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Perspectives on the study of Caste System


Over the years sociologists and social anthropologists have studied caste system and developed different perspectives. Prominent among them GS Ghurye, MN Srinivas, Louis Dumont and Andre Beitelle.GS Ghurye published his landmark and pioneering work Caste and Race in India (1932). Deeply influenced by the indological and historical approach he also came under the influence of diffusionist school of cultural evolution. He believes both caste and race are interrelated. He believed that the entire Indian population and society is based on the caste system. He includes tribes too in this system. He described tribal population as backward Hindus who needed to be assimilated in the mainstream Hindu society. Gurye maintained that kinship and caste in Indian society served as integrative framework. He looked at the evolution of Indian society in terms of integration and deep inter -relationship between racial groups and kin and caste network. Being a follower of indological approach laced with historical approach he made several speculations. With the rise of empiricism and field-based studies his over dependence on text became a target of severe criticism. He was the first sociologist to have challenged the colonial notion of caste. M N Srinivas added a significant dimension to the caste studies by talking about mobility in the caste system. He pointed out that any social institution may be seen through two views book view/textual view and field view/empirical view. The textual or theoretical view rules out any change or mobility in the caste system. Through his path breaking work Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (1952) he presented the empirical situation in which the lower castes were seen emulating the values, customs, traditions, 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 confronted by cases from elsewhere in which any higher caste (later the local dominant caste) might serve as the reference group to be emulated. Then he coined the term Sanskritization to describe this phenomenon. Through his perspective on the caste system, he opened new arena for the study of mobility in the caste system of different parts of India. Louis Dumont an eminent French sociologist developed new perspective on the caste system by laying emphasis on the ideology of caste system. He was concerned with the attributes of caste and hence his approach was called attribution approach to the caste system. In his path breaking work Homo Hierarchicus, he laid out his understanding of caste and caste system. He understands caste as a set of relationship of economic, political and kinship systems sustained by certain values which 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. He is the view that caste divides the whole Indian society into large number of hereditary groups. These groups are separated by the strict rule of endogamy and ritual distance between these groups. Moreover because of the elaborate division of labor each group was assigned an occupation which 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. He moves on to describe caste system as a system of values and his analysis is based on the binary opposition between the pure and impure. Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus builds a model of Indian civilization based on noncompetitive ritual hierarchical system. No other sociologists before him looked at the caste system from this perspective hence it is considered very significant. André Beteille’s perspective on the caste system is move away from the indological, theoretical and abstractional model to a model of ethnographic and theoretical analysis. His understanding is 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) analyses the change in the caste system in the wake of democracy, land reforms and empowerment of non-Brahmin castes. He has empirically demonstrated that the traditional relationship between caste and power has been radically changed. At the micro level village panchayat in the village Sripuram is controlled by non Brahmins and the traditional elite has been pushed to the background. He observes that the power has also become independent of class to a greater extent than in the past. Ownership of land is no longer the decisive factor in acquiring power. Numerical support and strategic position in the party machinery play an important part. The relationship between the caste structure, the class system and the distribution of political power has been theorized on the basis of ethnographic research.

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