Basor Dalit caste

The Basor weaving bamboo baskets in a 1916 book. The Basor are a Hindu caste found in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.

Template:Political anthropology Caste is a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a style of life which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution.[1][2] Its paradigmatic ethnographic example is the division of India's Hindu society into rigid social groups, with roots in India's ancient history and persisting until today. However, the economic significance of the caste system in India has been declining as a result of urbanization and affirmative action programs. A subject of much scholarship by sociologists and anthropologists, the Hindu caste system is sometimes used as an analogical basis for the study of caste-like social divisions existing outside Hinduism and India.

According to UNICEF and Human Rights Watch, caste discrimination affects an estimated 250 million people worldwide.[3][4]


The English word "caste" derives from the Spanish and Portuguese casta, which the Oxford English Dictionary quotes John Minsheu's Spanish dictionary (1599) to mean, "race, lineage, or breed."[5] When the Spanish colonized the New World, they used the word to mean a "clan or lineage." However, it was the Portuguese who employed casta in the primary modern sense when they applied it to the many in-marrying hereditary Hindu social groups they encountered upon their arrival in India in 1498.[5][6] The use of the spelling "caste," with this latter meaning, is first attested to in English in 1613.[5]

Caste system of India

File:Kurmi sowing.jpg

An early 20th century "ethnographic" photograph of men and women from the Kurmi caste—famed as cultivators and market gardeners[7]—sowing their field.[8]

Historically, the caste system in India has consisted of thousands of endogamous groups called Jatis or Quoms (among Muslims). The scholarly Brahmans of India envisaged the four well-known categories to classify the society (the Varnas):[9]

  • Brahmin or Brahman (fire priests, scholars and teachers)
  • Kshatriyas (warriors, administrators and law enforcers)
  • Vaishyas (agriculturists, cattle raisers and traders)
  • Shudras (service providers and artisans)

It has been pointed out that some people were considered left out from these four caste classifications, and in certain places were called Panchama (literally, the fifth). Regarded as outcastes or the untouchables, these people lived on the fringes of the society. All the Jatis were unilaterally clubbed under the varnas categories during the British colonial Census of 1901.[10].

Ancient Indian texts, such as Manusmṛti and the Puranas make it clear that a caste system was very much a part of Indian society. Manusmṛti declared sexual relations between men and women of different castes as illegal [11] but also specifies the varna or jati to which the offspring of such liaisons belong.

Upon independence from the British rule, the Indian Constitution listed 1,108 castes across the country as Scheduled Castes in 1950, for affirmative action.[12] The Scheduled Castes are sometimes called as Dalit in contemporary literature.[13] In 2001, the proportion of Dalit population was 16.2 percent of India's total population.[14]

Caste in rest of South Asia


The Nepalese caste system resembles that of the Indian Jāti system with numerous Jāti divisions with a Varna system superimposed for a rough equivalence. But since the culture and the society is different some of the things are different. Inscriptions attest the beginnings of a caste system during the Lichchhavi period. Jayasthiti Malla (1382–95) categorized Newars into 64 castes (Gellner 2001). A similar exercise was made during the reign of Mahindra Malla (1506–75). The Hindu social code was later set up in Gorkha by Ram Shah (1603–36).


Religious, historical and sociocultural factors have helped define the bounds of endogamy for Muslims in some parts of Pakistan. There is a preference for endogamous marriages based on the clan-oriented nature of the society, which values and actively seeks similarities in social group identity based on several factors, including religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal/clan affiliation. Religious affiliation is itself multilayered and includes religious considerations other than being Muslim, such as sectarian identity (e.g. Shia or Sunni, etc.) and religious orientation within the sect (Isnashari, Ismaili, Ahmedi, etc.).

Both ethnic affiliation (e.g. Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.) and membership of specific biraderis or zaat/quoms are additional integral components of social identity.[15] Within the bounds of endogamy defined by the above parameters, close consanguineous unions are preferred due to a congruence of key features of group- and individual-level background factors as well as affinities. McKim Marriott claims a social stratification that is hierarchical, closed, endogamous and hereditary is widely prevalent, particularly in western parts of Pakistan. Frederik Barth in his review of this system of social stratification in Pakistan suggested that these are castes.[16][17][18]

Sri Lanka

The Caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into strata,[19] influenced by the classic Aryan Varnas of North India and the Dravida Jāti system found in South India. Ancient Sri Lankan texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptional evidence show that the above hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period. The repetition of the same caste hierarchy even as recently as the 18th century, in the British/Kandyan period Kadayimpoth - Boundary books as well, indicates the continuation of the tradition right up to the end of Sri Lanka's monarchy.

Caste-like stratification outside South Asia

South-east Asia

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Een soedra een man uit de laagste kaste van Bali

A Sudra caste man from Bali. Photo from 1870, courtesy of Tropenmuseum, Netherlands


Karen are people from the Burma-Thailand border region. They were claimed by Christian missionaries and British colonialists as people who were treated by the ethnic majority as low-caste people or dirty-feeders.[20]


Balinese caste structure has been described in early 20th century European literature to be based on three categories – triwangsa (thrice born) or the nobility, dwijati (twice born) in contrast to ekajati (once born) the low folks. Four statuses were identified in these sociological studies, spelled a bit differently than the caste categories for India:[21]

  • Brahmanas - priest
  • Satrias - knighthood
  • Wesias - commerce
  • Sudras - servitude

The Brahmana caste was further subdivided by these Dutch ethnographers into two: Siwa and Buda. The Siwa caste was subdivided into five – Kemenuh, Keniten, Mas, Manuba and Petapan. This classification was to accommodate the observed marriage between higher caste Brahmana men with lower caste women. The other castes were similarly further sub-classified by these 19th-century and early-20th-century ethnographers based on numerous criteria ranging from profession, endogamy or exogamy or polygamy, and a host of other factors in a manner similar to castas in Spanish colonies such as Mexico, and caste system studies in British colonies such as India.[21]

East Asia


Samurai and servant

Japanese samurai of importance and servant.

In Japan's history, social strata based on inherited position rather than personal merits, was rigid and highly formalized. At the top were the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge), together with the Shogun and daimyo. Below them the population was divided into four classes in a system known as mibunsei (身分制). These were: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. Only the samurai class was allowed to bear arms. A samurai had a right to kill any peasants and other craftsmen and merchants whom he felt were disrespectful. Craftsmen produced products, being the third, and the last merchants were thought to be as the meanest class because they did not produce any products. The castes were further sub-divided; for example, the peasant caste were labelled as furiuri, tanagari, mizunomi-byakusho amongst others. The castes and sub-classes, as in Europe, were from the same race, religion and culture.

Howell, in his review of Japanese society notes that if a Western power had colonized Japan in the 19th century, they would have discovered and imposed a rigid four-caste hierarchy in Japan.[22]

De Vos and Wagatsuma observe that a systematic and extensive caste system was part of the Japanese society. They also discuss how alleged caste impurity and alleged racial inferiority, concepts often quickly assumed to be slightly different, are superficial terms, two faces of identical inner psychological processes, which expressed themselves in Japan and other countries of the world.[23]

Endogamy was common because marriage across caste lines was socially unacceptable.[23][24]

Japan had its own untouchable caste, shunned and ostracized, historically referred to by the insulting term Eta, now called Burakumin. While modern law has officially abolished the class hierarchy, there are reports of discrimination against the Buraku or Burakumin underclasses.[25] The Burakumin are regarded as "ostracised."[26] The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and those of residents of Korean and Chinese descent.

West Asia


In Yemen there exists a hereditary caste, the African-descended Al-Akhdam who are kept as perennial manual workers. A 2008 New York Times report claims that Yemen has over 1 million of these discriminated and ostracized Al-Akhdam people, that is about 5 percent of Yemen population.[27]


Various sociologists have reported caste systems in Africa.[28][29][30] The specifics of the caste systems have varied in ethnically and culturally diverse Africa, however the following features are common - it has been a closed system of social stratification, the social status is inherited, the castes are hierarchical, certain castes are shunned while others are merely endogamous and exclusionary.[31] In some cases, concepts of purity and impurity by birth have been prevalent in Africa. In other cases, such as the Nupe of Nigeria, the Beni Amer of East Africa, and the Tira of Sudan, the exclusionary principle has been driven by evolving social factors.[32]

West Africa


A Griot, who have been described as an endogamous caste of West Africa who specialize in oral story telling and culture preservation. They have been also referred to as the bard caste.

NSRW Africa Midgan

A Madhiban, also known as Midgan or Medigan or Boon or Gaboye, specialize in leather occupation. They have been listed as one of three occupational castes discriminated in East Africa. Austrian Red Cross reports that they, along with Tumal and Yibir people are locally known collectively as sab, meaning low caste people.[33]

Among the Igbo of Nigeria - especially Enugu, Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Edo and Delta states of the country - Obinna finds Osu caste system has been and continues to be a major social issue. The Osu caste is determined by one's birth into a particular family irrespective of the religion practised by the individual. Once born into Osu caste, this Nigerian person is an outcast, shunned and ostracized, with limited opportunities or acceptance, regardless of his or her ability or merit. Obinna discusses how this caste system-related identity and power is deployed within government, Church and indigenous communities.[28]

The osu class systems of eastern Nigeria and southern Cameroon are derived from indigenous religious beliefs and discriminate against the "Osus" people as "owned by deities" and outcasts.

The Songhai economy was based on a caste system. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders.[34]

In a review of social stratification systems in Africa, Richter reports that the term caste has been used by French and American scholars to many groups of West African artisans. These groups have been described as inferior, deprived of all political power, have a specific occupation, are hereditary and sometimes despised by others. Richter illustrates caste system in Cote d'lvoire, with six sub-caste categories. Unlike other parts of the world, mobility is sometimes possible within sub-castes, but not across caste lines. Farmers and artisans have been, claims Richter, distinct castes. Certain sub-castes are shunned more than others. For example, exogamy is rare for women born into families of woodcarvers.[35]

Similarly, the Mandé societies in Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone have social stratification systems that divide society by ethnic ties. The Mande class system regards the jonow slaves as inferior. Similarly, the Wolof in Senegal is divided into three main groups, the geer (freeborn/nobles), jaam (slaves and slave descendants) and the underclass neeno. In various parts of West Africa, Fulani societies also have class divisions. Other castes include Griots, Forgerons, and Cordonniers.

Tamari has described endogamous castes of over fifteen West African peoples, including the Tukulor, Songhay, Dogon, Senufo, Minianka, Moors, Manding, Soninke, Wolof, Serer, Fulani, and Tuareg. Castes appeared among the Malinke people no later than 14th century, and was present among the Wolof and Soninke, as well as some Songhay and Fulani populations, no later than 16th century. Tamari claims that wars, such as the Sosso-Malinke war described in the Sunjata epic, led to the formation of blacksmith and bard castes among the people that ultimately became the Mali empire.

As West Africa evolved over time, sub-castes emerged that acquired secondary specializations or changed occupations. Endogamy was prevalent within a caste or among a limited number of castes, yet castes did not form demographic isolates according to Tamari. Social status according to caste was inherited by off-springs automatically; but this inheritance was paternal. That is, children of higher caste men and lower caste or slave concubines would have the caste status of the father.[30]

Central Africa

Albert in 1960 claimed that the societies in Central Africa were caste-like social stratification systems.[36] Similarly, in 1961, Maquet notes that the society in Rwanda and Burundi can be best described as castes.[37] The Tutsi, noted Maquet, considered themselves as superior, with the more numerous Hutu and the least numerous Twa regarded, by birth, as respectively, second and third in the hierarchy of Rwandese society. These groups were largely endogamous, exclusionary and with limited mobility.[38] Maquet's theories have been controversial.

East Africa

In a review published in 1977, Todd reports that numerous scholars report a system of social stratification in different parts of Africa that resembles some or all aspects of caste system. Examples of such caste systems, he claims, are to be found in Rwanda and Ethiopia in communities such as the Gurage and Konso. He then presents the Dime of South-West Ethiopia, amongst whom there operates a system which Todd claims can be unequivocally labelled as caste system. The Dime have seven castes whose size varies considerably. Each broad caste level is a hierarchical order that is based on notions of purity, non-purity and impurity. It uses the concepts of defilement to limit contacts between caste categories and to preserve the purity of the upper castes. These caste categories have been exclusionary, endogamous and the social identity inherited.[39]

The Borana Oromo of southern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa also have a class system, where the Watta, an acculturated Bantu group, represent the poorest class.

The traditionally nomadic Somali people are divided into clans, wherein the Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the occupational clans such as the Madhiban are sometimes treated as outcasts.[40]


France and Spain

For centuries, through the modern times, the majority regarded Cagots of western France and northern Spain as an inferior caste, the untouchables. While they had the same skin color and religion as the majority, in the Churches, they had to use segregated doors, drink from segregated fonts, receive communion on the end of long wooden spoons. It was a closed social system. The socially isolated Cagots were endogamous, and chances of social mobility non-existent.[41][42]

See also


  1. ^ Scott, John; Marshall, Gordon (2005), "caste", A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 66, ISBN 978-0-19-860987-2,, retrieved 10 August 2012 
  2. ^ Winthrop, Robert H. (1991), "Caste", Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, New York, NY: Greenwood Press, pp. 27–30, ISBN 978-0-313-24280-9,, retrieved 10 August 2012 
  3. ^ "Discrimination." UNICEF.
  4. ^ "Global Caste Discrimination." Human Rights Watch.
  5. ^ a b c "Caste, n". Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. 
  6. ^ Pitt-Rivers, Julian (1971), "On the word 'caste'", in T O Beidelman, The translation of culture essays to E.E. Evans-Pritchard, London, UK: Tavistock, pp. 231–256, GGKEY:EC3ZBGF5QC9, 
  7. ^ Bayly, C. A. (1988). Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870. CUP Archive. p. 478. ISBN 978-0-521-31054-3. Retrieved 25 August 2011. 
  8. ^ From Russell, Robert Vane (1916). The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India: volume IV. Descriptive articles on the principal castes and tribes of the Central Provinces. London: Macmillan and Co.. 
  9. ^ F.G. Bailey (1 May 1963). "Closed Social Stratification in India". European Journal of Sociology 4: 107–124. DOI:10.1017/S0003975600000710. 
  10. ^ Nicholas B. Dirks (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of New India. ISBN 978-0-691-08895-2. 
  11. ^ See William Jones translation of Manusmṛti, available online as The Institutes of Hindu Law: Or, The Ordinances of Manu, Calcutta: Sewell & Debrett, 1796.
  12. ^ The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950
  13. ^ Lydia Polgreen (21 December 2011). "Scaling Caste Walls With Capitalism’s Ladders in India". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ "Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes population: Census 2001". Government of India. 2004. 
  15. ^ Barth, Fredrik (1962). E. R. Leach. ed. The System Of Social Stratification In Swat, North Pakistan (Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon, and North-West Pakistan). Cambridge University Press. p. 113. 
  16. ^ Fredrick Barth (December 1956). "Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan". American Anthropologist 58 (6): 1079–1089. DOI:10.1525/aa.1956.58.6.02a00080. 
  17. ^ Zeyauddin Ahmed (1977). The New Wind: Changing Identities in South Asia (Editor: Kenneth David). Aldine Publishing Company. pp. 337–354. ISBN 90-279-7959-6. 
  18. ^ McKim Marriott (1960). Caste ranking and community structure in five regions of India and Pakistan. 
  19. ^ John Rogers (February 2004). "Caste as a social category and identity in colonial Lanka". Indian Economic Social History Review 41: 51–77. DOI:10.1177/001946460404100104. 
  20. ^ Yule and Burnell (1903). "Hobson-Jobson". p. 163. 
  21. ^ a b James Boon (1977). The Anthropological Romance of Bali 1597-1972: Dynamic Perspectives in Marriage and Caste, Politics and Religion. ISBN 0-521-21398-3. 
  22. ^ David L. Howell (2005). Geographies of identity in nineteenth-century Japan. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24085-5. 
  23. ^ a b George De Vos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma (1966). Japan's invisible race: caste in culture and personality. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-00306-4. 
  24. ^ Toby Slade (2009). Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History. Berg. ISBN 978-1-84788-252-3. 
  25. ^ Class, Ethnicity and Nationality: Japan Finds Plenty of Space for Discrimination
  26. ^ William H. Newell (December 1961). "The Comparative Study of Caste in India and Japan". Asian Survey 1 (10): 3–10. DOI:10.1525/as.1961.1.10.01p15082. 
  27. ^ Worth, Robert (7 December 2008). "In slums without hope, Yemen's untouchables". The New York Times. 
  28. ^ a b Elijah Obinna (2012). "Contesting identity: the Osu caste system among Igbo of Nigeria". African Identities 10 (1): 111–121. DOI:10.1080/14725843.2011.614412. 
  29. ^ James B. Watson (Winter, 1963). "Caste as a Form of Acculturation". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 19: 356–379. 
  30. ^ a b Tal Tamari (1991). "The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa". The Journal of African History 32: 221–250. DOI:10.1017/S0021853700025718. 
  31. ^ Leo Igwe (21 August 2009). "Caste discrimination in Africa". International Humanist and Ethical Union. 
  32. ^ SF Nadel (1954). "Caste and government in primitive society". Journal of Anthropological Society 8: 9–22. 
  33. ^ "Ethiopia: Treatment of Madhiban/Midgan/Medigan minority clan". ACCORD. 20 May 2009.,,ACCORD,,ETH,,4a16a50b2,0.html. 
  34. ^ African Kingdoms Songhai Class System
  35. ^ Dolores Richter (January 1980). "Further considerations of caste in West Africa: The Senufo". Africa 50: 37–54. DOI:10.2307/1158641. 
  36. ^ Ethel M. Albert (Spring, 1960). "Socio-Political Organization and Receptivity to Change: Some Differences between Ruanda and Urundi". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 16: 46–74. 
  37. ^ Jacques J. Maquet (1962). The Premise of Inequality in Ruanda: A Study of Political Relations in a Central African Kingdom. Oxford University Press, London. pp. 135–171. ISBN 978-0-19-823168-4. 
  38. ^ Helen Codere (1962). "Power in Ruanda". Anthropologica 4: 45–85. 
  39. ^ D. M. Todd (October 1977). "LA CASTE EN AFRIQUE? (Caste in Africa?)". Africa 47: 398–412. 
  40. ^ I. M. Lewis, A pastoral democracy: a study of pastoralism and politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa, (LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster: 1999), pp.13-14
  41. ^ Sean Thomas (28 July 2008). "The last untouchable in Europe". London: The Independent, United Kingdom. 
  42. ^ Anders Hansson (1996). Chinese Outcasts: Discrimination and Emancipation in Late Imperial China. BRILL. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-90-04-10596-6. 

Secondary sources

Scholarly tertiary sources

Further reading

  • Spectres of Agrarian Territory by David Ludden 11 December 2001
  • "Early Evidence for Caste in South India", p. 467-492 in Dimensions of Social Life: Essays in honor of David G. Mandelbaum, Edited by Paul Hockings and Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, 1987.

External links

Template:Segregation by type Template:Discrimination Template:Social class

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