Caste, race and sociologists - I

By Gail Omvedt

The Durban conference has brought forward the barrenness of contemporary social sciences, especially sociology, in providing genuine intellectual input on the issue of caste and race.

NOW THAT the dust of Durban is dying down, the Indian and American establishments are undoubtedly both breathing a sigh of relief that demands for social justice from historically exploited peoples are being superceded by simpler crusades against terrorism. But the issue of caste and race will not so easily vanish. While the ``Durban discourse'' may or may not endure as a crucial part of the Dalit self-understanding, the World Conference against Racism has among other things brought forward the barrenness of contemporary social sciences, especially sociology, in providing genuine intellectual input on the issue.

The question of ``race and caste'' is simply the issue of the comparative analysis of caste as a form of social stratification. To say that two social phenomena are similar is, after all, not to say that they are identical: it is to raise the question of analysing how, in what ways they are similar and in what specific ways they are different. Since ``race'' is not a meaningful biological category, we are in reality dealing with ``racism'' - that is, a system of social differentiation based on an ideology that certain groups are genetically/biologically inferior. Ideologies or belief systems need not be ``true'' to be socially significant. Among the social sciences, this issue of hierarchy or social stratification has been above all the province of sociology, which deals with social systems generally. (Cultural anthropology also formulates general theories, though in the conventional separation between the two disciplines, anthropology has tended to concentrate on pre-industrial and often pre-state societies; this has meant a limitation of comparativeness. However, the disciplines share many themes and scholars and are often clubbed together in academic institutions. Prominent scholars of caste such as Louis Dumont and M. N. Srinivas have been identified as both anthropologists and sociologists).

It is not surprising, then, that the classic ``founding fathers'' of sociology had a good deal to say on caste (and caste-and- race), while debates on caste and race waged especially strong in the 1950s and 1960s. Even the most recently popular introduction textbook in sociology, by John Macionis, classifies caste in India along with apartheid in South Africa (admittedly the most severely structured racist system) as forms of ``caste systems'', that is closed stratification systems, contrasted with ``class'' or open stratification systems. Many sociologists will find such typifications oversimplified, but they do provide sophisticated versions of the common-sense understanding that caste and racial systems of stratification have many similarities.

Let us look at what the major sociological trends have had to say on the issue. The ``founding fathers'' of sociology are generally taken to be Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Marx understood caste as a form of division of labour connected with the specific Indian form of the Asiatic village, and believed that it would wither away under the impact of industrialisation and modern transport and communications. Unfortunately, his Indian followers, especially Marxian sociologists, have taken this as a license to completely ignore caste - though Marxist historians, from R.S. Sharma to the brilliant D.D. Kosambi, have made important contributions.

Durkheim also wrote little on caste; he did not consider himself a specialist in the area, and discussed most often pre-state societies in his major contrasts with modern industrial societies. However, one of the most important sociologists on caste, Louis Dumont, comes out of the Durkheimian school with its emphasis on the role of religion and values as binding and defining forces in society. Dumont's major work, Homo Hierarchus, takes caste in India as a unique system, intimately connected with Hinduism. He views it as the supreme example in the world of the recognition of hierarchy as a fact of social life, and in its shifting levels and logics of purity/pollution, encompassing/encompassed, the extreme purity of the Brahmans at the top requires as its antithesis the extreme pollution of the Untouchable at the bottom. In insisting on this core role of Hinduism in defining caste, Dumont in fact has much in common with Ambedkar.

It also has to be noted that in spite of his insistence on the uniqueness of caste in India, in spite of his refutations of those sociologists who attempted to analyse ``caste'' and ``race'' as inherently similar stratification systems, Durkheim does have much to say on their comparability, and as a sociologist he accepts comparison as a crucial goal. ``Racism represents a contradictory resurgence in egalitarian society of what finds direct expression as hierarchy in caste society,'' he writes (Homo Hierarchus, p. 214). In other words, caste is justified by the inherent values of Indian society; racial discrimination, in contrast, is against modern values of equality of all human beings and so is justified by assuming the oppressed are not quite human. It is an important insight, shared by almost all sociologists. Even anthropologists such as Gerald Berreman, who analyse caste and racial systems as similar, mention this point of legitimation as a distinguishing feature.

Dumont, though, is a relatively recent sociological writer on caste. Among the classics, it was above all the German sociologist Max Weber who dealt with the issue as part of his broad ranging comparative studies. Weber is known for seeking to supplement Marx's emphasis on economic class and the mode of production with the role of ideas and ideologies in history. In asking about the origins of capitalism, he pointed to Protestantism as a crucial historical phenomenon (it has to be noted he never sought to deny economic factors, only to supplement them). He followed up his analysis of the ``Protestant ethic'' in Europe with a far-ranging comparative analysis of religion and economy in India, China and elsewhere. It was in his Religion of India, published in 1916-17, that he dealt with caste - and race, and religion.

Aside from his points about the social-economic effects of caste, his section on the development of the system is interesting. It was understandable that Weber, writing on the background of debates on the Aryan theory (but before the discovery of Mohenjo- daro), should ask the question of the role of racial relations in the origin of caste. He rejected the ``Aryan theory of caste'' as such, the inheritance of racial differences and the idea that castes could be explained by deriving upper castes from Aryans, Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis from non-Aryans. (He did, however, make occasional comparisons with the position of Blacks in the U.S., noting in a way similar to Dumont that ``caste enhances and transposes social closure into the sphere of religion''). But he did believe that the Aryan incursion had led to relations between lighter- skinned conquerers and darker-skinned conquered, and that the role of visibly distinct ``racial types'' added force to a tendency of aristocracies the world over to put barriers on intermarriage with ``despised subjects''.

However, he saw this as only one factor among many in the developing complex society of India in the first millennium BC - others were an intermixture of many different ethnic groups in the vast continent leading to an interethnic specialisation of labour, new rulers rising to replace the old kshatriya class, and the conflict between these rulers and a then-vigorous urban-based society of guilds.

In this situation, it was the legitimising role of Brahmanic theory which was crucial. As Weber describes briefly the development of caste, he sees it as expanding for a thousand years from about the 2nd century AD to the beginning of Islamic rule, noting that ``Brahmanical theory served in an unequalled manner to tame the subjects religiously'' (Religion of India, p. 130).

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Referred by:: Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:19 oct, 2001
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