Caste System: Definition & History

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

What would it be like to live in a caste system? This lesson describes the characteristics of caste systems and the debates that sociologists have about this topic.

Definition of Caste System

For a moment, imagine that no matter how much you educate yourself and no matter how hard you work, you will still have the same occupation and way of life as your family before you. You will be expected to marry someone in the same category of people as you. In addition, everyone around you will see you as destined to live the life you have, good or bad.

Consider what this would be like while you were very rich and powerful. Now consider what this would be like if you were very poor and treated disrespectfully.

This describes a traditional view of caste systems, in which the people of that society are born into certain categories that determine their way of life, opportunities, and social customs. Caste may be based on religious beliefs or historical influences, often a combination of many factors.

In the way sociologists have historically viewed the idea of caste, a person will be expected to stay in the social category in which he's born. A person's life circumstance is believed to be a matter of destiny. In many caste systems, a higher power is seen as responsible for determining the caste of a person. For instance, at times in the past, the Hindu caste system of India was structured in such a way that the poorest of their people, known as the untouchables, were seen as undeserving of respect, because they were being punished for actions taken in a past life.

Certain practices, such as untouchability, in which higher castes do not come into physical contact with the lower caste, are outlawed. Your barber, for example, no longer has the right to refuse to cut your hair because of your family background, but this may still occur in your community. Although you have the same rights as others now, your family and future generations may experience a cycle of living in poverty. Even in a more open system, it can be challenging to shift upwards in status due to lack of resources and education, and when discrimination limits your opportunities.

Being born into the caste of warriors would mean a completely different life than if you were born as a member of a lower caste
Members of the warrior caste

Caste systems are examples of closed systems in which mobility between castes is not typical. Open systems, on the other hand, can include frequent movement between different statuses. In closed systems, more emphasis is placed on accepting social standing, with limits to how far one can deviate from the expectations of one's level in society. In an open system, activities devoted to improving one's status through personal achievement, such as moving on to a better paying professional, are expected.

The class system in the United States is an example of an open system. While it may not always be easy to move from one class to another, it happens frequently. For instance, someone who has a well-paying job may be middle class at one point in life, then lose a job and find herself living in poverty. On the flip side, someone born to a family living in poverty may find a way to live a more comfortable life as she gains in education and work experience. Mobility either upwards or downwards is more common in a class system, while in a caste system, people of different castes are traditionally in a more fixed social position throughout life, regardless of their individual abilities.

History of Caste Systems

If you lived in medieval times in the region of western France and southern Spain, you could have been born into a group of people known as the Cagots. While the majority of the people around you were non-Cagots, you were considered to be a Cagot because your family was identified that way, as had their family before them.

You were part of a caste system of that society, and, as a result, would be shunned and ridiculed by others because of your family background. You would have to use a separate door to go into the church, and would have to report your presence when you arrived in a new town. Your occupational choices were limited, and you were not allowed to eat off of the same dishes as non-Cagots, risking violence if you deviated from these expectations.

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