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Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (Nature of Human Society) 2nd Edition
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Meanwhile, Dumont has found heirs and epigones among philosophers and social scientists in France. The publication of Homo Hierarchicus coincided with a Tocquevillian turn in French political thought, and Dumont became an often quoted reference. It is to be remembered that Tocqueville had planned to write a book on India that would have completed his exploration of Democracy in America and his account of French society between the Old Regime and the Revolution. Without referring to India or the caste system, modern philosophers like Marcel Gauchet or Vincent Descombes have adopted Dumont's project to offer a comparative perspective on modernity, developing the political thought to which Dumont turned after his discovery of the hierarchy principle. A new generation of social scientist has also turned to Dumont to formulate research questions and provide theoretical hypotheses. Christophe Jaffrelot, a political scientist, refers to Louis Dumont in his analysis of the rise of the lower castes in North India, and in the book he devoted to Ambedkar, the nationalist leader who himself developed a critical perspective on the caste system. But his research sits squarely in the political science discipline, and owes little to the kind of intellectual enquiry Dumont tried to develop.
Dumont's turn from anthropology to political thought therefore seems to have characterized his reception as well, at least in the French context. Dumont hasn't given birth to an anthropological school, and Homo Hierarchicus (thereafter: HH) appears as an isolated gem that stands closer to the great works of Marcel Mauss and other members of the Durkheimian school than to the modern way of writing anthropology. But Dumont has contributed to rekindle the Tocquevillian flame in France, and to raise the level of ambition of comparative studies. The main lesson that stems from HH is methodological: there exist in our Western societies ideas and values that are so prevalent and so ingrained in the social fabric that they become invisible to common perceptions. In order to isolate them, we have to turn to other societies where they have developed into more conscious forms of social organization. The role of comparative sociology is to denaturalize our way of thinking and to put into perspective indigenous norms and categories.
As Dumont writes in his introduction, our two cardinal ideas are called equality and liberty. They assume as their common principle the valorization of the human individual. But the perception of ourselves as free individuals with equal rights is not innate. In the last analysis, it is laid down for us, imposed by the society in which we live. The caste system, or the caste ideology as it should perhaps be called, teaches us a fundamentally different social principle: hierarchy. Classic India is where this principle of hierarchy appears in its purest form, detached from the notion of power that otherwise blurs and confuses it. Our inability to understand the caste system is linked to our modern denial of hierarchy as an organizing principle. Once we take it into account, not only do we understand the structure and dynamic of Indian society: we also benefit from a viewpoint that gives us unique insights into our own society. Like Tocqueville using democracy in America to isolate the changes and continuities between the Old regime and the Revolution in France, Dumont was able to turn the picture around and to describe our modern ideology of individual freedom and equality from a hierarchical and holistic perspective.
In contradiction with Marxist thought which dominated the intellectual landscape at the time, Dumont posits that the caste hierarchy was built on notions of purity and impurity that were linked to religious beliefs and had no connection with the economic infrastructure. The ideology is not the product of an underlying economic infrastructure; on the contrary, the economic derives from the political, which is determined in the last instance by the religious. First identified by Célestin Bouglé, the opposition between the pure and the impure "underlies hierarchy, which is the superiority of the pure to the impure, underlies separation because the pure and the impure must be kept separate, and underlies the division of labor because pure and impure occupations must likewise be kept separate." The religious imperative of purity dominates the political notion of power. In India, status and power, and consequently spiritual authority and temporal authority, are absolutely separated; and the king is made subordinate to the priest. "In theory, power is ultimately subordinated to priesthood, whereas in reality priesthood submits to power": it is therefore on the level of theory that the hierarchy principle appears in its pure form.
The separation of the pure and the impure obviously applies to the contrast between the Brahman and the Untouchable, which form the two extremes of the hierarchy of purity. But it equally applies to the division of society into a large number of groups and subdivisions. The division of labor prescribed by the caste system goes hand in hand with the permanent attribution to certain occupations of a certain degree of impurity. Exposure to the impurity of organic life (death, flesh and blood, categories of food), translates into permanent impurity of certain human groups. This is why, in particular, "untouchability will not truly disappear until the purity of the Brahman is itself radically devalued." Division of labor makes each category dependent upon the other: even the participation of the Untouchables is required in village ceremonies, as musicians or funeral priests. Personal relationships can be hereditary: each family has a family of specialists at its disposal for each specialized task. For example, "some artisan or other is employed by the Brahmans, and conversely, as head of a household, he employs a Brahman for his domestic ceremonies." It must also be noted that each group protects itself from the ones below and aspires to the condition of the ones above: this is the phenomenon of `Sanskritization' well identified in Indian sociology.
On several occasions, Dumont notes that impurity is felt more acutely in the south than in the north. Literature on the subject make the south, and especially Kerala, "a sort of paradise of the ranking mania". The pecking order is based on a multiplicity of criteria: "for example, one can rank the high castes in ascending order on the basis of whether the Brahman will accept water, fried food, or boiled food from them; and one can rank the low castes in descending order on the basis of whether their contact pollutes water, an earthenware receptacle, or a brass receptacle." But it is not enough to list the rules: "one must also know if and under what circumstances these presumptive rules are applied in practice." Similarly, one cannot reduce the caste system to the division of labor. Caste names are very often the names of trades, but these are not the only names: ethnic or tribal names, names of sects and names indicating still other features are also found. This results in maddening complexity: to consider only the segmentation of potter castes, "apart from the distinction between pot-makers and tile-makers, must one really consider as having a bearing on profession the fact that some use oxen and others donkeys for transport, some a large wheel and some a small one, some a stone and others the hands for shaping?"
HH is a long and sometimes tedious book, full of ethnographical details and theoretical considerations. Dumont wrote it because, as he explains in the preface to the French edition, for someone who "for several years pursued his research at the public expense", he felt the duty to give back to the French public a general synthesis on the subject, following the books published by Bouglé in 1908 and Sénart in 1896. He also published it to express his "faithfulness to Mauss' profound inspiration": as he confesses, "I owe everything, or almost everything, to the French tradition of sociology." This may explain why Dumont didn't form a school or initiate a tradition in anthropology. He was consciously and meticulously applying the lessons of his masters. Only when he moved away from Indianist studies to concentrate on the origins of individualism was he able to emancipate himself from his elders and to display the originality of his thought. As he concludes in an appendix to HH, "the time has perhaps come when the mirror anthropologists direct at other societies should be turned back by them on ourselves." This is an exhilarating task, and much of its business is still unfinished.
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