Caste Endogamy

Castes are hereditary social divisions that are distinguished from one another by property ownership, occupation, political position, and, often, ritual status. Men and women are normally bound to marry within their castes of birth to maintain the "purity" of hereditary lines and to enclose affinal alliances and exchanges within group boundaries. The standard model of caste is taken from traditional East Indian society, where membership in heredity groups strictly determined occupation and ritual purity. The Nayar case provides an example of such a group. They hold a high rank in their local caste system according to their ownership of agricultural land and their traditional status and occupation as political leaders and warriors. They are economical served by lower caste members and are forbidden to engage in sexual relations with them. Their marriage ceremonies are almost exclusively devoted to symbolically uniting males and females within the caste. Nayar women, particularly those in higher sub-castes, do form liaisons with even higher caste Brahmins. However, the latter do not consider these affairs as marriages and do not accept responsibility for any children that may result. They may undertake the relevant midwife payments, but, unlike the Nayar, they don't consider this custom to be an actual acknowledgement of paternity. Other examples of caste endogamy include medieval Europe, where nobles were prohibited from marrying commoners, and apartheid South Africa, where interracial cohabitation was illegal.

A less exotic example of a caste society can be drawn from the history of racial discrimination in the United States. Prior to the civil rights rulings and legislation of the 1950's and 1960's many states at one time or another passed racial segregation laws that included the illegalization of interracial sexual contact or marriage. Legally sanctioned prohibitions on "miscegenation" imposed annulments and prison sentences on inter-racial couples. These practices were of course prevalent in the South, but majority of states passed anti-miscegenation laws at one time or another. California had a statue in place that banned marriages between Whites and Blacks or Asians until 1948, when it was declared unconstitutional by a state court. Sixteen southern states enforced such laws until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court made a blanket ruling of unconstitutionality on the basis of the 14th Amendment and a judgment that open marital choice was a basic civil right. However, this reversal has not eliminated a strong discriminatory bias in marriage choice. A study conducted in the late 1980's indicated that only 2% of all American marriages involved couples of different "races" and that only 20% of these (.4% of all marriages) were between Whites and Blacks (Lewis et. al. 1997). Accordingly a "caste-like" pattern of racial division was observed. In general the social barrier evident is, like the defunct marriage laws, predominantly maintained by discriminatory attitudes and practices within the White community. Time series studies have shown that the incidence of interracial marriages is increasing, but quite slowly.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995
Last updated: September 2003