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definitions - Caste

caste (n.)

1.a social class separated from others by distinctions of hereditary rank or profession or wealth

2.(Hinduism) a hereditary social class among Hindus; stratified according to ritual purity

3.social status or position conferred by a system based on class"lose caste by doing work beneath one's station"

4.in some social insects (such as ants) a physically distinct individual or group of individuals specialized to perform certain functions in the colony

Caste (n.)

1.(MeSH)A stratum of people with similar position and prestige; includes social stratification. Social class is measured by criteria such as education, occupation, and income.

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Merriam Webster

CasteCaste (?), n. [Pg. casta race, lineage, fr. L. castus pure, chaste: cf. F. caste, of same origin.]
1. One of the hereditary classes into which the Hindu are divided according to the laws of Brahmanism.

☞ The members of the same caste are theoretically of equal rank, and same profession or occupation, and may not eat or intermarry with those not of their own caste. The original are four, viz., the Brahmans, or sacerdotal order; the Kshatriyas, or soldiers and rulers; the Vaisyas, or husbandmen and merchants; and the Sudras, or laborers and mechanics. Men of no caste are Pariahs, outcasts. Numerous mixed classes, or castes, have sprung up in the progress of time.

2. A separate and fixed order or class of persons in society who chiefly hold intercourse among themselves.

The tinkers then formed an hereditary caste. Macaulay.

To lose caste, to be degraded from the caste to which one has belonged; to lose social position or consideration.

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definition (more)

definition of Wikipedia

synonyms - Caste


-Backward Caste • Bagara (caste) • Bagdi (caste) • Bagra (caste) • Balinese caste system • Bangar (caste) • Bania (caste) • Barwar (caste) • Bhandari caste • Bhatia (caste) • Boyar (caste) • Bunt (caste) • Caste (disambiguation) • Caste (social) • Caste War of Yucatán • Caste politics in India • Caste system among Indian Christians • Caste system among South Asian Muslims • Caste system in Africa • Caste system in Goa • Caste system in India • Caste system in Kerala • Caste system in Sri Lanka • Caste-related violence in India • Ethnicity and caste in Nepal • Gotama (caste) • Half Caste (horse) • Half Caste (poem) • Half-Caste (film) • Half-Caste Act • Half-caste • Half-caste (disambiguation) • Haris (caste) • High Caste • High-caste • History of the Indian caste system • Judicator caste • Kallar (caste) • Kami (caste) • Kamma (caste) • Kapu (caste) • Khadim (caste) • Kulina sub-caste • Low caste • Low-caste • Lower caste • Lower-caste • Lucas Tirigall Caste • Maher caste • Mahābhārata and the Indian caste system • Mala (caste) • Mali caste • Maravar (caste) • Maurya caste • Minbari Warrior Caste • Mochi (caste) • Nadar (caste) • Nadar /Shanar(Tamil caste) • Nadar Caste • Nai (caste) • Negi (caste) • Nepalese caste system • Newar caste system • Original Caste • Panna caste • Pasi (caste) • Patti caste • Periyar E. V. Ramasamy and the eradication of caste • Priestly caste • Ravidassia (caste) • Sahariya (caste) • Salvi (caste) • Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 • Sikkim Scheduled Caste League • Sunar (caste) • Sunga (caste) • Supporting Caste • Talamasca Caste • Templar caste • The Caste Disabilities Removal Act, 1850 • The Caste System • The Die is Caste • Thori (caste) • Tuli (caste) • Untouchable caste • Upper Caste • Upper-caste • Vanjari (caste) • Velama (caste) • Vishwakarma (caste) • Warrior caste

analogical dictionary



  Caste is a system of social stratification, where an individual's identity is a consequence of birth and ancestry, their worth intrinsic and unequal.[1] A pure caste system is a closed system, which allows for little change in social position. This is because birth alone determines a person's entire future, allowing little or no social mobility based on individual effort.[2] It is found in many parts of the world. Here is a picture representing the casta, a caste system prevalent in Latin America during the Spanish colonial period.

Caste is an elaborate and complex social system that combines some or all elements of endogamy, hereditary transmission of occupation, social class, social identity, hierarchy, exclusion and power.[1][3][4][5] Haviland defines caste as a closed form of social stratification in which membership is determined by birth and remains fixed for life; castes are also endogamous and offsprings are automatically members of their parent's caste.[6]

  Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a pioneering Indian leader against caste-based social discrimination, was born in an untouchable Indian caste. In his view, caste can not be defined by any idea of religious pollution, or social prohibition on mutual interaction, or an assumption of endogamy. The early 20th century India in Ambedkar's experience was a strictly exogamous society because marriage within blood-relations and class-relations was culturally forbidden. Caste, according to Ambedkar, should be defined as any social group that develops to impose endogamy, in a population that is otherwise exogamous.[7] Exclusiveness and other sociological elements are the result, not the cause of formation or for existence of Castes. Ambedkar argued that caste system will not end by violence and political movements such as communism; rather, he suggested that caste system will end when individuals change from within, when all individuals are free to choose, are equal under law and have the liberty to create and accumulate material and spiritual wealth.[8]

Some literature suggests that the term caste should not be confused with race or social class, e.g. members of different castes in one society may belong to the same race or class, as in India, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Yemen or Europe.[1][9][10] Usually, but not always, members of the same caste are of the same social rank, have similar group of occupations and typically have mores which distinguish it from other groups.[11] Other literature, inspired independently by Kingsley Davis and by Robert Merton, suggest that caste systems come in two forms: racial caste systems and non-racial caste systems.[5][12]

The use of a caste system is not unique to any religion. Castes have been observed in societies that are, for example, predominantly Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist.[1][13][14][15][16]

The word caste can also just generally refer to any rigid system of cultural or social distinctions.[11] In Latin American sociological studies, the word caste often includes multiple factors such as race, breed and economic status, in part because of numerous mixed births, during the colonial times, between natives, Europeans, and people brought in as slaves or indentured laborers.[14]

Although Indian society is often associated with the word "caste", it has been and is common in many non-Indian societies.[1][16][17][18][19][20][21]

Identification and sometimes discrimination based on caste, or casteism, as perceived by UNICEF, affects 250 million people worldwide.[22]



The word caste is from Latin castus[23] "pure, cut off, segregated", and is etymologically related to carere "to cut off".[24][25]

Portuguese used the term casta to describe inherited class status within the Portuguese society. The use of same word castas, and a method of stratifying people based on "breed, race, caste" was common in colonial Spain, throughout South America and Central America, within the last 500 years.[14]

The term caste was applied to Indian society in the 17th century, via Portuguese casta "breed, race, caste".[25] The Dutch too used the word caste in their 19th century ethnography studies of Bali and other parts of southeast Asia.[26]

The term caste, half-caste and derivatives thereof, was widely used in British colonies, such as Australia, during 19th and 20th centuries.[27]

The phrase caste system was first recorded in 1840.[25]

  South Asia


Caste paintings of Indian Society
Cover page Muslim man Hindu chief
Cover page
Muslim man
Hindu chief
Seri brahmin Fencer Sikh chief
Seri brahmin
Sikh chief
Tribal chief Hindu writer Arab soldier
Tribal chief
Hindu writer
Arab soldier
A manuscript titled Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India, published in February 1837. Sponsored and compiled for Christian missionaries, the 72 images claim to be castes of India as witnessed over 25 years. The images include people from various professions, several of Arab, Muslim and Sikh couples. The manuscript does not list any observed inter-relationship or hierarchy between the illustrated professions and religious persuasions.[28]

The caste system in India is a system of social stratification,[1][14] social restriction and a basis for affirmative action.[29][30] Historically, the caste system in India consisted of four well known categories (the Varnas):[31]

  • Brahman (priests)
  • Kshatriyas (warriors)
  • Vaishyas (traders)
  • Shudras (workmen)

Some people were left out from these four caste classifications, and were called panchama (literally, the fifth). Regarded as outcastes or untouchables, these were shunned and ostracized. The varnas themselves have been further subdivided into thousands of jatis.[32]

Ancient Indian text on laws, such as Manusmṛti suggest a caste system was part of Indian society. These laws in ancient India discriminated between castes. For example, the laws of Manusmṛti declare sexual relationships between men and women of different castes as illegal,[33] in a manner similar to anti-miscegenation laws in the United States before 1967 that considered intermarriage and sex between races as illegal.

Other Indian scriptures suggest ancient Indian law was not rigid about endogamy within varnas, its castes. For example, Nāradasmṛti, another text on ancient Indian law, written after Manusmṛti, and dated to be 1400 or more years old, approves of many, but not all marriages across caste lines. According to Richard Lariviere, twelve statutes of Nāradasmṛti set out categories of approved marriages between castes.[34] Several statutes recognized offsprings of mixed castes, much like casta system of colonial Spain.

Ancient Indian texts also suggest that the India's social stratification system was controversial, a topic of profound historical debates within Indian community, and inspired efforts for reform.[35]

Contemporary scholars thus argue that the social system was made rigid and the four-fold Varna caste made ubiquitous by the British colonial regime,[29][36] much like the caste or casta systems literature for southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.[14][37] Before the British use of Varna categories for enumerating and ranking the Jatis in the decennial census, the relative ranking of the Jatis and castes was fluid and differed from one place to another, based on their political and economic power.[38][not in citation given][page needed] Dirks proposes that caste is neither an unchanged survival of ancient India nor a system that reflects India's core cultural value. Rather than a basic expression of Indian tradition, caste is a modern phenomenon, the product of commentaries of 18th and 19th century Christian missionaries driven to bring religion to uncivilized masses, and the enumerative obsessions of the late-19th century census. Dirks concludes one effect of British rule of India was to make caste into a single term capable of naming and above all subsuming India's social identity in the world.[32]

Upon independence from the British rule, the Indian Constitution listed 1,108 castes across the country as Scheduled Castes in 1950, for affirmative action.[39] The Scheduled Castes are sometimes called as Dalit in contemporary literature.[40] In 2001, the proportion of Dalit population was 16.2 percent of India's total population.[41]


The Nepalese caste system resembles that of the Indian Jāti system with numerous Jāti divisions with a Varna system superimposed for a rough equivalence. But since the culture and the society is different some of the things are different. Inscriptions attest the beginnings of a caste system during the Lichchhavi period. Jayasthiti Malla (1382–95) categorized Newars into 64 castes (Gellner 2001). A similar exercise was made during the reign of Mahindra Malla (1506–75). The Hindu social code was later set up in Gorkha by Ram Shah (1603–36).

  Sri Lanka

The Caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into strata[42], influenced by the classic Aryan Varnas of North India and the Dravida Jāti system found in South India. Ancient Sri Lankan texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptional evidence show that the above hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period. The repetition of the same caste hierarchy even as recently as the 18th century, in the British / Kandyan period Kadayimpoth - Boundary books as well, indicates the continuation of the tradition right up to the end of Sri Lanka's monarchy.


Religious, historical and socio-cultural factors have helped define the bounds of endogamy for Muslims in some parts of Pakistan. There is a preference for endogamous marriages based on the clan-oriented nature of the society, which values and actively seeks similarities in social group identity based on several factors, including religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal/clan affiliation. Religious affiliation is itself multi-layered and includes religious considerations other than being Muslim, such as sectarian identity (e.g. Shia or Sunni, etc.) and religious orientation within the sect (Isnashari, Ismaili, Ahmedi, etc.). Both ethnic affiliation (e.g. Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.) and membership of specific biraderis or zaat/quoms are additional integral components of social identity.[43] Within the bounds of endogamy defined by the above parameters, close consanguineous unions are preferred due to a congruence of key features of group- and individual-level background factors as well as affinities. McKim Marriott claims a social stratification that is hierarchical, closed, endogamous and hereditary is widely prevalent, particularly in western parts of Pakistan. Federick Barth in his review of this system of social stratification in Pakistan suggests that these are castes. [44][45][46]

  Southeast Asia

  A Sudra caste man from Bali. Photo from 1870, courtesy of Tropenmuseum, Netherlands


Carens, also known as Ka-REN or Ka-reng, are people from Burma-Thailand border region. They were claimed by Christian missionaries and British colonialists as people who were treated by ethnic majority as low-caste people or dirty-feeders.[47]


Balinese caste structure has been described in early 20th century European literature to be based on three categories - triwangsa (thrice born) or the nobility, dwijati (twice born) in contrast to ekajati (once born) the low folks. Four statuses were identified in these sociological studies, spelled a bit differently than the caste categories for India:[26]

  • Brahmanas - clergy
  • Satrias - knighthood
  • Wesias - commerce
  • Sudras - servitude

The Brahmana caste was further subdivided by these Dutch ethnographers into two: Siwa and Buda. The Siwa caste was subdivided into five - Kemenuh, Keniten, Mas, Manuba and Petapan. This classification was to accommodate the observed marriage between higher caste Brahmana men with lower caste women. The other castes were similarly further sub-classified by these 19th-century and early-20th-century ethnographers based on numerous criteria ranging from profession, endogamy or exogamy or polygamy, and a host of other factors in a manner similar to castas in Spanish colonies such as Mexico, and caste system studies in British colonies such as India.[26]

  East Asia


From the 17th century to the early 20th century, Chinese society was divided into closed social classes: aristocracy and officials, literati, commoners, and people with inferior status. The commoners were called liangmin (良民), meaning good people. The inferior people were called jianmin (賤民), meaning cheap, lowly and mean people. The lowest caste, jianmin, included slaves as well people who were born into families of certain occupations. These occupations considered inferior, shunned and defiling, included nupu (奴仆), changyou (倡優) and lizu (yamen runners). Within each caste, there were further hierarchies and status levels. The lowest caste, for example, included higher status actors and lower status actors. Domestic servants and agricultural slaves were considered less defiling than actors. The upper castes had special privileges and a separate legal code. For the same behavior or crime, a person of upper caste was treated differently by law than a person of lower caste. Offsprings inherited their caste status from their fathers (jiefi chengfen or chitsen).[48][49]

The commoner sub-castes in China were four, and were called the simin (四民). These included the gentlemen (local nobility), farmers, merchants and artisans (士, 農, 工, 商). The simin castes were considered the pure descent people. The so-called lowly, mean people were not part of the simin castes, and they were considered as filthy, dishonored and defiled by birth. Marriage between simin castes (commoners) and so-called lowly, mean castes were stringently prohibited. Marriages within commoners were also limited to those within sub-castes.[48][50]

Beyond these castes, China had its pariah caste, who were the untouchables and who passed on this status to their descendants automatically. The untouchables were considered impure by birth, and had to live in isolation away from rest of the community. Within this outcastes, there were hierarchies, such as dan boat people, bandang people, beggar households, and hereditary servant people. Their state was fixed for life; they were frequently despised wherever they went, and there was no legal way for them to escape from their inferior status. The outcastes married within their caste and status level, and taught their offsprings their occupations. Some of the outcast occupations involved human and animal waste, dead carcasses, leather work, human corpse rituals, postpartum blood rituals, and such work; for this, the Chinese outcasts were considered a polluted and irreversibly impure segment of the society. The untouchables were different and below the so-called lowly, mean people castes. The treatment of untouchables was fluid and less harsh in some parts of China, and very rigid in others. All of these Chinese castes belonged to the same race, same religion and same culture prevalent in their community. In the Chinese system of law, the outcastes were unequal, had limited or no rights, and in social matters judged accordingly. The social status of outcastes mirrored their legal status, both reflected their sense of social identity. The outcasts were shunned and ostracized by the upper castes, and the sub-castes excluded, shunned and mutually repulsed the other.[48][51]

Traditional Yi society in Yunnan was class based. People were split into the Black Yi (nobles, 5% of the population), White Yi (commoners), Ajia (33% of the Yi population) and the Xiaxi (10%). Ajia and Xiaxi were slaves. The White Yi were not slaves but had no freedom of movement. While Qing dynasty abolished appointment of hereditary headmen, slavery and the treatment of poor peasants as serfs continued through 1949.[52]

Watson finds that rigid caste strata system continued after China's communist revolution, and was actively exploited in rural regions by party officials for control, at least through 1960s.[53][54]


  Ragyapas - The untouchables of the Buddhist society in Tibet. Their hereditary occupation included disposal of corpses and leather work. Above an image of Ragyapas from early 20th century.
  An aristocratic caste family in Lhasa, Tibet in 1936.

The Buddhist Tibet, like China and Japan, had a caste system. This caste system, until 1958, had several unusual aspects, such as polyandry. All Tibetan castes were hereditary and transmitted by parallel descent. All castes were also endogamous and exclusionary. Mobility between the castes was non-existent[55][56][57]

Aristocratic estates of Tibet were called sger gzhis (སྒེར་གཞིས) and the aristocratic lords called sgar pa (སྒེར་པ or སྐུ་དྲག་) were, like in India and Europe, the upper caste of the Tibetan society.[58] Monastic estates were called chos-gzhis (ཆོས་གཞིས), linked to Buddhist monasteries, and were similar to priests or clergy castes of other societies. Government estates were called gzhung-gzhis (གཞུང་གཞིས) and similar to the officials in Chinese caste system.

Miser (མི་སེར)[59] were the serf caste. Serfs, the majority of the people, who did the actual work such as farming were required in Tibetan society to have a tenure document known as khral-rten (ཁྲལ་རྟེན). The tenure document allowed the serf a right to an occupation, in exchange for a tax assessment and Taxpayer status. The tax was payable to one of three upper castes of the society - the officials, the monastery or the lord. The tax was a combination of labor, produce and cash. The tax obligations were annual, inherited by the family unit, and fixed for life. If one member ran away or married into another household or died, the rest of family continued to be responsible for the tax obligation of the family unit.[56]

Tibet's miser caste had sub-castes, such as nang gzan (ནང་གཟན),[60] khral pa (ཁྲལ་པ) and dud chung (དུད་ཆུང༌). Spyi mi (སྤྱི་མི) were the collective common serf caste, who provided services to the village government or administrative council. Khral rogs (ཁྲལ་རོགས) were village soldier or serf providing military service.

Most serfs did not have freedom of movement. They were serfs of a specific upper caste household. Some serfs had freedom of movement. These serf sub-castes had mi bogs (མི་བོགས), or human lease if translated literally. A serf with mi bogs status had freedom of movement, but always had two obligations. First, the “human lease” required the serf to pay his lord a payment of an annual sum in cash (a tax) specified in the “human lease”. Second, the serf had to provide corvée services that were stipulated by the lord. The amount was not fixed, but varied with the lord, as well as the age, sex and productivity of the serf.

Taxpayer status amongst serf caste was of higher prestige, offered political power, potential wealth and authority. Yet, numerous Taxpayer status males voluntarily moved downward into lower status. One reason was that higher status families were traditionally expected to be polyandrous to maintain wealth of the family (one woman would marry and mate with many brothers in the same family; this led to sexual competition within the family, severe tension, jealousy and conflicts). Many men, usually the younger brothers in a family would stress out, accept lower status serfdom in form of human lease, but one with the possibility of a stable love life, than the emotional trauma of high status and polyandry.[55]

According to social mores and the prevailing law, marriages, entrance into religious life and migration from one’s place of birth to another land required official permission from upper strata (the lord and the council commissioner).[56] When permission for marriage was granted by the upper strata of the society, the permission process required a human exchange (mi-brjes, མིང་བརྗེས). The process was required by the lord or the council-commissioner to ensure that their tax-paying source of income was not lost.

Tibet also had the pariah caste, who were shunned by the villages and ostracized. These included hereditary beggars, fishermen, musicians, smiths, butchers and undertakers. They did not have to pay taxes to any of the upper castes. In the pariah castes, Tibet had untouchables known as Ra-gyap-pa, just like Eta-Hinin of Japan, Para-gyoon of Burma, and Baekjeong of Korea. Ra-gyap-pa lived in ghettos, and their occupation was to remove corpses (human or animal), dispose of sewage, and deal with convicts.[57][61]


  Japanese samurai of importance and servant.

In Japan's history, social strata based on inherited position rather than personal merits, was rigid and highly formalized. At the top were the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge), together with the Shogun and daimyo. Below them the population was divided into four classes in a system known as mibunsei (身分制). These were: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. Only the samurai class was allowed to bear arms. A samurai had a right to kill any peasants and other craftsmen and merchants whom he felt were disrespectful. Craftsmen produced products, being the third, and the last merchants were thought to be as the meanest class because they did not produce any products. The castes were further sub-divided; for example, the peasant caste were labelled as furiuri, tanagari, mizunomi-byakusho amongst others. The castes and sub-classes, as in Europe, were from the same race, religion and culture.

Howell, in his review of Japanese society notes that if a Western power had colonized Japan in the 19th century, they would have discovered and imposed a rigid four-caste hierarchy in Japan.[62]

DeVos and Wagatsuma observe that a systematic and extensive caste system was part of the Japanese society. They also discuss how alleged caste impurity and alleged racial inferiority, concepts often quickly assumed to be slightly different, are superficial terms, two faces of identical inner psychological processes, which expressed themselves in Japan and other countries of the world.[63]

Endogamy was common because marriage across caste lines was socially unacceptable.[63][64]

Japan, like China and Korea, had its own untouchable caste, shunned and ostracized, historically referred to by the insulting term Eta, now called Burakumin. While modern law has officially abolished the class hierarchy, there are reports of discrimination against the Buraku or Burakumin underclasses.[65] The Burakumin are regarded as "ostracised."[66] The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and those of residents of Korean and Chinese descent.


  Korea had its own version of caste system through the 19th century. Yangban, above, were the aristocratic caste. Below them were petty officials, the middle people called Chungin. Inferior and below them were the freed commoners who were peasants and merchants called Pyeongmin or Sangmin. At the bottom were so-called vulgar commoners, called Cheonmin caste. Finally, were the pariah castes, the untouchable Baekjeong. Hereditary, hierarchical and closed, marriages across caste lines was strongly opposed.[67]

The Baekjeong were an "untouchable" minority group of Korea. The term baekjeong literally means "a butcher", but later changed into "common citizens" to change the class system so that the system would be without untouchables. In the early part of the Goryeo period (918-1392), these minority groups were largely settled in fixed communities. However, the Mongol invasion left Korea in disarray and anomie, and these groups became nomadic. Other subgroups of the baekjeong are the chaein and the hwachae.[citation needed] During the Joseon dynasty, they were specific professions like basket weaving and performing executions.

With the unification of the three kingdoms in the 7th century and the foundation of the Goryeo dynasty in the Middle Ages, Koreans systemised its own native class system. At the top were the two official classes, the Yangban that literally means "two classes." It was composed of scholars (Munban) and warriors (Muban). Within the Yangban class, the Scholars (Munban) enjoyed a significant social advantage over the warrior (Muban) class, until the Muban Rebellion in 1170. Muban ruled Korea under successive Warrior Leaders until the Mongol Conquest in 1253. In 1392, with the foundation of Joseon dynasty, the full ascendancy of munban over muban was final.

Beneath the Yangban class were the Jung-in(중인-中人: literally "middle people"). They were the technicians. This class was small and specialized in fields such as medicine, accounting, etc. Beneath the Jung-in were the Sangmin(상민-常民: literally 'commoner'). These were mostly the peasants. Beneath the Sangmin were the Chunmin. They were specialised in lowly professions such as executing, butchering etc. These people composed the majority of Korean society until the 17th century. Underneath them all were the Baekjeong. The meaning today is that of butcher. They originate from the Khitan invasion of Korea in the 11th century. The defeated Khitan invaders who had surrendered were settled in isolated communities throughout Goryeo to forestall rebellion. They were valued for their skills in hunting, herding, butchering, and making of leather, common skill sets among nomads. Over time their ethnic origin was forgotten, and they formed the bottom layer of Korean society. Korea had a very large slave population, nobi, ranging from a third to half of the entire population for most of the millennium between the Silla period and the Joseon Dynasty. Slavery was legally abolished in Korea in 1894 but remained extant in reality until 1930.[68][69][70]

The opening of Korea to foreign Christian missionary activity in the late 19th century saw some improvement in the status of the baekjeong; However, everyone was not equal under the Christian congregation, and protests erupted when missionaries attempted to integrate them into worship services, with non-baekjeong finding such an attempt insensitive to traditional notions of hierarchical advantage.[citation needed] Also around the same time, the baekjeong began to resist the open social discrimination that existed against them.[71] They focused on social and economic injustices affecting the baekjeong, hoping to create an egalitarian Korean society. Their efforts included attacking social discrimination by the upper class, authorities, and "commoners" and the use of degrading language against children in public schools.[72]

With the Gabo reform of 1896, the class system of Korea was officially abolished. However, the Yangban families carried on traditional education and formal mannerisms into the 20th century. With the democratisation of 1990s in South Korea, remnant of such mannerisms and classism is now heavily frowned upon in the South Korean society, replaced by a belief in egalitarianism. However in North Korea, there is still a class system.

  Hawaii and Polynesia

Ancient Hawaii was a caste-based society, similar to Polynesia.[73][74] People were born into specific social classes; social mobility was not unknown, but it was extremely rare. Each caste had their distinct dresses, mores, hierarchical status. Each caste was subdivided into 4 to 11 endogamous sub-castes. The primary castes were:[74]

  • Alii, the royal suuwop class. This class consisted of the high and lesser chiefs of the realms. They governed with divine power called mana.
  • Kahuna, the priestly and professional class. Priests conducted religious ceremonies, at the heiau and elsewhere. Professionals included master carpenters and boat builders, chanters, dancers, genealogists and physicians and healers.
  • Makaāinana, kanaka-wale or noa the commoner caste. Commoners farmed, fished and exercised the simpler crafts. They laboured not only for themselves and their families, but to support the chiefs and kahuna.
  • Kauwa, the outcast or slave class. They are believed to have been war captives, or anyone born in a outcast or slave family. Marriage between higher classes and the kauwa was strictly forbidden. The kauwa worked for the chiefs and were often used as human sacrifices at the luakini heiau. (They were not the only sacrifices; law-breakers of all classes or defeated political opponents were also acceptable as victims.)[75]

  West Asia

  Children in an Akhdam neighbourhood of Ta'izz, Yemen.

Social stratification similar to caste system elsewhere in the world, has been part of West Asia and neighboring regions, both before and after advent of Islam. Caste system in Islam has several unusual features. For example, an organized priestly caste was absent. The clerics had other roles and did not rank the highest in the social hierarchy. Aristocracy and other social strata were prevalent. A passage in Muhtasar kitab al-buldan illustrates the division of Islamic society into strata: "First are the rulers, whom their deserts has placed in the foremost rank; second are the viziers, distinguished by wisdom and understanding; third are the wealthy upper classes, lifted by their possessions; fourth are the middle classes who are attached to the upper three by culture (ta'addub); the remainder are the lowest classes that are filthy refuse, a torrent of scum, none of whom thinks of anything but food and sleep."[76][77] In Persian history, between four and six strata have been reported, with cultivators, menials, qadis, khatibs, muhtasibs and other occupations at the bottom.

These caste strata were endogamous, exclusionary and their social status inherited. In most cases castes had no social mobility. In some cases, mobility was possible; for example, a slave caste member could get manumission according to a mukatab. In some societies, social mores dictated that women could only marry a man of her own caste or a caste higher than her own. Men had no such rules.[77][78]

The castes were called by different names in different regions of West Asia. The upper castes examples include Ashraf, 'Alids, Saiyids, Quraysh, and Mir. The middle castes included Ajlaf, Shaykhs. The lowest castes included slaves, human chattels and people of particular occupations; examples include Ghulams, Mamluks, Janissaries, Jariya, Milk al-Yamin, Ma'dhun-bi-l-tijara, Arzal, Helakhor, Bediya, Subyan, Andal. Anyone born to a female from the slave caste was automatically a slave no matter whether or not the parents were Muslim.[79]

West Asia has witnessed a numbers of pariah castes, a social status granted to them by birth. They have been shunned and ostracized by their local communities. Example pariah castes include Huteimi, Sulaib, Jabarti, Hijris, Jabart or Gabart, Akhdam amongst others.[77] These castes are considered ritually unclean. Serjeant reports them as amongst the untouchable castes of South Arabia.[80][81]

  Arabian Peninsula

Mainstream Arab society can be conceived of as divided into three classes, Bedouin (nomads), farmers fellahin (villagers) and hadar (townspeople), though these are often little more than descriptive.[citation needed] Tribal loyalties are regarded as more important in Arabian society.[vague]


In Yemen there exists a further class, the African-descended Al-Akhdam who are kept as perennial manual workers.[82][83] Though conditions have improved somewhat over the past few years, the Khadem are still stereotyped by mainstream Yemenese society, considering them lowly, dirty, ill-mannered, immoral and untouchables. A 2008 New York Times report claims that Yemen has over 1 million of these discriminated and ostracized Al-Akhdam people, that is about 5 percent of Yemen population.[84]

  Latin America

  Depiction of casta system in Mexico, 18th century

The Spanish and Portuguese colonists of the Americas instituted a system of racial and social stratification and segregation based on a person's heritage. The system remained in place in most areas of Spanish America up to the time independence was achieved from Spain. Classes were used to identify people with specific racial or ethnic heritage.

Among the racial classifications used then in Spanish America are: Peninsular, Criollo, Castizo, Mestizo, Cholo, Mulato, Indio, Zambo and Negro.

Cahill suggests that the social structure engineered by colonial Spaniards, with limpieza de sangre, in South America and New Spain, one based on race, ethnicity and economic condition was a caste system.[14] The Spanish colonial rule posited, according to Cahill, that the character and quality of people varied according to their color, race and origin of ethnic types. For governance ease, the Spaniards developed a complicated breeding calculus to classify people into twenty one castas, or genizaros. Both the Spanish colonial state and the Church expected higher tax and proportionate tribute payments from those of darker color and lower socio-racial categories.

  Caribbean Nations

Modern day social stratification in Caribbean nations such as Jamaica and Haiti developed during the colonial era. Tekla Johnson has called these closed, hierarchical social stratification as castes. The colonial empire planters from Britain and France, and other European powers stratified laborers. Johnson describes that the African identity was influenced and caste system constructed by dividing enslaved Africans, mixed race offsprings, and indentured servants by their occupations, and by skin color. These distinctions created divisions among workers and color proved a singularly powerful and enduring symbol of social and economic mobility, or lack thereof. These racial classifications for Africans and further divisions for 'mixed-race' offspring traditionally served colonial interests. The perpetuation of caste system amongst Africans continued through the 20th century, claims Johnson; it helped maintain social control in the caribbean nations.[85][86]

Tekla Johnson is not alone in her findings. Franklin Knight describes the social stratification as castes as well, as do other authors. Knight notes that the caste system was not limited to Africans but was extended to the whites. At the top were the elite Europeans who owned plantations. Next in social hierarchy were the occupational merchants, officials, doctors and clergymen. At the bottom of the white social hiearchy came the so-called "poor whites," often given such pejorative names as red legs in Barbados, or walking buckras in Jamaica. The lowest hierarchical layer of whites included small farmers, servants, laborers, artisans, as well as the various hangers-on required by the so-called "deficiency Laws" - laws requiring plantations to retain a minimum number of whites to safeguard against slave revolts. Slaves and indentured laborers were people outside of this structure, they were segregated from others, and were further classified into separate groups. Beyond these were colored people of mixed descent, who were treated with suspicion.[87][88][89][90][91]


Various sociologists have reported caste systems in Africa.[16][92][93] The specifics of the caste systems have varied in ethnically and culturally diverse Africa, however the following features are common - it has been a closed system of social stratification, the social status is inherited, the castes are hierarchical, certain castes are shunned while others are merely endogamous and exclusionary.[94] In some cases, concepts of purity and impurity by birth have been prevalent in Africa. In other cases, such as the Nupe of Nigeria, the Beni Amer of East Africa, and the Tira of Sudan, the exclusionary principle has been driven by evolving social factors.[95]

  West Africa

  A Griot, who have been described as an endogamous caste of West Africa who specialize in oral story telling and culture preservation. They have been also referred to as the bard caste.
  A Madhiban, also known as Midgan or Medigan or Boon or Gaboye, specialize in leather occupation. They have been listed as one of three occupational castes discriminated in East Africa. Austrian Red Cross reports that they, along with Tumal and Yibir people are locally known collectively as sab, meaning low caste people.[96]

Among the Igbo of Nigeria - especially Enugu, Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Edo and Delta states of the country - Obinna finds Osu caste system has been and continues to be a major social issue. The Osu caste is determined by one's birth into a particular family irrespective of the religion practised by the individual. Once born into Osu caste, this Nigerian person is an outcast, shunned and ostracized, with limited opportunities or acceptance, regardless of his or her ability or merit. Obinna discusses how this caste system-related identity and power is deployed within government, Church and indigenous communities.[16]

The osu class systems of eastern Nigeria and southern Cameroon are derived from indigenous religious beliefs and discriminate against the "Osus" people as "owned by deities" and outcasts. The Songhai economy was based on a caste system. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders.[97]

In a review of social stratification systems in Africa, Richter reports that the term caste has been used by French and American scholars to many groups of West African artisans. These groups have been described as inferior, deprived of all political power, have a specific occupation, are hereditary and sometimes despised by others. Richter illustrates caste system in Cote d'lvoire, with six sub-caste categories. Unlike other parts of the world, mobility is sometimes possible within sub-castes, but not across caste lines. Farmers and artisans have been, claims Richter, distinct castes. Certain sub-castes are shunned more than others. For example, exogamy is rare for women born into families of woodcarvers.[98]

Similarly, the Mandé societies in Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone have social stratification systems that divide society by ethnic ties. The Mande class system regards the jonow slaves as inferior. Similarly, the Wolof in Senegal is divided into three main groups, the geer (freeborn/nobles), jaam (slaves and slave descendants) and the underclass neeno. In various parts of West Africa, Fulani societies also have class divisions. Other castes include Griots, Forgerons, and Cordonniers.

Tamari has described endogamous castes of over fifteen West African peoples, including the Tukulor, Songhay, Dogon, Senufo, Minianka, Moors, Manding, Soninke, Wolof, Serer, Fulani, and Tuareg. Castes appeared among the Malinke people no later than 14th century, and was present among the Wolof and Soninke, as well as some Songhay and Fulani populations, no later than 16th century. Tamari claims that wars, such as the Sosso-Malinke war described in the Sunjata epic, led to the formation of blacksmith and bard castes among the people that ultimately became the Mali empire. As West Africa evolved over time, sub-castes emerged that acquired secondary specializations or changed occupations. Endogamy was prevalent within a caste or among a limited number of castes, yet castes did not form demographic isolates according to Tamari. Social status according to caste was inherited by off-springs automatically; but this inheritance was paternal. That is, children of higher caste men and lower caste or slave concubines would have the caste status of the father.[93]

  Central Africa

Albert in 1960 claimed that the societies in Central Africa were caste-like social stratification systems.[99] Similarly, in 1961, Maquet notes that the society in Rwanda and Burundi can be best described as castes.[100] The Tutsi, noted Maquet, considered themselves as superior, with the more numerous Hutu and the least numerous Twa regarded, by birth, as respectively, second and third in the hierarchy of Rwandese society. These groups were largely endogamous, exclusionary and with limited mobility.[101] Maquet's theories have been controversial.

  East Africa

In a review published in 1977, Todd reports that numerous scholars report a system of social stratification in different parts of Africa that resembles some or all aspects of caste system. Examples of such caste systems, he claims, are to be found in Rwanda and Ethiopia in communities such as the Gurage and Konso. He then presents the Dime of South-West Ethiopia, amongst whom there operates a system which Todd claims can be unequivocally labelled as caste system. The Dime have seven castes whose size varies considerably. Each broad caste level is a hierarchical order that is based on notions of purity, non-purity and impurity. It uses the concepts of defilement to limit contacts between caste categories and to preserve the purity of the upper castes. These caste categories have been exclusionary, endogamous and the social identity inherited.[102]

The Borana Oromo of southern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa also have a class system, where the Watta, an acculturated Bantu group, represent the poorest class.

The traditionally nomadic Somali people are divided into clans, wherein the Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the occupational clans such as the Madhiban are sometimes treated as outcasts.[103]

  North Africa

  Timbuktu huts - the homes of former serf caste of Tuareg people

In Islamic North Africa, caste system has existed in recent centuries amongst the Tuareg people. The castes include: nobles (imoshar), clerics (ineslemen), pastoral vassals (imghad), and artisans (inadan). The clerics occupy an inferior position to nobles in the Tuareg hierarchy of castes.[104] All of these people of Tuareg castes are of the same race, religion and culture.

Below the four castes were slaves (éklan or Ikelan in Tamasheq, Bouzou in Hausa, Bella in Songhai). Eklan were further split into distinct sub-castes, and their serf status was inherited. Other Tuareg castes were also hereditary and social strata closed with one exception: if a slave woman married a noble or vassal, her children could belong to the respective free caste. A 2005 BBC News report claimed that 8 percent of modern Niger's population continues to be slave, discriminated and routinely humiliated.[105]

Sahrawi-Moorish society in Northwest Africa was traditionally (and still is, to some extent) stratified into several tribal classes, with the Hassane warrior tribes ruling and extracting tribute - horma - from the subservient Znaga tribes. Although lines were blurred by intermarriage and tribal re-affiliation, the Hassane were considered descendants of the Arab Maqil tribe Beni Hassan, and held power over Sanhadja Berber-descended zawiya (religious) and znaga (servant) tribes. The so-called Haratin lower class, largely sedentary oasis-dwelling black people, have been considered natural slaves in Sahrawi-Moorish society.[106][107]

In Algeria, "desert Berbers and Arabs usually have a rigid class system, with social ranks ranging from nobles down to an underclass of menial workers (mostly ethnic Africans)"[108]


  Troisordres - A symbolic image of three orders of caste hierarchy in late 18th century: The rural third estate carrying the clergy and the nobility.

According to Haviland, social systems identical to caste system elsewhere in the world, are not new in Europe. Stratified societies were historically organized in Europe as closed social systems, each endogamous, into for example nobility, clergy, bourgeoisie and peasants.[6] These had distinctive privileges and unequal rights, that were neither a product of informal advantages because of wealth nor rights enjoyed as another citizen of the state. These unequal and distinct privileges were sanctioned by law or social mores, confined to only that specific social subset of the society, and were inherited automatically by the offspring.[109] In some European countries, these closed social classes were given titles, followed mores and codes of behavior according to their closed social class, even wore distinctive dress. Royalty rarely married a commoner; and if it did, they lost certain privileges. This endogamy limitation wasn't limited to royalty; in Finland, for example, it was a crime - until modern times - to seduce and defraud into marriage by declaring a false social class.[110] In parts of Europe, these closed social caste groups were called estates.

Along with the three or four estates in various European countries, another outcast layer existed below the bottom layer of the hierarchical society, a layer that had no rights and was there to serve the upper layers. It was prominent for centuries, and continued through middle 19th century. This layer was called serfs. In some countries such as Russia, the 1857 census found that over 35 percent of the population was serf (крепостной крестьянин). While the serfs were of the same race and religion, serfs were not free to marry whomever their heart desired. Serf mobility was heavily restricted, and in matters of who they can marry and how they lived, they had to follow rules put into place by the State and the Church, by landowners, and finally families and communities established certain social mores that was theirs to follow because the serfs were born into it.[111]

In modern times, regions of Europe had untouchables in addition to the upper castes and serfs. These were people of the same race, same religion and same culture as their neighbors yet were considered morally impure by birth, repulsive and shunned, just like the Burakumin caste of Japan and Osu caste of Nigeria.[13][112]

A sense of hereditary exclusion, unequal social value, and mutual repulsion was part of the relationship between the different social strata in Europe.[113][114] In late 19th century through the early 20th century, millions of the outcasts, downtrodden and socially ostracized people from Europe migrated on their own, or transferred as indentured laborers to the New World.[115][116]


  Romani people have been variously described as the low-caste or untouchable people of Europe. While some are dark skinned and insist on their own customs, others are of the same color and are Christians or Muslim like the communities they live in.[117] This map shows their relative distribution in various parts of Europe.
  Along with the rest of the world, Europe has had its own periods of social trauma. Twice in Europe's history, for example, Romani people were the target of genocide.[118] In other periods, they were expelled, or children forcibly removed from their parents so that they can learn a superior culture.

Above, a photo of Romani people in the Bełżec extermination camp awaiting instructions.

The discrimination of Roma people, in different parts of Europe, for the last 1000 years, has been an elaborate and complex social system. In the best of times, the European social system enforced elements of endogamy, closed occupation, culture, social class, affiliation and power - all of which define any caste system. In the worst of times, such as during the World War II, just like Jewish people, they were gathered in concentration camps and exterminated.[118][119]

Alaina Lemon writes that in parts of Europe, Roma people have been called children of India; or worse, in eastern Europe as Asian parasites. Everywhere, their Indic origins have been reduced from historical narrative to a source of stereotypes about India. These stereotypes and prejudices about India have been projected onto Roma people. Some European communities, claims Lemon, consider the Roma people to be of low caste. They have been called untouchables in Europe.[120][121]

  Czech Republic

Caste system in Czech Republic and neighboring countries emerged few centuries after an equivalent system was prevalent in Western Europe. According to Gella, kingdoms in this region of Europe were in constant threat of invasion. The royalty created a system of warrior nobility to preserve their kingdom. This warrior nobility were given exclusive rights to land, each with glebae adscripti (peasants tied to the land). This warrior caste thus became landowners. Caste consciousness, hereditary titles, exclusive privileges and strata discrimination followed. As armies modernized into infantry and team effort, the warrior caste evolved into modern form of nobility caste. The political boundaries shifted with time between Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and other countries; the three social strata remained a constant: clergy, nobility and peasants.[122]


Spain has had a number of isolated and endogamous social groups where an individual's mores, culture and worth is set at birth. These groups had negligible mobility. Example groups include the Vaqueiros de Alzada of Asturias, the Maragatos of Leon, the Agotes of Navarra, and the Kale (gypsies) of the entire Iberian peninsula. These have been called castes, and by some as accursed races.[123][124]


  Cagots were the shunned caste of France. They were considered polluted and untouchables by birth. They were not allowed to enter a Church through the main entrance. Above is a segregated drinking fountain for Cagots in Oloron Cathedral.

Under the Ancien Régime, French society was divided into three estates ("États" in French). The first estate was the clergy, the second estate was the nobility, and the third estate were the commoners ("Tiers État" in French). The clergy itself was divided into an upper and a lower strata. Even after the French Revolution, a closed system of social stratification continued through the 19th century. These groups were endogamous, marriages were arranged particularly in the aristocracy and bourgeoisie classes. Social mobility between these strata, regardless of an individual's effort, was difficult and uncommon.[125]

Roland Mousnier is amongst those French sociologists who found that the French society was stratified beyond three levels. Mousnier proposed that France, in modern history, had at least four major social levels and nine sub-hierarchies. He observed that the closed social system idea in France resembled in design the essence of a caste system. The vertically ordered society had social mores and inherited sense of maître-fidèle relationships between those considered to be the superior and the inferior.[126]

The history of France, along with Spain, has other sides of caste systems. Along with Romani people (also called Gypsie), France has long shunned Cagots (also called Agotes, Gahets, Gafets, Capets, Caqueux). For centuries, through the modern times, the majority regarded Cagots of western France and northern Spain as an inferior caste, the untouchables. While they had the same skin color and religion as the majority, in the Churches, they had to use segregated doors, drink from segregated fonts, receive communion on the end of long wooden spoons. It was a closed social system. The socially isolated Cagots were endogamous, and chances of social mobility non-existent.[127][128][129][130]


The hierarchical social strata in Netherlands included prince, noblemen (some called Ridder, knight), clergy, patricians (councilmen and officials), bürghers (commoners), plebeians (vagabonds), and peasants. The nobility was either inherited op allen (by all descendants), or by met het recht op eerstgeboorte (first born male per Salic law). The noblemen and clergy had exclusive privileges and rights, such as being tax exempt. The lowest castes, the peasants supported the upper estates of society not only through direct taxation but also agriculture and keeping of livestock.[131]

The Dutch created unusual caste policies in their colonies. For example, in Sri Lanka, the Dutch formally promulgated a rule that automatically expelled any Dutch woman from the Sri Lankan Dutch community, if she married a man who was not Dutch. McGilvray argues that this was caste-like solicitude for endogamy, and was aimed to prevent low status intermarriages.[132] There was no equivalent rule for expelling Dutch men. The Dutch in Sri Lanka were not an exception; over time, laws forbidding intermarriages between social strata were seen in other colonies, such as South Africa.


Germany had its hierarchical social strata like The Netherlands before the 20th century.

Early modern era in Germany also witnessed the so called unehrliche Leute (dishonourable or dishonest people), an outcaste group. They were considered dishonourable by virtue of their trades. This dishonour was either hereditary or it arose from ritual pollution whereby honourable citizens could become dishonourable by coming into casual contact with members of these untouchables. Therefore, the social mores required the upper caste honorable people to shun and ostracize the lower caste dishonourable people. Exclusion led to endogamy. The dishonourable people included the executioners, skinners, grave-diggers, latrine-cleaners, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, sow-gelders (spay female animals), and bailiffs. The honourable and dishonourable people were from the same race, religion and culture. Stuart has described unehrliche Leute caste in the city of Augsburg over three centuries through early 19th century in early modern Germany. She notes that this was a closed system, with negligible social mobility, and this severely affected the self identity of the so called dishonourable people.[133] Other sociologists such as Danckert claim unehrliche Leute caste and other hereditarily excluded poor were present elsewhere in Christian Germany.[134][135]


  Reeve and serfs ca. 1310

In medieval Anglo-Saxon England, society was organized, according to Alfred the Great into three hierarchical orders: Gebedmen (men who pray), Fyrdmen (men who fight), Weorcmen (men who work).[136] Other classifications included Ethel (nobles), Eorls (freemen) and Ceorls (villeins, farmers).

Even past the medieval times, characteristics of a closed social systems that define any caste system, existed in England through the modern times. Beatrice Gottlieb notes that households in England, just like the rest of Europe, experienced social stratification from ancient times through the 20th century. Inheritance and a sense of social value fixed for life, two key requirements of any caste system according to Haviland,[6] was a pervasive principle of almost everyone's life.

The principle of inheritance continues to this day. Inheritance now, however, is quite different than those in the past. Offsprings still inherit, to the extent the parents own something of material value, and leave instructions in their will or per local laws. In past, however, everything was inherited - material possessions, social status, lifelong occupation and a personal sense of value. This principle defined the closed system, and this principle was not a function of one's skin color or religion or economic class. It applied to all of England, or Europe for that matter. At the highest levels of hierarchical society, titles and names and special privileges were inherited. Status was enshrined in the law, regarded as hereditary, and fixed. Mobility was inconceivable. A serf, a commoner, a gentleman, a lady, a lord, a noble or a royalty was what he or she was from birth. Even those in the Church inherited their privileges and status. From clergy jobs to farming to shepherd to smith to cobbling jobs, virtually all occupations were inherited. Peasants whose job was to deliver babies were the offspring of the previous holder of that job. This system was so fixed, the mores so strong, the affiliation and culture so widely ingrained that while nobles were insisting that certain exclusive privileges be theirs, theirs alone and of their offsprings, shepherds in the countryside were insisting, occasionally with violent demonstrations, that their jobs be strictly hereditary. In economically impoverished times, such demands for hereditary exclusivity and related mores were stronger.[113]

Endogamy within England's closed social strata was common.[137]

The social structure and classes in England remains a controversial topic. Like the rest of the world, social mobility in modern England - and Europe - has increased because of industrialization, economic growth, access to knowledge, and cultural transformations. Sociologists such as Mike Savage suggest there is not simple decline of social strata identities, but rather a subtle reworking of how the strata is articulated.[138]


Ireland had social strata that were hereditary, closed and hierarchical. Examples include Flaith (lords, warriors), Áes Dána (druids, fili, bards) and Áes Trebtha (farmers). These three orders were later subdivided into seven ranks or grades.[139]

In some ways, Ireland's caste system was unique from other countries of the world. Along with the nobility and clergy caste, the Celtic population treated poets as the upper caste. Known as the bards caste, they and other upper castes had privileges that they inherited by birth. These castes had sub-castes, each with its privileges, its distinctions, its peculiar dresses. The bards, according to Williams for example, were divided into so-called Fileas or Fili, who accompanied the Celtic chief. Below the Fileas, were the Brehons - the second layer of bards caste. The Brehons composed verses of law. The third sub-caste were the Senachies who preserved the genealogies in a poetic form, along with the annals of time. The Senachies were the repository and disseminators of Celtic cultural truths. The bards and other upper castes were exempt from lay courts, and they were also endogamous. The farming peasants and artisans were at the bottom of the social strata.[140][141]

Over the modern history of Ireland, Greer and Murray observe that it would be difficult to find a more rigid example of caste system than that of 19th century rural Ireland, with its landlords and peasants. The society was closed, endogamous and with no mobility.[142]


  Hungarian nobles, circa 1831

Before the 19th century, closed social hierarchies were common in Hungary. Each had their own mores, hereditary privileges (maiores natu et dignitate), and endogamous practices. The Hungarian castes were: Nobility (főnemesség), Nobles of the Church (egyházi nemesek), and commoners. Each of these had their own segregated sub-hierarchies - for example the prelates, the magnates and the nobles-in-laws. These sub-classifications and privileges changed over the history of Hungary. The special privileges for the Clergy and the Nobles continued through Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Even past the 1848 Revolution, these closed social systems continued to enjoy hereditary power and privileges through late 19th century.[143]

Szelényi observes that at the start of 20th century, Hungary along with other countries in Central Europe resembled a caste society.[144]


Russia has had a long history of caste system. The details changed with time, the core was the same: a hierarchical society, with each strata closed, privileges that were hereditary,[145] and mobility was non-existent.

Noble gentry had serfs to serve them. Both the nobility and the serfs had sub-layers and social ranks.[146] Palmer observed that Russian society in early 20th century had a rigid insistence and strict observance of differences in social rank. The serfs of a lower level, for example, would never take their meals with serfs of a higher level.

The Russian priests formed a caste apart, according to Palmer. They were distinct from both the peasants and the nobles. The sons of priests were forbidden to undertake other occupations, and compelled to become priests. Priests could marry, but only within their caste. For centuries, the priestly caste had remained an unmixed social group. There was near universal prejudice against the priests among other social strata.[146][147]

  Sweden and Finland

  Stories on shunned social strata from 1948

The four estates in Sweden and Finland were the clergy, nobles, burgesses and peasantry.[148] The hierarchical, exclusionary and hereditary characteristics of these were similar to estates in other parts of Europe.

Below the four estates, were the villeins. To reflect how the people belonging to the upper castes saw them, the Finnish word for "obscene", säädytön, has the literal meaning "estateless".

In Sweden, one of the shunned social strata in modern times has been the Tattare. They were called natmandsfolk in Denmark.[149] In Norway, they were called fanter. Another word for them was kältringar. They emptied the latrines, worked as hudavdragare (processing skin, leather), chimney sweeps and busters at night. In 1948, Sweden witnessed Tattarkravallerna Jönköping, where the prejudices for this social strata led to speeches on how these people were degenerate, impure, parasitic and corroded from within, triggering violence and cleansing.


Palmer noted the caste system prevalent amongst Polish people in 20th century, in his essay on Austro-Hungarian life in comparison to life in continental Europe. He noted:

"The Polish aristocracy is, in fact, a caste entirely apart from the people. This, it is true, is also the case among the aristocracies of nearly all Continental countries, but in hardly any other nationality is the gulf so wide as almost to exclude the possibility of mutual feelings of respect. The Austro-German nobles, though no less a caste, are, as a rule, decidedly proud of the Germanic peasantry, and regard them as infinitely superior to those of other races. The Magyar nobles have, perhaps, an even higher opinion of the peasantry of their own nationality. The Polish peasant, on the contrary, is not regarded with greater contempt by the Austrians, Prussians, or Russians than he is, with rare exceptions, by nobles of his own race."

Francis Palmer, reporting on life in Europe[150]

Lenin called Jewish people in Poland as a caste, a claim that became controversial. Celia Heller has called the rigid social segregation and status of Jewish people from middle ages through early 20th century in Poland as a closed caste system.[151]


Georges Dumézil in his controversial trifunctional hypothesis proposed[152][153] that ancient societies had three main classes each with distinct functions: the first judicial and priestly; the second connected with the military and war, while the third class focussed on production, agriculture, craft and commerce. Dumézil offered Roman empire with its flamens, legions and peasants, along with the caste system in India to illustrate his theory.

After the Roman empire, hierarchical castes continued in Italy from ancient times to the medieval times. Jacob Burckhardt, in his cultural classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, observed that hierarchy, exclusionary and inherited caste structure was pervasive in Italy, from the nobili caste to the merchants to the peasants. These castes had a complex structure in the fragmented city states of Italy such as Genoa, Venice, Naples, Roma, Florence and Lombardy; in some, the merchants were the nobili, in others the nobili despised the merchant caste and were agriculturalists, in yet others the nobili caste despised all work. Even the Church and hereditary clergy had become highly hierarchical, and the holders of benefices, the canons and the monks were under scandalous aspersions and mutual repulsion. It was Renaissance in Italy, in the late Middle Ages, that started a movement of hostility to caste hierarchy, and then a shift towards ideas of equality, merit, freedoms, skepticism, innovation, judge people by their talent and not by their birth, and such concepts.[154]

  Theories on caste formation

Caste system develops, in view of Ross,[10] when the worth difference within a society sharpens to such a point that the social superior shuns fellowship and intermarriage with the inferior, thus creating a society made up of closed hereditary classes. This happened in European history for centuries. For example, among the Saxons of the eighth century social divisions were cast-iron, and the law punished with death the man who should presume to marry a woman of rank higher than his own. The Lombards, claims Ross, killed the serf who ventured to marry a free woman, while the Visigoths and Burgundians scourged and burned them both. Among the early Germans a freedman remained under the taint of ancestral servitude until the third generation, i.e., until he could show four free-born ancestors.

As class lines harden, the upper class becomes more jealous of its status and resists or retards the admission of commoners, however great their merit or wealth. This was the motivation of observed caste lines in the Roman Empire. Castes become a means to block social mobility. Over time, it does not matter if an individual has merit or talent or creative energy. The birth or purity of blood becomes more decisive for social status than the differences of occupation or wealth which raised up the original social inequalities. Worth distinctions which in their early form may stimulate the ambitious to do their best become paralyzing as they stiffen into caste, because they grant no recognition to individual achievement.

According to Ross, over time, character contrasts between segregated social classes are interpreted as inborn. To divert attention from their underpinning of privilege, the superiors point to the low-caste and say: "Look, they are the dull-witted, the incapable, we are the well-born, the fittest. Our mastership and our reward are of Nature's own giving. We are the cream that rises to the top of the milk."

Caste systems dissolve away, according to Ross, when all individuals have freedom, knowledge and a social system that gives free play to competition.[10]

  See also


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  Further reading

  • Spectres of Agrarian Territory by David Ludden December 11, 2001
  • "Early Evidence for Caste in South India", p. 467-492 in Dimensions of Social Life: Essays in honor of David G. Mandelbaum, Edited by Paul Hockings and Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, 1987.

  External links



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