Synopsis: Caste is an important topic of discussion under the umbrella of social segmentation, especially in the context of India where the caste system exists even today. To understand any social concept, which in this case is caste, there are three theoretical frameworks in Sociology. These act as tools which help examine a subject from three different perspectives, which facilitates the diversity in human viewpoints. Through the lenses of structural-functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory, one is better able to comprehend what caste is from perspectives which might match their own, and also which they do not agree to.
Caste is one of the major categories of social stratification in India. Caste is present in the everyday lives of India’s people and in the structure of our very existence. The lawlessness of the action does not deter caste-based discrimination. The ‘Chaturvarna’ system (under Hinduism) fragments society into four central hierarchical divisions (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra), and an ultimate grouping of the so-called untouchables, or ‘Dalits’, depending on their birth. Castes are further split up into sub-castes or sub-groups. This segregation gives rise to atrocious acts of prejudice of all kinds–socio-cultural, political, and economic. Caste issues are important for human development and progress. Being a social institution that affects human lives, it is necessary to analyze caste from a sociological perspective.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON CASTE:
There are three central theoretical perspectives in Sociology that act as lenses for inspection and interpretation of various aspects of social life in different ways. These are:
- Functionalism (or Functional analysis): It is the theoretical outlook that presupposes and emphasizes harmony in every aspect of human existence in society. Functionalists see the world as an organism. Just as any creature has different organs that work together to keep the creature alive, society is a complex consortium in which every part has a specific ‘function’ or purpose that it needs to fulfill to ensure the proper functioning of society. Every ‘organ’ needs to work in tandem to establish equilibrium in society, which could otherwise enter a pathological state. However, not every action is beneficial for society. These are ‘dysfunctions’ of society, and are most often latent (hidden or unintentional) in nature because functionalists assume that deliberate human actions are, by nature, ‘good’.
- Symbolic Interactionism: This theoretical perspective regards every facet of social life as constructed by people to represent ‘symbols’. These symbols help humans understand their and others’ position in society, create, impart and establish meanings of everything they come across, and define the basis of human interactions. Anything with a meaning attached becomes a symbol that helps define the varieties of human life. Not only the relationships we form with others around us, but institutions, norms, traditions–every feature of human society depend upon what they symbolize for us. Daily human communication and relations are at the core of the symbolic-interactionist theory.
- Conflict Perspective: In a complete contradiction to functionalism, conflict theory considers human society to comprise competing groups that are always in a struggle against one another in the face of limited or scarce resources. Conflict theorists argue that the need of one group to exert their power over the other results in an underlying hostility hidden by a cover of peace and harmony. All social institutions are, by nature, unequal and work towards corroborating and sustaining the inequalities in society.
These three theoretical perspectives form the backbone of sociological analysis and can help in exploring the matter of caste from a sociological point of view.
Caste from Functional Perspective:
Caste plays various functions in society. Caste affects the different caste groups in society, each of the caste-based social groups themselves, and also each individual from any of the several caste groups. First, caste determines an individual’s position in society starting at birth. Because each caste is arranged in a hierarchy, each individual gets the ascribed status of belonging to a particular caste, either higher or lower in the stratification. Since it is a matter of birth, no life event can affect the status of a person, i.e., no change in occupation, education, and financial status of any individual can change their social position as formed by caste. For individuals, caste serves the purpose of distinguishing themselves from others in society. Second, caste helps in developing solidarity among the people who belong to a particular caste. In Durkheim’s theories, this type of solidarity would be mechanical because it arises from a feeling of having similarities. People belonging to a particular caste feel a connection and fellowship towards others within the same group, consequently creating a well-knit and cohesive group whose members can rely on each other for support. Third, caste facilitates economic distribution in society because the occupation of each individual is pre-decided by their caste. Strict rules render a generational feature to the economic activities. Given that individuals are already aware of their destined occupations, they learn the ropes and master the skills from a young age, increasing the efficiency of the task. Fourthly, caste relieves a person from the worries of marriage, as it strictly suggests endogamy, especially in places where arranged marriages are still practiced (such as India). By restricting marital relations within a caste, the system also allows for maintenance of the ‘purity’ of castes and strengthening of the groups. Finally, caste determines the daily activities of an individual, ‘relieving’ them of having to decide for themselves.
However, caste has several dysfunctions, all of which arise from its so-called functions. By dividing society into hierarchies, the caste system handicaps all forms of social interaction between the various castes and sub-castes and weakens the cohesion of the society en masse. Next, the rigidity of norms and values under caste, vouched to give direction to individuals and ‘help’ them in decision-making, actually hinders social progress by obstructing social change. Third, both by assigning economic roles and by confining marriage within castes, the system takes away an individual’s freedom of choice and completely disregards personal feelings and individual development. Fixing occupations for individuals and requiring them to conform to the caste traditions also unnecessarily pressures them to carry out the responsibilities which they might not feel adequately prepared for. Through endogamous marriage, caste also homogenizes society, which further adds to the problem of lack of social mobility and the development of intolerance towards other groups. Caste-based conflicts, political agenda, caste rivalry, and domination of certain castes over others are fundamental issues with the caste system. The hierarchical arrangement of society based on caste also leads to a power imbalance. Certain ‘upper castes’, because of their higher position in the structure, exercise their power and control over the ‘lower castes’. This causes the unfair exploitation, oppression, denial of basic human rights, and several other discriminatory activities on the people belonging from the latter. Caste also causes the social exclusion of a certain group of people. Considered the ‘untouchables’, they are forced to perform denigrating acts such as manual scavenging and are shunned by the entire society. Last, but not least, caste reinforces women’s oppression. Several norms and regulations within a particular caste are forced mainly on women (e.g., restriction on remarriage of widows, prohibition of hypogamy, etc.).
Several theorists have used the structural-functionalism perspective to analyze the caste system. M.N. Srinivas, an Indian sociologist, John Henry Hutton, an English anthropologist, French anthropologist Louis Dumont, etc., are a few whose works on caste reflect functionalism.
Caste from Symbolic Perspective:
The symbolic-interactionist perspective considers caste as composed of symbols that determine the interrelations between within a particular caste group, or the entire society. Because caste is a feature that is ingrained into a person and their lives from their very birth, there remains no part of an individual’s life left untouched by caste. In contemporary times these differences are more visible in rural areas than in urban areas, but their remnants are visible even in urban regions.
Food, one of the primary necessities for the survival of humans, is segregated based on caste. Though the approach to the foods of different castes has varied throughout history, in recent times vegetarianism and teetotalism have become ‘upper caste’ practices. Abstinence from specific foods and drinks is considered a sign of ‘purity’, a status given only to the ‘upper castes’. While most animal meat is considered ‘impure’, some are more than the rest. For example, the meat of pig is considered among the ‘low-caste foods’, while fish and mutton are considerably higher in the hierarchy. Sometimes, the manner of cooking food is also subjected to caste rules. There are also strict instructions of a diverse range regarding when and by whom food can be exchanged between castes. Many times, any food item even touched by a person of a ‘lower caste’ must be ‘purified’ before an ‘upper caste’ individual can consume it.
Religious practices are also divided according to castes. Similar to eating, practices and symbols of religious worship have also changed several times. Even though the rituals are significantly changed today, usually animal sacrifice, animism, etc., are practices of the ‘lower caste’. Offerings of flowers, fruits, sweets, etc., are ‘upper caste’. The caste system also homogenizes religious customs by disabling people from the so-called ‘lower caste’ to take part in rites of the ‘upper caste’.
Caste also creates an economic divide among people. Some occupations belong only to the ‘upper caste’, and some professions can only be taken up by the ‘lower caste’. Cleaning, sweeping, laundering, animal slaughtering, shoe-making, leather tanning, etc., are given the status of being ‘lower caste’, with money-lending, teaching, trading, fall on the other end of the spectrum. Within animal rearing, certain animals are considered ‘purer’ than the others (e.g., cows greater than pigs, etc.). Even more degrading activities, such as manual scavenging, are set aside for those considered as the ‘untouchables’. Whenever people try to break away from these stereotypical notions of occupation, they face severe social sanctions.
Endogamy is the preferred choice of marriage but is rigid for upper castes, especially women, who cannot marry any person from the ‘lower’ castes. This is done to maintain the homogeneity of castes (and ‘purity’ for ‘upper castes’). Marriages are patrilocal, and families follow a patrilineal system of generational succession. Certain marriage rituals are also restricted from being used by a particular caste.
Regardless of castes, women are subjected to oppression and abuse by men. However, the so-called ‘lower caste’ women enjoy greater public freedom than the ‘upper caste’ women. ‘Upper caste’ women are expected to stay indoors and not take part in any economic activity which requires public exposure. Here, racism and colorism also enter the context, as a fairer skin is valued as ‘pure’, and therefore, by default, a characteristic of the ‘upper caste’, while darker skin, which is a hereditary feature and a clear outcome of working outdoors, is looked down upon as ‘lower caste’.
Writings of G. S. Ghurye and A. M. Shah are a few which analyze caste from a symbolic interactionist perspective.
Caste from Conflict Perspective:
Conflict theorists give the most pejorative criticism of the caste system. According to the conflict perspective, caste-based societies have an inherent tendency of being biased–they serve the privilege of one section of the society while discriminating against the other. All the dysfunctions which functionalists overlook and justify as mere inconveniences form the basis of caste as seen from the conflict perspective. Conflict theorists understand the struggle of the ‘lower castes’ against the ‘upper castes’, which is often ignored under the garb of various functions served by the caste system. In the division of people according to their castes, conflict theorists can understand the aspirations of one caste to exert their domination over and exploit other caste groups. Conflict theorists empathize with the infringement of freedom of choice, a birthright of every human being, which takes place under the caste system. People are assigned castes, and their positions in society, occupations, practices, etc., even before they are born because they belong from the particular family background. This takes away their individual agency. People become nothing more than their castes—their ambitions, qualities, and abilities are all invalidated and trivialized only because they belong from a particular caste. Even if people try to break the social barriers, and can separate their achieved status from the ascribed one, the society does not acknowledge and accept their hard work and only assess them based on their castes. From a view of societal development, caste hinders every facet of reform. Economic progress is held back as the division of labor does not depend upon individual aptitudes and skills, but according to which families people are born in—a priest’s child can only be a priest, and a cobbler’s child can never rise beyond ‘menial’ tasks. Although no occupation is greater or lesser, in a caste-based society some, those that do not require excess physical labor are accorded a higher position than the others. Caste diminishes mutual bonding, trust, and feelings of fellowship among people. The caste system prevents social harmony and is harmful to the integrity of a nation and affinity within its people.
The feminist perspective, a sub-category of the conflict theory, contends that caste discrimination is felt the worst by women. In a patriarchal system, where women are already considered ‘inferior’ to men, caste adds to the problem by placing ‘low-caste’ women at the very of the hierarchy. ‘Upper caste’ men impose control over ‘upper caste’ women, who oppress and exploit ‘lower caste’ men and women, and ‘lower caste’ men exercise power over ‘lower caste’ women.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Gail Omvedt, and Kancha Ilaiah are some writers the works of whom are integral to under caste from a conflict perspective.
While each theoretical framework offers a unique way of understanding caste as a social issue, sociologists apply a comprehensive combination of all three viewpoints to approach any matter concerning the society.
SOCIOLOGISTS VIEW ON CASTE SYSTEM
- Ghurne depicted caste as a complicated phenomenon and inferred that its definition cannot be put in words.
- Maclver and Page gave a theory that a person’s birth cannot be controlled and it is his ascribed status that cannot be changed by any factor.
- According to Cooley status is a factor of family and the family in which a man is born can be called his caste.
- Risley believed that caste is an integration of some people who belong to the same family by the title, also can be depicted as coming from the common ancestor and later on forming a community which can be called as their caste too.
- Dumont also gave his perspective stating that caste is mainly religion-driven fact and the people of the same level be it economy, same culture and religion come together and forms a caste.
Ambedkar, B. R. (1936). The annihilation of caste. https://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/ambedkar/web/readings/aoc_print_2004.pdf
Ghurye, G. S. (1969). Caste and race in India (pp. 1–30). Popular Prakashan. https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/Caste_and_Race_in_India/nWkjsvf6_vsC?hl=en&gbpv=0
Henslin, J. M. (2017). Sociology: A down-to-earth approach (pp. 2–33). Pearson Education.
Shah, A. M. (2007). Caste in the 21st century: From system to elements. Economic and Political Weekly, 42(44),. https://www.epw.in/journal/2007/44/special-articles/caste-21st-century-system-elements.html
Srinivas, M. N. (1956). A note on sanskritization and westernization. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 15(4), 481. https://doi.org/10.2307/2941919