How caste came to America

Barney Cohn had so many books that he commandeered two offices in the highest reaches of Haskell Hall, the temple of the University of Chicago's anthropology department. My graduate education took place in those two offices, whether while settling the books in the one room, or sitting amidst the studied clutter of the other room, listening to Barney ramble on about the state of the world, anthropology or his own life. There was something of the British subaltern in Barney's look, with his floppy safari caps and saggy moustache. His, however, manner was anything but. He was courteous, wearing his old-fashioned liberal grace in his diffidence.

In the midst of our conversations about his current projects (I was his research assistant), he would break off to give me primers on the history of the study of India in the United States. I often asked him why American scholars seemed so interested in caste, almost to the exclusion of other things. Barney's stories began with Cornell, where he studied rural sociology for his PhD. At Cornell, the leading anthropologist was Morris Opler, who had cut his teeth studying the Apache, the Native American tribe, working for a spell in the 1930s with the Bureau of Indian Affairs before settling down to teach in the College of Education at Harvard. Here, Opler asked his students to write an essay to present to their graduate seminar. One of his students was Rudra Datt Singh, who came to Harvard after working as a rural analyst with Albert Mayer in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. Mayer was highly impressed with Singh, whose calm intelligence enabled the Americans to form a close relationship with villagers.

In Opler's seminar, Singh wrote an evocative essay about his own village near Benaras. The descriptions of religion and caste moved Opler, who then worked with Singh in Uttar Pradesh on various field studies. Together, Singh and Opler published a series of important papers on the villages that they called Madhopur and Senapur. These were not romantic portrayals of static village communities. Both Singh and Opler were interested in the shifting power dynamics in the villages, driven both by the changes in land relations and in the constitutional provisions that benefitted the oppressed castes. As Singh wrote in "The Unity of an Indian Village", "The fact of political equality is being successfully used to support the claim of social equality by the low-caste people." Opler soon moved to Cornell, taking Singh with him as a research associate. A young Barney Cohn, recently out of Brooklyn, enrolled in rural sociology, and found himself in the company of Opler and Singh. Barney was much taken by the antiquity of Indian civilisation, and at the same time, the changes afoot toward equality. He soon found himself in a village in Uttar Pradesh himself, where he began to work on the struggles between Chamars and Thakurs.

Opler and Singh's writings on caste in village India came at the same time as the anthropologist Robert Redfield opened his University of Chicago seminars on "the little community". Redfield had studied in several villages in Mexico, where he had been interested in community formation and in how a village is delimited. His 1954 seminar included several scholars who had done field research in India, including McKim Marriott and Milton Singer. Singer was of the view that India was a good place to study the "interaction between little and great traditions", to see how ordinary people interacted with the "great traditions", which were themselves in flux. Marriot had been in India in 1945, providing translation services from Japanese for the U S Army. He had worked later near Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh, studying the "little community" in the style of Redfield. Marriott was also interested in the role of the new Constitution in the villages, wondering whether he would see the "falling apart of the caste system". Marriott, more than Singer, shared Redfield's view against US parochialism, hoping that their anthropological work would give the United States the "hearing aid" that it required to better listen to the grievances and aspirations of the world.

Caste school of race
The investment in democracy certainly moved that generation of scholars to turn to caste. They shared with the Indian scholars M N Srinivas and N K Bose a sense that caste distinctions were an impediment to democratic growth. By the 1960s, however, the full flush of excitement amongst the Cornell and Chicago scholars for the new frontier of democracy in India began to wane. Anti-communism, in the guise of US Senator Joseph McCarthy, fell on the academy like a load of bricks. Scholars with an interest in land reform, such as Daniel and Alice Thorner, lost their jobs because they refused to testify before McCarthy's committee on 'un-American activities'. Their perspective of the political economy not only became unfashionable, but untenable. No grants, no jobs. The Thorners moved to India and Europe, as did many others who are less celebrated.

McCarthyism was not the only explanation for the shift in how caste was to be studied. The other was the along the terrain of race relations. Chicago was on the fault-line of the segregated races in the US, with the 1919 'race riot' being a harbinger of a long century of destructive racism. The University of Chicago is located in the heart of the black community, and its own traditions of scholarship are marred by this proximity. A few years before the 'race riot', Chicago hired one Robert Park from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to lead a study of race in the north of the US. (This story comes to me from my colleague Davarian Baldwin, whose book on the subject is going to be a landmark.) Working in the intensely segregated south, Park had made a name for himself in his assessment of African Americans, his so-called Race Relations Cycle anticipating the eventual assimilation of all people into the mainstream of American life. Park's approach of 'Europeanisation' mirrored Srinivas's idea of Sanskritisation, with all its attendant problems.

Park was not alone in his analysis. Contests against his view came from a group of African American scholars (such as St Clair Drake and Horace Cayton), who drew from Marxism to consider the class relations that twisted around the racist system. This revolted Park. To counter them, he took refuge in his own idea of the Indian caste system, with race seen as nothing other than formalistic caste differences. The caste school of race relations understood caste as a rather timeless and unshakeable foundation. Exploitation and violence seemed secondary to what had come to appear as natural segmentation whose worst aspects (such as discrimination) would be dissipated as people accommodated themselves to the mainstream of US life. Park saw caste as immutable, and so too did he see race: what was needed was not an end to race, or caste, but the creation of a stable order based on some mild form of liberalism. It was a tonic to the established order in times of the conflicts over racism and communism to learn about stability rather than social transformation.

The influence of these ideas can be seen as well in the American branch of Indian sociology and anthropology. Marriott and Singer turned away from history for a more 'structural functionalist' attempt to understand the sources of continuity in Indian tradition, looking at social structures through tradition, institutions, etc. For instance, Singer took a keen interest in the German sociologist Max Weber's project, which was to see whether Indian civilisation had any family resemblance to the kind of cultural world necessary for a jumpstart to free-market capitalism. Marriott, meanwhile, turned away from the democratic potential of the oppressed caste risings and toward a long interrogation of the idea of caste as part of a cultural matrix that promotes 'order'. Along this grain, the French scholar Louis Dumont published Homo Hierarchicus (1966), which Marriott reviewed favourably although he thought that Dumont relied too much on the Brahminical Manu and neglected the Kshatriya viewpoint found in the Mahabharata. Real, living Indians were evidently no longer of interest. The new ethno-sociology found its Indian reality in 'Hindu categories', derived from a range of texts. Marriott developed a game called Samsara, which his favoured students would play, and his office was now decorated with a cube that purported to model the 'Hindu mind'.

Meanwhile, Cohn's investment in history and in democracy, in seeing not only the pasts of an Indian village but equally the struggles of oppressed castes in the present, found favour among the next generation of anthropologists from the US (people such as Pauline Kolenda, Owen Lynch and Howard Gould). They were influenced by the 1960s, the student protests against the establishment and the counterculture's fascination with India. Cohn's work on the colonial consolidation of caste categories would have a profound influence on an entire generation of scholars, who recognised the impact that colonial forms of knowledge had on their pasts (history-writing), their present (census) and the future (law). Investigations of caste, among this new tribe, came less with an investment in 'order' than in the constraints and opportunities of the oppressed to fashion their lives. Or, perhaps, this hopefulness is just my desire to remember my teacher's legacy in this way.

~ Vijaya Prashad is a contributing editor to this magazine

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian
www.himalmag.com