Society for Psychological Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In 1972, Gerald Berreman outlined a comparison of social systems in which status is ascribed at birth rather than acquired later in life. Drawing on ethnographic literature on a wide variety of contexts, he argued that racial, ethnic, and caste-based stratification share a high ‘degree of empirical overlap’ (Berreman 1972), and that they lead to fundamentally similar experiences of hierarchy—in particular, to similar experiences of subordination.
Berreman’s work was based solely on ethnographic data. Since its publication, relevant advances have been made in cognitive and developmental psychology. Research on a disposition known as ‘psychological essentialism’, in particular, has revealed the existence of a ‘birth bias’ in young children and adults (Gelman 2003): this is a tendency, observed cross-culturally, to attribute properties, including group affiliation, on the basis of birth rather than rearing.
Some research has tried to uncover connections between psychological essentialism and systems of social stratification based on race and ethnicity. A common suggestion is that psychological essentialism plays a role in the reproduction of such systems by making it ‘easy’ for children to acquire racial and ethnic categories. However, the extent to which this holds true of caste—classically seen in anthropology as quintessentially stratified and hierarchical—is under-analysed. Based on my own research with Dalits in eastern Nepal, this paper asks whether psychological essentialism can help explain how resilient caste is, which of its properties it helps explain, and whether it warrants a return to wide-scale comparisons of the type Berreman advocated for.