The Seduction of Comparisons: Untouchability beyond Caste in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East

The Seduction of Comparisons: Untouchability beyond Caste in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East

Diana S. Kim, Georgetown University


Comparative and historical studies of countries with caste or caste-like societies have animated some of the most impassioned debates about method, politics, and morality when studying non-Western countries within Anglo-European academic traditions. During the mid-20th century, heated disagreements centered on whether the Indian caste system had parallels outside of South Asia. Caste was widely understood as a form of social hierarchy that was quintessentially Indian, peculiar to Hinduism and Vedic culture.[1] Yet, many also saw analogues in other parts of the world. The Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal famously applied the language of caste to race relations in the United States in The American Dilemma (1944), while the British-trained anthropologist Arthur Hocart’s Caste: A Comparative Study (1950)—encompassing Sri Lanka, India, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Egypt, ancient Rome and Greece—prefigured a spate of comparative studies that identified caste-like groups in so-called “traditional” societies of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, civilizations with descendants of slaves, and other countries with rigid stratification orders tied to lineage, religion, and notions of ritual purity and pollution.[2]

The question of whether caste was capable of ‘traveling’ beyond India struck at the heart of several overlapping concerns for social scientific and humanistic inquiries into the lives of others. At one level, it was a matter of how to recognize whether an empirical phenomenon was unique or not and the validity of cross-national comparisons for understanding its nature, causes and consequences. At another level, there were worries about both essentializing Indian society and overly India-focused or U.S.-centered analyses that risked reading the cultures, societies, and histories of relatively less-studied countries through the lens of Indian caste or American race. “Caste-like” operated as a euphemism for “similar to India,” while there was a U.S-centeredness to high-profile debates over the applicability of caste to race, which took the American experiences with chattel slavery and its legacies as the obvious referent.

And then there was politics. Comparative inquiries into caste were often about lower castes, marginalized and subject to acute discrimination. Drawing parallels across so-called “outcastes,” “pariah castes,” “despised minorities” or “untouchable” people were scholarly acts tied intimately to solidarity politics, namely, efforts to build coalitions for anti-discrimination and activist struggles for dignity.[3] Identifying and describing commonalities across those most disadvantaged had normative implications, ranging from generating empirical bases on which to build collective advocacy and reasons to empathize with putative strangers, to risks of essentializing the experiences of others, misrecognizing similarities for equivalence, as well as vying against facile Orientalist biases and paternalistic regard toward a seemingly archaic form of stigma.

Let us call it the seduction of comparisons: the appeal of drawing analogies, making parallels, and looking across place and time that are inextricably tied to both explanatory and emancipatory impulses. Today, we continue to grapple with many of the challenges that mid-20th century scholars faced when comparing durable inequalities that are caste-like, entwined with racialized difference, skin color, and class across the world. Such challenges resonate loudly in public discourse as well. Ongoing discussions, both laudatory and critical, of the American author Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020)—that placed India, the United States, and Nazi Germany side-by-side—represent a recently more visible, but hardly new, endeavor to talk and think comparatively about what many recognize, but struggle to articulate, as a seemingly stubborn and peculiarly insidious form of social hierarchy.[4]

This paper makes a case for embracing, but not succumbing to, the seduction of comparison. Specifically, it puts forth two suggestions for ways to rethink caste and caste-like societies comparatively, from an Asianist’s perspective in conversation with scholars of the Middle East and North Africa.[5]

First, we can begin by focusing squarely on untouchability. With the Indian caste system as a tacit benchmark case, comparative inquiries into whether and why caste-like societies exist elsewhere tend to focus on whether or not they have groups similar to Dalits, the ‘outcaste’ or lower-most group that experiences untouchability. Oft cited examples include the experiences of African Americans in the United States and Burakumin in Japan as well as lesser studied groups such as the Baekjeong of Korea, the Osu of Nigeria or the Muhamasheen of Yemen.[6] If the Dalit condition is inextricably tied to the Brahmin—whether following M. N. Srinivas’ account of Sanskritization as positive emulation by lower castes of the customs, rituals, ideology, and ways of life of twice-born castes or, Sundar Sarukkai’s phenomenological understanding of untouchability as intrinsic to Brahmins and “supplanted and outsourced to” Dalits—then the Burakumin’s plight is entangled with the revered place of the Emperor in Japanese society, the Muhamasheen in contradistinction to the Hashemites, African Americans as inseparable from the privileged white in the United States.[7]

Now, consider an alternative perspective that looks sideways, rather than vertically, at the place of an outcaste in their respective communities and societies. And relax the presumption that what happens in the life of an individual deemed “untouchable” necessarily makes sense in reference to someone higher up in a social hierarchy. Does untouchability still exist without caste?[8] Are there historical events and institutions that are meaningful to and, indeed, consequential for that person, which are not necessarily linked to those comprising the upper strata or prefigured by a caste system’s abstract dictates? Suggestive answers to these questions emerge affirmatively from efforts to historicize, rather than presume, how individuals become members of a group defined as untouchable; and what lived experiences and learned histories shape the ways by which people adhere to, act upon, or disavow names and group identifications as marginalized, minoritized, or disadvantaged.

For instance, the Korean sociologist Joong Sup Kim’s pioneering works spotlight the Baekjeong, not necessarily in reference to the high-born of Korea, but by looking horizontally at within-group rivalries and alliances among those who identified as members of this untouchable group.[9] He elucidates the complex lifeworlds of people whose degraded labor and narratives about touching taboos were within, but not determined by, the caste-like hierarchy of shinbun that once stratified Korean society. In this POMEPS Studies collection, Gokh Alshaif’s research on Yemen shows lucidly that in contradistinction to how non-Muhamash Yemenis regard the untouchable Muhamasheen as Black Yemenis, there are “gradation[s] of Blackness and antiblackness” within the bottom-most category of the Fifthers (khums) they occupy.[10]Alshaif demonstrates how this gradation is mobilized in different ways for different people, ranging from efforts to racialize the nature and causes of their exclusion (as opposed to claiming class or heritage-based marginalization) to reconstructing alternative narratives about origins and genealogy to those that treat them as permanent outsiders to the Yemeni body public. By looking sideways, rather than top-down or bottom-up, such approaches center attention on the dynamic making of an untouchable group on its own terms of self-interpretation, rather than subsuming this process within the maintenance a caste-like system in its entirety.

Second and relatedly, often outside the Anglo-European academy, there are rich yet underappreciated studies by local scholars, genealogists, and non-academic specialists of people deemed untouchable.[11]  When looking sideways at their place within caste-like societies, distinctions become clearly visible between inheritances of stigma based on untouchability vis-à-vis legacies of enslavement. For instance, in Korea, the Baekjeong, who were ostracized from communities, were unlike the enslaved Nobi who belonged formerly to the government or private citizens as property.[12]In Nigeria, the untouchable Osu were unlike the enslaved Ohu who did not have value in ritual and religious practices and were free from pollution narratives.[13] It is easy to run roughshod over such differences. However, what may seem like fine distinctions among people consigned to the bottom of a caste-like society are instantiations of larger histories of enslavement and constructions of ascriptive hierarchies that are densely interwoven but not necessarily the same as slavery.

Many of the contributions to this POMEPS Studies collection provide invaluable analytical frameworks for taking such micro-level variations seriously, while more broadly rethinking how to compare people whose lived experiences and memories are part of, but not subsumed by, the caste-like societies they inhabit. For instance, based on sustained ethnographic research of the Betsileo, a slave descent group residing in southern Madagascar, Denis Regnier’s study underscores how for this group, pollution narratives citing uncleanliness do not necessarily serve purposes of wholesale social and spatial exclusion, but more selectively regulates marriage between free- and slave-born people.[14] In addition to elucidating context-specific ways that discourses of uncleanliness manifest for people who are not deemed untouchable per se, Regnier’s argument that such marriage discrimination against slave-descent was shaped by imperfect processes of 19th century slavery abolition provides a nuanced approach of linking the intimate lives of a small community of 5,000 Betsileo peasants to downstream effects of French colonial rule in Madagascar. Parisa Vaziri’s contribution on slavery in the Western Indian Ocean world and Bayan Abubakr’s approach to contextualizing the place of dark-skinned, non-slave Nubian laborers in Egypt amidst a broader “Afro-Arab world” also helps reorient the geographical scope and temporal scales on which scholars may situate the thought-worlds of people, whether those with lived experiences and/or inherited memories of enslavement, racialized difference or acute discrimination tied to genealogical narratives bolstering ritual and corporeal pollution.[15] These, among many others, offer welcome frameworks for grappling with the seduction of comparisons: not necessarily something to simply resist, but rather to confront explicitly, as a way to rethink units of analysis, political and normative implications to making analogies, as well as what motivates our own commitments to explaining and understanding the lives of others.



[1] Oliver Cox. (1948). Caste, Class, & Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. Monthly Review Press; M. N. Srinivas (2003)[1952]. Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India. Oxford University Press; Louis Dumont. (1980) [1966]. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. University of Chicago Press.

[2] Gunnar Myrdal. (1995) [1944]. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Routledge; Arthur Hocart. (1950). Caste: A Comparative Study. Methuen. Also see Davis et al. (1941). Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class. University of Chicago Press; Gerald Berreman (1972). “Caste in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Organizational Components,” pp. 275-276 in Japan’s Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality, edited by De Vos, G. & Wagatsuma, H. University of California Press; Claude Meillassoux. (1973). Y a-t-il des castes aux Indes? Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie, 54, 5–29.

[3] For a critique of solidarity politics and alternative comparative analytics, see Antonio Tiongson, (2019). “Asian American Studies, Comparative Racialization, and Settler Colonial Critique,” Journal of Asian American Studies, 22(3), 419-443, here 437-438.

[4] Isabel Wilkerson. (2020). Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Penguin Random House. For powerful reviews see, among many others, Charisse Burden-Stelly. “Caste does not explain race,” Boston Review, December 15, 2020.; Hazel Carby. “The Limits of Caste,” London Review of Books, January 21, 2021. earlier debates, see Appadurai, A. (1988). “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place” Cultural Anthropology, 3(1), 36-49. On the resurgence of the caste-class debate in the 21st century, see Yengde, S. (2021). “Global Castes,” Ethnic and Racial Studies.

[5] Gratefully, I have benefited from conversations with, and the works of, participants at the POMEPS-PASR workshop (February 25-26, 2021) on racial formations in the Middle East and Africa. In this POMEPS Studies issue, for admirably insightful discussions of comparisons in the study of race in African Studies, see Alden Young and Keren Weitzberg; comparative approaches to racial relations in Gulf Studies, see Noora Lori and Yoana Kuzmova.

[6] Untouchability manifests through practices of endogamy, residential segregation, avoidance of commensality, symbolic and physical violence that invoke notions of impurity and contamination. For a conceptual definition and typology, see Diana Kim. “The Comparative Politics of Untouchability.” Working paper available upon request.

[7] M. N. Srinivas (2003)[1952]. Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India. Oxford University Press; Sundar Sarukkai. (2009). “Phenomenology of Untouchability” Economic and Political Weekly, (September 12), 39-48. On Japan, see Ian Neary (2010). The Buraku Issue in Modern Japan: the Career of Matsumoto Jiichirō. Routledge, especially 173-174. On Yemen, see Aisha Al-Warraq. (2019). The Historic and Systematic Marginalization of Yemen’s Muhamasheen Community. Sana’a Center Analysis.

[8] I paraphrase Natrajan (2009) who asks, “[w]ould the annihilation of untouchability also annihilate caste? “Or, how can caste exist (in essence alone) without untouchability (its existence)?” See Balmurli Natrajan. (2009). “Place and Pathology in Caste,” Economic and Political Weekly, 44(51), 79-82, here 81.

[9] Joong Sup Kim. 2013. Pyeongdeung sahoereul hyanghayeo: Hanguk Hyungpyungsawa Ilbon Supyungsaeui bigyo[Towards Social Equality: Comparing Korea’s Hyungpyungsa and Japan’s Supyungsa]. Jisik Sanupsa.

[10] See contribution by Gokh Alsaif in this issue.

[11]  S. N. Ezeanya. (1967). “The Osu (Cult-Slave) system in Igboland,” Journal of Religion in Africa,1, 35–45; Jae Young Kim. (2017). “Iljae gangjumgi Hoseo jibangeui Hyungpyung Undong” [Social Equality movement of Hoseo during the Period of Japanese Occupation], Chungcheong munhwa yeongu, 18(6), 81-123.

[12] Bok Rae Kim. (2008). “Nobi: A Korean System of Slavery,” Slavery and Abolition, 24(2), 155-168.

[13] Daniel Offiong. (1985). The Status of Slaves in Igbo and Ibibio of Nigeria. Phylon, 46(1), 49–57.

[14] Denis Regnier. (2019). “Forever Slaves? Inequality, Uncleanliness and Vigilance about Origins in the Southern Highlands of Madagascar,” Anthropological Forum, 29(3), 249-266. Also see contribution by Regnier in this issue.

[15] See contributions by Parisa Vaziri and Bayan Abubakr in this issue. On the colonial politics of transnational comparisons for multi-site empires, see Diana Kim. (2020). Empires of Vice: The Rise of Opium Prohibition across Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press, 21-26.