(This is an essay in the materialist interpretation of caste from a comparative global perspective. For research purposes, or for further reading, please consult the sources listed at the bottom of the page.)
A caste is a social group defined by its traditional hereditary occupation or productive role. Every group around the world commonly known as a caste is linked to a specific material function around which their collective identity coheres. It's what they do—what, in fact, they are born to do. In South Asia people are born quite explicitly as potters, barbers, basket-makers, agricultural laborers, scavengers of dead animals, and so on—the name of a caste typically being simply the word for the occupation traditionally followed by its members. There are priest castes, merchant castes, and land-owning castes.
The special productive role that defines a given caste need not be followed by all, most, or any of its members at a given point in time. Individuals who manage to find other work, and even whole communities that abandoned their traditional occupation generations ago, retain their caste identity and its associated rank. That the great majority of Japanese outcastes (burakumin) do not today work as tanners or leatherworkers has not removed their oppression.
It is the nature of a caste's traditional productive role that determines its status in relation to other groups in society. The ritual criteria by which Indian castes are ranked follow from their respective material function, as the anthropologist Harold Gould explains:
Roughly, those clusters of patrifamilies whose work activities put them in continuous contact with "blood, death, and dirt," singly or in combination, are regarded as "unclean" castes and must avoid connubial, commensal, and many other forms of social contacts with those clusters of patrifamilies who are "clean."Gould points out how this symbolic scheme ultimately reflects the class relations it grows out of:
Basically, the distinction is between the land-owning, cultivating castes, on the one hand, who dominate the social order and the landless craft and menial castes, on the other, who are subordinate within it. Hinduism elaborately rationalizes and congeals this fundamental distinction. (“The Hindu Jajmani System: A Case of Economic Particularism,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1958))Not all of the caste systems in South Asia are Hindu: there is a separate Muslim caste system in India and Pakistan, and in Sri Lanka the Sinhalese system, though historically derived from India, is not based in Hinduism. But they are all broadly organized along the principles outlined above. This should be enough to show that it's the underlying social relations that are primary, not their specific ritual elaboration.
The South Asian caste systems exist to justify and reinforce the set of productive relations they pretend to prescribe. Even supposedly scientific observers are commonly taken in by this mystification, as Marx and Engels noted back in the 1850s:
When the crude form in which the division of labor appears with the Indians and Egyptians calls forth the caste-system in their State and religion, the historian believes that the caste-system is the power which has produced this crude social form. (The German Ideology)And yet caste is not class. There are brahmins as poor as any untouchable. To say that the caste system emerged on the basis of pre-capitalist class relations, that it continues to be wielded—in the cities as in the countryside—to legitimize the power of the exploiters and obscure the common interests of those whose labor they live off, and that it will persist as long as the existing social structure requires this function, or in other words until exploitation is abolished, is not to claim that caste and class necessarily coincide. On the contrary, the single most reactionary role of the caste system in South Asia today is to divide workers, be they high-caste or low, from their class brothers and sisters.
While it is only in South Asia that society as a whole is traditionally made up out of a large number of socially isolated yet mutually interdependent castes, individual pariah castes can be found elsewhere. In Asia they exist in Japan and Tibet, as they historically did in pre-modern Korea and Burma. There are pariah castes in Yemen, in many parts of Africa, and in Europe (i.e., the Roma, the quinquilleros of Spain, the Travellers of Ireland and Britain, and, formerly, the cagots of pre-Revolutionary France). As with the South Asian untouchable castes they resemble, the enforced segregation and degraded status of these groups is based on the nature of their respective traditional occupations, either because it is associated with dirt or death or because it lacks a fixed place within the social order. They are either metalworkers, woodworkers, leatherworkers, butchers, or handlers of the dead, on the one hand, or itinerant performers, peddlers, or beggars, on the other. In the United States the caste oppression of black people is a legacy of their descent from a class of hereditary slaves and a reflection of their continued segregation at the bottom of capitalist society.
Nowhere in Asia are castes defined by ethnicity or appearance. The burakumin are physically and culturally indistinguishable from other Japanese; they can be identified only by reference to their family registry and, sometimes, the areas they live in. While South Asians do recognize differences in skin color and may loosely associate them with caste, there is no question of caste being either determined or reliably recognized by any physical distinction, nor by any marker of ethnic origin. It seems reasonable to suggest that the physical characteristics by which blacks in the U.S. are identified as a caste function in the first place as a presumed index of their descent from (African-derived) slaves.
A caste, unlike a nation, does not have its own culture, language, or territory. Nor does it have its own political economy, but is integrated unequally into that of the larger society. An oppressed nation is forcibly integrated and seeks the right to separate; an oppressed caste is forcibly segregated and seeks the right to assimilate.
selected sources on caste from a comparative perspective
Ursula Sharma, Caste (Concepts in the Social Sciences), Open University Press, 1999
Ursula Sharma, "Berreman revisited; caste and the comparative method," in Contextualising Caste: Post-Dumontian Approaches, edited by Mary Searle-Chatterjee and Ursula Sharma, Blackwell, 1994
M.N. Srinivas (ed.), Caste: Its Twentieth-Century Avatar, Penguin Books, 1997
Gerald D. Berreman, "Structure and Function of Caste Systems," in Japan's Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality, edited by George De Vos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma, University of California Press, 1966
Anthony de Rueck and Julie Knight (eds), Caste and Race: Comparative Approaches, Little, Brown and Company, 1967
Human Rights Watch, Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern, August 2001