The Ethnographic State by Nicholas Dirks — A Summary

Title: The Ethnographic State
Author: Nicholas Dirks
Publication: Dirks (2001) Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India

Toward an Imperial Sociology of India

After the Great Rebellion, caste assumed immense significance as the primary object of social classification and understanding in the colonial enterprise. The colonial state came to see anthropological knowledge of Indian society as necessary for not only understanding and controlling Indians better (to prevent future rebellions) but also for legitimising British rule itself.

However, more empirical data did not translate to more confidence about the data so gathered. Owing to the fundamental basis of difference and the inescapable reality of deception, the knowledge acquired was invariably mired in confusion.[1]

Nevertheless, the project of data collection proceeded. The categories deemed appropriate and necessary for ethnographic description became formalized and canonised. There was an obvious institutional push towards statistical and, hence, comparable data as opposed to dense narratives.[2] And towards the end of the 19th-century, the relentless systematisation of official colonial knowledge about India had led to the standardisation of the subject matter of ethnology.[3]

Reverend M. A. Sherring’s influential three-volume work entitled Hindu Tribes and Castes (1872) sought to give a detailed account of castes in India. Unlike earlier attempts which relied on textual categories, it depended more on empirical knowledge. He explained caste as a Brahmanical invention which had made the Hindu totally religious and totally servile.

From 1872, the task of producing information on caste was taken up by the census. By generating facts, the census installed caste as the fundamental unit of India’s social structure. But there was no agreement on what caste actually was.[4] The experiments with designating official caste hierarchies led to political mobilisation by caste associations who wanted to enhance their positions. By 1931, the use of caste in census was discontinued owing to the political fallout.

A classic anthropological text is H. H. Risley’s The People of India (1908) which summarises his views on the origin and classification of the Indian races based on historical speculations and anthropometric research.[5] The stress on and trust in anthropometry was informed by the caste system’s strict endogamy. Implicit in this method was the assumption of the existence of pure racial types in India, an assumption that would be punctured by subsequent empirical research. However, Risley’s views on caste as a social system and force dominated discussions on caste.

For Risley, caste has an ambivalent status. It is both religious and social. It is anarchic, yet encourages monarchy. It is particularistic, but also basis for any Indian unity. On the one hand, the caste ridden Indian history cannot build national sentiment but on the other, the caste system itself could be the basis for political awakening among caste groups. It is the colonial situation that resolves these contradictions.

Caste could, Risley thought, be made into a virtue out of its necessity. It could accommodate and shape a gradually developing class society, perhaps even softening its potential conflicts and antagonisms. Thus, caste was expressed as the defining feature of India. British colonial assumptions about the absence of politics and the overpoweringly divisive force of caste as a social principle still informed the discourses on caste.

The State of Ethnography

After the World War II, a new empiricist social science emerged, especially in US academia, that felt itself freed from the shackles of the colonial past, and combined the positivist method with a vaguely developmentalist agenda. McKim Marriott’s Village India (1955), perverted as it was by an idealist notion of knowledge that refused any contamination by the politics of knowledge, nevertheless heralded of a new anthropology of South Asia which charted the social organization of the village, not caste, as the primary unit of India. It made a strong case for the fundamental relationship between caste as a civilisational idea and the village.

Louis Dumont’s Homo Heirarchicus (1966) reinstalled caste at the centre of academic anthropology. It sought to develop a holistic theory of the caste system that took into account belief as well as action and based its argument on the idea that India was one, across both time and space.

Caste was cast as the symbol of Indian society with a resolute hierarchy as its overarching principle which valorises the society over the individual. As a profoundly hierarchical and religious symbol, caste subordinates political and economic (the realm of political power) aspects to the religious order (the realm of ritual status). That is why British interventions in the politico–economic sphere were so ineffective at bringing about change in Indian society.

The problem with these anthropological discourses is the elimination of Islam from the history of the subcontinent and the negation of political institutions. Indology replaced history! This is deeply unsettling as it disguises the history of colonialism and the “essentially contingent and political character of caste”.

This extract sums up the article’s arguments succinctly.

Colonialism in India produced new forms of society that have been taken to be traditional; caste itself as we now know it is not a residual survival of ancient India but a specifically colonial form of (that is, substitute for) civil society that both justified and maintained an Orientalist vision. This was a vision of an India in which religion transcended politics, society resisted change, and the state awaited its virgin birth in the late colonial era. … What anthropology and Indology together have done most successfully in the postcolonial context has been to assert the precolonial authority of a specifically colonial form of power and representation … reproducing what might be the most extraordinary legacy of colonial rule in the contemporary social life of caste and Hinduism in India today. (Page 60)


[1] “Indeed, the more H. H. Risley, census commissioner and superintendent of the Ethnographic Survey, went on to refine caste categories to allow the enumeration of the entire population of India by caste, the more it seemed that caste categories were overlapping, unstable, and contested.”

[2] The Madras Government’s Board of Revenue, concerned about “the deficiency in statistics, and the prolixity of details” in J. H. Nelson’s The Madura Country, declared it “useless to the general public”.

[3] “An ethnological account of an Indian people must consist of not less than five separate subjects; their race or descent, their language, their caste, their religion or sect, and their traditional habits and customs.”

[4] Should a caste with fewer than 100,000 persons should be included? how to organize the “vague and indefinite” entries that in 1891 exceeded 2,300,000 names? Whether, and if so how, to list the castes on the basis of “social precedence?

[5] Anthropometry refers to the measurement of the human individual. As a tool of physical anthropology, it has been used in various attempts to correlate physical with racial and psychological traits.


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