Tribe-Caste Continuum

Tribe-Caste Continuum:

F. G. Bailey (1960) and Surjit Sinha (1965) proposed the concept of the tribe-caste continuum in the Indian context. In fact, Indian ethnographers were grappling with the problem of discriminating between tribe and caste. Sir Herbert Risley (1891) was the earliest ethnographer to point out that it was difficult to “draw a demarcating line between tribe and caste” because many tribes have caste features. Later J. H . Hutton (1931) also expressed a similar opinion when he was dealing with the data on caste and tribe in India. However, the demarcation between tribe and caste continued to be an unsolved problem till 1959. In 1960, F. G. Bailey in his book “Tribe, Caste and Nation” solved the problem of differentiation of a tribe from a caste in the most acceptable way by proposing a tribe-caste continuum. Redfield (1941, the folk culture of Yucatan) was the first anthropologist to explain the concept of “continuum”. Following this concept, Bailey, (1961) proposed the concept of the tribe-caste continuum.

According to Bailey, “Tribe-Caste Continuum is a polar ideal type of construction, which implies that no known society precisely corresponds to the description of the extreme ends, but all fall near one end or the other of the poles or in-between“.

There is neither pure tribe nor pure caste; pure tribe and pure caste exist only in ideal terms. Ideal tribe and ideal caste cannot be treated as separate entities but as opposite ends of a single line or continuum.

Particular societies can be located at different points along the line, some near to the tribe, others close to the caste. The tribe is organized on the basis of segmentary solidarity, but the caste is organized on the basis of organic solidarity. All other societies fall in between tribe and caste depending upon their degree of segmentary solidarity or organic solidarity. Greater is their segmentary solidarity nearer they are to the tribe, greater is their organic solidarity nearer they are to the caste. As one proceeds from tribe to caste one can notice decreasing degree of segmentary solidarity till it disappears to give place for organic solidarity.

Bailey’s Illustrations:

Bailey’s study (1960) is considered very important. He studied the economic and political aspects of Khonds of Orissa and the neighbouring Oriya castes. He suggested that caste and tribe may be viewed as constituting two ends of the same pole and not as mutually exclusive entities, i.e. as a continuum.

Different groups may be posited at different points of a scale on the basis of any specific criterion. Bailey suggests the criteria of agricultural land and land-man ratio. The higher the ratio and more direct the man-land relationship, the nearer the group is to the tribal end of the pole. Conversely, the lesser the ratio and more indirect the man-land relationship (such as for artisans, and other “service” castes) nearer the group is to the caste end of the pole. On the basis Bailey considers Khonds to be a tribe in the Tribe-Caste Continuum.

Taking the political dimension into consideration, Bailey tries to explain it on the basis of structural-functional interdependence. Interdependence means every person is dependent on another person, which is reciprocal, denoting equality. Tribal society is organized on the basis of segmentary solidarity in which segments (such as lineage or clan) are socially equal, economically interdependent and structurally similar. A caste society, on the other hand, is organized on the basis of organic solidarity in which the components are socially unequal, economically interdependent and structurally dissimilar. Here it must be borne in mind that tribal inter-dependence is within the tribe while caste interdependence is between the castes. Moreover, segments in a segmentary structure are autonomous, while components in an organic structure are not.

Now Bailey points out that as the political relationship of a Khond with a Khond is segmentary i.e. political equality, therefore, they are a tribe. At the same time, they have enough agricultural land with much lower caste Hindus working for, and dependent upon, them. As such, they act as “dominant castes”. Therefore, Khond is both a tribe and a caste.

Bailey concludes that at one end of the pole is a segmentary society with an egalitarian political system, while at the other end of the pole is a society most of which members are mutually dependent on each other. It is difficult to establish the precise point which separates the two. Therefore, the two societies exhibit a continuum, a tribe-caste continuum.

Surajit Sinha’s Studies:

Surajit Sinha (1965) denies the universal validity of Bailey’s model. His own work on the Bhumij of Manbhum and Maria Gond of Bastar, in his bid to understand the tribe-caste and tribe-peasant continua, emphasizes the simultaneous, yet distinct levels of social structure and culture. He highlights the basic similarity between tribals and lower castes, particularly on equality in social behaviour within one’s own ethnic group, greater freedom for women, closer nature-man relationship, a value system within little puritanical asceticism, a religious pantheon consisting of local gods etc.

His ideas on the tribe-caste continuum were expressed systematically in his concept of the Rajputization of Gonds of Central India. He argues that diffusion of the Rajput model of state could take place only among those tribes who had attained the technological level of settled agriculture, and that “the history of state formation in the tribal belt of Central India is very largely the story of Rajputization of the tribes”.

The process of transformation of a tribe into a caste was accompanied by the formation of strata in an egalitarian society. Socal classes appeared on the lines of sub-infeudation of territorial units, and a very close correlation between power, economy and social status. The second step was the creation of kinship relations by marriage alliances with Rajputs and ritual symbols. The connection between Rajput and pseudo-Rajput lineages is perpetuated by myths, and the tribal belt of India is connected to the mainstream of Hindu civilization, thus establishing a strong tribe-caste continuum.

Sachchidananda’s Studies:

Sachchidananda’s study of the Gonds of Bihar was to find out how the Gonds have been assimilated into the Hindu caste group through acculturation, and have obtained the status of a “high caste”. He made a list of 20 basic characteristics of Hindus, such as the practice of untouchability, dowry system, Hindu forms of marriage, social stratification, worship of Hindu gods and deities, prohibition of beef-eating etc. He found that Gonds were nearer the higher castes on 13 points. He concluded that on the tribe-caste continuum scale, Gonds were on the caste and therefore, to be treated as caste.

Sachchidanand opines that acculturation as a process of a tribe to caste transformation is widespread in India and has been going on for a long time.

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