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New Worlds: Class, Status, and Caste

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon!

When talking about the divisions within a society, we tend to toss around terminology with a lamentable lack of precision. But it’s useful to pay attention to the distinctions, because they tell us a lot about what factors matter, and what forces are pressing in each direction.

“Class” is the one we hear the most often nowadays. Lower class, middle class, upper class, working class, leisure class, all kinds of classes. We use it in other phrases, too, like “second-class citizen” to talk about people with limited rights and influence. By contrast, we use the term “status” much less often, at least as a formal matter; when that term comes out, it’s usually in the sense of “prestige” or sometimes “title,” e.g. speaking of someone as chasing the markers of status in their life or their work. On a technical level, though, these two concepts not only operate in separate spheres, they can cut across one another in fascinating ways.

Shorthand to guide you through what follows: class is an economic distinction, while status is a legal one.

By “legal” I mean that the status you hold in your society can affect what rights and obligations you have under the law. In the modern U.S., this shows up most vividly around citizenship; as discussed [last year], birthright citizenship (whether by jus soli or jus sanguinis) puts the holder in a slightly different position from that of a naturalized citizen, and then both of them differ significantly from non-citizens like resident aliens, temporary visitors, and undocumented immigrants.

But status can rest on many other foundations, or even multiple interlinked foundations. In societies that don’t permit the free exercise of religion, members of disfavored faiths may have a different legal status from those in the supported tradition, as when England for a time mandated partible inheritance for the estates of Catholic peers. The same goes for ethnic groups that are either discriminated against or lifted up above their neighbors by the law. When women are prohibited from owning property, bringing lawsuits before a court, or working in certain jobs, they have a separate legal status from that of men.

The limitations imposed by status can be gobsmacking to those of us accustomed to less stratified societies. In addition to questions like “can I sue my neighbor or do I need a male relative to do that for me” and “can I become President of the United States,” one’s status might mandate certain answers to questions such as “where can I live,” “who can I marry,” “what clothes am I permitted to wear,” and more. But note that none of this is actually pegged to your wealth, i.e. your economic class; your status may assume greater or lesser wealth, and it may push you in directions that favor its accumulation or loss, but there’s no intrinsic link between them. Although we often use the phrase “second-class citizen” — sometimes meaning it literally; sometimes metaphorically — the concept with the most bearing on the situation is not actually that of class.

In fact, where this gets interesting is when class and status don’t line up well at all. Next week’s essay will take us deeper into the most common patterns of social stratification, but remember when I talked about the shift from land-based wealth to commerce-based? In early modern Japan, samurai were officially at the top of the status ladder and merchants were officially at the bottom (hinin or “non-people” having fallen off the ladder entirely). But the changing economic conditions of Japan meant that over time, a huge number of samurai became desperately poor, while their social inferiors were rolling in cash. Part of the reason samurai were poor was that their status required them to do financially imprudent things, while simultaneously forbidding them from engaging in many activities that might have improved their situation. And in a society with this kind of restriction, slumming it might means you lose that status — forever. Which is worth more to you: money, or the social and psychological cachet of being one of the elite? Do you want to bear the guilt of knowing you’re the reason your descendants will be legally disadvantaged?

And can one of them climb back up that ladder some day, or not? There’s a wide range of difference in how much mobility a society offers, and what’s required to achieve it. Rome was noteworthy for offering certain paths to citizen status, though Romans of good and ancient family sneered at the novus homo, the “new man,” as much as later Europeans did at the nouveau riche. Sparta took such a forbidding approach to upward mobility that the spartiate (citizen) population was in a steady decline, shrinking with every passing generation. Class tends to be more fluid than status, with more room for people to rise and fall, but that doesn’t mean it’s a level playing field; plenty of factors besides one’s legal category can intervene to ensure the bottom ranks always remain poor.

Along with these two terms, I want to bring up one that is frequently misused and misunderstood: caste. This is above all associated with Hindu India (to the point that some scholars feel the term should never be used outside that context), and it’s kind of a status system writ in especially bold font. You’re not only born into a particular caste but expected to marry within it, socialize within it, often follow a particular occupation connected to it, and occupy a certain ritual status, which may entail observing prohibitions around your interaction with other castes.

But, well, the story is more complicated than the superficial version usually trotted around. Hindu society, many sources will tell you, was traditionally divided into four castes: the brahmins (priests and rulers), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (farmers and herders), and shudras (laborers). While these divisions do appear in the literature — and were imposed by law under British rule — this varna system was more a conceptual framework than a practical one. It wasn’t inherited, and which varna you belonged to depended on what you did for a living, rather than the other way around. The more relevant category here is actually jāti, and there were (and are) thousands of these, not four! A jāti might indeed be hereditary, endogamous, and so forth, but it can be based on geography or tribal affiliation rather than strictly on inherited occupation . . . and, contrary to the rigidity assumed by our casual discussions of caste, even in pre-modern times people might take up different jobs than the one suggested by their jāti affiliation.

All of these methods of stratification, whether based on wealth, legal status, or the complex knitted web of a jāti, tend to be more porous and variable than the schematic descriptions of them imply. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, what makes them narratively interesting: while the schematic may have a certain elegance, it’s in the slippages and exceptions and unexpected contradictions that the story happens.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Class, Status, and Caste”

  1. Anthony Docimo

    I once heard someone remark that, in the US, up til the Civil War, we had a caste system as stringent as anything that could’ve been found in India or elsewhere…at least for the slaves.

    But, as you point out, India’s caste system was not *that* severe…so maybe Sparta would’ve been a better reference point/comparison. 🙂

    Thank you for another week of great food for thought and information. Kudos!

    1. Jennifer Stevenson

      Read CASTE by Isabel Wilkerson. We still have a caste system. It was and is founded on racism.

      1. Marie Brennan

        We have discrimination, inequality, and injustice. I disagree that we have a caste system, especially after Loving v. Virginia: we do not have regulations requiring people to follow in the trades of their parents, prohibiting marriage across social boundaries, or decreeing that people of XYZ status defile places or other individuals in ways that must be cleansed.

        For casual uses of the word, sure, you can call our system one of caste. But in the official sense of the word, no, and the point here is to look at what the word means in its official sense.

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