The social scaffold of ideology


There are two pet peeves which I allude to on this weblog often. First, comparing geographic entities which are not in any way analogous just because both are nation-states. Lines on a map does not an equivalency make. For example, comparing the social statistics of Finland, a relatively homogeneous nation of 5.5 million to the United States, a heterogeneous nation of more than 300 million (a better comparison to Finland might be the American state of Minnesota, with about the same population and a Nordic-skewed inflection in comparison to other American states). The problems that occur when you compare the United States in aggregate to small nations are amplified when you talk about India, which is arguably much more diverse culturally (e.g., more unintelligible languages). For example, as I’ve observed many times the BIMARU states of north-central India, the “cow belt” Hindi-speaking nations which serve as the ethno-cultural core of the nation-state, are in many ways more comparable in social statistics to Pakistan than the rest of India (e.g., the status of women, social stratification, and total fertility rate). The total fertility rate in the states of Punjab, West Bengali, and Tamil Nadu, at the northwest, southern, and eastern, peripheries of India respectively, are at or lower than the total fertility rate for non-Hispanic white Americans. In contrast, the fertility in the BIMARU states is in the range as Pakistan, ~3 to 3.5 (estimates vary based on source).

Second, religious ideology can often mislead one in terms of making inferences. What usually occurs is that one observes a particular social dynamic, and one engages in abduction to a plausible hypothesis. As an illustration, a friend once posited that the reason India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have all had female political leaders is due to the existence of the religious movements devoted to goddesses (even though Islam and Theravada Buddhism do not incorporate female supernatural entities, his thesis was that it formed a cultural substrate). This is reasonable, but there are some immediate objections. First, the female leaders who have ascended to power have done so on the coat-tails of political dynasties. They were the daughters and wives of male political leaders, and invariably drew upon that charisma. Rather than an argument in favor of tolerance for female power, it could be that in South Asia the dynastic and hereditary principle is supreme. This is in fact the pattern in the pre-modern world. Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, and Elizabeth I reigned as representatives of powerful royal families (and in these cases there were various contingencies which removed viable males from power). In addition, there are plenty of societies where the mother goddess looms large. The Japanese emperors claim descent from Amaterasu, while Guanyin is pervasive across Chinese the breadth of civilization. In Shia Islam the women in the family of Ali are very prominent, while in much of Christianity (i.e., all but the Protestants) devotion to Mary is institutionalized.*

These are all reasons why simply inferring backward toward simple and elegant hypotheses are so often failures in term of long term robustness in complex domains. Max Weber famously did not think that capitalism would flourish in East Asia because of Confucianism. During the 1980s and early 1990s Confucianism, which encouraged some level of broad education historically to increase the pipeline of candidates for the bureaucracy, was offered as a reason for why capitalism succeeded in East Asia! This is also why I usually “update” a bit as to the credibility of commenters (including longtime regulars) who explain to me in childlike terms why the Koran explains something particular about Islam (childlike because they exhibit literally childish levels of knowledge about the topic at hand). Social phenomena are complex, and often exhibit multiple interacting causal factors. This does not mean that modeling them in intractable, but it is hard. Those who offer simple elegant explanations are often not encumbered by excessive overhead of fact in their picture of the world (ironically I believe this is also the case for adherents of various anti-positivistic Post-Modernist movements).

survey-mainThe figure to the left is from an article, Biggest caste survey: One in four Indians admit to practising untouchability. First, one has to be careful about taking people at face value. Most people when surveyed also think they are above average in intelligence! In all likelihood this is an underestimate of caste prejudice. But notice that though there is a difference between Muslims and Hindus, it is a matter of factors, not order of magnitudes. This is notable because caste is fundamentally part and parcel of Hinduism at its root and bone, despite what reformist movements such as Arya Samaj might claim. In contrast, Islam, especially the Sunni Islam dominant across South Asia, is arguably the most explicitly egalitarian of the older religious traditions. Though there are some distinctions, such as that between descendants of the prophet Muhammad and everyone else, the majority of the hierarchical aspects of contemporary Islam date to later accretions due to interaction and synthesis with other cultures, rather than from the founding period.** In South Asia there were distinctions between those Muslims who were notionally descended from non-South Asians (Persians, Turks, Afghans, and Arabs***, or ashraf), and those who were descended from converts. This was rather obviously an explicitly racial distinction, between “white” and “black” Muslims in the local parlance. But among Muslims themselves converts often retained some element of caste pride and consciousness. It is almost certain that some high caste Hindus shifted to ashraf status despite being indigenous in origin. But more obviously there are Muslim groups such as the Khoja who retained their previous Hindu caste consciousness even while shifting toward a Muslim identity. In light of these historically contingent facts it is natural that many Muslims admit to practicing untouchability despite its lack of sanction within the precepts of any Islamic religious tradition. It is also practiced in Pakistan despite its aggressively non-Hindu national self-identity.

But digging deeper into the article highlights some important facts:

Spatially, untouchability is most widespread in the Hindi heartland, according to the survey. Madhya Pradesh is on top (53 per cent), followed by Himachal Pradesh (50 per cent), Chhattisgarh (48 per cent), Rajasthan and Bihar (47 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (43 per cent), and Uttarakhand (40 per cent). West Bengal appears to be the most ‘progressive’ — with only 1 per cent of respondents confirming they practised untouchability. Kerala comes next in the survey, with 2 per cent, followed by Maharashtra (4 per cent), the Northeast (7 per cent), and Andhra Pradesh (10 per cent).

Muslims in India are concentrated in the North. Though there are pockets of concentration in the South (northern Kerala and Hyderabad) and in West Bengal, the raw numerical preponderance of BIMARU means that Muslim social statistics will always be skewed by this region. Similarly, Christians tend to be in the South or the Northeast. The largest number of Christians in India live in Kerala. The low fractions of Christians admitting to practicing untouchability is probably a function of their concentration in progressive Kerala and the Northeast, where Indian culture has uneven penetration (i.e., some Tibeto-Burman tribes are fully Hindu in identity, while others were never touched by Indian culture and converted to Christianity of the Western  Protestant variety), as well as a larger than typical fraction of lower caste converts. Most Buddhists in India are either not part of Indian culture, or, relatively recent Dalit converts. So not only are there larger social-historical factors which influence the practice of caste among South Asians (including, genetics), but the problem of pooling national data may result in spurious perceptions.

This is not to say that ideology does not matter. My personal minimal experience is that some consciousness of caste does persist among the Diaspora in the West. But, caste in an Indian sense seems to be less relevant among those from Muslim or Christian backgrounds. This is not to say that prejudice has disappeared, but rather it manifests in more conventional class, sect, and ethnic lines which are intelligible in a cross-cultural context among Muslims and Christians (e.g., lighter skinned Pakistani Muslims  and Christians feel superior to darker skinned Muslims from eastern or southern portions of the subcontinent). Among Christians and Muslims caste is a not a sacral matter of ideology, but in South Asia it is simply a fact of the background of one’s social existence from time immemorial. In the West these parameters fade, and so the salience of caste is greatly reduced, and it is disappears without the foundational support. I would predict that among Sikhs the practice of caste in the West will fade more quickly than among Hindus, because Sikhs notionally reject the idea, even though though it is embedded in their customs.

* Sunni Turkey has had female political leaders, while Shia Iran has not. Protestant Northern Europe has had at least as many, if not more, political leaders than Catholic Southern Europe.

** The big distinction in the first century was between Arab tribes and the rest, to the point where some Christian Arabs were given privileges that were withheld from non-Arab converts to Islam. After 750 A.D. these distinctions collapsed as core Islamicate civilization absorbed more self-consciously Persian cultural forms and became dominated by a Turkic military ruling caste.

*** I include Arabs because they were a presence in maritime South India. But South Asian Islam is overwhelmingly Turco-Persianate in affect.

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