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«The Reinterpretation of Caste in the Indian IT Industry A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of ...»

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A Traditional Institution

surviving in a Modern Setting?

The Reinterpretation of Caste in the Indian

IT Industry

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of

Philosophy in Sociology

Benjamin Lindt

University of Canterbury 2011


This thesis aims to explore and understand the changes to the social institution of caste

that arise from the ongoing modernisation of Indian society. The research setting is the IT industry in Bangalore and Hyderabad. As the Indian IT industry is the economic sector most exposed to globalised modernisation, it has come to represent a social milieu deemed particularly modern in India. The thesis discusses the social role of the IT industry in India; the rise of the new middle classes, and the specifics of the locality of Bangalore. It is argued that caste as a social institution systematically connects three different dimensions of human existence; the economic (caste-wise division of labour);

the biological (rules concerning exogamy and endogamy); and the ideational (various rationalisations for caste). While the economic dimension of caste is increasingly losing its meaning, caste endogamy remains largely intact and is rationalised in forms much more compatible with modernity. This composite model of caste is then contrasted with a model of modernity based arguments presented by the most relevant sociologists, from Max Weber to Peter Wagner. In the analysis here, the contemporary, ‘quasiethnic’ reinterpretation of caste appears still to conflict with the implications of modernity. Even though caste provides actual benefits for those who employ the concept and practise it – ranging from political to economic to private – its rationale nevertheless contrasts with the motives that are generally attributed to modernity.

The empirical research, employing qualitative, semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and hermeneutic interpretation of first-hand sources, produces a complex picture. The interviews with more than 70 IT employees of various caste backgrounds (including over 40 from SC/ST categories – underrepresented in the industry) indicate that caste is seemingly irrelevant in professional settings. In support of this conclusion, additional research hints at the prevalence of widespread anonymity in the IT industry and limited understanding of caste amongst IT employees. By contrast, participant observation during seven months living amongst IT engineers suggests that caste still matters: In private, the consequences of the practise of caste are still apparent, even though ritual restrictions are waning in importance. Thus, a pronounced caste-wise compartmentalisation of Indian society remains visible even amongst young IT engineers. The thesis concludes that caste is not disappearing from Indian society;

rather, it is dramatically adapting to modern circumstances.

–  –  –

Academia in general and sociology in particular is supposed to be the place where bright and honest minds are able to research and discuss the great problems of mankind in a free and open spirit. Unfortunately however, contemporary sociology suffers from some serious shortcomings; the discipline has, historically, had an uneasy and sometimes hostile relationship with the natural sciences, and seems even today largely unable or unwilling to acknowledge recent advances in closely related disciplines, ranging from psychology to human biology. Yet, within the subject, there is perhaps more infighting than consensus. An overly-prescriptivist obsession with methodological ‘purity’ and ever-more fastidious compartmentalisation glosses over the fact that most sociologists are not prepared to accept challenges to their entrenched world view.

Consequently, sociology is increasingly losing its relevance in the public eye; what began as a promising discipline some 150 years ago is now in danger of becoming a laughing stock.

This thesis has been written in full knowledge of these problems, but is – at the same time – compromised by this situation. An under-resourced and inexperienced researcher, who tackles a topic traditionally seen as being at the fringe of the discipline (and hence left to social anthropology), can, after all, only be expected to deliver lessthan-ideal results. Unfortunately but inevitably, therefore, this thesis is beset with all the typical shortcomings of a PhD thesis; while it tries to cover far more ground than is feasible, it is, at the same time, both over- and under-referenced (depending on particular topic). Since it takes a new theoretical approach, there are few empirical sources upon which to base critical analysis and discussion. In particular, there are no sociological sources that take the biological argument within caste into account, and the thesis is forced to enter unknown territory in this regard. Last but not least, and hardly surprising in such an ideologically divided discipline, getting adequate supervision for this (potentially) controversial research topic proved to be challenging, to say the least.

Nevertheless, one particular aspect of this thesis deserves attention. While most sociologists would confine themselves exclusively to references from within their own discipline, this thesis draws upon an eclectic range of sources – and hence deliberately trespasses into non-sociological territory. Furthermore, whereas many sociologists would balk at the very idea of acknowledging (human) biological facts, this thesis unashamedly accepts such facts where and when necessary. In the manner in which it puts the research topic first and questions of disciplinary boundaries second, it tries to rescue the subject of caste from the self-inflicted limitations of contemporary social sciences. The obvious outcome of this approach is predictable: This thesis will be condemned by those who value established sociological conventions and methodological purity. However, for those who dare go beyond the merely conventional or who wish to challenge their pre-conceptions – that is, those who have a genuine interest in the topic – this thesis would be an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Value Judgements

The question of value judgements is almost as old as sociology itself. In Science as a Vocation, Weber famously makes the point that (social) scientists misuse their power if they include normative preconceptions in their academic writings. This point was valuable then; it is invaluable now. Unfortunately, this value free ideal of science is impossible to achieve in practice; scientists are, after all, human and humans always have their biases, perspectives and prejudices. Therefore, it is necessary to clearly indicate my own position: While sociological research can potentially inform political discussion, it should under no circumstances be equated with political debate itself.

These distinct ‘value-spheres’ follow their own respective rationales, and any conflation of scientific knowledge and political judgement would corrupt them both. All (social) scientists should, therefore, avoid value judgements in situations where they are acting as scientists. Yet, despite this clear position, freedom from value judgements is not fully possible for the reasons stated above. The only meaningful way to deal with this dilemma is to reflect upon one’s own value system and publicly disclose it. I will therefore openly state my own beliefs and opinions on the most problematic issues touched upon by this research.

First and foremost, Human Dignity is non-negotiable; it is a natural right of all human beings and must be treated as the ultimate aim of all political endeavour. Furthermore, I believe that a democratically legitimised combination of a thriving capitalist economy and a strong and comprehensive welfare state – epitomised by the Western European nation states – is the best practical means to achieve the ideals laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most Human Rights can only be honoured once a certain stage of economic development is reached. In my opinion, enlightened capitalism offers the best way to achieve this end. That does not imply that capitalism is an end in itself nor that it is beyond legitimate critique. Nevertheless, this does suggest that it makes more sense to contemplate alternatives to capitalism in a developed country rather than in a developing one, where capitalistic modernisation is badly needed to raise standards of living beyond the subsistence level.


The research would have been impossible without the contribution of the following people, and I am deeply grateful for their commitment. First and foremost, I would like to thank all who shared their time and views with me – interviewees, experts and those who enabled this project in the first place. Prof. Carol Upadhya was a guiding spirit and opened many doors for me; without her, the project would have died in its infancy. Dr.

M.P. Ravindra not only facilitated most of the empirical research projects but also provided the inspired idea of investigating the STP training scheme. Prof. Sadagopan approved access to iiit-b, allowed me to interview STP trainees and shared valuable insights. The whole team of IEG in Hyderabad helped to extend the scope of the research, made my stay there enjoyable and provided more information than I could hope to include in this thesis. The experiment – described in chapter seven – would not have been possible without Janine Dieckmann’s invaluable guidance in methodology and the personal approval of one surprisingly open MNC Vice President. Unfortunately, if I put his name here the confidentiality of his company would be gone; still, I hope the anonymous expression of my gratitude does not reflect upon its honesty.

Prof. Anand Imbanathan and Prof. Manohar S. Yadav from ISEC provided time and goodwill for this project, and their comments helped me further develop my ideas. Dr.

Srikant Patibandla, at this time a PhD candidate himself, made Indian society and Bangalore accessible to me, shared insights and stories and proved a friend whenever I needed one. Prof. Martin Fuchs, first at the University of Canterbury and later at the Max Weber Centre, committed a tremendous amount of time to this thesis and his contributions are valuable in more than just the obvious ways. Terry Austrin guided me through the final stages; not even a devastating earthquake hindered his commitment.

Last but not least, this thesis would not have seen the light of the day without additional invaluable assistance. Krishne Gowda and M.V. Shobha transcribed the interviews, and this was a hell of a job. Finally, Patrick Michael Whittle did all the proof-reading and helped me solve not only linguistic, but also methodological and argumentative problems. While without him this thesis would be less readable, please forgive the occasional lapse.

Glossary Backward Caste term for socio-economically deprived castes, in most cases identical with →Low Caste BPO Business Process Outsourcing – alternative name for →ITES Forward Caste colloquial, but sometimes officially used term for →High Caste Gotra traditional kinship classification, patrilineal gotra-exogamy prevents inbreeding

–  –  –

High Caste traditionally castes associated with Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya varna, also called “twice born” IHDS Indian Human Development Survey http://ihds.umd.edu/ IT Information Technology, in the context here an economic sector centred on the design, development and maintenance of computer software, ITES IT-enabled Services; analogous to BPO, all services that are outsourced by using Information and Communication Technology between customer and service provider Jajmani traditional crop-sharing system within a village community, economically linking different castes

–  –  –

Low Caste traditionally all castes associated with Shudra Varna, or no varna affiliation at all MNC Multinational Corporation OBC Other Backward Classes; official administrative classification of castes and communities eligible of affirmative action, but outside of SC or ST Panchayat village council, comprised of elder representatives of the major castes in the locality Untouchables (derogatory) term for those castes below the Varna scheme, today called Scheduled Castes (officially), Harijans (euphemistically) or Dalits (politically, self-identificatory)

–  –  –

ST Scheduled Tribes – official administrative classification of India’s tribal population Varna the Vedic precursors of today’s castes; Brahmins (priests / teachers) Kshatriyas (rulers / warriors) Vaishyas (merchants / traders) Shudras (labourer / servants)

–  –  –

Introduction India’s relationship with modernity has not always been smooth and easy, but at least since 1991 this country has been modernising with ever-accelerating pace. Given that India consistently achieves an economic growth rate of up to 8 per cent per year, it is almost certain that this nation will soon be fully integrated into the developed world. Already a democracy, India’s eventual embrace of capitalism removed the only obstacle in the way to becoming a fully-fledged modern nation state. In the decades to come, it will more and more resemble the developed nations of the OECD. Or so it seems. There are a number of possible alternatives paths India could follow on its own route towards modernity, and it is not yet clear if India will get where it wants to be. As scholars from all academic backgrounds try to assess the changes that India is going through, an especially thorny set of questions are being asked about India’s social customs, including its religious traditions.

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