Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Class, caste and the reproduction of privilege

Asymmetries of identification are commonly remarked upon. The wealthy and powerful in any society possess a capacity to occupy unmarked identities, or those of their choosing, thereby concealing the accumulated privilege that might derive from their inherited stock of social or cultural capital. Particularist identities of race, ethnicity, caste or other “minority” groups in which anthropologists often have particular interest then become imagined as the property of subaltern groups who may be held responsible for the perpetuation of archaic social divisions.

Joel Robbins (2013) recently suggested that at a certain point (in the 1980s) the focus of anthropological attention shifted from studying societies that were understood as culturally “other” to studying the “suffering subject”. If one were inclined to such broad generalisations — and undoubtedly there are asymmetries of ethnographic attention — one could as well say that the anthropological gravitation to the disadvantaged is in part an effect of an apparent exit of elites from the kinds of ethnicities/identities that drew anthropological attention, into metropolitan sameness, abandoning historical identities of distinction in response to complex political-economic changes.

Robbins makes his observations in the light of what he sees as the recent turn towards a comparative “anthropology of the good”; but another ethnographic turn has been the exploration of elites and global professionals, their varied forms of knowledge, power and cultural enclaves, “socially at least as restricted any other strong ethnic identity” (Friedman 2004: 165). With its attention to Tamil Brahmans, both the quintessential “other” of anthropology’s India and leaders within the utterly modern IT industries, Fuller and Narasimhan’s book Tamil Brahmans: The Making of a Middle-Class Caste makes a distinct contribution to this whole discussion. It is also of particular relevance to politically significant debates on the importance or unimportance of caste in the reproduction of inequality and privilege in contemporary India.

Tamil Brahmans are both exemplar and exception to elite claims to unmarked cosmopolitan identities. Indeed, the problem this book sets itself is how to account for the global success of Tamil Brahmans without accepting the Brahman exceptionalist self-representation of this success in terms of inherent or inherited intellectual talent, or the numerical skills of the Brahman astrologer or bookkeeper underlying scientific genius or IT success. In addressing this issue, the categories of Brahman, Brahmanic or Brahmanical, expanded through reiteration and ideological incorporation in current critical debates, are cut to sociological size, so that when we speak about Brahmans and their achievements we know more precisely what is meant.

This is an admirable work of scholarship. It is accessible and free from obscuring theoretical indulgences, and it has the merit and modesty of reminding the reader as the story unfolds what we do not know, and the limits of the data — when facts are “factoids”. The interpretations offered are always justified in relation to other possible ones. Its co-author Narasimhan is herself a Tamil Brahman, although there is less by way of reflexive comment on Brahman knowledge about knowledge on Brahmans than might have been expected.

Fuller and Narasimhan allow us to appreciate the distinctiveness of Tamil Brahmans; and how their route to Madras or Tamil, Indian or global, middle-classdom is different from the Brahmans of other Indian regions, whether Bengal Brahmans within the bhadralok or Maharashtrian Brahmans entangled in reform movements (not to mention a range of other Brahman and Non-Brahman comparator castes). The authors explain how the Tamil Brahmans’ “more or less clear run into Madras’s middle class” (p. 216) involved a distinctive engagement with colonial governance and modernity; and clear steps into administration, law and later medicine and engineering without the competitive, dynamic ferment of reform characteristic of their counterparts in Calcutta or Bombay.

The story of Tamil Brahmans is narrated through close attention to the past and present lives of upper-middle class families, and genealogical journeys from village landlords and district munsifs, to software engineers and IT company bosses, through the vectors of education, employment and gender roles (meaning the transformation in the position of Brahman women and the significance of this for renegotiating what status means in Tamil society).  The book is alive with personalities, biographies, and case studies that enable us to understand social change through families and marriages, education and careers. It also has important things to say about wider social processes whether agrarian transition, the shaping of an administrative elite, neoliberal reform and its effects, the paradoxical desire for social belonging and freedom in urban spaces, or the cultural politics of Sanskritic forms.

However, this is less an account of social change than of the continuity of privilege under very different historical and institutional conditions; and articulated in different forms: land control, caste purity, bureaucratic power, professional pre-eminence, or the cultural capital of an urban upper-middle class. Fuller and Narasimhan describe an art of power, showing that continuity of social position requires remarkable adaptability, as well as the evasion of unwinnable political and economic conflicts and withdrawal from fields into which entry has become too competitive, such as medicine. “Tam Brams” it seems, have been masters at keeping ahead of the game, searching out new codes or rules of social recognition and material wealth, while expressing their own cultural identity in appropriately modern traditions in the fields of religion, music, dance or matrimony for that matter. Focussing on the successful does, of course, raise questions about those places and people who do not make it; those who fail or are left behind — the emptying and aging agraharams (Brahman residential quarters) and their human equivalents in other places. We know how Brahmans deal with privilege and success but what of the less successful, the lower-middle class or the few downwardly mobile? What are the social costs of modern Brahmanhood?

Reproduction of class or of caste?

Fuller and Narasimhan tell us a lot about how modern caste and class are interlinked as social and cultural capital.  At the heart of the book’s argument is the idea that today “Tamil Brahmanhood and middle classness have become mutually constitutive of each other” (p. 27). The particularity of the route to this conclusion means that the book opens a field of comparative study of caste-class culture and identity across India. It explains the circumstances of resource ownership, power and position under which the privileged opportunity afforded to Brahmans was reproduced in colonial and post-colonial times. And it does so primarily to demonstrate that Tamil Brahman success has to do with process (the function of family connections, networks, investments, the way housing markets are structured etc.) rather than precedent (that is traditional occupation or inherited skills). Seeing caste as a dynamic social process rather than a set of attributes is, in my view, entirely correct; and this underpins the book’s argument about the inseparability of caste and class in modern India.

This argument, however, is slightly at cross purposes with another trying to say that middle class rather than Brahman caste identity is what matters, that (citing Béteille) “caste has ceased to play an active part in the reproduction of inequality, at least at the upper levels of the social hierarchy” and, for example, “it is important to emphasise that, in the final analysis, there are so many Tamil Brahman IT professionals not because they were born as Brahmans, but because they come from families in the upper-middle class” (p. 121-2). This begs the question why Brahmans are so successful at reaching the upper-middle class, which the book shows at length has to do with being Brahman; and of course there is no way to be Brahman other than by birth.

To put the matter differently, to say (as Fuller and Narasimhan do on p.121) that caste does not count in whether or not young people who want to work in IT companies get to do so, would only be true if one discounted all the cultural capital, networks, language or “exposure”, that allow young people to get to the point at which caste does not count. The point is that one cannot really decide between whether the cross-generation transmittable social processes of opportunity are construed as caste or as class; and the expression of accumulated particularistic social and cultural capital of caste as modern capital, universal class or merit is not really the transformation of one into the other.

The book’s argument about the social production of Tam Bram success is, as mentioned, made against a Brahman self-representation or discourse on inherent caste qualities of intellect that explain for example the affinity between south Indian Brahmans and the IT sector. There is little doubt that such a discourse exists when one no less than Amartya Sen, addressing India’s National Association of Software Services and Companies (NASSCOM) in 2007, speaks of India’s IT success in terms of “historic respect for distinctive skills” and the way the caste system encouraged or relied on “the traditional reverence for specialised skill”.[1]  Sen was rounded on for his comments, and Fuller and Narasimhan themselves systematically dismantle the idea of success through inherent talent, as well as questioning claims about a specific Brahman or upper-caste bias in selection processes of major IT companies (most would agree that the IT sector is no longer dominated by Brahmans). But while they certainly show that Brahman success in IT industries rests on a layered history of social pre-eminence, what they do not do is account for how Brahmans have managed to turn IT success (for example) back into a taken-for-granted caste characteristic, on the back of popular myths about the IT sector developing out of Brahman intellect, such that the elite Madras IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) comes to be dubbed the “Iyer Iyengar Technology” (using Brahman caste titles) (Subramanian 2015: 307), or the software production wing of the leading American company PayPal situated in Chennai’s IT corridor unthinkingly organises their annual day celebrations with team names such as  “Iyers of Tamil Nadu” and “Banerjees of Bengal”.[2]

The more substantial question raised but not fully answered by Fuller and Narasimhan is how does an elite group such as Tamil Brahmans succeed in producing a convergence of modern casteless merit and caste belonging? To the extent that this is true, Brahmans are an unusual case, having not only translated the historical privileges of caste into casteless merit, but then also (paradoxically) made merit into a caste characteristic of Brahmans. (Ramesh Bairy develops a similar argument concerning the way in which the twentieth-century Karnataka Brahmans developed a position that “ties together, at once, the modern discursive register of ‘merit’ and the norms of the caste system that seek to regulate occupational entry” [2010: 130-1]).

This issue has drawn the attention of Ajantha Subramanian researching the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and their significantly Brahman intake. She usefully draws on Satish Deshpande’s thoughts on the Indian reservations-related public discourse on the unmarked (upper-caste) “general” category of castes. Returning to the opening question of accumulated privilege and elite identity, we can think of three elements in an argument that tries to make sense of the Tamil Brahman case — success and its narratives —  in the wider context of the contemporary “social life of caste” (Subramanian 2015).

The first element is the ground covered by Tamil Brahmans. It concerns the way in which accumulated privilege allows self-fashioning independent of caste in terms of merit, modernity and middleclassness. Subramanian shows the importance of national institutions such as the IITs, with hyper-competitive entry exams and (until recently) reduced requirements to accommodate low castes through reserved places, in manufacturing merit from privilege to produce “individuals with innate capacity for technical knowledge” (2015: 295).

The second element is Deshpande’s point that, in India, post-Independence social policy sharply differentiated the capacity to translate “caste capital” into “modern capital” (i.e., property, higher qualifications, professions etc.), as Brahmans so successfully had. While upper castes were able to “encash” caste privilege as casteless merit, others could only deploy caste politically — mobilising for rights or resources — in ways that firmly identified them with their caste. As Deshpande puts it, “[u]pper caste identity is such that it can be completely overwritten by modern professional identities of choice, whereas lower caste identity is so indelibly engraved that it overwrites all other identities” (2013: 32). Because of the way reservations policy works, “upper castes” are guaranteed anonymity in preserving privilege born of caste, while “lower castes” become hyper-visible in their claims (ibid).[3]

Correspondingly, in Deshpande’s terms, the beneficiaries of caste (the upper castes) lay claim to public resources, perpetuating their advantage as unmarked citizens on the basis of casteless merit (without any requirement actually to abandon caste), whereas the victims of caste (the lower castes) are compelled to make claims as a caste-marked exception (2013: 36). “Neither route leads towards the annihilation or even the diminishing of caste; but in dominant common sense, one route is presented as having already passed this destination, while the other is accused of leading away from it” (2013: 36). So while upper castes lay claim to cosmopolitan identities, cultural heritage or middleclassdom, subalterns become the purveyors of caste (Subramanian 2015: 295). Constitutionally and legally caste was (and is) only a source of disadvantage, never a source of privilege, and becomes itself construed as a subaltern formation (ibid:  296, Deshpande 2013: 36).

There is a third relational element to Subramanian’s argument arising from this link established between the apparent decline in social meaning of caste among elites, and its assumed centrality to the aspirations and politics of lower castes (2015: 295), namely that upper-caste claims to middle class meritocracy can be threatened by lower caste political assertions which might expose the caste privilege behind “merit” and so interrupt the conversion of caste capital into modern capital. The threat to undercut general cultural or class identities by exposing caste within privileged groups has always generated contestation: consider examples ranging from that surrounding extension of reservations to a broad category of the Other Backward Castes in the 1990s in India which exposed the “general category” as essentially upper-caste (Despande 2013: 38), to that surrounding the extension of equality law in the UK to cover discrimination on the basis of caste (Dhanda et al. 2014) which apparently threatens to “brand” cosmopolitan Hindus with caste while damaging their “incorporated” image in the UK “market of identities” (cf. Subramanian 2015: 314).

Admittedly this discussion has a rather north Indian flavour to it, since in the Tamil south, where locally dominant elites have been drawn from the non-Brahman and so-called Backward Castes, and where the clearest divide is between these and the subaltern Dalits formerly subordinated as untouchable, a larger section of the population has engaged in caste-based claims.

And this is where we return to the Tam Brams whose own branding — their Brahman exceptionalism —  “makes  [casteless] merit into a kind of caste property”. Subramanian sees this as being the product of a much longer history of lower caste politics in Tamil Nadu which, far earlier, made Brahmans especially visible as privileged caste subjects (2015: 310, 314). This provides the condition for the paradox whereby Brahmanhood becomes a particular expression of modernity and merit; and where, for example, the IITs are meritorious because associated with Brahmans and isolated from regional low-caste demands (ibid: 308).

In some respects Fuller and Narasimhan’s book is indeed an account of the cultivated social apartness of Tamil Brahmans over the long term, and demonstrates how this has facilitated their cultural code-switching (from landlord, to bureaucrat, to IT manager), allowing disinvestment in any given order — whether rural landlordship or bureaucracy — as well as their current top-lifting from India’s democratic and caste politics. From the beginning, Brahmans in their agraharams appear to be, as their gods are in Fuller’s earlier analysis of the Hindu pantheon, “substantialised” rather than bound into relational identities or transactionally maintained status. The basis of their social recognition could easily shift — from ritual purity or administrative position —  because it is grounded in wider incontestable referents such as varna or just being a self-recognising elite.

If apartness has enabled occupational mobility and allowed Tamil Brahmans to be “semi- nomads” in the global informational economy, as Fuller and Narasimhan suggest, by making middle-class values “paradigmatically their own” (p.232), Brahmans are presumably set on a self-defeating course. They will soon merge into an expanding middle class in which claimed social distinction will lose salience, and where the cultural markers of inner Brahmanhood are already commonly claimed.  The distinctive “caste-class isomorphism found in the Tamil Brahmin upper-middle class” (p. 223) may not only be an “unusual feature” but also an historically transitory one. Brahman middle-class caste culture will have no means to be pre-eminent; and endogamy and self-regarding mythology harder to maintain.

Even if we are not there yet, the ultimate demise of particularist social identities among elites and the replacement of caste reproduction by class reproduction is one modern narrative of the future. Alternatively, as Subramanian suggests, rather than its erosion we will see new consolidations of caste, and caste stratification, albeit framed in the language of merit or equality or democracy (2015: 317). Claiming merit as a caste characteristic and articulating ascriptive notions of skill and intelligence reveals, then, the “leveraging of caste …as an upper-caste politics” — counterpart and response to low caste assertions against accumulated privileges (ibid). Since Tamil Brahmans appear in the vanguard of such caste consolidations, Fuller and Narasimhan’s book contains something of both possibilities.



Bairy, Ramesh. 2010. Being Brahmin, Being Modern: Exploring the Lives of Caste Today. New Delhi: Routledge.

Dhanda, M., A. Waughray, D. Keane, D. Mosse, R. Green, and S. Whittle. 2014. Caste in Britain: Socio-legal Review. Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report no. 91. Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Deshpande, Satish. 2013. Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the “General Category.” Economic and Political Weekly 48, 15 (13 Apr.): 32–39

Friedman, Jonathan. 2004. ‘The relocation of the social and the retrenchment of the elites’, in B. Kapferer (ed.), Forum on the Retreat of the Social: The Rise and Rise of Reductionism’, Social Analysis 48(3): 162–68.

Robbins, Joel. (2013), Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19: 447–462

Subramanian, Ajantha (2015). Making merit: the Indian Institutes of Technology and the social life of caste. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 57, pp 291-322.

  1. [1]  (20 Aug 2015)
  2. [2] (20 Aug 2015)
  3. [3]There are no easy alternatives to these contentious  and simplifying terms —  “upper” and “lower” caste used in the cited articles —  which refer not to an accepted stratification, but a history of power, domination and unequal social recognition, encoded in vernacular as well as sociological languages.

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues