How and why did the caste system emerge in South Asia? Why do con-temporary anthropologists and Indologists experience so much difficulty with this problem?
Morton Klass addresses both of these questions in this book, and the result is an intellectual adventure story, an essay in ethnohistorical deduction and reconstruction.
Klass begins by examining the assumptions underlying the older explanations of the origin of caste, tracing their roots in dubious history, ethnocentrism, and outmoded theory. Then, using contemporary anthro-pological writings on ecology, economy, social structure, and cultural evolution, he develops a scenario in which caste emerges as a trans-formation of an earlier clan structure that until now has been considered an evolutionary 'dead end'.
His radically new explanation is the result of a pioneering effort in theoretical synthesis. By employing the tools of what he calls 'eclectic anthropology' - an approach frequently attacked by proponents of more rigid and exclusionary strategies - he brings together elements from the seemingly unconnectable approaches of such major theorists as Claude Levi-Strauss, Marvin Harris, and Karl Polanyi. Caste offers a challenge to scholars to free themselves of their theoretical fetters, to open themselves to ideas from all corners of their discipline.
Morton Klass was Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University. He conducted field work in India and among people of South Asian descent in the West Indies. Among his publications are: East Indians in Trinidad, From Field to Factory: Community Structure and Industrialization in West Bengal, and Singing with Sal Baba: The Politics of Revitalization in Trinidad.
I really enjoyed writing this book. Most of my other an-thropological writings have derived from my own field notes. However fascinating these may be-and I bow to no one in my admiration of my own research-they can hold few surprises for me. In this work, however, I have had a wonderful opportunity to read extensively in the literature of my discipline. It has been a voyage of discovery and high adventure: here, I sailed between the Scylla and Charybdis of current theoretical dispute; there, I picked my way through the quagmire of nineteenth century views on the origin of caste. Like all good travelers, I am eager now to show you the places I have visited.
Forgive the inconsistencies you will note, at least those of orthography. Until comparatively recently, European writers have had little interest in achieving any uniform representation of words deriving from Sanskrit and other Indian languages. Writers I have cited refer to, the priestly caste of India, for example, as Brahman, Brahman, Brahman, and Brahmin. Citations will refer to Sudra, Shudra, Shudra, Vaishya, Vaisya, and so on.
Nor is the problem only with words of foreign derivation. The English-speaking world has not as yet reached a consensus about whether we are to spell "labor" with a "u" or "colour" without one.
For a number of reasons this is a controversial book. I hoped of course that some reviewers would approve of it, but I fully expected that there would be those-whether because of differences in interests, in theoretical orientation, or just in taste-who would take issue with me. You can't please everyone in the academic arena, and you don't expect to. It was somewhat surprising, however, to find myself repeatedly complimented by reviewers who, though in fundamental disagreement with me, found themselves impelled to acknowledge the "courage" I displayed in daring even to take on such issues:
One has to admire his gumption in seeking to reopen the debate (McGilvray 1981: 696).
Klass ... has taken what one must consider a courageous leap...(Vatuk 1982: 219).
Now, after all, the presentation of a scholarly argument is hardly in a class with charging the enemy lines or blasting off to the moon-so I began to wonder about what they saw as so daring about my book.
Perhaps it was that I firmly ("fearlessly"?) espouse an "eclectic" approach, arguing that no single current anthropological theoretical framework is powerful enough to deal with all the questions of interest to anthropologists-or even, as in this case, with a particular problem as complex as that of how the "caste system" came into existence.
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