirical research on caste has repeatedly demonstrated that such generalized descriptive accounts are “at best inadequate, at worst wholly misleading.” Though classical Hinduism legitimizes caste-based ritual hierarchies, the practice of caste in daily life has always been quite different from this popular book view of caste. Classical sociology also tended to simplify the complex reality of caste as a typical case of traditional social order. As has been shown in Srinivas 1996 and Sharma 2002, caste was expected gradually to dissolve and disappear with the onset of modernization. However, many would agree that this assumption has proved wrong. While the process of modernization has been in place for more than a century in India, there are no signs of caste disappearing. Srinivas 1962 comments on the plasticity of caste and its ability to survive the process of urbanization and the introduction of new technology in India by the British colonial rulers during the late 19th century. More recently, researchers are beginning to explore its materiality (Guha 2016) and its intersections with modern-day market-based economic processes. Similarly, scholars have also highlighted how caste thrives through its politicization and identity-based mobilizations in the Indian democratic process. Beginning in the 1990s, caste has seen a significant revival in the narratives on the Indian public sphere. It has also become a popular subject for researchers from a wide range of disciplinary interests in social sciences and humanities.

  • Fuller, Christopher J. 1996. Caste today. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is a collection of essays written by experts on the subject. These essays focus on the various contemporary contexts in which caste appears.

  • Guha, Sumit. 2016. Beyond caste: Identity and power in South Asia. Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black.

    The book explores the history of caste and approaches it as an aspect of power, a “stratified poly-ethnic system.”

  • Gupta, Dipankar, ed. 1992. Social stratification. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is a reader that brings together writings on caste and class in India. Its selection of writings on caste is much better than those on class. Chapters on caste cover a wide range of studies, some dealing with theoretical issues and others drawn from empirical studies of caste in India.

  • Gupta, Dipankar, ed. 2004. Caste in question: Identity or hierarchy. New Delhi: SAGE.

    This edited volume brings together more recent writings on caste from different regions of India.

  • Jodhka, Surinder S. 2012. Caste. Oxford India Short Introduction. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The book provides an accessible introduction to a wide range of scholarly writings on the subject. It underlines the significance of looking at caste from diverse perspectives and how it continues to matter in contemporary India as an axis of social inequality.

  • Jodhka, Surinder S. 2015. Caste in contemporary India. New Delhi and London: Routledge.

    Besides providing a useful introduction to the subject, chapters in the book present empirical accounts of the working of caste in post-1990s India. Subjects discussed in different chapters of the book range from the changes produced by Green Revolution technology and their implications for the practice of untouchability in rural northwest India, its interaction with the Indian democratic politics, and its significance in the informal economy to the manners in caste matters in corporate hiring in India’s fast-growing corporate economy.

  • Quigley, Declan. 1993. The interpretation of caste. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The book provides a critical survey of literature on caste and a useful introduction to a wide variety of literature on the subject and different theoretical perspectives that Western observers have used to understand the caste system.

  • Sharma, Ursula. 2002. Caste. Concepts in Social Sciences. New Delhi: Viva.

    A useful overview of the classical and contemporary literature on the subject of caste.

  • Srinivas, Mysore N. 1962. Caste in modern India and other essays. Bombay: Media Promoter.

    The first chapter, “Caste in modern India,” provides a very useful introduction to the manner in which caste survived and adapted to the changes introduced by the colonial rulers.

  • Srinivas, Mysore N., ed. 1996. Caste: Its twentieth-century avatar. New Delhi: Viking.

    This is an edited volume of essays on different dimensions of caste in the late 20th century. Author’s introduction provides a useful perspective on the resurgence of caste in contemporary India.

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