Is India a closed society? Some thoughts on the issue of upward social mobility

Is India a closed society? Some thoughts on the issue of upward social mobility

Dalit qawwal band (Siddarth Kala Jattha from Beed), Dikshabhumi, Nagpur, Parivartan Din celebration, 50th anniversary of Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism (© 2006 / Joël Cabalion)
Dalit qawwal band (Siddarth Kala Jattha from Beed),
Dikshabhumi, Nagpur, Parivartan Din celebration,
50th anniversary of Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism
(© 2006 / Joël Cabalion)

Is India a closed society? According to Pitirim Sorokin, one of the first theoreticians of social mobility, India, at the beginning of the 20th century, used to be the closest example of the ideal-type of a closed society, that is to say a society in which the status assigned at birth lasts for the entire life.

Class, caste and status

If India comes so easily to mind as an example of closed society, it is because it is often looked at through the frame of caste. As Max Weber reminds us in The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, castes are a special case of status groups (Stand). In contrast to the frequent cases where social honour is directly connected to class position, the notion of caste modifies the relationship between social status and class. According to Weber, castes are a closed status group in the sense that they impose highly constrictive professional, religious and social obligations. Here it is not class—defined by the possession or non-possession of material goods or professional qualifications of a certain type—that defines status, but rather the status given at birth that defines class. In such a situation, social mobility is extremely difficult to achieve for an isolated individual. Only the group as a whole can see its status evolve.

But Sorokin's assertion is slightly misleading as Indian society is not completely closed. It is undeniable that there has always been a strong congruence between caste and class, but this congruence has never been perfect. Since the independence of India, and particularly due to the policies of “reservations” (a government policy imposing quotas), the dissociation between caste and class has actually increased even if the congruence still remains very strong. The secularisation of the country, moreover, has entailed the delegitimation of the use of the criteria of caste in the common sense. Although this delegitimation remains relative, it has nevertheless opened a breach in the principles guaranteeing the Indian social order. The Indian theodicy, that Weber described as the “the most consistent ever produced by history” (Weber 2003, p. 230), has been rivalled by an ideology of merit according to which the worth of the individual no longer depends on his birth, but on his professional success.

The consequence of these two developments thus leads to a blurring of the definitions of status. While caste is a closed status group in Weber's sense, status in India is not only defined by belonging to a caste. It also depends on the prestige of one's occupation. There thus exist in India two scales of value of social status, where status is defined by the ritual purity of one's caste, as well as the prestige of one's profession. These two scales of social status are independent and possess their own logic. The assessment of an individual's status thus depends on the use of one scale or the other and is profoundly relative. 

Discrimination, social mobility and the closure of Indian society

This opening, or this breach, remains nonetheless tenuous and owes a great deal to the reservations policy that opened paths of mobility for the people from the “lowest” castes. If one looks at the levels of social mobility in India, one notices that they remain very low compared to those of most Western countries. This is indeed what the work of Divya Vaid and Anthony Heath, two sociologists from Oxford, suggests. They defend the idea that Indian society is characterized by its “stickiness”, “higher levels of inequality of opportunity” and their conclusions bear on “the closed nature of Indian society” (Vaid and Heath 2010, p. 150). These very low levels of mobility are partly a reflection of the salience of discrimination on the basis of caste and the persistence, particularly strong in rural areas, of the practice of untouchability.

A recent study carried out on a sample of 565 villages in 11 different States shows that, in one tenth of these villages, people considered as untouchables still do not have the right to wear shoes, new clothes, or sunglasses, nor do they have the right to use an umbrella or own a bicycle (Shah et al. 2006). In half of the villages studied, these people do not have free access to the community infrastructures providing drinking water. Similarly, more than 40 % of schools practice untouchability during school meals forcing children from SC and ST groups to sit separately from their classmates. Police statistics, which do not account for all crimes, show that every week, among the SC and ST populations, thirteen people are murdered, five of their houses are burned down, and six people are kidnapped. Every day, meanwhile, three women are raped and eleven people attacked; a crime is committed against a member of these groups every eighteen minutes (Narula 2007).

It is on the basis of this experience of extremely violent discrimination that many members of these groups, in particular the scheduled castes group, have developed a strong political identity. This heightening in political awareness became more acute in the interwar period under Ambedkar's impulsion (Jaffrelot 2000). Ambedkar was the first “untouchable” to have studied in the United States and England and he was the main author of the Indian Constitution. He was also the initiator of a movement against the caste structure. This movement continued beyond the death of Ambedkar in 1956, and today is the structuring force behind the struggle against discrimination. 

Ambedkar delivering a speech to a rally at Yeola, Nashik , on 13 October 1935 (photo in the public domain)
Ambedkar delivering a speech to a rally
at Yeola, Nashik,on 13 October 1935
(photo in the public domain)

Social mobility and ties to the group of origin

The closure of Indian society combined with the weight of caste discrimination thus leads to specific kinds of experience of upward social mobility. In spite of all their successes, upwardly mobile Dalits continue to be considered as “untouchables”. As Anil, the son of a landless worker from a small village in Gujarat who is now a graduate of an Ivy League university and a consultant for an international firm, suggests when he confesses, hesitantly and almost guiltily, his feeling of discomfort when returning to the village of his birth:

“When I go back [the situation of the people there] is very bad and I am still...when I go back, I still remain... It is quite a contradiction in me. When I go back I still... As far as the higher caste people are concerned, I still remain as a lower caste person. Even though I am a big guy in Mumbai where my caste doesn't matter, when I go back, I become the ‘untouchable', and that I don't like.”

This interview extract reveals all the contradictions of social mobility in the Indian context. As acceptance among their new group proves difficult, upwardly mobile Dalits often oscillate between two strategies. The first, predominant among those working in the private sector, consists in concealing one's caste, in trying to erase all marks of belonging to a subaltern group and in appropriating for oneself the values and modes of thought which are prevalent among the upper-classes. The second consists in claiming strong ties with the group of origin and is predominant among those working in the public sector.

The relationship to the group of origin is indeed often expressed in a slightly different way by top civil servants and scholars who, having benefited from reservations to secure their job, would find it more difficult to conceal their caste. The weight of this stigmatised identity often means that they prefer investing their efforts at social recognition within a caste group with which they share an experience of discrimination rather than towards a peer group with which they share certain class attributes, but who are always tempted to define them by their caste identity.

These people often conceive the preservation of their links with their group of origin as a moral obligation, and many of them decide to set up schools, micro-credit organisations, libraries, scholarship systems and so on. Such enterprises are in keeping with the ideology, notably defended by the political leader Kanshi Ram, that upwardly mobile Dalits need to ‘pay back to society'. Dinesh Bhongare, professor of psychology at Mumbai University, uses such terms to talk about his own activities:

“In addition to my profession, I have [stressed by the interviewee] to involve myself in some other social activities. I cannot altogether ignore this social responsibility. So, I am conducting some guidance programmes for socially disadvantaged people, helping them, organizing some social awareness programmes, community programmes, counselling, etc. That kind of activities we conduct. Our priority is not earning money. So compared to other professors we are compelled to organise these kinds of activities. We cannot compromise on this.”

In addition to the revealing shift from the pronoun ‘I' to ‘we', this excerpt clearly shows how social commitment obeys a moral imperative. The personal dimension of the commitment gradually fades away and gives way instead to the identification with a group that ultimately motivates and guides the moral standpoints as well as the actions (‘we are compelled to') of the individual. It is the Dalit collective identity that dictates the modalities of action, and this caste identity informs all aspects of the narration of the interviewee's life story.

Dikshabhumi, Stupa constructed on the site where Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism with 500,000 peoples on October 14th 1956 (© 2007 / Koshy Koshy, under a WikiCommons license).
Dikshabhumi, Stupa constructed on the site
where Ambedkar converted to Buddhism
with 500,000 peoples on October 14th 1956
(© 2007 / Koshy Koshy, under a WikiCommons) license

Personal interests do not of course dissolve through attachment to the group of origin. This ethos of dedication and commitment cannot be completely dissociated from a position of domination on the part of the socially mobile within the Dalit community. In the context of a society that is still structured by caste relationships, it is extremely difficult, and in some contexts impossible, for someone who has emerged from a caste considered by some to be “untouchable” to be assimilated into dominant groups still headed by so-called upper castes. Breaking off relationships with the original group in an attempt to fully integrate the destination group amounts to an extremely risky gamble that can result in isolation and lead to humiliation rather than bring symbolic benefits. The hypothesis that most upwardly mobile Dalits prefer to be dominant among the dominated rather than be dominated among the dominant can also partly explain the perpetuation of ties with the group of origin. This brief glimpse into the specific issues raised by the experience of upward mobility in the case of India provides one example of how, even despite a radical change in professional status, caste identity continues to structure the way people situate themselves in the social space. Whereas social mobility generally implies a strong process of individuation, of loss or confusion of belonging, this does not seem to be the case with the Dalits who experience this kind of mobility. We therefore see that the distinction discussed in our introductory comments between social status as defined by caste and social status as defined by profession can be more closely examined in the way that Dalits experience their success. One way in which caste identity can be considered as a structuring trait is that, despite their success, upwardly mobile Dalits will continue to be considered as “untouchables”.

Jules Naudet,
PhD in Sociology from IEP Paris
Researcher at the Centre de Sciences Humaines de New Delhi (MAEE/CNRS)


Jules Naudet, Entrer dans l'élite : Parcours de réussite en France, aux Etats-Unis et en Inde, Paris, Puf, 2012.

Christophe Jaffrelot, Dr Ambedkar : Leader intouchable et père de la Constitution indienne, Paris, Presses de SciencesPo, 2000.

Shah, G., Mander, H., Thorat, S., Deshpande, S. and Baviskar, A., Untouchability in rural India, New Delhi ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2006.

Narula, Smita, 'Equal by Law, Unequal by Caste: The 'Untouchable' Condition in Critical Race Perspective', Wisconsin International Law Journal, vol. 26, 2007.

Sorokin Pitirim, Social Mobility, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1927.

Divya Vaid et Anthony Heath, "Unequal Opportunities: Class, Caste and Social Mobility". In Diversity and Change in Modern India: Economic, Social and Political Approaches, Anthony Heath et Roger Jeffery (dir.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Max Weber, Hindouisme et Bouddhisme, traduit et présenté par Isabelle Kalinowski et Roland Lardinois, Paris, Flammarion, coll. Champs, 2003.