HAR is pleased to announce one of the latest releases from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article, in English, on theories of caste in late nineteenth-century colonial ethnography.
Fuller, Chris, 2023. “Colonial Ethnography and Theories of Caste in Late-Nineteenth-Century India”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.
None of the colonial anthropologists of the British Raj were widely read by metropolitan anthropologists, but their rival theories of caste crucially influenced early sociologists writing on the topic – notably Célestin Bouglé and Max Weber. Even though both men criticized it, the occupational theory put forward in late-nineteenth-century India has indirectly but significantly influenced modern scholars of South Asian society. This article explores the ethnographic and theoretical writings on caste of three prominent colonial anthropologists in late-nineteenth-century India: Sir Denzil Ibbetson (1847–1908) and Sir Athelstane Baines (1847–1925), who were both members of the Indian Civil Service, and John Nesfield (1836–1919), who belonged to the educational service. In 1883, Ibbetson completed a land revenue settlement report pertaining to the rural district of Karnal in the Punjab, which included copious ethnographic material, as well as a proto-functionalist description of the local village community. He also finished his superintendent’s report on the 1881 census of the Punjab, whose chapter on ‘races, castes and tribes’ was particularly outstanding. Baines was the superintendent for the 1881 census of Bombay province and later the commissioner in overall charge of the 1891 census of India. Using 1881 census data, Nesfield wrote a book on caste in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh (modern Uttar Pradesh). In these works, Ibbetson, Baines and Nesfield presented slightly different versions of an occupational theory of caste, in which they classified castes mainly by hereditary occupation or politico-economic function. They also explained the ‘closed’ caste system (in contrast to the ‘open’ class system in Europe) as the distinctively Indian outcome of the evolution of the division of labour. The occupational theory of caste was particularly criticised by Herbert Risley (1851–1911), who argued that the system’s origins lay in racial inequality and that its defining feature was ‘social precedence’ or hierarchical ranking, rather than occupational differentiation. By examining this largely forgotten literature, this article adds historical depth to a fundamental debate in the history of anthropology and sociology.