What Is a Caste? A Definition and Overview

(Last Updated On: April 18, 2019)

What Is a Caste?

What Is a Caste?

What is a caste system and how do they work? Well, before we start discussing the topic, let’s first recognize that a caste system is an ideology before it is a legalized system. A caste system can be installed if the people will it to be so, much like how racism or sexism are ideological stances taken by an oppressive majority (which then might be put into law by a legislature made up of this majority).

But let’s not to put the cart ahead of the horse. Caste systems can be likened to class-based discrimination, but ramped up a notch.

Classism makes social mobility difficult, but it can still be done in some social structures. A caste system, on the other hand, allows for virtually no social mobility. Members of a specific caste typically must interact and marry within that caste, and stratification is so extreme, interaction between castes is usually rare.

Castes are also, by definition, fairly narrow in scope. They are typically hereditary, endogamous (i.e., require marriages within specified groups by custom/law), and intrinsically tied to one’s occupation. In that same vein, the word caste is actually derived from a Portuguese word roughly translating to “breed,” and the Latin word castus, which refers to being cut off (“cast out,” so to speak) and purity.

India’s Caste System

It’d be remiss to talk about caste systems and ignore India. There is a reason India is considered intrinsically tied to the word caste, and why the word is derived from the Portuguese “casta.” India is steeped in its system of social stratification, and when the Portuguese first made landfall in India, they called this system casta, ergo “breed” or “race.” Over time this evolved into caste, which is now used beyond just India, as we’ve just discussed.

India’s caste system can be described by two different concepts, varna and jati. Both can be seen as different ways to analyze this system.

Varna literally translates to “type, order, or class”. Dating back to ancient times, varna is the basis for grouping people into classes. These classes are broken down into four groups: Brahmins (priestly people), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, and farmers), and Shudras (laborers). There is also a fifth class in addition to the four varnas, people deemed to fall completely outside of the system. This group, which includes tribal peoples, is called the Untouchables.

Most people, however, tend to think of the jatis when referring to India’s caste system (so much so that they’re often considered synonymous). Literally meaning “birth”, the four varnas can be further divided into thousands of jatis. A jati is essentially a group of clans, tribes, communities, and religions in India. Each jati is typically associated with a traditional job function or tribe. It should be noted that there is no official list ranking all the jatis in terms of social status. Jatis work on a more local or regional level, each with its own relationship with other jatis in their community. In general, there is more opportunity for social mobility among the various jatis.

Further reading: Where Is India?

Caste Systems Outside of India

As we’ve discussed, a caste system is an ideology that often becomes systematized. The prime example here is still India. As of 1950, India did constitutionally abolish its caste system, though much of the nation’s culture remains steeped in it.

Given that, it’s probably not surprising that under the definition we’ve outlined, caste systems exist (or have existed) in a number of places. We’re not going to talk about all of them, but we’ll point to a couple.

Let’s start with might seem like a more obvious one; Nazi-Era Germany. The idea of the “Aryan Master Race” stems from a born-into status that cannot be changed, and was used as justification to commit mass genocide.

During Yuan Dynasty China, a caste system was established under a “Four Class System.” This system divided individuals under the Mongols, Semu, Han, and the Southerners. However, these classes were less of a denomination of wealth or power, but more referred to how much privilege one was given by the institution. Ergo, one’s class didn’t necessarily determine their standing in society.

North Korea’s Caste System

North Korea also has a caste system. It’s referred to as songbun and, like India’s system, is split between ancestral and social status. The ancestral status is moving to become largely ignored, but North Korea’s songbun is still deeply installed into the nation’s legal system. 

We actually don’t know a ton about it given North Korea’s secrecy. What we can say, though, is that it’s split roughly into five groups, (in descending order), “special,” “nucleus”/“core” (where most people lie), “basic,” “complex,” and “hostile.” The latter two face the most discrimination within North Korea, “hostile” facing substantially more. One’s songbun is documented by the party, and is held in multiple locations (so you can’t get it changed without a lot of effort).

Of course, there is one thing that overrides one’s songbun in a beneficial manner. There’s being a party member, or having one’s songbun “awarded with audience.” The former is pretty self explanatory, but the latter is a little interesting. It takes precedence even over being a party member. To have one’s songbun awarded in such a way, one must have spoken to North Korea’s Supreme Leader for a certain quota of time, or be a in a picture with him.

Further reading: Where is North Korea?

Caste Ideology

Caste ideology exists in the West as well. We touched on it a little with Nazi-Era Germany. America’s history with slavery, by definition is a caste system. Slaves were born into their position and weren’t offered much (if at all) in the way of mobility. While thankfully neither system can be legally observed in either the US or Germany, it’s no stretch to say that caste-ideology still exists among some in the West.

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About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.