Caste systems are a type of social stratification system, hereditary by nature, and found in some cultures. Considered restrictive to an individual's social mobility, these systems typically result in situations where certain classifications of individuals — based purely on accident of birth rather than on their actions or character — are oppressed or marginalized. Though caste may not be the only variable that can affect social conditions, where used, the systems are thought to be objectionable not only from a secular view but from a religious view as well (despite the fact that most caste systems are based on religious considerations). More research is necessary to determine how the influences of caste interact with other variables in order to better understand the effects of this system.
Keywords Caste System; Class; Culture; Economic Development; Endogamy; Gender Inequality; Industrialization; Marginalization; Religion; Social Change; Social Stratification; Socioeconomic Status (SES)
Global Stratification: Caste Systems
There are a number of different ways in which societies can be stratified. In Western societies (and the United States in particular), we tend to be most familiar with the class system in which one's social rank is primarily based on an individual’s economic position and in which he or she can achieve socioeconomic mobility (e.g., upward mobility through higher education and concomitant better job or downward mobility through loss of job). In addition, we are also familiar — at least in theory — with slavery, an extreme and oppressive form of legalized social inequality in which one group of people is considered to be owned by another group. Another mechanism of social stratification is the estate or feudal system based on property ownership and the concentration of power in a small number of elite individuals. In addition, there are caste systems. These are hereditary stratification systems in which status is ascribed based on the status of the family into which one is born. Caste systems have low social mobility and one's family of birth determines not only one’s social status, but also the occupations that one can hold. The hierarchy of caste systems is rigid and often reinforced through formal law and cultural practices that minimize the interaction between members of different castes. One of the ways in which caste systems are reinforced is through endogamy, or the practice of limiting the selection of one's mate to members of one's own tribe, community, social class, racial/ethnic, or similar group. Caste systems are frequently based on religious considerations.
There have been a number of well-known caste systems throughout history. One caste system that was only abolished in the late twentieth century was the system of apartheid in South Africa. Under this system, severe restrictions were placed on the ability of Blacks to travel, where they could live, the jobs in which they could be employed, and the people with whom they could associate. Segregation of Blacks and Whites was strictly enforced using a pass system in which Blacks had to account for themselves to the authorities in White areas. Marriage between the races was legally prohibited, and Blacks were not allowed to vote (Andersen & Taylor, 2002).
Caste in India
Arguably, the best known example of a caste system still in existence is the Indian caste system arising out of the Hindu religion. This ancient system may date back more than 3,000 years (Ninian, 2008). Although this system of social stratification is based on religious considerations and role play, the caste system determines social status and limits not only what adherents can do within the religion, but also the secular jobs to which the individual members can aspire. By definition, caste systems are rigid and allow little or no social mobility, defining the socioeconomic status and religious privilege of members of that caste.
The highest caste in Hinduism consists of the Brahmins, or the priestly caste. The members of this caste are priests and philosophers, who were subsidized by the state. Within the Indian caste system, Brahmins were considered spiritually and emotionally superior to the other castes. The caste under the Brahmins comprises the Kshatriyas, or the soldier caste responsible to protect the country. This caste is the Hindu equivalent of the upper middle class. Members of the Kshatriya caste would take jobs as professionals and government officials. Under this caste are the Vaisyas, of the trader caste comprising of merchants and farmers. Below this caste are the Sudras, or the cultivator caste. Members of this caste serve as laborers and servants to members of higher castes. In addition to the four major castes, there are numerous subcategories as well. Although the caste system in India is no longer mandated, it is still observed in many areas. In the present societal structure it can be more validly classified as "class structure" — with middle class, upper middle class, and so on — than as "caste structure."
Traditionally, members of the upper castes have possessed great land and power while members of lower castes were servants and among the poorest people in society. This was particularly true in the case of the Dalits (or untouchables) who were not allowed access to public wells or schools, could not participate in village festivals, and were prohibited from entering some shops owned by members of higher castes. The caste system in India considered the Dalits unclean. In fact, the Dalits are considered to be of such low status that they are not thought of as belonging to the Indian caste system and actually have no caste at all. As a result, Dalits can only take the most menial of jobs in the society. The term Dalit comes from the word dal, which means suppressed or oppressed. This term was used interchangeably with "untouchable" as being less patronizing and demeaning. Although discrimination against Dalits is officially prohibited and affirmative action measures have been put in place by the Indian government, it is estimated that, as of 2011, there are approximately 11.7 million so-called bonded workers, who are, for all intents and purposes, slaves as they attempt to work off debts they have inherited from their ancestors (Kara, 2012). Most of them are Dalits. Despite official policies on nondiscrimination, however, national statistics still show numerous crimes against Dalits (203,576 were reported between 2003 and 2009, according to A. Ramaiah’s May 28, 2013, web article for the London School of Economics and Political Science). Official figures, however, are thought to be low because most cases are not reported and only a small percentage of those that are get prosecuted (Ninian, 2008). However, on the positive side, the Dalits, also placed in the "Scheduled Caste" categories, have been provided reservations in jobs and their qualifications for many jobs that would require a nonscheduled caste member to have more qualifications and no preference or advantage over others from their category.
It can be argued that the caste system in India rises out of the tenets of Hinduism. In fact, twenty-first-century scholarly articles have decried Hinduism as the source of the caste system in general and the classification of Dalits in particular, a fact that most find to be objectionable, incomprehensible, and unconscionable. Further, many believe because of the nature of the caste system, there is no redeeming value to Hinduism and that it should not only be considered not as a legitimate religion, but that people of good conscious should work for its extinction. Rambachan (2008), a Hindu scholar, responds to these accusations by examining whether or not the Indian caste system is actually intrinsic to Hinduism. He freely acknowledges that the inhumanity, injustice, and oppression that are part of the Indian caste system are legitimized to some extent by Hinduism and its practitioners, although he maintains that caste system is not part and parcel of the Hindu religion. In addition, Rambachan states that although supporters of the caste system appeal to it as being part of the Indian and Hindu traditions, the caste system, in fact, in many ways goes against the core tenets of Hindu theology. Religious leaders for centuries have decried the caste system as a betrayal of the teachings of...
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