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

  • Introduction
  • Caste System in India
  • Practice of Untouchability
  • Classifications and Mobilizations of Dalits
  • Caste and Indian Democracy
  • Conversions
  • Ambedkar, Ambedkarism, and Dalit Identity
  • Mapping Exclusions: Caste and Economics
  • Dalits and Neoliberal Capital
  • Caste and Dalit Identity beyond India
  • Caste and Gender
  • Literary Voices from Within
  • Cinema and Documentaries

Anthropology Dalit Studies
Surinder S. Jodhka, Ujithra Ponniah
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0163


The term Dalit has come to be used in relation to the cluster of communities located at the lower end of the hierarchy in the Indian caste system. Etymologically, its origin can be located in the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, and it is popularly translated as oppressed, ground down, or part of downtrodden groups and communities. Despite its “ancient” origin and occasional usage in the past, the term acquired popularity rather recently, beginning sometime in the 1970s and taking off in the 1990s. Broadly speaking, the term has three overlapping usages. First, it has come to be seen as a descriptive category that refers to the ex-Untouchable communities of the subcontinent. Since it is popularly viewed as the preferred category for self-description of the socially excluded, its political correctness is taken for granted. Second, Dalit is also a historical category, which reframes the caste system from a critical perspective as an oppressive system which marginalized and excluded groups and communities located lower down in the ritual hierarchy. The third overlapping usage of the term is political, where the term implies contesting and delegitimizing the hierarchical social order. The study of Dalits or “Dalit studies” is thus not simply a branch of anthropological inquiry that focuses on a set of communities traditionally identified as Untouchables, whom Gandhi had patronizingly called harijans (children of God), but it has also been a rather fluid and evolving area of engagement across disciplines: literature and culture studies, sociology and anthropology, history, politics, and gender studies. Given its almost immediate political context, Dalit studies, quite like women or gender studies, has been closely tied to social movements of the ex-Untouchable communities. Its conceptual frames and intellectual energies often overlap with political concerns of those located at the lowest end of the traditional caste hierarchy. This relationship is not one way. Those engaged with Dalit studies also tend to see themselves as being part of the larger Dalit politics and aspire to feed into political mobilizations, policy debates, and social concerns of these communities. This introduction to Dalit studies thus approaches it as an academically fluid and interdisciplinary field of engagement.

Caste System in India

Caste has been an extensively researched subject in anthropological traditions since the late 19th century. It continues to be a vibrant area of social science enquiry and engagement even today. Gupta 1992 is an edited volume that provides a glimpse into popular writings on the subject by sociologists and social anthropologists. Quigley 1993, Sharma 2002, and more recently Jodhka 2012 provide lucid introductions to diverse perspectives on the subject. The nature of these concerns and perspectives has been changing over the years. As Dirks 2001 points out, early conceptualizations by colonial administrators and orientalist scholars were largely based on Hindu religious texts which represented caste as an aspect of “native” religious tradition, an ideology that shaped minds and behavior patterns of the Hindus in the subcontinent. However by the 1960s, scholarly writings such as Srinivas 1962, Rudolph and Rudolph 1967, and Kothari 1970 presented a more empirically grounded picture. Caste appeared in such writings as a potentially active and adaptive institution that was marked by some amount of fluidity and significant diversity. Historical works such as Dirks 2001, Washbrook 1976, and Guha 2013 show that the earlier picture of caste as being a static institution of the ancient past was itself a colonial construct. In reality, caste actively intersected with the local political process. More recently, scholars have been looking at the emergent social identities, political movements, and representational strategies of those who have been on the margins of hierarchical structures of social inequalities. Social science scholarship is also beginning to explore the continued significance of caste in shaping opportunity structures and labor markets in the neoliberal economy. A wide range of academics with a diverse range of disciplinary perspectives and interests today engage with different dimensions of caste.

  • Dirks, Nicholas. 2001. Castes of mind: Colonialism and the making of modern India. New York: Princeton Univ. Press.

    In this book Dirks argues that caste is not a relic of ancient India, but it is under the colonial government that caste became a single term that categorized India’s diverse kinds of identity and community.

  • Guha, Sumit. 2013. Beyond caste: Identity and power in South Asia, past and present. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004254855

    This book draws on a range of sources and shows how caste has persisted under different non-Hindu rulers across South Asia at different historical junctures.

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

    This book brings together important writings on caste and class in India. The essays on caste are both theoretical and empirical in nature.

  • Jodhka, S. S. 2012. Caste. Oxford India Short Introductions. New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book provides an accessible introduction to the subject of caste and locates trajectories of its change over the 20th century and up to the early 21st century. It locates these changes in the larger processes of social, economic, and political transformations being experienced by Indian society. The book also introduces different perspectives on the subject, academic and political.

  • Kothari, Rajni, ed. 1970. Caste in Indian politics. Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman.

    The book is a collection of essays based on empirical studies of electoral politics in different regions of India. The book also has a very useful introduction by its editor that deals with the subject of caste and its possible relationship with modern democracy.

  • Quigley, Declan. 1993. The interpretations of caste. Oxford: Clarendon.

    This book brings together a critical review of existing literature on caste. It consists of different theoretical perspectives adopted by Western thinkers in their understanding of caste.

  • Rudolph, L. I., and S. H. Rudolph. 1967. The modernity of tradition: Political development in India. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    The book looks at the relationship of caste and democratic politics and examines how the local level of social realities, including the institution of caste, has adapted to the modern democratic political process in India.

  • Sharma, Ursula. 2002. Caste. New Delhi: Viva.

    This book provides an introduction to the western literature on the subject and critically examines the manner in which the subject appears in the classical sociological texts.

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

    There are eleven essays in this book. Six of them are general essays on Indian society and trends based on Srinivas’s fieldwork. The first chapter, titled “Caste in Modern India,” is a useful introduction on how caste has adapted and was introduced by colonial governmentality.

  • Washbrook, D. A. 1976. The emergence of provincial politics: The Madras presidency, 1870–1920. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511563430

    The author shows how caste operated and adapted itself within different agrarian and urban contexts and through the colonial and state institutions.

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