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For other uses, see Caste (disambiguation).
The Basor weaving bamboo baskets in a 1916 book. The Basor are a Hindu caste found in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.

Caste is a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a lifestyle which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution.[1][2] Its paradigmatic ethnographic example is the division of society into rigid social groups, with roots in ancient history and persisting until today.[3] Sociologists and anthropologists can study the social divisions existing in various countries by using the caste-like systems as an analogical basis for research. The term caste-system is also applied to non-human populations like ants and bees.[4]


The English word caste derives from the Spanish and Portuguese casta, which the Oxford English Dictionary quotes John Minsheu's Spanish dictionary (1599) to mean "race, lineage, or breed".[5] 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 in-marrying hereditary Indian social groups they encountered upon their arrival in India in 1498.[5][6] The use of the spelling "caste," with this latter meaning, is first attested to in English in 1613.[5]

In South Asia[edit]


Main article: Caste system in India

India's caste system is based on parallel classifications of varna and jāti. The system of varnas is attested in Hindu texts dating back to 1000 BCE and envisages the society divided into four hierarchical classes: Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors and nobles), Vaishyas (farmers, artisans and traders) and Shudras (service classes). A fifth category of people considered beyond the pale of varna system were `untouchable classes', presently called Dalits (the oppressed). 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 has 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 ritual purity and social or economic status. Historically the kings and rulers have been called upon to mediate on the ranks of jātis, which might number in thousands all over the subcontinent and vary by region. In practice, the jātis are seen to fit into the varna classes, but 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.[7] 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."[8] The terms varna (conceptual classification based on occupation) and jāti (caste) 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.[9]

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. These crimes are greatly under-reported. In 2005, government recorded approximately 110,000 cases of reported violent acts, including rape and murder, against Dalits [10] For 2012, the government recorded 651 murders, 3,855 injuries, 1,576 rapes, 490 kidnappings, and 214 cases of arson.[11]

Upon independence from Britain, the Indian Constitution listed 1,108 castes across the country as Scheduled Castes in 1950, for positive discrimination.[12] The Untouchable communities are sometimes called Dalit or Harijan in contemporary literature.[13] In 2001, Dalits were 16.2% of India's population.[14] Most of the 15 million bonded child workers are from the lowest castes.[15][16]

The socio-economic limitations of the caste system are reduced due to urbanization and affirmative action. Nevertheless, the caste system still exists in endogamy, patrimony, and politics. The globalization and economic opportunities from foreign businesses has influenced the growth of India's middle-class population. Some members of the Chhattisgarh Potter Caste Community (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 create intersectionality between caste and class. [17] 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. [18]

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, before the British made it applicable only to Hindus grouped under the varna categories from the 1901 census onwards.


Main article: 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 Shah (1603–36).


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.).[citation needed]

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.[19] 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 castes.[20][21][22]

Sri Lanka[edit]

The caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into strata,[23] 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.

Caste-like stratification outside South Asia[edit]

Southeast Asia[edit]

A Sudra caste man from Bali. Photo from 1870, courtesy of Tropenmuseum, Netherlands.


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:[24]

  • 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.[24]

East Asia[edit]

China and Mongolia[edit]

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 order were:-

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 affairs.[25][26]

Today, the Hukou system is considered by various sources as the current caste system of China.[27][28][29]

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 whom 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.[30]

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 Japan and elsewhere.[31]

Endogamy was common because marriage across caste lines was socially unacceptable.[31][32]

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 Buraku or Burakumin underclasses.[33] The Burakumin are regarded as "ostracised."[34] 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.


A typical 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 Khitans who 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. It was legally abolished in Korea in 1894 but remained in reality until 1930.[35][36][37]

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 very large serf population, nobi, ranging from a third to half of the population for most of the millennium between the Silla period and the Joseon Dynasty.

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.[38] 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.[39]

With the 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 occupation.[40]

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 ("citizen").[40]

North Korea[edit]
Main article: Songbun

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."[41] Regarded as Songbun, Barbara Demick describes this "class structure" as an updating of the hereditary "caste system", combining Confucianism and Stalinism.[42] She claims that a bad family background is called "tainted blood", and that by law this "tainted blood" lasts for three generations.[43]


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.

West Asia[edit]

Main article: Yazidi

Yezidi society is hierarchical. The secular leader is a hereditary emir or prince, whereas a chief sheikh heads the religious hierarchy. The Yazidi are strictly endogamous; members of the three Yazidi castes, the murids, sheikhs and pirs, marry only within their group.


Sassanid society was immensely complex, with separate systems of social organization governing numerous different groups within the empire.[44] Historians believe society comprised four[45][46][47] social classes:

  1. Priests (Persian: Asravan‎‎)
  2. Warriors (Persian: Arteshtaran‎‎)
  3. Secretaries (Persian: Dabiran‎‎)
  4. Commoners (Persian: Vastryoshan‎‎)


Main article: Al-Akhdam

In 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.[48]


Various sociologists have reported caste systems in Africa.[49][50][51] 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.[52] 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 factors.[53]

West Africa[edit]

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.[49]

The osu class systems of eastern Nigeria and southern Cameroon are 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.[54]

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.[55]

Similarly, the Mandé societies in Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal and 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.

As West Africa evolved over time, sub-castes emerged that acquired secondary specializations or changed occupations. Endogamy was 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 the father.[51]

Central Africa[edit]

Ethel M. Albert in 1960 claimed that the societies in Central Africa were caste-like social stratification systems.[56] Similarly, in 1961, Maquet notes that the society in Rwanda and Burundi can be best described as castes.[57] The Tutsi, noted Maquet, considered themselves as superior, with the more numerous Hutu and the least numerous 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.[58] Maquet's theories have been controversial.

Horn of Africa[edit]

The Madhiban (Midgan) specialize in leather occupation. Along with the Tumal and Yibir, they are collectively known as sab.[59]

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.[60] Alula Pankhurst has published a study of caste groups in SW Ethiopia.[61]

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."[62]

The 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.[63]

The traditionally nomadic Somali people are divided into clans, wherein the Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the occupational clans such as the Madhiban were traditionally sometimes treated as outcasts.[64] 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.[59]


France and Spain[edit]

For centuries, through the modern times, the majority regarded Cagots of western France and northern 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 mobility non-existent.[65][66]

United Kingdom[edit]

In July 2013, the UK government announced its intention to amend the Equality Act 2010 to "introduce legislation on caste, including any necessary exceptions to the caste provisions, within the framework of domestic discrimination law".[67] 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".

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Spectres of Agrarian Territory by David Ludden 11 December 2001
  • "Early Evidence for Caste in South India", p. 467-492 in Dimensions of Social Life: Essays in honor of David G. Mandelbaum, Edited by Paul Hockings and Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, 1987.

External links[edit]