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André Béteille is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Delhi and one of the leading social theorists in India today. Based in the Delhi School of Economics at the University of Delhi, Professor Béteille has also taught in Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago and the LSE. He is renowned for his studies of caste, inequality and social stratification in India.
His books include Caste Class and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village (1965), Castes: Old and New: Essays in Social Structure and Social Stratification (1969), Inequality and Social Change (1972), Studies in Agrarian Social Structure (1974), Inequality among Men (1977), The Backward Classes and the New Social Order (1981), The Idea of Natural Inequality and other Essays (1983), Essays in Comparative Sociology (1987), Society and Politics in India: Essays in a Comparative Perspective (1991), Antinomies of Society: Essays on Ideologies and Institutions (2000), Sociology: Essays on Approach and Method (2002), Equality and Universality: Essays in Social and Political Theory (2003), Marxism and Class Analysis (2007).
In this interview Prof. Béteille explains some of the key ideas in these books and comments on issues such as caste, reservations, civil society, equality and inequality.
Click on each question to watch Professor Béteille's reply.
- Can you say a little about your background and how you became interested in anthropology and sociology?
- Can you tell me a bit about what it was like to study in Delhi in the late 1950’s and your influences and friends at the time?
- You have been influenced by Max Weber. Did that happen then or was that later?
- We will come back to that [the influence of Weber] in a moment. But first can you tell me about your PhD and your first fieldwork in Tamil Nadu?
- So tell me a bit about your first fieldwork.
- And your experience of fieldwork, could you say something about that?
- When you came to writing it up, you were looking at class, caste and power and you used Marx and Weber in your analysis. Was it difficult to apply western theories to Indian society?
- Your book ‘Caste, Class and Power’ has been understood in different ways. What for you is the argument of that book? What were you trying to do with that book?
- Although you don’t deal with it centrally in the book, you mention colonialism. There has been a lot of debate about the role colonialism and its influence on social stratification. What do you think the role of colonialism is and what is its influence on the categories of caste and class?
- In some of your later work, especially your essay on the future of the backward classes, you say that, ‘Closed status groups based on birth are likely to yield to relatively open status groups based on education income and occupation’ p230. At the moment this is only among urban upper castes but suggest that in future this will happen among Harijans and adivasis too. Does this mean that you envisage caste eventually withering away and class and other forms of identity becoming more important?
- And what about this idea of ethnicisation or substantialisation of caste?
- Could you say a little bit more about your engagement with the work of Louis Dumont because lots of students listening to this will probably have read Homo Hierarchicus and you have disagreed with Dumont on certain points. Where do you think he was wrong in what he was saying?
- On this question of inequality, then. You have spoken about the idea of natural inequality and social inequality. Can you explain these ideas a little?
- It is a really difficult problem to study. As an anthropologist, how should one go about studying individualism or equality?
- Related to this, you have also talked about reservation, India’s affirmative action policy. You distinguish between equality as a right and equality as a policy, saying that it should be the basis of policy but not a right. Can you explain that idea?
- Do you think that there are ways that the current reservation system might be improved?
- And what about reservations on the basis of caste?
- We have not had time to talk about your other work; we’ve only talked about a few of your interests, but could you just tell me what you are working on at the moment and your future work?
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