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The Asian side of the world - II

Jean-François Sabouret

Part Two. National challenges and strategies

Is India a closed society?

Some thoughts on the issue of social mobility

Jules Naudet

Texte intégral

1February 2013

2Is India a closed society? According to Pitirim Sorokin, one of the first theoreticians of social mobility, India at the beginning of the 20th century was the closest example of the ideal of a closed society, that is to say a society in which the status assigned at birth lasts throughout life.

Class, caste and status

3India comes so readily to mind as an example of a closed society because it is often seen through the frame of caste. As Max Weber reminded us in The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, castes are a special case of status groups (Stand). In contrast to the frequent situation in which social honour is directly connected to class position, the notion of caste modifies the relationship between social status and class. According to Weber, castes are a closed status group in the sense that they impose highly constrictive professional, religious and social obligations. It is not class – defined by the possession or non-possession of material goods or professional qualifications of a certain type – that defines status, but rather the status given at birth that defines class. In such a situation, social mobility is extremely difficult to achieve for an isolated individual. Only the group as a whole can see its status evolve.

  • 1 Weber, 2003: 230.

4But Sorokin’s assertion is slightly misleading, as Indian society is not completely closed. There has always been a strong congruence between caste and class, but the congruence has never been perfect. Since the independence of India and particularly the policies of “reservations” (a government policy that imposes quotas), the dissociation of caste and class has actually increased, although the congruence still remains very strong. The secularization of the country, moreover, delegitimized use of the criteria of caste in the common sense. Although this delegitimization remains relative, it nevertheless opened a breach in the principles that guarantee the Indian social order. Indian theodicy, which Weber described as the “the most consistent ever produced by history1”, has been challenged by an ideology of merit, according to which the worth of an individual no longer depends on his birth but on his professional success.

5The consequence of these two developments leads to a blurring of the definitions of status. While caste is a closed status group in Weber’s sense, status in India is not defined only by caste. It also depends on the prestige of one’s occupation. Thus, in India, there are two scales of value of social status, in which status is defined by the ritual purity of one’s caste as well as by the prestige of one’s profession. These two scales of social status are independent and possess their own logic. The assessment of an individual’s status thus depends on the use of one scale or the other and is profoundly relative.

Discrimination, social mobility and the closure of Indian society

  • 2 Vaid and Heath, 2010: 150.

6This opening, or breach, remains nonetheless tenuous and owes a great deal to the reservations policy, which opened paths of mobility for people from the “lowest” castes. The levels of social mobility in India remain much lower than those of most western countries, as suggested by the work of Divya Vaid and Anthony Heath, two sociologists at Oxford. They defend the idea that Indian society is characterized by its “stickiness” and “higher levels of inequality of opportunity”, and their conclusions bear on “the closed nature of Indian society2”. The very low level of mobility is partly a reflection of the salience of discrimination on the basis of caste and the persistence, particularly strong in rural areas, of the practice of untouchability.

  • 3 Shah et al., 2006.
  • 4 Narula, 2007.

7A study on a sample of 565 villages in 11 states showed that, in one tenth of these villages, people considered to be untouchables still do not have the right to wear shoes, new clothes or sunglasses, nor do they have the right to use an umbrella or own a bicycle3. In half the villages, these people do not have free access to the community infrastructures that provide drinking-water. Similarly, more than 40% of schools practice untouchability during school meals, so that children from the “scheduled castes” and the “scheduled tribes” have to sit separately from their classmates. Police statistics, which do not account for all crimes, show that every week, 13 people in these groups are murdered, five of their houses are burned down, six people are kidnapped, three women are raped and 11 people are attacked; a crime is committed against a member of these groups every 18 minutes4.

  • 5 Jaffrelot, 2000.

8On the basis of this experience of extremely violent discrimination, many members of these groups, particularly the scheduled castes, have developed a strong political identity. This increase in political awareness became more acute in the interwar period under Ambedkar5, the first “untouchable” to have studied in the United States and England and the main author of the Indian Constitution. He also initiated a movement against the caste structure, which continued beyond his death in 1956 and is today the structural force behind the struggle against discrimination.

Social mobility and ties to the group of origin

9The closure of Indian society combined with the weight of caste discrimination thus leads to specific kinds of experience of upward social mobility. In spite of all their successes, upwardly mobile Dalits continue to be considered “untouchable”. Anil, the son of a landless worker from a small village in Gujarat who is now a graduate of an Ivy League university and a consultant for an international firm confessed hesitantly and almost guiltily his discomfort on returning to the village of his birth:

10“When I go back [the situation of the people there] is very bad and I am still... when I go back, I still remain... It is quite a contradiction in me. When I go back I still... As far as the higher caste people are concerned, I still remain as a lower caste person. Even though I am a big guy in Mumbai where my caste doesn’t matter, when I go back, I become the ‘untouchable’, and that I don’t like.” This extract reveals all the contradictions of social mobility in the Indian context. As acceptance by their new group proves difficult, upwardly mobile Dalits often oscillate between two strategies. The first, predominant among those working in the private sector, consists of concealing one’s caste, in trying to erase all marks of belonging to a subaltern group and in appropriating for oneself the values and modes of thought that are prevalent among the upper classes. The second consists of claiming strong ties with the group of origin and predominates among people working in the public sector.

11The relationship to the group of origin is often expressed slightly differently by top civil servants and scholars who, having benefited from reservations to secure their job, find it more difficult to conceal their caste. The weight of this stigmatized identity often means that they prefer to invest their efforts for social recognition within a caste group with which they share an experience of discrimination rather than within a peer group with which they share certain class attributes but who are always tempted to define them by their caste.

12These people often conceive the preservation of their links with their group of origin as a moral obligation, and many decide to set up schools, micro-credit organizations, libraries, scholarship systems and so on. Such enterprises are in keeping with the ideology, notably defended by the political leader Kanshi Ram, that upwardly mobile Dalits should “pay back to society”. Dinesh Bhongare, professor of psychology at Mumbai University, uses such terms to talk about his own activities:

13“In addition to my profession, I have [stress by the interviewee] to involve myself in other social activities. I cannot altogether ignore this social responsibility. So, I am conducting some guidance programmes for socially disadvantaged people, helping them, organizing some social awareness programmes, community programmes, counselling, etc. That’s the kind of activity we conduct. Our priority is not earning money. So, compared to other professors, we are compelled to organise these kinds of activities. We cannot compromise on this.”

14In addition to the revealing shift from the pronoun “I” to “we”, this excerpt clearly shows how social commitment follows a moral imperative. The personal dimension of the commitment gradually fades and gives rise instead to the identification with a group that ultimately motivates and guides the moral standpoints as well as the actions (“we are compelled to”) of the individual. It is the Dalit collective identity that dictates the modality of action, and this caste identity informs all aspects of the narration of the interviewee’s life story.

15Personal interests do not of course dissolve through attachment to the group of origin. This ethos of dedication and commitment cannot be completely dissociated from a position of domination on the part of the socially mobile people within the Dalit community. In a society that is still structured by caste relationships, it is extremely difficult, and in some contexts impossible, for someone who has emerged from a caste considered by some to be “untouchable” to be assimilated into dominant groups still headed by so-called upper castes. Breaking off relationships with the original group in an attempt to fully integrate the destination group is an extremely risky gamble that can result in isolation and lead to humiliation rather than bring symbolic benefits. The hypothesis that most upwardly mobile Dalits prefer to be dominant among the dominated rather than be dominated among the dominant may also partly explain the perpetuation of ties with the group of origin. This brief glimpse into the specific issues raised by the experience of upward mobility in the case of India provides one example of how, even despite a radical change in professional status, caste identity continues to structure the way people situate themselves in the social space. Whereas social mobility generally implies a strong process of individuation, of loss or confusion of belonging, this does not seem to be the case with the Dalits who experience this kind of mobility. We therefore see that the distinction discussed in our introductory comments between social status as defined by caste and social status as defined by profession could be examined more closely in the way that Dalits experience their success. One way in which caste identity can be considered a structuring trait is continued consideration of upwardly mobile Dalits as “untouchables”, despite their success.


Bibliographical indications

Naudet, Jules, Entrer dans l’élite : Parcours de réussite en France, aux États-Unis et en Inde, Paris, PUF, 2012.

Jaffrelot, Christophe, Dr Ambedkar : Leader intouchable et père de la Constitution indienne, Paris, Presses de SciencesPo, 2000.

Shah, G., Mander, H., Thorat, S., Deshpande, S. and Baviskar, A., Untouchability in rural India, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sage Publications, 2006.

Smita Narula, “Equal by Law, Unequal by Caste: The ‘Untouchable’ Condition in Critical Race Perspective”, Wisconsin International Law Journal, vol. 26, 2007.

Sorokin, Pitirim, Social Mobility, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1927.

Vaid, Divya and Heath, Anthony, “Unequal Opportunities: Class, Caste and Social Mobility”, in Heath, Anthony and Jeffery, Roger (dir.), Diversity and Change in Modern India: Economic, Social and Political Approaches, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 150.

Weber, Max, Hindouisme et Bouddhisme, traduit et présenté par Isabelle Kalinowski et Roland Lardinois, Paris, Flammarion, coll. « Champs », 2003, p. 123.


1 Weber, 2003: 230.

2 Vaid and Heath, 2010: 150.

3 Shah et al., 2006.

4 Narula, 2007.

5 Jaffrelot, 2000.


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