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Perspectives on the study of Caste System

A number of sociologists and social anthropologists have studied caste system and developed different perspectives. Most prominent among them are G.S Ghurye, M N Srinivas, Louis Dumont and Andre Beteille.

G S Ghurye published his pioneering work Caste and Race in India (1932). Deeply influenced by the indological and historical approach he put both caste and race on the same level and believes that both are related to each other. He believed that the Indian society is based on the caste system including the tribes present in the country. He described tribal population as Backward Hindus who needed to be assimilated in the mainstream Hindu society. According to Ghurye, kin and caste networks in India had parallel in other countries too. Kinship and caste served as integrative network. He looked at the evolution of Indian society in terms of integration and deep inter-relationship between racial groups and caste network. With the rise of empiricism and field based studies his dependence on secondary sources came under criticism.

M N Srinivas added another dimension to the study of caste system by talking about mobility in the caste system. He pointed out that any social institution may be seen through two views textual view and empirical view. The textual view rules out any change or mobility in the caste system. Through his work Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (1952) he presented the empirical situation in which the lower castes were seen following the values, customs, traditions and food habits etc. of the Brahmins to move upward in the caste /status hierarchy which he termed this process as Brahminization.He gave up this term when he came across studies in which any higher caste might serve as the reference group to be followed. He came up with the term Sanskritization to describe this phenomenon. 

Louis Dumont developed a new perspective on the caste system by laying emphasis on the ideology of caste system. He was concerned with the attributes of caste and his approach was called attribution approach to the caste system. In his phenomenal work Homo Hierarchicus, he laid out his understanding of caste and caste system. He understands caste as a set of relationship of economic and political and kinship systems sustained by certain values that are mostly religious in nature. Dumont maintains that caste is not a form of stratification but a special form of inequality whose essence has to be deciphered by the sociologists. Caste divides the whole Indian society into large number of hereditary groups. These groups are separated by endogamy and ritual distance between these groups. Due to elaborate division of labor each group was assigned an occupation that was hereditary in nature and any group could not deviate from it under the force of custom. No two groups can be equal and in this gradation of status /hierarchy these will be superior or inferior to one another. Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus builds a model of Indian civilization based on non-competitive ritual hierarchical system. 

Andre Beteille’s perspective on the caste system moved away from the indological and theoretical model to ethnographic and theoretical analysis. His assumptions are based on the relationship between caste, class and power in the context of change. Caste system has undergone substantial change during the British rule but the post independence period has witnessed the distribution of power in a non-traditional way. His major work Caste, Class and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village (1966) analysis the change in the caste system in the wake of democracy, land reforms and empowerment of non- Brahmin castes. He demonstrated that the traditional relationship between caste and power has been radically changed. He observed that the power has become independent of class to a greater extent than in the past. Ownership of the land is no longer the decisive factor in acquiring power. The relationship between the caste structure, the class system and the distribution of political power has been seen from the ethnological research perspective.