Posts Tagged ‘caste’

On Hypergamy

©Tessa Valo, 2007

Abstract: The aim of this brief article is to discuss the extent to which marriage can be conceived of and serve as a strategy how to achieve a higher status within a given social hierarchy. We will examine this topic through examples from several, in some respects radically different, social systems – from the nineteenth-century Cuba, traditional Hindu caste system, the social organization of Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea to the twentieth-century Italy. We will argue that though marriage can, in some cases, serve as an effective strategy how to achieve a higher status, it must always be accompanied by other salient factors relative to the respective social system – thus it can not serve as a mean how to achieve this aim alone, but must always – to definite extent – go hand in hand with other culturally approved ways which lead to this goal.

The classical descent theorists conceptualized marriage as a recognized relationship that has, as such, the potential to create legitimate heirs and successors and thus assure the continuity of the given social order as well as of their own selves (Yanagisako & Collier 1996:235). This aspect of marriage will turn out as a crucial one in our discussion of different marriage strategies; the moment of perpetuation of the given social order and hierarchy and of ones position within it is always present, hypergamy – i.e. the practice of selecting a spouse with a higher social status than oneself – might be thus seen from this perspective rather as an exception to the rule (which, in a sense, strengthens it).

Our first example will take us to the nineteenth-century Cuba, where hypergamy in a form of interracial marriage, though not common, functioned as an effective mean how to climb up the social ladder. The social position of an individual in the nineteenth-century Cuba was first and foremost determined by his or her family origin – where African origin generally implied slavery and low status – but personal achievement could, to some extent, alter the ascriptive status (Martinez-Alier 1989). The social hierarchy in Cuba had a class rather than racial nature, though class was associated and expressed in racial terms[1] (the whiter the higher status and the other way round). Choosing physical appearance as a criterion to classify the society hierarchically was comprehensible in a system where slavery, i.e. low status, was associated with a dark skin color, and this criterion would work perfectly well if interracial marriages/cohabitation (together with immigration of Chinese and American Indians) would not occur and thus would not produce ambiguous uncategorizable cases. The intraracial marriage was, according to the official policy, an ideal; ethnic groups or rather groups of people sharing the same/similar phenotype and/or skin color were conceived as the basic endogamic units, where the hereditary principle determined their membership and perpetuation (Ibid. 134). Thus group exogamy as a rule took the form of hypergamy – either in a form of marriage or hypergamous free unions. What made the hypergamous (interracial) marriages and unions possible to occur was the fact that “consensus as to the legitimacy of the ‘fundamental’ nature of the social order was absent” (Ibid. 138) together with a certain idea of social mobility and first and foremost with the penetration of the primarily Christian notion of equality into the secular ideology. Hypergamous marriage, which meant social advancement for the inferior woman and most importantly for her offspring and no automatic loss of status on the part of the white man, was facilitated by the absence of generally approved and legitimized rigid social structure and hierarchy. The hypergamous marriage thus meant equality, though it was still an exception – here we can clearly see that marriage generally served (and serves) as a mean of reproduction and perpetuation of the already existing social hierarchy even though ways how to advance through marriage might be found especially in a situation of the emergence of ‘ambiguous cases’ which could undermine the legitimacy of the official vision of the social structure.

Now we will look closer at another example coming from the traditional Hindu society and its caste system as it is described by Dumont (1980). Dumont analyzes the hierarchical caste system and – importantly for our example – focuses on the deviations from the endogamic rule (which is understood more as an implication of hierarchy than as an independent principle), showing that these deviations (hypergamy) rather than disruption of the integrity of the social system, partake on its very spirit. He describes a practice of hypergamy encountered in north India, where there exists a slight status difference between spouses, an inferiority of wife’s family in relation to the husband’s, which is considered normal and does not even effect the offspring’s status (Dumont 1980:116; cf. Davis 1941; Khare 1972). The significant difference between the caste system, as described by Dumont, and the above presented example from the nineteenth-century Cuba lies in the fact that an Indian is ‘born into a caste and dies in it’ (though sub-castes can slightly modify their collective status). But what is more “in northern India, hypergamous marriage being the rule, it meant hierarchy carried into the most intimate spheres of the system” (Martinez-Alier 1989:139). Marriage thus again has the primary function of reproduction of the given social order and though hypergamy occurs, its function is in its consequences rather precisely the opposite than we would wait – it is an institutionalized part of the given social system.

Now we will have a closer look at a radically different social hierarchical system and at if there exists a possibility how to advance on the social ladder through marriage, namely that of Trobrianders of the Papua New Guinea. We will first focus our attention on the system of the social hierarchy of Trobrianders, especially on the chieftainship and the crucial role of yams (not only in relation to marriage). In the Trobriand system “a person’s right to sit higher than the rest comes from his birth and the authority brought by his ancestors”, but “how many people will actually sit under him comes from the authority he himself is able to summon” (Weiner 1987:103). Thus a person can have legitimacy, but even though he can lack power, therefore “every person, including chiefs, must work to develop power in their relationships with others” (Ibid. 103). The power of a Trobriand chief is highly localized and covers his own hamlet and other villages and hamlets only through individual matrilineages to which he is connected through his women or the same place of origin of the ancestors; the chief is thus in a need to expand this primary network and to seek support with hamlet leaders in different villages. Power is in the Trobriand society tightly connected with economy (or rather economic status) and economy means yams and yams can be highly effectively acquired through marriage, i.e. through yams produced for women by her matrilineal kin. Chief’s full yam house not only symbolizes that he is powerful but also assesses his strength and his success in the continual negotiations of his status and relations mainly with his kin as well as non-kin. Thus when there are good harvests chief can expand his wealth and in such way also his power, he can be generous and distribute yams as a payment for villagers’ work which in turn gives more glance to his status. As we have seen, chiefs have the privilege to be polygynous; this enables them to acquire more yams, thus more wealth and power than a common man could ever dream about. “Even if a hamlet leader is very strong and has five or six men making gardens for him, in addition to his wife’s yams, his accumulation is limited when compared to what a chief can expect” (Ibid. 106). Thus in this system “women that chiefs marry assume a role of great consequence in their political careers” (Ibid. 106), or rather – it is not only women but women and her matrilineal kinsmen that play the crucial role, since it is the alliances which are the most important and whose strength is expressed in the quantity and even quality of yams in chief’s yam house. Marriages are thus one way how to expand the chiefs network of allies and probably the most effective on which other means (derived from the amount of yams gathered) rest. The social hierarchy of Trobrianders thus rests on a combination of ascribed and achieved statuses; as a member of a given ascribed status one has definite rights and privileges which one must respect but on the other hand has also the possibility to improve ones standing through work in the yam gardens and possibly through profitable marriage. But even though a slight social mobility is possible through one’s activity, radical change in status is practically excluded, because for the first the rights and privileges ascribed to each status group themselves prevent the occurrence of such mobility by favouring the chiefs and leaders so that the commoner can never outdo them on the basis of his work and for the second, that the social relations expressed in and also dependent on the yam production and thus also wealth must be continually negotiated and reaffirmed (not less because of the perishable quality of yams). Even here we can see that marriage primarily serves as a mean of reproduction of the given social hierarchy; though for the women (and consequently also their kin) who marry the chief, this can mean an upward change in their status, this practice in its consequences only strengthens the social hierarchy, the social division and maintains the already existing social order.

Our last example comes from the twentieth-century Italy and its ‘bourgeois class’ of family firm owners in the district of Como (Yanagisako 2002). Before we proceed to the role marriage can play in this social system, we will first have a look at how firms are reproduced and under what conditions the upward social mobility can occur. Understandably all family firm owners aspire to move up the Como industrial hierarchy and even a high degree of upward mobility in the local systems of such firms is reported. The goal of reproduction and upward movement depends on successful transmission of the firm to the next generation and on the effective accumulation and reinvestment of the capital. The social hierarchy of the Como bourgeoisie is by no means rigid and impervious; it is the other way round. The character of the class is rather temporal (Yanagisako 2002:99). Though the class (especially the upper class) could be reproduced through marriage (in case of marrying out of the daughters of the family firm owners[2]), the main weight rested on the shoulders of the nuclear family and specifically its sons, who were trained to reproduce the social status and even to move the family up on the social ladder. But what is more, in the upper fraction of the Como bourgeoisie “strict boundaries are drawn between the family and in-laws, who are sometimes even excluded from holding shares in the firm […] sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, no matter how accomplished or skilled, are not considered viable candidates for firm management” (Ibid. 176). Here sentiments such as fear and distrust to in-laws that are conceived as having no personal attachment or bond established to the family firm and can thus represent a potential threat to the firm and its emergence, come into play. Marriage can not serve (at least for upper fraction of bourgeoisie) as an effective strategy of acquiring of a higher social status since that/it is dependent on considerably different factors such as capital accumulation and effective marketing strategies and development.

We have peeped into four different hierarchical social systems and looked at the possibility of marriage as a mean how to achieve a higher social status. In Cuba this strategy, though not broadly diffused, was effective, which was made possible by the non-rigidity and no generally shared legitimacy of the social hierarchical system. In the Hindu traditional society hypergamy, on the other hand, in fact strengthened and became a part of the given hierarchy and had no real consequences for the social status of the offspring. In Papua New Guinea marriage (and in case of the chief marriages) could serve the purpose of acquiring a higher social status but only within the limits given by the ascribed statuses. In the case of upper fraction of Como bourgeoisie advancement through profitable marriage alliances was for the family firms and their families not possible. We can thus conclude together with Bourdieu that

marriage strategies as such must not be seen in the abstract, unrelated to inheritance strategies, fertility strategies and even pedagogical strategies. In other words they must be seen as one element in the entire system of biological, cultural and social reproduction by which every group endeavors to pass on to the next generation the full measure of power and privilege it has itself inherited (Bourdieu 2002:558)


Bourdieu, Pierre. 2002. Pierre Bourdieu on Marriage Strategies. Population and Development Review. 28(3):549-558.

Davis, Kingsley. 1941. Intermarriage in Caste Societies. American Anthropologist. 43(3):376-395.

Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. The University of Chicago Press.

Holy, Ladislav. 1996. Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London: Pluto Press.

Khare, R. S. 1972. Hierarchy and Hypergamy: Some Interrelated Aspects among the Kanya-Kubja Brahmans. American Anthropologist. 74(3):611-628.

Leach, E. R. 1961. Rethinking Anthropology. London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology. No. 22. London: Athlone Press.

Martinez-Alier, Verena. 1989. Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Slave Society. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Rosaldo, Michelle Z. 1974. Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview. In: Rosaldo, M. & Lamphere, L. (eds.). Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford University Press. pp.17-42.

Weiner, Annette B. 1987. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Thomson Wadsworth.

Yanagisako, Sylvia J., Collier Jane F. 1996. Comments on “Until Death Do Us Part”. American Ethnologist. 23(2):235-236.

Comaroff, J. 1992. Of Totemism and Ethnicity. In: Comaroff, John & Comaroff, Jean (eds.). Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Westview Press. Pp. 49-67.

Yanagisako, Sylvia Junko. 2002. Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy. Princeton University Press.

[1] This may be paralleled with Comaroff’s statement about ethnicity: “The origins of ethnic groups and consciousness may lie in the structuring of inequality. But, once objectified as a ‘principle’ by which the division of labor is organized, ethnicity assumes the autonomous character of a prime mover in the unequal destinies of persons and populations. To wit, just as working class black Americans do not view their blackness as a function of their class position, but their class position as a function of their blackness” (Comaroff 1992:59).

[2] But it must be noted that here it comes just to reproduction of social status as such on the offspring, with no relation to the reproduction of firm and ‘family’ social status which is here crucial, since the woman becomes a part of the family of her husband and thus looses the relation to her own family of orientation.

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©Tessa Valo, 2007

Introduction: Caste Politics

Though the idea that caste is a part of a natural and moral order of things, that it is a hereditary quality which once for all defines ones position and occupational affiliation and which is associated with a particular law of conduct is rejected both by intellectuals and political leaders, caste is in Indian post independence politics continually used and abused in different ways. On one hand there is a struggle for equality but on the other hand group and caste identities are sharpened and boundaries between groups reinforced. As paradoxical as it may seem, this contradiction is already present in the Indian constitution, which on one hand calls for equality of opportunity and status for all citizens irrespective of caste, sex, religion etc. and on the other hand has a full package of reservations prepared for scheduled castes and tribes, OBCs etc. There is thus an inevitable tension emerging between two basic notions – the notion of individual and the notion of group rights. This tension runs through the whole Indian politics like a red thread, which can be observed in different states in diverse variations according to the composition of society and other important traits, but the principle remains basically the same. “Caste as […] a lived-in social reality is very much alive” (Weiner 2001:195), not only because of its long historical continuity, but precisely also because it is generously nurtured by the political processes and political mobilization which appeals to caste membership. Caste is used “as an instrument for social change. Caste is not disappearing, nor is ‘casteism’ – the political use of caste – for what is emerging in India is a social and political system which institutionalizes and transforms but does not abolish caste” (Weiner 2001:196). The Indian political parties are well aware that to build the electoral support and vote banks it is necessary to appeal to particular castes, tribes and religious communities. The caste rhetoric emerged especially in the context of mobilization of the lower castes especially by the India National Congress, which introduced the system of affirmative action – reservations – for scheduled castes and tribes. The caste thus became especially salient in mobilizing and organizing lower castes – with a long history of social, political and economical discrimination – in their struggle for equality, same opportunities and incorporation into the political system and processes of decision making. “Caste, once an instrument for the maintenance of hierarchy, is, paradoxically, seen as a vehicle for egalitarianism between castes, though not within them.” (Weiner 2001:209). But which type of identity is politically salient of course varies – in a land as great, as stratified, and as pluralistic and heterogeneous as India – over time and territory. While caste identities and Hindu nationalism are now particularly salient in the north of India, regional and linguistic identities are strong in Assam and the states of northeast, class identity and membership serves as a basis for mobilization and political action in Kerala and West Bengal. “Caste has become more salient as a political identity and as an institutionalized element of civil society” (Weiner 2001:220). Not only is caste institutionalized in politics through the system of reservations, which guarantee seats in government, access to educational institutions and employment in the administrative (which is a way how to get into position of political power) for selected – large – segments of society, but caste-based organizations are also emerging within the framework of the civil society. The particular group rights remain a source of conflict between those who support them and those who oppose them – while the forward castes oriented more towards the equality of opportunity than equality of outcome together with Hindu nationalist, who perceive the reservations as creating fission and conflicts within the Indian society which they are trying to unite under the ideology of Hindutva (and thus weakening it in the face of the threat of the Muslim Other), oppose the system of reservations, lower and middle classes mainly support the system of reservations and perceive it as a matter of social justice for victims of the Brahmin dominated caste system. But we must note that the system of reservations has helped mainly those forward within lower castes and was practically incapable of substantially changing the position of the backward in the lower castes. As Weiner notes, “material benefits to the lower castes have largely gone to their more advanced members, some castes (Yadavs, for example) have befitted substantially, others hardly at all, there are growing class divisions within each of the lower castes as the more successful individuals obtain positions in government while others receive few if any benefits” (Weiner 2001: 223). We must also make the point, though we do not have the place to elaborate on it here, that caste was and is linked in diverse ways to the former monarchical structures that are reflected in the patron-client relationships that substantially affect the Indian political scenes (Price 1989) and that questions of honor – again interlinked with the idea of caste in diverse ways – are another essential part of the Indian politics (Price1996 & undated manuscript). After this short introduction we will have a brief look at three examples of the role and meanings of caste in the Indian politics in three states – in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu

The case of Tamil Nadu serves as a good example for conceptualizing caste in a different way than it is traditionally understood, i.e. as a peculiar social institution and a distinguishing feature of the Indian society. This idea is in this context rejected as an orientalist construction and different ways of explanation are sought – the focus is instead on the idea of kingship, which is understood as a more significant influence forming social and political relations (Price 1989; Inden 1986). David Mosse, who did fieldwork among untouchables in Tamil Nadu, thus observes – contrary to the orientalist presupposition – that untouchables understood their own position and status not as a result of some inherent, inborn lowness, but as a result of specific historical conditions (Price 1989:569). The model implicit in the intercaste relations in Tamil Nadu is thus one of kingship – where the status of the overlord is bound to his practical capacity to command the labor of others (the possibility to claim kingly status is thus potentially open to all castemen who have acquired land) and where untouchables serve “as feudal retainers, and symbols of public honor and prestige for their high-caste overlords” (Mosse, cit. in Price 1989:569). Tamil Nadu was one of the first states to witness mobilization of low castes and substantial changes which both reached its peak between 1949 and 1967, when the political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) which administered the movement won control of the government of Madras. Tamil nationalists (and the DMK speakers) constructed a new conception of Tamil nationalist cosmology which included the notion of honor which was related to the belief that all castes are equal and rejected the idea of ones superiority as based on ones caste status (Price 1996). The Tamil nationalism was thus focused on two main themes – equality and the special nature of Tamils as a people. Another important focus of the Tamil nationalist movement was the emphasis put on education as a mean of promotion of equality – open to all. On the other hand though the Dravidian movement was ideologically committed to the abolition of the caste system, in practice it used caste as a means of political mobilization and thus increasing rather than decreasing its (not only political) significance (Weiner 2001). But it must be admitted that a certain “transition had taken place in people’s conceptions from focus on a hierarchical nature of caste structures to a view of castes as embodying different substances” (Price 1996:366). Though human beings are considered as primarily equal, this fact does not deny the importance of ones rank or prestige, on the other hand, though “the DMK was against caste order […] other orders were suggested in the vision” (Price 1996:373), these developed around a specific notion of dignity, that could be potentially achieved by anyone regardless of caste (though before it was related to ones wealth, authority, caste membership etc.). “The focus on personal status and authority in a domain that one finds in this area is a function of the political particularism of social segmentation, the many informal units (including caste) within which much activity takes place. […] these small-scale sociopolitical units (segments) reproduce themselves partly through the utilization of ideologies which focus on the maintenance of relations of respect/honor for the person or persons who administer the affairs of the unit and manage both its infernal disputes and relationships with the world outside” (Price 1996:378).

The Case of Karnataka and Devaraj Urs

What distinguishes Karnataka from other Indian states is a comparatively higher social cohesion of its society and the fact that though we can find there a significant Muslim minority, clashes between Hindus and Muslims have been very rare. The social changes in the pre-Independence period were rather mild and Karnataka stepped into the post-Independence period without almost any change in patterns of land control and local power. At the local level the most villages have been dominated by two powerful minorities – the vokkaligas and the lingayats – who were mainly peasant proprietors whose wealth came mainly from crop cultivation. These two caste-based segments of society control a great portion of land around the villages; they serve as patrons and money-lenders for their clients and have a relatively high position in the caste system and they also dominate politics at the state level and other supra-levels (Manor 1989). “‘Politics’ still means power relations among persons and groups within the village or circle of villages” (Manor 1989:332). Though the dominance in Karnataka is less oppressive than in other parts of India, “Karnataka’s poorer villagers do perceive inequalities and exploitation are to a large extent products of class differences, but they tend to express this in the language heavily laced with caste clichés” (Manor 1989: 333). Caste is thus a crucial element in the system of dominance that can be observed in Karnataka and is continually reinforced by the present economic inequalities – caste and class differences thus interplay at various levels. A slight change in this trend came with the Chief Minister Devaraj Urs who brought more people from disadvantaged groups into the Congress party (during the elections of 1972) and thus disrupted the control of the dominant groups over the society and control of state politics. He also developed a series of development projects for disadvantaged groups – especially children; and provided houses to the poor. But “his programmes penetrated downward to the grassroots only imperfectly, intermittently and unevenly […]. The result of all this therefore fell short of major social change” (Manor 1989:350). An important point that should be mentioned here about Devaraj Urs is that he adapted the Congress machine politics to modestly progressive purposes (Manor 1989:352). Urs also tried to stimulate caste sentiments in order to develop new political base, he tried to revive old forgotten identities or create them anew and appeal to them. Thus he established diverse caste and group associations, he thus strengthened what he considered as well-rooted divisions in the concrete realities of village life and did not expect them to change in a short time and so he tried to get use of the rising political awareness of the depressed and weak castes. But lingayats and vokkaligas still enjoy and maintain the traditional dominance over the village. “They remain dominant at the local level and there is precious little evidence to suggest that any serious challenge is likely to arise soon to their position, or to the relative cohesion of rural society in Karnataka which is bound up with that system of dominance” (Manor 1989: 357).

Andhra Pradesh and the NTR Phenomenon

Though the trajectories and the situation of the state of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka appear to be similar, there are significant differences. There is a higher level of social tension in Andhra Pradesh. This fact made it much more difficult to create broad coalitions of support among diverse social groups (Manor 2004:274) and the politics itself – especially in the era of N. T. Rama Rao (NTR) and his party Telugu Desam (TDP) – did not appeal to and represent (and did not even have the potential to do so) concrete social groups. NTR as a popular (and populist leader) dominated the government and its “ministers and legislators had few opportunities to channel goods and services to the social groups from which they came and which the TDP needed to cultivate. An interesting example of the caste politics in Andhra Pradesh also in relation to the NTR is the case of Guntur. There exists an enduring conflict between Reddis and Kammas. “The Kammas dominate the district in social and economic spheres” (Kohli 1988:1003). The emergence of NTR (himself being Kamma chief minister; 1983) in this district is conceived as a defeat of Reddis and the emergence of “Kamma raj”. The political structure in Andhra Pradesh thus enabled these caste divisions to be expressed through different parties – the two competing castes allied with two rival parties. NTR thus hardened the caste cleavage already existing.

As we have seen, caste interplays with politics in numerous ways. And though we have not elaborated the examples in detail, we have given an idea of how caste and caste sentiments can be used for political purposes, generating or partially solving conflicts, creating more tensions or on the other hand also tempering them. None of the examples can be generalized and none of them can be considered as representative, but they all shed at least a bit of light on the highly complex position of caste in Indian politics.


Gould, Harold A. 2003. Political Self-Destruction in Karnataka, 1999. In: Roy, R. & Wallace, P. (eds.). India’s 1999 Elections and 20th Century Politics. SAGE Publications. Pp. 94-116.

Kohli, Atul. 1988. The NTR Phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh. Political Change in South Indian State. Asian Survey. 28(10):991-1017.

Manor, James. 1989. Karnataka: Caste, Class, Dominance and Politics in a Cohesive Society. In: Framkel, F.R. & Rao, M.S.A. (eds.). Dominance and State Power in Modern India. Decline of a Social Order. Oxford University Press. Pp. 322-361.

Manor, James. 2004. Explaining Political Trajectories in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In: Jenkins, R. (ed.). Regional Reflections. Comparing Politics Across India’s States. Oxford University press. Pp. 255-284.

Mooij, Jos. 2003. Policy Processes in Andhra Pradesh. In: Smart Governance? Politics in the Policy Process in Andhra Pradesh, India. Overseas Development Institute. Pp. 10-20.

Price, Pamela. 1989. Kingly Models in Indian Political Behavior. Asian Survey. A Monthly Review of Contemporary Asian Affairs. 29(6):559-572.

Price, Pamela. 1996. Revolution and Rank in Tamil Nationalism. Journal of Asian Studies. 55(2):359-383.

Price, Pamela. Ideological Elements in Political Instability in Karnataka: Janata Dal in the late 1990s. Manuscript, University of Oslo.

Suri, K.C. 2002. Politics of Pragmatism. In: Working Paper 180. Democratic Process in Andhra Pradesh, India. Overseas Development Institute. Pp. 37-45.

Weiner, Myron. 2001. The Struggle for Equality: Caste in Indian Politics. In: Kohli, A. (ed.). The Success of India’s Democracy. Cambridge University Press.

Inden, Ronald. 1986. Orientalist Constructions of India. Modern Asian Studies. 20(3):401-446.

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