In This Article Caste

  • Introduction
  • Untouchability
  • Contemporary Contexts and Emerging Perspectives

Sociology Caste
Surinder S. Jodhka
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0006


Caste is popularly understood 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. 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 scholar, Ghurye 1932, identified 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 by Srinivas 1973 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 had commented 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. The resurgence of caste in Indian politics during the 1990s was described by Srinivas 1996 as a new avatar (incarnation) of caste. As the collections of essays in Gupta 1992, Gupta 2004, Fuller 1996, and other volumes also show, caste in India has been a very widely researched subject with a range of interpretative accounts.

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

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

  • Ghurye, Govind S. 1932. Caste and race in India. London: Kegan Paul.

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    The book provides a broad introduction to the system of caste hierarchy as pan-Indian system. The account of caste presented is mostly descriptive. It is one of the early books written on the caste system by an Indian social anthropologist.

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

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    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.

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

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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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. 1973. Social change in modern India. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Includes a chapter on sanskritization, a process of internal mobility whereby a low caste attempted upward mobility within the caste system by imitating the lifestyle and ritual practices of an upper caste.

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

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

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