On counting and marrying out of caste

Most measurements of caste dynamics are flawed by a lack of good numbers, but that’s a good thing.

A few months ago, my fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar had looked at how inter-caste marriages are happening in India. He had visualised the results of an interesting paper out of European Population conference hosted on the Princeton university website, which looked at how people were marrying outside their own caste. Researchers had used data from two consecutive National Family Health Surveys (NFHS), the researchers tried to identify the proportion of people who marry someone from an ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ caste, and how this varies across gender and across states.

While theirs was a valiant effort, they end up dramatically undercounting marriages outside caste, to the extent of near-complete irrelevance of the paper. This happened due the nature of the dataset. There are only four caste groupings listed in the questionnaire: General, OBC, SC and ST. Both the husband and the wife’s caste grouping is recorded, and the researchers ranked these groupings in the same order listed, and ran their comparisons.

It is obvious that this in no way comes close to what might be the true amount of cross-caste marriage taking place in India. We still have little robust evidence of whether intercaste marriage is increasing or decreasing — whether subcastes are weakening, or castes are weakening, or if they show different trends in different parts of the country. The remainder of the paper’s analysis on the correlation of intercaste marriage with education, media consumption etc can all be similarly discarded.

While we don’t know any of these (fascinating) details about caste dynamics in India with any degree of robustness, this is arguably a great thing.

What got me started on this is that the idea of marrying someone of a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ caste is not a commutative property. Think of a couple, each from two subcastes within the same caste. An external observer might classify both subcastes of being at an ‘equal’ level. However, each spouse might feel that they are marrying ‘lower’ by marrying outside their subcaste. Thus it becomes rather subjective. Further, I was curious about how many castes and subcastes got captured in the NFHS survey, given the survey’s focus on family health. The devil is in the details, and this study captures none of it.

It’s probably for the best that we don’t know exactly how caste dynamics are changing. The Indian government’s efforts at doing a caste census (and more recently, Karnataka’s interest in the same) is deeply troubling.

Counting is often political, as Deborah Stone explains in her wonderful book, Policy Paradox. Counting can affirm and reinforce certain identities over others, and can also engender a sense of common-ness among those counted and binned together. For example, the notion that 44% of India’s children are malnourished competes with the number of children who aren’t in school, or are in poverty, or the number who live in villages. While the children overlap, each label competes for mind space, and by extension, for policy prescriptions.

Deborah Stone - Counting Political

Counting caste can only strengthen it, while migration, modernity and education just may be slowly breaking them down.

One hypothesis I offer is that sub-castes were weakening in the 1980s and 1990s in some parts of India, because migration and smaller families were leading to higher search costs for arranged marriages. But with the internet and a plethora of matrimonial sites springing up in the 2000s, the search cost of someone of the same sub-caste might have dramatically reduced, strengthening castes in turn. However, the hypothesis is not testable with extant data – the flux in caste in India today remains unknown, and should probably stay that way.

PS. Chapters from Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox are essential readings in Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy programme. I will be teaching the CP101 Introductory Public Policy Analysis course for it in the February 2015 term.

PPS. Read Saurabh Chandra’s take from 2013 on weakening the mechanisms of caste.

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One Response to On counting and marrying out of caste

  1. அகிலன் (Akilan) January 27, 2015 at 7:18 PM #

    Interesting points. I have a doubt. How many people actually read through such studies and make decisions based on them? On the other hand, aren’t agencies losing valuable data by not counting?