Caste, class, and community in India: an ethnographic approach

Publication: Ethnology
Publication Date: 22-JUN-05

Author: Natrajan, Balmurli

COPYRIGHT 2005 University of Pittsburgh, Department of Anthropology

The anthropology of India has been dominated by an emphasis on caste that has inhibited an integrated approach to understanding class in India. Using an ethnographic approach that takes into account the symbolic and material aspects of caste and class, this article focuses on the attempts to form a "community" of potters among a large group of potter-artisans in central India. It is problematic, however, to view this community as a federation of potter castes or as simply a bloc of classes. Katznelson's (1986) insights into different aspects of class formation help to understand how caste and class get constructed in the formation of a community. Here the apparently caste-based dispositions of potters reveals a class consciousness that is culturally organized by a custom that men work the potter's wheel and women do the marketing. (Caste, class community, India)


In the 1980s and 1990s, the anthropology of caste in India underwent a radical revision in reaction to the revolution in caste studies that Louis Dumont's structuralist approach heralded in the 1960s and 1970s (Dumont 1970). The critiques highlighted three debilitating effects of Dumont's approach: 1) that it thwarts the comparative aim of sociology and anthropology, since Indians are represented as being so different as to preclude comparison, 2) that it makes the reality of caste stand for India, which is far more complex, and 3) that it explains caste in idealist ways as a cultural construct devoid of material content, resulting in the mythology of a single hierarchy based on purity and pollution, along which all castes in India can purportedly be arranged. The last critique has also been extended to show how Dumont mistakenly makes secular power appear as subordinate to ritual status (Beteille 1979; Berreman 1979; Appadurai 1992; Dirks 1987; Gupta 2000; Quigley 1993, 1994; Raheja 1988). But, despite the critical import of these critiques, they do not bring class into the study of caste in any systematic manner. Anthropological studies of India seem to remain removed from developing an integrated approach to caste and class.

Fuller and Spencer (1990) note that the decline in the 1970s of the "village studies model" of Indian anthropology enabled a shift of focus from caste and the caste system towards other and larger structures such as class, religion, and violence. But it is noteworthy that debates on class formation in India have long been dominated by economists, historians, Marxists, development sociologists, and some political scientists. There is, however, a small body of classic anthropological works that have dealt with caste and class (Beteille 1966; Ghurye 1950; Gough 1955; Gupta 1980; Meillassoux 1973; Mencher 1974) and some more recent works (Dickey 1993; Kapadia 1995). The anthropology of India arguably is still weak on discussing political and economic issues, especially those that integrate the traditional strengths of studying caste with attention to issues of class. This article attempts to develop an ethnographic approach to class using the traditional anthropological emphasis on caste in India. Attention to the different aspects of class analysis is perhaps the best way for a focus on caste to enter the debate around class formation in India, for anthropologists can ask questions about culture and capital, community and class, and about class-consciousness and caste-consciousness in ways that elude researchers who neglect the material reality of caste. The materiality of caste needs some emphasizing due to the tendency to treat it as either ideological (as a mask for class or economic exploitation) or as an idealized social structure without any material basis (i.e., as kinship or religious system).


Conventional anthropological understandings of caste are not totally devoid of material content. For example, Srinivas (1962) advanced the concept of "dominant caste" as the most useful way to understand caste on the ground. A dominant caste has six attributes; namely, a sizeable amount of the arable land locally available, strength of numbers, a high place in the local hierarchy, Western education, jobs in government administration, and urban sources of income (Srinivas 1966:10-11). But the historian and sociologist, Mukherjee (2000:337), points out that [a]ll these attributes are secondary or tertiary expressions of the formation of the top stratum of the class structure in rural society. But the proclamation of class relations was an anathema to these conservative scholars. So, class was forcibly funneled into an amorphous identity of the "Dominant Caste" because, as later admitted by its progenitor, all its six attributes need not be present in one caste entity. In other words, the "Dominant Caste" could be identified in ([2.sup.6]-1=) 63 ways! Mukherjee (2000) argues that the concept of dominant caste is actually an attempt at speaking of the ways in which the caste structure has increasingly articulated itself within a class structure, and that social reality today is neither caste in itself nor caste and class, but actually caste in class where the "class structure has cut across the caste hierarchy, forming new alliances and antagonisms" (Mukherjee 2000:338).

Indeed it is in the process of withering away with the march of history or otherwise remains atavistic, such as the distinction

between the Jews and Gentiles, the Hindus and the Muslims. Yet, it is propped up, for their own sake, by the politicians and a brand of social scientists (Mukherjee 2000:338-9). Mukherjee is too quick to announce the death of caste in India. Moreover, it does injustice to the large body of critical work on the social production of identities, forms of social distinction, and formation of group interests other than class that exist in ideological space and competition with class, all of which show that phenomena such as caste are not simply imagined and propped up by scholars and politicians. Finally, one wonders how atavistic institutions such as caste or religious identities continue to exist if they are but conjured up by scholars and politicians.

An earlier attempt to integrate an analysis of caste, class, and capitalism in today's India used statistical evidence of occupational categories and caste identities to show that whereas Indian feudalism was shaped closely by caste, colonial transformations, especially in land, gave a severe...