About The Book
The Oxford in India Reading in Sociology and Social Anthropology comprises a set of volumes, each on an important theme or sun-theme within these disciplines. Along with authoritative introduction and sectional preface, each book brings together key essays that apprise readers of the current debates and development within the area concerned, with specific reference to India. The volumes act both as introduction to sociology and social anthropology and as essential reference works for students, teacher and researchers.
Social stratification brings together a selection of readings on caste, caste profiles, class, and conflict. Diverse perspective on the study of social stratification in India are schematically presented, and the volume is structured to balance theoretical and field studies. The editor weaves these varied views into a comprehensive and thought provoking reader that informs and invited debate, and argues for an examination of the relative importance accorded to hierarchy and difference in this field.
About The Author
Dipankar Gupta is Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and author of Rivalry and Brotherhood: politics in the Life of Framers in North India (OUP, 1997) and The Context of Ethnicity: Sikh Identity in a Comparative Perspective.
The most appealing aspect of all utopias is that in these enchanted places everyone is equal. There is no difference of class, rank, or prestige. This however does not mean that utopias are boring places to be in, for equality in this case certainly does not imply dull uniformity. All worthwhile utopias have energetically supported the right and freedom to be different but have refused to rank these differences either politically, economically or culturally. Even in Marx's utopia, the communist society, where there would be no state, no classes, and no class struggles, there would nevertheless continue to be writers, poets, musicians, fisher folk and of course, men and women.
What then separates our real lived-in world from the 'best of all possible worlds' is our understanding of social stratification. In utopia, social stratification would only take into account differences, but in our world differences often imply ranking, inequality and hierarchy. By social stratification we mean not just the differences that separate fellow human beings in society, whether on the grounds of culture, economy or biology, but we also include within it's scope hierarchical rankings which ordain positions of superiority and inferiority within the society.
This added dimension, viz., that of hierarchy, has become so dominant in our thinking that we often go to the other extreme in believing that stratification has to do with inequality and hierarchy alone. Therefore both the utopians and the conventional this-worldly savants of social stratification are extremists in their own ways.
Through this volume I would really like to argue out an alternative position which at first sight might sound like a compromise between the two extremes, but is in fact not quite so. In my view studies on social stratification can enrich our social existence if we realize how often what are merely different are not seen as being just different but somehow as also unequal. On the other hand to deny the reality of inequality would be futile. All human societies from the dawn of written history have been organized around the principles of hierarchy and ranking. But at the same time history has presided over great changes, some cataclysmic, resulting in the constant reordering of hierarchies. New ranks, orders and hierarchies have emerged not because human beings at certain points in history inexplicably become rebellious, but rather because all hierarchies and principles of inequality strive to impose a ranked order over human differences but succeed only temporarily in doing so. To say this is not to deny the existence of inequality, but it certainly helps one to intellectually humble existing hierarchies. In doing so, we certainly won't succeed in establishing an utopia but might make this world a slightly more congenial place to live in.
What I am thinking of new more than anything else is of the blood that has been split down the ages under the mistaken assumption that one community was not only different from another but was somehow superior to it. Great wars and petty jealousies have been occasioned by this universal and popular tendency to believe that where there is difference there must necessarily be a hierarchy.
That such instances should continue unabated even today should sober many of us who take pride in the so-called scientific temper of our age. Sociologists and anthropologists can contribute somewhat in bringing about a better understanding by asking and searching for the bases of such prejudicial constructions of hierarchy. Many social scientists have been remiss on this count and this can best be illustrated with the help of mainstream scholarship on caste as a system of social stratification. Instead of seeing the Brahmins version of Hindu society as one which is as capricious as the various non-Brahmin versions, specialists on the caste system have generally tended to elevate the Brahminical view above all else. Yet, if the caste system admits different castes within its fold, then should it not also be part of our task to demonstrate that any one kind of hierarchy, even the Brahminical one, is perhaps a deliberate construction and not one which naturally predominates, for it is constructed over a field where differences (in this case, caste differences) are significant? In such a situation there may be different deliberated hierarchies, all equally valid, though each is contextualized by different socio-economic co-ordinates. To stress, in otherwords, that differences can be celebrated in their own right, and that they need not always be ironed out in a single hierarchy, is admittedly to partake of a bit of utopia, but very intentionally, and with calculated reason.
In a book of readings of this kind one must necessarily abide by the extant literature on the subject and therefore no message can be bluntly put across. Additionally, a worthwhile reader should represent a wide cross section of respectable positions on the subject. A lot still depends on how the Readings are read. I would like to believe that the selection and arrangement of the essays are such that they excite independent theoretical assessments on the subject of social stratification as a whole. Perhaps at the end of the book the reader will feel that the essays in this volume, not individually, but collectively, have added to his/her understanding of social stratification. The legitimacy of this volume will reside whenever such a sentiment rises.
The task of selecting papers for volumes of this kind can be difficult if there is either too much or too little on the subject. Here, it is a case of too much. The constraint of space has led to the exclusion of many excellent papers. It was indeed very difficult excising those pieces away as I have personally gained so much from them. There is practically no straight paper on the history of caste or class in this volume, though many essays allude to them. This is a gap that I miss most, but to include such papers would add to the size of the volume and commit it to a length which most readers would find taxing on their purses and patience. Moreover, the state of the art in sociological and anthropological studies on social stratification, by the large, begins from this side of history. Therefore, the most effective intervention that this book can make is if it is able to churn familiar waters and dredge unsuspected insights from within, while at the same time remaining well within the bounds of professional competence.
This Reader is divided into the following four sections: (I) Caste, (II) Caste Profiles, (III) Class, and (1V) Caste, Class and Conflict. All the papers have to do with India, though there are three papers in the Appendices which are purely theoretical. No book on social stratification in India can ignore the subject of caste or class, but we have included the section on caste profiles and on caste, class and conflict, to demonstrate how significant the understanding of differences can be in the study of social stratification. This is done pointedly with the section on caste profiles because in the study of the caste system the overwhelming tendency is to see it only in terms of an hierarchical ordering.
Not that hierarchy is unimportant-far from it. But an exclusive obsession with hierarchy undermines the existence of differences and leads one to conclude, rather unreflexively, that one hierarchy is somehow intrinsically more durable or more viable, than the others.
The last part of the book devoted to caste, class and conflict, gives expression to the interaction between hierarchy and differences; it brings out, through the essays in that section, how often social tensions and conflicts emerge from disputes over hierarchy. The potentialities for such conflict situations always exist but need propitious socioeconomic conditions for bringing them out in the open.
It has not been possible to reproduce entire articles here, mainly due to constraints of space. I have therefore used three dots to indicate missing words and four dots to indicate missing lines. Four dots on a separate line have been used to indicate missing paragraphs and pages. Compiling this book took several months of work, In the course of these months I must confess I learnt a lot from the readings I had to go through in order to make, edit and adapt the selections. I hope that the students of sociology and anthropology, their teachers, and my colleagues will consider, in balance, that my time was well spent.
The Idea of Stratification and the Caste System
Social stratification has a special place in the study of Indian society. India has long been reckoned as the most stratified of all known societies in human history. The caste system with its myriad forms of super ordination and subordination, its many customs and taboos, is perhaps most responsible for conferring on India this dubious honour. But this is c-t all. Economically too India is highly stratified. Miserable slums border expensive residential areas in city after city in India. The indescribable poverty of the very poor has even led to a review of the limits of physical endurance at pitifully low nutritional levels. This vast polarity notwithstanding, India is also a significant economic power with a sizeable bureaucracy and technically trained personnel. Add to this the diversity of linguistic groups that make up our Indian nation state and the fact of India being the most stratified society becomes near incontrovertible.
India is also a very self-conscious society. There are endless debates in India on what should be the path of development, and what internal arrangements of power and wealth, of cultural status and economic wherewithal, are best suited to propel the country into the modem, industrial epoch. As a people Indians have been deeply involved in moral and ethical questions regarding the caste system, cultural diversity and economic inequality-all central issues of social stratification. This is reflected in our Constitution which makes any discrimination based on caste, language, religion or creed illegal. Clearly the founders of independent India had pondered deeply over the cardinal features of social stratification in our society.
Very often when we talk of social stratification in India we concentrate almost exclusively on the caste system. The uniqueness of this outstanding institution has captivated sociologists and anthropologists for generations. It would be hard to think of a sociologist working on India who has not written or commented extensively on it. Quite naturally, with all this literature, some of exceptional quality, discussions on the caste system tend to subsume the entire field of social stratification.
The Visibility Postulate
But social stratification includes a lot more. The fact that the caste system is seen as an example par excellence of social stratification, gives an indication of the specificity of the term and the range it can include. The caste system, as it is understood widely, separates and hierarchizes Hindus. However, it is not sufficient if this separation and hierarchization are wholly internalized or intellectualized. It is only when hierarchy and differences are externalized and socially demonstrated that we can truly talk about social stratification. Rituals, dress, tonsorial styles, marriage practices, and a host of other such phenomena help in socially separating one caste from another. It is these phenomena too that are appropriately valorized for the purposes of hierarchical ranking. It is for this reason that when we talk of social stratification we not only mean differentiation but differentiation that is made socially visible. It is not just stratification but social stratification. In other words there is a general acknowledgement within society of the social markers that separate the population, and an awareness also of the crucial criterion (sometimes a set of criteria) on which such forms of differentiation are based (see Beteille 1977: 4, 9, 40-1). Social stratification then deals with the ways in which the human population is socially differentiated, i.e. differentiated publicly and demonstrably. The criterion for differentiation may be one but the social display of differentiation usually includes a host of factors. The principal criterion on which the caste system is based is the principle of natural superiority. Natural superiority in this case is not physical prowess or intelligence, though these often work their way in, but the endowment of bodily purity. It is a known fact that there is no unambiguous physical criterion by which individuals can be differentiated on the basis the extent of purity of their bodies. This is why it is essential that social practices, occupations, life styles, rituals and taboos demonstratively differentiate one caste from another for all to see.
Even in cases where there are clear biological differences such as sex or race, these differences are not retained in their natural form when we include them under the rubric of social stratification. Social stratification is not satisfied with biological differences per se. These biological differences must be socially amplified with respect to dress, or food, or occupation, or residence, or mobility, or a combination of all these and more. Differences in race or sex become important for social stratification because of the modalities by which the social lives of people belonging to different sexes or races are socially separated and distinguished. Those biological differences that are not thus amplified upon become socially irrelevant and do not factor in the reckoning of any system of social stratification.
That human kind everywhere demonstrates actively this propensity to differentiate may seem a rather trivial and pointless failing (and some orders or differentiations are arguably pointless), yet a closer look will tell us that social stratification manifests itself in almost every aspect of social life-even in the most intimate ones The family, the school, the office, the neighborhood, all are marked deeply by internal divisions of authority, wealth, or status; or language, culture d customs. As a matter of fact, one might even say that order and coherence in a society or in any of its aspects thereof, eventually rest on its system of social stratification.
Naturally a lot depends on what aspect of social life we are interested in for our analytical pursuits. Need one be reminded that social reality is diverse and no one factor can serve as a durable key to its many secrets? Social stratification too is lust one aspect of this multifaceted, social reality, it is a factor that weight rather heavily in politics, in economics, and in moral considerations of right and wrong. Politicians from the earliest of times have sought to transform or better existing systems of unequal power distribution; economists-even before university economists arrived-talked at length about the rich and the poor; and of course, there have been renowned thinkers, philosophers and men of religion, who have pondered over the questions of inequality and social differences in order to ferret out their inner essence. It is for this reason that a confrontation with the issues of social stratification at the intellectual level is inescapable. Quite appropriately some of the greatest sociologists have in the last century contributed significantly to our understanding of social stratification (see Appendices).
One must not forget that it is not at all the case that a society should exhibit only one form of social stratification. In India, for instance, the extant forms of social stratification are many. There is of course the caste system, but even this 'extreme form of social stratification' (Dumont l988:3) coexists with occupational stratification, linguistic stratification, sexual stratification and religious stratification (to name a few). It is important for sociologists to remember that each of these forms of stratification have their own axial principles, it would do us no good if we were to be careless on this score. Any carelessness or untidiness in this matter would lead to quite basic conceptual difficulties. For instance, the oft asked query of whether caste is giving way to class is an outcome of conceptual fogginess. There is no reason to believe that if there is caste there cannot he class, nor is it the case that as one grows the other must wane. We should not forsake an elementary methodological tenet namely that a concept should be independently defined. Caste and class after all do not constitute a continuum.
The important point to bear in mind is that the various forms of social stratification are analytically separate and separable. Empirically we often find one form of stratification overlaid by another. Gender stratification may correspond with economic stratification, class and caste may demonstrate significant statistical correlation, or linguistic/regional groups may show a great degree of co-variation with occupational stratification. This should not tempt us to conflate or submerge one category of stratification with another. The co-variation between two or more forms of stratification asks for a higher order of explanation, and not the abandonment of one for the other, e.g. caste for class, or class for caste.
The lines of social stratification in India are so deep and variegated that their uniqueness often overwhelms the scholar. The temptation to abandon 'theory' (or general laws?) when it comes to social stratification in India is strong, but stronger still is the temptation to construct an 'Indian theory' of the social phenomenon. This Indian theory of social stratification, it is believed, would be faithful to the idiosyncrasies of the Indian situation and would fully flesh out wholesomeness of caste, linguistic and religious diversity in the country. Much as this 'territorial orientation' (Singh 1985 : 53) is attractive it has not yet yielded anything which has risen above the capriciousness of the author. There is good reason for this too. The advantage of theory is not only that it attempts to explain and frame observations, but it also forms the vital function of helping us communicate our varied experience. We must move from the particular to the general if we are share our experiences meaningfully. What is more, we get a deeper might into our own experiences as a result of such theoretical commutation. Only a fool-hardy mountaineer would attempt to scale the Everest without learning from the experiences of other mountaineers who may have scaled other mountains. Theories presume concepts, and concepts by their very nature allow us to group and categorize manifold experiences. All theories, Indian and non-Indian, must utilize concepts, and all concepts ought to satisfy certain basic logical primcip4es if they are to be of any theoretical use. The difficulty, it seems to me, is that one is not always very careful about what the principal .concepts of the various theories of social stratification imply. This is probably why there is some discomfort in certain quarters with respect the application of general theories of social stratification to the Indian condition.
It is for this reason that it was felt that it would be best to devote the following pages to a clarification of the concepts of 'hierarchy and difference' as they are central to all theories of social stratification (see Appendices, I, II, III, IV and Madam 1980). In addition, 'hierarchy' and difference' inform other commonly used concepts like caste, class and status, as we shall soon see. Once we realize the importance of the basic principles that govern these terms our usage of them will be more sophisticated, and our understanding of terms like caste, status, class prestige, will become more amenable to rigorous theoretical treatment. No claim is being made at this point of the relative merits and demerits of the various general theories of social stratification, soch as those of Marx, Weber, functionalism, or culturology What we wish to underline is that a clarity of the key concepts, namely, hierarchy and difference, will help us in our individual theoretical drives.
Hierarchy and Differences: The Key Concepts
Before we settle d3wn to a close scrutiny of the logical properties of the concepts of hierarchy and difference, we should spend a little while in carefully going over the more general term stratification itself, and what it implies.
Stratification spontaneously signifies a multi-layered phenomenon, much like the earth's crust (Beteille 1977:129). The point to remember in this connection is that the geological metaphor can be misleading in the case of social stratification in so much as it might figuratively persuade one to believe that stratification always implies layers that are vertically or hierarchically arranged. For a true understanding of stratification we should be able to conceptually isolate it from hierarchy, as the latter is but one of the manifestations of the former.
The various layers that stratification spontaneously signifies do not imply unconditional differentiation. The differentiation is always on the basis of a criterion, or a set of criteria. Stratification therefore implies a common axis (or axes) that straddle the differences. Quite unlike geology again, social stratification does not manifest itself readily or 'naturally' to the naked eye. A deliberate act is required on the part of the observer or analyst to unite certain kinds of differences in order to construct a particular system of stratification. In discussing any system of social stratification we acknowledge an overarching commonality (or similarity) which like a thread links the manifest differences together. Social stratification is not like distinguishing between cabbages and kings: it does not group disparate entities without a clearly stated criterion or a declared set of criteria.
Commonality then exists as a pre-condition for all systems of stratification. If only differentiation were to be emphasized then how would systems of stratification emerge? How also could one justify the inclusion of certain elements and not of others. Cabbages, kings, ships and sealing wax do not after all make for any system. But when the population is stratified, say on the criterion of income, then we have an uniform criterion which can bring together sweepers, managers, white collar workers, and agricultural labourers into a single system of stratification where monetary income is the regnant principle. Likewise when we construct a social stratification of language groups the unifying basis is language and it does not matter if the language speaker is a sweeper or a college professor. Finally these sweepers, managers, white collar workers, and professors can also constitute a system of stratification based on the criterion of occupation. We are not really interested if these managers, sweepers, etc. are short or tall, married or unmarried. The only factor that interests us is that they all perform a manifest occupation. In each case then there is a presumption of a commonality that systematizes the differentiation of the various strata and binds the universe of a particular form of stratification.
(a) Hierarchy implies the regular ordering of a phenomenon on a continuous scale 'such that the elements of the whole are ranked in relation to the whole' (Dumont 1988: 66). Height, weight, income and even power (once it has been quantified) can be arranged in a hierarchy. Tall and short people can be arranged in a hierarchy of height. You cannot position short or understand shortness unless you have a hierarchical iale that tells you what is tall and tallness. Hierarchy is but one form social stratification and it certainly does not constitute the essence of social stratification. Indeed this is just the mistake that the famous socialist Pitrim Sorokin made when he wrote:
Social stratification means the differentiation of a given population into hierarchically super-posed classes. It is manifested in the existence of upper and layers (the geological metaphor, DO.). Its basis and very essence consists in an unequal distribution of rights and privileges social power and influences among the members of a society (Sorokin 1961: 570; emphasis added).
Quite obviously for Sorokin, inequality and hierarchy were the stuff f social stratification. The geological model of layers too is quite evident various layers are always arranged vertically. If, for instance, we were to be discussing the stratification of power than those at the p have more power than those below them and so on till we come to last layer that has the least power. The same can be said about wealth d examples proliferate.
But not all systems of stratification are hierarchical. Some are, but many are not. In the latter case 'difference' is valorized, and notions of hierarchy may or may not surface.
(b) Differences rather than hierarchy are dominant in some stratificatory systems. In other words, the constitutive elements of these differences are such that any attempt to see them hierarchically would do offence to the logical property of these very elements. The layers in this case are not arranged vertically or hierarchically, but horizontally or even separately. Such an arrangement can be easily illustrated in the case of language, religion or nationalities. It would be futile, and indeed capricious, if an attempt was made to hierarchize languages or religions or nationalities. In these cases it does not matter at all if the schematic representation of stratification places the different strata congruously or separately, as long as they are horizontally positioned. India again is an appropriate place to demonstrate this variety of social stratification. The various languages that are spoken in, India speak eloquently of an horizontal system of social stratification where differences are paramount. Secular India again provides an example of religious stratification where religions are not hierarchized or unequally privileged in. law, but have the freedom to exist separately in full knowledge of their intrinsic differences.
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