In an episode of the Anurag Minus Verma podcast, Buffalo Intellectual, an anonymous anti-caste voice on social media, describes a fictitious mixer of academics at which a PhD scholar from South Saurashtra University struggles to be noticed by the heavyweights of the field. He is not wearing the right clothes, he speaks English with a regional accent and he lacks sophistication, so he hesitates at the margins of conversation circles. Another PhD scholar, an upper-caste foreign university graduate, fits right into the setting. His English is refined, his manners are polished, and he can effortlessly strike conversations with the renowned professor in the room, perhaps about their shared love for Soviet-era cinema or mutual acquaintances in the USA. Before the night ends, he finds himself accepting an offer from the professor to work with him on his next book. Buffalo Intellectual contends that here, in this social gathering, it is not your academic knowledge that matters but your “unexplainable, intangible smoothness”.
This anecdote neatly captures the invisible, little-discussed role of culture in perpetuating the hegemony of a specific social group in the upper echelons of Indian society. Citadels of power like Government, Business, Politics, Media, Law and Academia are dominated by the three upper castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas. In the news media, 87.6% of all leadership positions are held by upper caste journalists. Among the CEOs and corporate board members of 4,005 Indian firms listed on the BSE and NSE, 94% are upper caste. Among the 89 secretaries assisting the government’s cabinet in 2019, only three belonged to the Scheduled Tribes, and one to the Scheduled Castes. None of them were from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
These numbers are confounding when you consider that 2 out of 3 people in India are Bahujan. Is this proof that only upper castes are ‘meritorious’ enough to succeed in a globalized professional world? Why haven’t more Bahujans made it to the pinnacles of modern India as decision-makers and agenda-setters?
Acute inequity in wealth and access to quality education precludes most Bahujans from white-collar jobs. The few who do manage to get their foot on the ladder find that caste bias is not the only impediment to their climb to the top. Along with the right qualifications, Bahujans also have to adopt upper-caste, upper-class culture and way of being, or what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘habitus’.
Bourdieu developed the concept of habitus to reveal how social inequality and class hierarchy were reproduced in 20th century France. When applied in the Indian context, this powerful thinking tool can shed light on the unseen mechanisms that reproduce caste hierarchy, particularly in the modern professional world. For Bahujans like me, Bourdieu provides a ‘political form of therapy’, helping us make sense of the internal struggle, discomfort, and feelings of inferiority we experience when we try to partake in this world.
Each one of us is deeply influenced by the social structures we inhabit. Our family, religion, and social background shape the way we talk and dress, our posture and mannerisms, our likes and dislikes, our life ambitions, and the way we respond to the world around us. This socially ingrained disposition is what Bourdieu termed habitus. Simply put, habitus captures our ways of acting, feeling, thinking and being. It is the explanation for why a youngster born into a business family is unlikely to watch Bhojpuri cinema at the local single-screen or consider being an AC mechanic as a career option. Even though each individual’s habitus is unique, people from similar social groups share a similar habitus.
Through empirical studies in France, Bourdieu demonstrated that our habitus has a profound impact on our life chances and access to opportunities. What implications do Bourdieu’s findings have for social mobility in Indian society, described by Dr. B R Ambedkar as a tower without a staircase? As the sociologist Satish Deshpande wrote in his essay Caste and Castelessness, we must investigate how a particular caste habitus might limit one’s life chances while another caste habitus might amplify them.
Our habitus determines how we interact with others in different social environments, or what Bourdieu termed ‘fields’, such as the home, village, educational institute, workplace, marketplace, and so on. Fields are hierarchical spaces where individuals occupying different positions compete to improve their position by leveraging their habitus and capital. Bourdieu expanded the Marxist definition of capital beyond the economic sense, to include symbolic capital which consists of cultural and social capital.
Cultural capital exists in three forms—embodied, institutionalized, and objectified. Embodied cultural capital includes accent, mannerisms, posture, taste in music, arts, and so on. A university degree or membership in a club are forms of institutionalized capital. Objectified capital includes material objects such as cars, property, and clothes. The network of connections one has in society comprises one’s social capital. Different social groups have different symbolic capital but society arbitrarily assigns them unequal value.
For instance, a folk music artist does not command the same level of prestige as a trained Carnatic musician. A degree from an IIT would give you far greater social advantage than a degree from a little-known engineering college in a Tier-II city. If you have the right capital and your habitus matches the logic of the field you are in, you have a better chance of success. In modern professional fields, such as a corporate office, newsroom, or university, this means that individuals with prestigious degrees, fluent, accent-free English, worldly exposure, and connections in the field have the upper hand. In the Indian context, such advantaged individuals are very likely to be upper-caste.
For centuries, the three upper castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas—had access to knowledge, power, and wealth through which they dominated society spiritually, culturally, politically, and economically. On the other hand, Shudras, Dalits, and Adivasis were oppressed to different degrees and denied property rights and education. These historical circumstances resulted in unequal access to the knowledge economy. In her book Caste of Merit, Ajantha Subramanian describes how Brahmins, through early exposure to English education, dominated white-collar employment in the Madras Presidency between 1901 and 1951. She writes, “Despite being only 3 percent of the regional population, Brahmins were overrepresented in higher education and government service, where they constituted 70–80 percent of graduates and native employees.”
In post-Independence India too, upper castes continue to have a disproportionately high share in white-collar jobs. Among the General category, excluding Muslims, the share of white-collar jobs is 11.8%, while this number is 4.7% for OBCs, 3.8% for SCs, and 2.8% for STs. Further, high-caste Hindus who make up 22.3% of the country’s population own 41% of the total wealth whereas 7.8% of Hindu STs own 3.7% of the total wealth. Class and caste hierarchies coincide, particularly at the top and bottom of the pyramid, leading to vastly different outcomes for upper-caste and Bahujan children.
Family plays a key role in forming one’s habitus and bestowing cultural capital. Upper-caste children with educated parents often learn to speak English at home. They grow up with books around the house, visit new places on vacation, and are enrolled in music, dance, or sports activities from a young age. Even daily routines are means for knowledge transfer.
In his book Caste Matters, Harvard Dalit scholar Suraj Yendge recounts a visit to a Marwari friend’s house for lunch. The parents, who were physicians, quizzed the children about the nutritional contents of their meal, teaching them about vitamins in the process. For children brought up in such households, big ambitions are considered natural and encouraged. Parents send them to the best possible private English-medium schools—ones that offer a host of extra-curricular activities, foreign language studies, sports facilities, overseas trips, and perhaps even international curricula. They exit these institutions having further enhanced their cultural capital and bolstered their résumés with activities like Hackathons, Olympiads, and Model United Nations. Relatives and family friends who work as doctors, engineers, managers, and professors will guide them on career options, and these social connections will also help them get internships and jobs in their chosen field. Such cultural capital, amassed through caste privilege, is then misrecognized as ‘merit’, giving the upper-caste habitus an edge in higher education, job recruitments, and merit scholarships.
In 2005-6, sociologists Surinder Jodhka and Katherine Newman interviewed 25 HR managers of large, private-sector firms in the National Capital Region to understand their attitudes towards caste and community attributes of potential candidates. The recruiters insisted that selections were purely based on individual merit but, when probed further, their explanations revealed an exclusionary interpretation of merit. One manager said they looked for candidates who had exposure to the world, were sophisticated, and were well-educated.
As the researchers point out in their paper, such individuals could, in principle, come from any social background but, in practice, “institutions and experiences that produce cosmopolitanism are rarely accessible to members of the SCs.” Furthermore, recruiters used family background as a proxy to assess a candidate’s merit. They ask questions about the candidate’s family members and their education, the school they went to, the locality where they grew up, and so on. Explaining this line of questioning, one hiring manager said, “The basic assumption behind these questions is that a good person comes from a good and educated family.” Especially for managerial positions, they said, only candidates with the right background would have the professionalism and soft skills to represent the organization to stakeholders. And who are these candidates? As one Brahmin HR manager put it, “…in the front office we go for trained and professional people and they all belong to higher castes.”
As Sukhdeo Thorat and Paul Attewell highlighted in their study on hiring patterns, recruiters tend to favor candidates who are socially similar to themselves, thus perpetuating the denial of entry to other communities. The habitus of a Bahujan child is formed in a household with parents who are not highly educated and may be employed as clerks, drivers, electricians, and manual laborers. Children, often first-generation learners, are not exposed to English or urban class culture at home and while they may attend private schools, they won’t be top-tier. Sports, dance, or music lessons will not be prioritized since parents may not appreciate the value they hold or have the means to pay for them. The horizon of career options visible to Bahujan children is narrower since they don’t have examples of researchers, journalists, or marketing executives in their circles to show them the way. They may not have the connections or means to do unpaid internships.
Consequently, when the résumé of a Bahujan candidate lands on the recruiter’s desk, it will pale in comparison to the loaded résumés of upper-caste applicants. This, and explicit caste bias, means that in a highly competitive job market, the odds are stacked against Bahujan candidates.
Possessing the right cultural capital, however, is only one part of the story of how an upper-caste habitus amplifies one’s life chances. The “intangible smoothness” with which they navigate certain social contexts versus the friction that Bahujan candidates experience is the other.
Meghana Choukkar is a journalist and postgraduate student at King’s College London, where she is learning to unravel the complexities of Indian Politics and Society. You can find her on Twitter.
Featured image source: Edexlive.com