Caste is a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy,
hereditary transmission of a lifestyle which often includes an
occupation, status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction
and exclusion. Although caste systems exist in various regions,
its paradigmatic ethnographic example is the division of Indian
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 Indian caste
system is sometimes used as an analogical basis for the study of
caste-like social divisions existing outside India. In biology, the
term is applied to role stratification in eusocial animals like ants
and termites, though the analogy is imperfect as these also involve
extremely stratified reproduction.
2 In South Asia
2.4 Sri Lanka
3 Southeast Asia
4 East Asia
China and Mongolia
4.3.1 North Korea
5 Middle East
5.1 Ancient Egypt
6.1 West Africa
6.2 Central Africa
6.3 Horn of Africa
7.1 Basque country
7.2 United Kingdom
8 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
The origins of the term 'caste' are attributed to the Spanish and
Portuguese casta, which, according to the John Minsheu's Spanish
dictionary (1599), means "race, lineage, or breed". 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 thousands of
endogamous, hereditary Indian social groups they encountered upon
their arrival in India in 1498. The use of the spelling "caste",
with this latter meaning, is first attested to in English in 1613.
In South Asia
Caste system in India
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Castes in India.
Modern India's caste system is based on the social groupings called
jāti and the theoretical varna. The system of varnas appears in Hindu
texts dating back to 1000 BCE and envisages the society divided into
Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests), Kashatriyas
(warriors and nobles),
Vaishyas (farmers, traders and artisans) and
Shudras (labourers/service providers). The texts do not mention any
separate, untouchable category in varna classification. Scholars
believe that the system of varnas was a theoretical classification
envisioned by the Brahmins, but never truly operational in the
society. The practical division of the society had always been in
terms of jātis (birth groups), which are not based on any specific
principle, but could vary from ethnic origins to occupations. The
jātis have been endogamous groups without any fixed hierarchy but
subject to vague notions of rank articulated over time based on
lifestyle and social, political or economic status. In many instances,
as in Bengal, historically the kings and rulers had been called upon,
when required, to mediate on the ranks of jātis, which might number
in thousands all over the subcontinent and vary by region. In
practice, the jātis may or may not fit into the varna classes and
many prominent jatis, for example the Jats and Yadavs, straddled two
varnas i.e. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, and the varna status of jātis
itself was subject to articulation over time.
Starting with the British colonial Census of 1901 led by Herbert Hope
Risley, all the jātis were grouped under the theoretical varnas
categories. According to political scientist Lloyd Rudolph, Risley
believed that varna, however ancient, could be applied to all the
modern castes found in India, and "[he] meant to identify and place
several hundred million Indians within it." The terms varna
(conceptual classification based on occupation) and jāti (groups) are
two distinct concepts: while varna is the idealised four-part division
envisaged by the Twice-Borns, jāti (community) refers to the
thousands of actual endogamous groups prevalent across the
subcontinent. The classical authors scarcely speak of anything other
than the varnas, as it provided a convenient shorthand; but a problem
arises when even Indologists sometimes confuse the two.
Upon independence from Britain, the Indian Constitution listed 1,108
castes across the country as
Scheduled Castes in 1950, for positive
discrimination. The Untouchable communities are sometimes called
Harijan in contemporary literature. In
2001, Dalits were 16.2% of India's population. Most of the 15
million bonded child workers are from the lowest castes.
Independent India has witnessed caste-related violence. India's
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records crimes against scheduled
castes and scheduled tribes – the most disadvantaged groups - in a
separate category. In 2005, government recorded approximately 110,000
cases of reported violent acts, including rape and murder, against
Dalits  For 2012, the government recorded 651 murders, 3,855
injuries, 1,576 rapes, 490 kidnappings, and 214 cases of arson.
The socio-economic limitations of the caste system are reduced due to
urbanization and affirmative action. Nevertheless, the caste system
still exists in endogamy and patrimony, and thrives in the politics of
democracy, where caste provides ready made constituencies to
politicians. The globalization and economic opportunities from foreign
businesses has influenced the growth of India's middle-class
population. Some members of the Chhattisgarh Potter
(CPCC) are middle-class urban professionals and no longer potters
unlike the remaining majority of traditional rural potter members. The
co-existence of the middle-class and traditional members in the CPCC
has created intersectionality between caste and class. There is
persistence of caste in Indian politics.
Caste associations have
evolved into caste-based political parties. Political parties and the
state perceive caste as an important factor for mobilization of people
and policy development. It is not politics that gets caste-ridden; it
is caste that gets politicized.
A page from the manuscript Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India,
which consists of 72 full-color hand-painted images of men and women
of various religions, occupations and ethnic groups found in Madura,
India in 1837, which confirms the popular perception and nature of
caste as Jati, before the British made it applicable only to Hindus
grouped under the varna categories from the 1901 census onwards.
Caste system in Nepal
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 Licchavi 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
Caste system among South Asian Muslims
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. Pathan, Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.)
and membership of specific biraderis or zaat/quoms are additional
integral components of social identity. 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
Caste system in Sri Lanka
The caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into
strata, influenced by the textbook varnas and jāti system found
in 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.
A Sudra caste man from Bali. Photo from 1870, courtesy of
Main article: Balinese caste system
Balinese caste structure has been described in early 20th-century
European literature to be based on three categories – triwangsa
(thrice born) or the nobility, dwijāti (twice born) in contrast to
ekajāti (once born) the low folks. Four statuses were identified in
these sociological studies, spelled a bit differently from the caste
categories for India:
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.
China and Mongolia
During the period of Yuan Dynasty, ruler
Kublai Khan enforced a Four
Class System, which was a legal caste system. The order of four
classes of people was maintained by the information of the descending
Han people (in the northern areas of China)
Southerners (people of the former Southern Song dynasty)
Some scholars notes that it was a kind of psychological indication
that the earlier they submitted to Mongolian people, the higher social
status they would have. The 'Four Class System' and its people
received different treatment in political, legal, and military
Hukou system is considered by various sources as the
current caste system of China.
There is also significant controversy over the social classes of
Tibet, especially with regards to the serfdom in Tibet controversy.
Main article: Edo society
Japanese samurai of importance and servant.
In Japan's history, social strata based on inherited position rather
than personal merit, was rigid and highly formalized in a system
called mibunsei (身分制). 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: samurai, peasants, craftsmen
and merchants. Only samurai were allowed to bear arms. A samurai had a
right to kill any peasants, craftsman or merchant who he felt were
disrespectful. Merchants were the lowest caste because they did not
produce any products. The castes were further sub-divided; for
example, peasants were labelled as furiuri, tanagari,
mizunomi-byakusho among others. As in Europe, the castes and
sub-classes were of 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.
De Vos and Wagatsuma observe that Japanese society had a systematic
and extensive caste system. They discuss how alleged caste impurity
and alleged racial inferiority, concepts often assumed to be
different, are superficial terms, and are due to identical inner
psychological processes, which expressed themselves in
Endogamy was common because marriage across caste lines was socially
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
Burakumin underclasses. The
Burakumin are regarded as
"ostracised." 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.
Yangban Family Scene from 1904. The Yoon Family had an
enduring presence in Korean politics from the 1800s until the 1970s.
The baekjeong (백정) were an “untouchable” outcaste of Korea.
The meaning today is that of butcher. It originates in the Khitan
invasion of Korea in the 11th century. The defeated
surrendered were settled in isolated communities throughout Goryeo to
forestall rebellion. They were valued for their skills in hunting,
herding, butchering, and making of leather, common skill sets among
nomads. Over time, their ethnic origin was forgotten, and they formed
the bottom layer of Korean society.
In 1392, with the foundation of the Confucian Joseon dynasty, Korea
systemised its own native class system. At the top were the two
official classes, the Yangban, which literally means "two classes." It
was composed of scholars (munban) and warriors (muban). Scholars had a
significant social advantage over the warriors. Below were the jung-in
(중인-中人: literally "middle people". This was a small class of
specialized professions such as medicine, accounting, translators,
regional bureaucrats, etc. Below that were the sangmin (상민-常民:
literally 'commoner'), farmers working their own fields. Korea also
had a serf population known as the nobi. The nobi population could
fluctuate up to about one-third of the population, but on average the
nobi made up about 10% of the total population. In 1801, the vast
majority of government nobi were emancipated, and by 1858 the nobi
population stood at about 1.5 percent of the total population of
Korea. The hereditary nobi system was officially abolished around
1886–87 and the rest of the nobi system was abolished with the Gabo
Reform of 1894, but traces remained until 1930.
The opening of Korea to foreign Christian missionary activity in the
late 19th century saw some improvement in the status of the baekjeong.
However, everyone was not equal under the Christian congregation, and
even so protests erupted when missionaries tried to integrate
baekjeong into worship, with non-baekjeong finding this attempt
insensitive to traditional notions of hierarchical advantage.[citation
needed] Around the same time, the baekjeong began to resist open
social discrimination. They focused on social and economic
injustices affecting them, hoping to create an egalitarian Korean
society. Their efforts included attacking social discrimination by
upper class, authorities, and "commoners," and the use of degrading
language against children in public schools.
Gabo reform of 1896, the class system of Korea was officially
abolished. Following the collapse of the Gabo government, the new
cabinet, which became the Gwangmu government after the establishment
of the Korean Empire, introduced systematic measures for abolishing
the traditional class system. One measure was the new household
registration system, reflecting the goals of formal social equality,
which was implemented by the loyalists’ cabinet. Whereas the old
registration system signified household members according to their
hierarchical social status, the new system called for an
While most Koreans by then had surnames and even bongwan, although
still substantial number of cheonmin, mostly consisted of serfs and
slaves, and untouchables did not. According to the new system, they
were then required to fill in the blanks for surname in order to be
registered as constituting separate households. Instead of creating
their own family name, some cheonmins appropriated their masters’
surname, while others simply took the most common surname and its
bongwan in the local area. Along with this example, activists within
and outside the Korean government had based their visions of a new
relationship between the government and people through the concept of
citizenship, employing the term inmin ("people") and later, kungmin
Main article: Songbun
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea reported that "Every
North Korean citizen is assigned a heredity-based class and
socio-political rank over which the individual exercises no control
but which determines all aspects of his or her life." Regarded as
Barbara Demick describes this "class structure" as an
updating of the hereditary "caste system", combining Confucianism and
Stalinism. She claims that a bad family background is called
"tainted blood", and that by law this "tainted blood" lasts for three
See also: Social classes of Tibet
Heidi Fjeld has put forth the argument that pre-1950s Tibetan society
was functionally a caste system, in contrast to previous scholars who
defined the Tibetan social class system as similar to European feudal
serfdom, as well as non-scholarly western accounts which seek to
romanticize a supposedly 'egalitarian' ancient Tibetan society.
Main article: Yazidi
Yezidi society is hierarchical. The secular leader is a hereditary
emir or prince, whereas a chief sheikh heads the religious hierarchy.
Yazidi are strictly endogamous; members of the three Yazidi
castes, the murids, sheikhs and pirs, marry only within their group.
The Ancient Egyptians were divided into four social classes:
the royalty and nobles
artisans, craftworkers and merchants
Sassanid society was immensely complex, with separate
systems of social organization governing numerous different groups
within the empire. Historians believe society comprised
four social classes:
Priests (Persian: Asravan)
Warriors (Persian: Arteshtaran)
Secretaries (Persian: Dabiran)
Commoners (Persian: Vastryoshan)
Main article: Al-Akhdam
Yemen there exists a hereditary caste, the African-descended
Al-Akhdam who are kept as perennial manual workers. Estimates put
their number at over 3.5 million residents who are discriminated, out
of a total Yemeni population of around 22 million.
Caste system in Africa
Various sociologists have reported caste systems in
Africa. 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. 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
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.
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.
The osu class systems of eastern
Nigeria and southern
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.
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 Ivory Coast, 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.
Similarly, the Mandé societies in Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast,
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.
Africa evolved over time, sub-castes emerged that acquired
secondary specializations or changed occupations.
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
Ethel M. Albert in 1960 claimed that the societies in Central Africa
were caste-like social stratification systems. Similarly, in 1961,
Maquet notes that the society in
Burundi can be best
described as castes. The Tutsi, noted Maquet, considered
themselves as superior, with the more numerous
Hutu and the least
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. Maquet's
theories have been controversial.
Horn of Africa
Madhiban (Midgan) specialize in leather occupation. Along with the
Tumal and Yibir, they are collectively known as sab.
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
Ethiopia in communities
such as the Gurage and Konso. He then presents the Dime of
Southwestern 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.
Alula Pankhurst has published a
study of caste groups in SW Ethiopia.
Among the Kafa, there were also traditionally groups labeled as
castes. "Based on research done before the Derg regime, these studies
generally presume the existence of a social hierarchy similar to the
caste system. At the top of this hierarchy were the Kafa, followed by
occupational groups including blacksmiths (Qemmo), weavers (Shammano),
bards (Shatto), potters, and tanners (Manno). In this hierarchy, the
Manjo were commonly referred to as hunters, given the lowest status
equal only to slaves."
Borana Oromo of southern
Ethiopia in the Horn of
Africa also have
a class system, wherein the Wata, an acculturated hunter-gatherer
group, represent the lowest class. Though the Wata today speak the
Oromo language, they have traditions of having previously spoken
another language before adopting Oromo.
The traditionally nomadic
Somali people are divided into clans,
Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the occupational clans
such as the
Madhiban were traditionally sometimes treated as
outcasts. As Gabboye, the
Madhiban along with the
Yibir and Tumaal
(collectively referred to as sab) have since obtained political
representation within Somalia, and their general social status has
improved with the expansion of urban centers.
Medieval Europe's caste system had the following order:
Knights, squires, pages, clergy
Peasants, slaves, serfs
For centuries, through the modern times, the majority regarded Cagots
who lived primarily in the Basque region of France and 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, and 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
In July 2013, the UK government announced its intention to amend the
Equality Act 2010
Equality Act 2010 to "introduce legislation on caste, including any
necessary exceptions to the caste provisions, within the framework of
domestic discrimination law". Section 9(5) of the Equality Act
2010 provides that "a Minister may by order amend the statutory
definition of race to include caste and may provide for exceptions in
the Act to apply or not to apply to caste".
From September 2013 to February 2014,
Meena Dhanda led a project on
Caste in Britain’ for the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission
Estates of the realm
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Yemen by Marguerite Abadjian (Archive of the Baltimore Sun)
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