Cook on Guha, 'Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present'

Sumit Guha
Matthew Cook

Sumit Guha. Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2014. xviii + 236 pp. $127.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-24918-9.

Reviewed by Matthew Cook (North Carolina Central University)
Published on H-Empire (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

In Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present, Sumit Guha maintains that academic understandings of social identity in India remain stuck in simplistic cultural explanations of the caste system. He argues that these explanations misrepresent caste as a system basically about Hindu religious values. In Guha’s view, such explanations reduce caste to an “Indic avatara of Hegel’s absolute spirit” (p. 213). Instead of a simple cultural view, Guha proposes a political-economic perspective that emphasizes how states shape social identity.

Central to Guha’s political-economic views are the writings of Fredrik Barth on ethnicity. In Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, Barth states that “the caste system would appear to be a special case of a stratified poly-ethnic system.”[1] Influenced by Barth, Guha concludes that caste is “a highly involuted and politicized form of ethnic ranking” (p. 7). Barth and Guha not only define caste as a form of ethnicity but also posit that culture does not primordially bind social groups but, instead, marks their boundaries: “The critical focus of investigation from this point of view becomes the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses.”[2] Since boundaries between social groups in South Asia have been and are often mediated by the state, Guha maintains that caste is better suited for political-economic than cultural analysis. Guha adds that his preference for political economy has the further benefit of avoiding (unlike cultural explanations) false dichotomies between society and polity (p. 43). 

In six chapters (along with an introduction and afterword), Beyond Caste addresses how the political economy of states in South Asia impacted social identity. Chapter 1 raises questions about how caste (and not ethnicity) became a “master key” for understanding identity (p. 43). In it, Guha expands historical knowledge about these questions by extending his frames of reference back to the early modern period. Chapter 2 extends this time frame back to the second century BCE. Guha argues that janapada (i.e., not a caste-like but an ethnicity-like identity focused around “village clusters”) was South Asia’s dominant form of social identity. He demonstrates how this dominance waned in the early modern period when emerging states weakened the autonomy of villages clusters. Chapter 3 explores how this weakening transformed social boundaries within village clusters. Guha details how early modern states influenced this process by extracting money and loyalty from villages. Chapter 4 maintains that the political economy of states not only transformed identity boundaries within village clusters but also families. Guha contends that early modern state institutions often had more influence over family structure than caste. Chapter 5 illustrates how indigenous states and the East India Company recorded early modern identities. Guha reveals how these records document social identities that resemble ethnicities rather castes. Chapter 6 concentrates on how social boundaries and identities changed between 1800 and 2000. Guha describes how colonial policies and classifications (often based on religion and caste) helped create new classes of agrarian and bureaucratic elites. He concludes that the influence of these elites persisted until challenged by the contemporary “ethnic politics” of tribalism in Pakistan and caste in India. 

Beyond Caste has positive qualities. It expands scholarship about social identity and caste beyond the colonial period. Guha maintains such an expansion is necessary because states in South Asia have influenced social boundaries before and after colonialism. Guha develops a “more comprehensive understanding of both the Indian subcontinent’s present and its millennial past” (p. 16). Unfortunately, with the exceptions of chapters 2 and 5, Beyond Caste is not particularly focused on India’s present and/or the millennial past. Instead, its emphasis is on the early modern period. Guha’s excellent analyses of this period are strong reminders of how South Asian social identities, boundaries, and processes often have early modern foundations. Chapter 1 details how the Portuguese, centuries before the British, conflated race and caste. Chapter 2 argues that the East India Company rose to power by intensifying already existing systems for extracting revenue from villages. Chapter 3 demonstrates that social identities connected to jajmani exchange systems need be related to earlier concepts like baluta (i.e., the village servant system) and watan (i.e., being part of a community). Chapter 4 illustrates how indigenous states, prior to colonialism’s micro-management of familial lives, influenced family structures in early modern South Asia. Chapter 5 addresses how “social classification and enumeration were widely understood and practiced by Indian states well before the onset of colonial rule” (p. 145). These insightful chapters shed light on how the political economy of states shaped social identity in India. They also exhibit a strong understanding of the early modern period and how it influenced later historical periods.

Beyond Caste not only expands scholarship temporally but spatially. Guha criticizes cultural explanations for representing the Ganges River area as the “authentic center” of South Asian society (p. 50). Since the cultural values of this area do not evenly occur across South Asia, he maintains that social identities must be understood in relationship to regional histories. Beyond Caste is particularly effective at historically carving a space for western India into the political-economic analysis of identity in South Asia. Guha’s history of baluta in western India is superb. His arguments about baluta being as (if not more) important than the jajmani system, which is generally found in northern India, are compelling. Guha’s analyses of Maratha social identity in western India are also noteworthy.  They illustrate how the political economy of states, rather than the cultural values of northern India, shaped the ethnicity-like identity of the Marathas. This perspective also leads to historical insights into the participation of non-Hindus (i.e., Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians) in the caste system. Guha convincingly shows that simplistic cultural explanations fail to account for this participation, both in western India and across South Asia. 

While firmly focused on the early modern period, the book occasionally makes jarring chronological jumps. Regarding the history of janapada, Guha—in under ten pages—touches on the Mauryan empire (320-187 BCE), the Gupta period (320-550 CE), the Mughal era (1500-1800 CE), the Achaemenid empire (500 BCE), the eighteenth-century Rohilla and Sikh states, and Tom Kessinger’s village studies from the 1960s. In another example that spans two pages, Guha starts with Partition in 1947, goes back to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, returns to Partition, moves to Pakistan under Ayub Khan (1958-69), shifts to the Bangladesh War (1971), and then jumps to tribalism in contemporary Pakistan. In fairness, these examples come from chapters 2 and 5, which—more than Beyond Caste’s other chapters—address South Asia’s millennial past and the nineteenth/twentieth centuries. Nonetheless, there are other examples. In chapter 3, Guha discusses the Imperial Gazetteer of India (1909 CE), the Arthashastra (300-400 BCE), and early modern Sri Lanka in a single paragraph. Over the next two pages, he goes on to mention fourteenth-century Indo-Islamic India, nineteenth-century Bihar, twentieth-century Bengal, and twenty-first-century Pakistan. These jumps reflect Guha’s historical interest in the reproduction of social boundaries. He states that these boundaries are inherently “unstable” and need to be “continually reproduced” over time (p. 50). Such reproduction produces different social categories at different times and places. Despite differences, Guha maintains that these categories frequently refer to ethnicity-like identities. The documentation of these identities and their social boundaries—during, before, and after the early modern period—help account for the chronological jumps in Beyond Caste.

With the exceptions of Fredrik Barth and Susan Bayly, who is an expert in early modern India, Guha generally critiques “western anthropologists” (p. 94). Some of these criticisms are on the mark. His political-economic evisceration of Louis Dumont in chapter 3 and David Mandelbaum in chapter 4 are well argued. Nonetheless, the relevance of these arguments is uncertain since Dumont and Mandelbaum are, along with many others mentioned by Guha, “old school” anthropologists who are no longer particularly prominent. Guha’s criticisms of more recent and historically minded anthropologists are also pointed. His statements that Nicholas Dirks is hypocritical in his intellectual opposition to Dumont and that Arjun Appadurai is anachronistic in his understanding of state enumerative regimes are unproductively sharp (pp. 40, 163). Given such criticisms, the caveat that Beyond Caste is “most emphatically not a history of anthropological or sociological thought” is inadequate (p. 16). The inclusion of such a history could enhance Guha’s critiques while, at the same time, opening a more interdisciplinary conversation about caste and social identity in South Asia. Unfortunately, Beyond Caste’s polemical approach tends to reaffirm the disciplinary boundaries between anthropology and history. In this sense, anthropology and history are like the Pathan and Baluch ethnicities that Barth writes about in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: “it is clear that boundaries persist despite the flow of personnel across them.”[3] 

Regardless of how one weighs the positive and negative qualities of Beyond Caste, its analysis expands our academic understanding of social identity in South Asia. It is particularly welcome for its early modern and western India perspectives on this subject. The book is sure to provoke opinions and promote discussions, which—in the judgment of this reviewer—is what good academic writing should do.


[1]. Fredrik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Different (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press), 27.

[2]. Ibid., 15; quoted in part by Guha on 15-16, 16n55, and 41.

[3]. Barth, Ethnic Groups, 9.

Printable Version:

Citation: Matthew Cook. Review of Guha, Sumit, Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. July, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

I am indebted to Matthew Cook for his review of the 2013 Brill edition of Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present.

He has often read closely and summarized succinctly. Like any author, I am gratified by his praise of much of my work.

I must however take issue with his overall framing of my book. He presents it as an effort by a historian to deride anthropological research and to separate anthropologists from historians. He attributes to me the claim that I reject practically all anthropological arguments on South Asia except for the work of Fredrik Barth and Susan Bayly. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have positively cited important advances made by many social anthropologists, past and present. In alphabetical order, these include Thomas Beidelman, Andre Beteille, Bernard Cohn, V.M. Dandekar, Mary C. Douglas, G.S. Ghurye, Dipankar Gupta, M.B. Jagtap, Surinder Jodhka, Morton Klass, Rajni Kothari, McKim Marriott, A.M. Shah, Ghanshyam Shah, Peter van der Veer, and Nur Yalman. In Chapter 1 I repeatedly acknowledge my debt to Morton Klass and Bernard Cohn.

Cook’s larger framing of my book as the work of a historian attacking the practitioners of another discipline is therefore completely misconceived. He declares that my “polemical approach tends to reaffirm the disciplinary boundaries between anthropology and history.” (Review p.3)  When any scholar presents an account of past time based on contemporary documents and testimony rather than on intensive field observation, she or he is working as a historian. On the other hand, historians must analyze earlier times through concepts drawn from other social sciences. Thus ideas from anthropology, sociology and economics are constantly deployed in my historical work.

 While there are a number of details that I could dispute, I will only correct one deeply erroneous imputation. Cook alludes to one of my “statements” being that “Nicholas Dirks is hypocritical in his intellectual opposition to Dumont”. (Review, p.2) This is simply false. I have never, either on page 40 of my book or anywhere elsewhere, accused Dirks of conscious dissimulation, or hypocrisy. On page 38 I specifically highlight my indebtedness to the breakthrough made by Dirks and Susan Bayly at the end of the 1980s:

“Dirks and Bayly opened a new way of understanding South Asian society and –by returning political power to social structure, they also allowed us to link it with the studies of modern political life that flourished from the 1950s onward.”

Thus I in fact lauded Dirks’ effort to bring the state back into the history of caste and argued only that he (and Bayly) failed to consistently implement this research agenda and hence escape the Brahman-centric outlook that was the legacy of nineteenth-century Orientalism. Anyone who is developing a long and complex argument may fall into inconsistency. It does not mean that the scholar is a hypocrite.

Ed. note: The following response is posted on behalf of the review author, Matthew Cook.

I would like to thank the editor for allowing me to reply to Sumit Guha’s response to my review of Beyond Caste.  I would also like to thank Sumit Guha for taking time and effort to respond to my generally positive review.  Since Guha’s response is basically devoted to the penultimate paragraph of my review, I will restrict my reply to it.

Rather than quantify and compare positive and negative citations, the penultimate paragraph concludes that most chapters in Beyond Caste are anchored in critiques of writings by specific anthropologists and/or groups of anthropologists.  Some of these critiques hit their mark while others less so.  Regardless of effectiveness, I maintain that Guha’s critiques would be enhanced by greater attention to the history of anthropological thought.  Such history (or “theory”) is generally important to understanding anthropological writings.  One example, from among many, concerns Fredrik Barth:  His perspectives on culture, society and ethnicity directly relate to his training in the “British School” of anthropology and his admiration for Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma.  Guha’s analyses deliberately eschew such relevant facts.  The results are analyses of anthropological writings without sufficient reference to the “belief systems” that inform them.  In this sense, Beyond Caste misses an opportunity for deepening the interdisciplinary conversation between anthropology and history.  Such a lost opportunity, when read against the light of Guha’s critiques, gives the (perhaps unintentional) appearance of reaffirming disciplinary boundaries.

In Beyond Caste, on page 40, Guha states that, “The starting point of Dirks’s argument is consciously opposed to Dumont but it terminates in a rather similar conclusion.”  This sentence clearly states that Dirks says one thing but ends up doing another.  While Beyond Caste does engage Dirks’ writings at length (e.g., chapter two argues that janapada is more suited than Dirks’ “little kingdom” for understanding the longue durée of South Asian history), this fact does not change what Guha states in the above quote.  If an “inconsistency” due to a long and complex argument, Guha’s statement simply points toward issues of editing.  However, it also directs attention towards a certain polemic approach.  Whether or not this approach furthers interdisciplinary exchanges is, ultimately, something that time will determine.

Again, I thank Sumit Guha for his response.  It provokes good academic exchanges.