Anthropology Caste
Deepa Reddy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0149


Caste has been the subject of curiosity, debate, protest, investigation, reform, and outrage for over a century, and stands still as a surrogate for understanding India. Long held to be the primary unit of Indian social organization, caste fractures were often cited as the very reason for India’s historical disunity and fissiparous tendencies. As a social form, caste is tethered by the twin notions of varna and jati: the former signaling a religious-ideological formulation into whose four broad categories (or chatur-varnas) all the diverse occupationally specialized, endogamous regional groups (or jatis) could be placed (or excluded from, creating a further subcategory of untouchables). Later scholars added conceptions of purity and pollution to our understandings of how groups are distinguished and hierarchies delineated, pointing to the symbolic and real dimensions of caste practices. As an occupational hierarchy, however, caste has important socioeconomic dimensions that complicate any straightforward religious interpretation. There is a substantial corpus of research that documents economic and occupational strategies that mitigate some caste rigidities and allow for more contestations of power and mobility than conventional varna-jati perspectives would appear to allow. Such studies not only explore the everyday workings of hierarchy, the possibilities of class mobility, and the meshing of kinship with economics and identity, but also expose caste as a system of clientelism and patronage that determines access to power, reinforcing as much as subverting existing social relations. Caste is malleable, no doubt, but what social form it assumes depends on a highly variable set of institutional relationships: with kin and community groups, reformist organizations, political parties, the colonial and later developmentalist state, and even with international bodies concerned with human rights and development. Distinguishing between caste and the caste system, then, is one way to begin speaking about the structural transformations of caste from colonial times to the present. For no longer can caste be defined purely in terms of endogamy, heredity, and relative rank. Rather, castes develop into political factions in competition with other such factions for common economic or political goals: processes that lead to a conceptualization of caste as an ethnicized formation. Caste then also defines mechanisms by which to claim power, create new alliances, articulate discontent, demand justice, critique dominant ideologies, and project the textured and multidimensional worldviews and experiences of the marginalized, thus compelling a rethinking of hierarchy while creating spaces for the articulation of difference. Citations in the following sections are organized to guide readers through the morphing meanings and understandings of caste, beginning with classic conceptualizations, the transformations of caste under colonialism and consequent waves of social reform, to the present day identitarian assertions of democratic selfhood. It is important to note, however, that although section heads define broad areas of emphasis, there are at times overlaps, which are indicated where possible.

Classic Theories

Classic theories of caste treat it as a phenomenon to be studied, documented, and understood as a more-or-less closed socioreligious system. Roberto de Nobili and later Abbé Dubois laid the groundwork for early conceptualizations of caste as a highly ritualized, Brahminical, curious, and somewhat impenetrable system that posed particular challenges for missionizing work. The petrified religious foundations of caste establish its contradistinction with the state in Hegel’s thinking: caste expressed India’s fundamental “nature” and was the reason why India was both without history in need of European subjection. The more sociological assessments of Max Weber and colonial administrators like H. H. Risley, too, saw the institution of caste as an impediment to individual progress and to capitalist and national development. Not unlike the missionizing efforts of de Nobili and Dubois, Risley sought a reconstitution of caste—but this time with anthropometric tools, as an overarching logic of enumeration and classification that yielded a civil society amenable to colonial strategies of governance. These early theories set the stage for later conceptualizations. Hutton 1947 drew on existing census reports as well as works by other British scholar-administrators to reflect on the origins and the functional basis of caste, and to document factors contributing to the emergence and development of caste; his work serves as much as an overview of caste as a historical document on colonial methods and conceptualizations. Bailey 1961 and Marriott 1960 study the idea of caste in relation to that of tribes as usually distinguished, but here coexisting and mutually influencing social forms. Marriott 1960 and Leach 1960 provide comparative descriptions of what Marriott calls the elaborateness of caste ranking in different regions of the subcontinent, covering interdependencies, variations, acceptance of hierarchy, occupational specialization, and so on; both are in a way concerned with establishing and substantiating the forms and functions of caste. Srinivas 1952, however, gives us the first vocabulary by which to understand mobility: Sanskritization is a process by which lower caste groups seek to emulate the behaviors of higher castes, many of which are associated with purity, thereby enabling a rise in position over a few generations. Dumont 1980 establishes a different and critical baseline: reading caste as inextricable from its religious matrix, turning on the opposition of purity to impurity, and as a totalizing status-defined framework by which to read all social interactions, Dumont’s work becomes a point of reference that scholars like Jonathan Parry (in Parry 1979) nuance by describing inconsistencies within caste ideologies. Mencher 1974 and Meillassoux 1973, on the other hand, critique caste by arguing, respectively, that it functions fundamentally as a system of economic exploitation, and that jajmani relations were in fact relations of labor exploitation—each therefore providing a basis to read caste as class. Finally, Béteille 1996 reflects on the declining importance of the chaturvarna framework and the remarkable tenacity (p. 25) of jati in allowing for the expression of collective identity—extending Srinivas’s earlier insights on this subject, as well as those of other vernacular theorists.

  • Bailey, F. G. 1961. Tribe and caste in India. Contribution to Indian Sociology 5:7–19.

    Bailey distinguishes tribes from castes (the former segmentary, the latter hierarchical) but places both in a common, mutually constituting context that produces regional variations in form. They exist on a continuum rather than being strictly distinguishable as types.

  • Béteille, André. 1996. Varna and jati. Sociological Bulletin 45.1: 15–27.

    Readable discussion of the ideas of varna and jati, and a response to M. N. Srinivas’s essay of the same title and N. K. Bose’s writings on the subject. Demonstrates the relative insignificance of varna as a framework for understanding caste and the resurgence of jati-based identities and politics.

  • Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo hierarchicus. Translated by Mark Sainsbury, Louis Dumont, and Basia Gulati. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Seminal treatise on caste in India that opposes the characterization of caste as an extreme form of social stratification, and puts forward caste hierarchy as an ideological ordering of society as a whole, based on a religiously inflected opposition of purity to impurity (and therefore Brahmin/non-Brahmin, high/low, spiritual/temporal, superior/inferior, etc.). First published 1966.

  • Hutton, J. H. 1947. Caste in India: Its nature, functions, and origins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Anthropologist, administrator, and 1931 census commissioner Hutton’s attempt to provide a comprehensive account of caste from descriptions and theories of origin to present forms and strictures, with appendices on exterior castes.

  • Leach, Edmund, ed. 1960. Aspects of caste in South India, Ceylon and north-west Pakistan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Collection of essays that evaluate caste against both Dumont’s early theses on the embeddedness of caste in religious matrices and other analyses of caste as rigid social hierarchy. Leach identifies five key elements that distinguish caste: hierarchy, endogamy, hereditary occupation, untouchability, and rules governing commensality.

  • Marriott, McKim. 1960. Caste ranking and community structure in five regions of India and Pakistan. Deccan College Monograph Series 23. Poona, India: Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute.

    Structural analysis of variations in elaborateness of the caste system across five South Asian regions, ranking each area according to the degree of consensus on the hierarchy of castes, delineation of hierarchy by ritual, and limits placed on social interaction between high and low castes. Argues that tribes and castes are often coeval, and that castes can have emerged from tribes.

  • Meillassoux, Claude. 1973. Are there castes in India? Economy and Society 2.1: 89–111.

    DOI: 10.1080/03085147300000004

    Critique of Dumont’s theory of caste and Marxist analysis of caste as fundamentally based in economic relations of production. Jajmani relations were in fact clientalist, dependent on the exploitation of labor, and varna is really class masked by religious precepts.

  • Mencher, Joan. 1974. The caste system upside down, or the not-so-mysterious East. Current Anthropology 15.4: 469–493.

    DOI: 10.1086/201505

    Reading caste from the “bottom up,” Mencher makes two related arguments: that caste is fundamentally a system of economic exploitation; and that, as a result, one of its functions has been the denial of class-based social groupings.

  • Parry, Jonathan. 1979. Caste and kinship in Kangra. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Social structural account of caste and kinship in Himachal Pradesh highlights the existence of as many hierarchies within caste groups as between them. Pervasive though hierarchy is in a Dumontian sense, caste ideology is never perfectly coherent or without inconsistencies.

  • Srinivas, M. N. 1952. Religion and society among the Coorgs of South India. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Classic ethnographic study of the Kodava community, Srinivas’s analysis of social structure focuses on vertical groupings (village, family) versus horizontal groupings of labor division and caste. Advances the influential theory of Sanskritization: processes by which smaller, peripheral groups are absorbed (or seek to be absorbed) into mainstream Sanskritic Hinduism.

  • Srinivas, M. N. 1959. The dominant caste in Rampura. American Anthropologist 61.1: 1–16.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1959.61.1.02a00030

    Srinivas establishes parameters in this essay for the understanding of “dominance” that may be tied to wealth, landholding, and political power, not just caste status. “Sanskritization” can mean the emulation of other dominant castes, not only Brahmins.

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