Social Institution: Continuity and Change Notes Class 12 CBSE

A population is not just a collective of separate , unrelated individuals. It is a society made up of many interlinked communities that are sustained and regulated by social relationships and social institutions. There are three main institutions that are central to the Indian society, they are caste, tribe and family.

Caste and the Caste System

Caste is an ancient social institution that has been part of Indian history and culture for thousands of years. As an institution it is still a central part of the Indian society. However the forms of caste system have changed. The caste system prevalent in the past was very different to how it is prevalent in the present.

Caste in the Past

Caste as in institution is uniquely associated with the Indian sub-continent. Although a central aspect of the Hindu society, it has spread itself to major non-Hindu communities especially Muslims, Christians and Skihs.

The term caste is essentially taken from the Portuguese word casta which means pure breed. It refers to a broad institutional arrangement that is referred in the Indian languages by two distinct terms, varna and jati.

Varna : The word varna literally means colour, but it refers to the four fold division of society into – brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra. This term, however, excludes the panchamas or the fifth category which comprises outcastes, foreigners, slaves, conquered people and others.

Jati : The word jati generally refers to the species or kinds of all things. In Indian language, it is a term that refers to the institution of caste.

The relationship between the terms and meaning of varna and jati has been a subject of much discussion amongst scholars. For many varna is a broad all-Indian aggregative classification common to all India while jati is regional or local sub-classification involving a complex system of castes and sub-castes that vary from region to region.

Features of Caste

The four varna classification is said to be roughly three thousand years old, however, opinions may differ. the caste system during these years was characterised by different features. For example, the caste system prevalent in the late Vedic period (900-500 BC). The caste system during the vedic period was a varna system consisting of only four major divisions.

These divisions were not very elaborate or rigid and they were not dependent on birth. Thus, movement across varna was common. It is only after the Vedic period that the rigidity within the system became prevalent.

Keeping the above statement in mind the most commonly cited features of caste system are as follows:

(i) Caste is determined by birth : a child is born into the caste of its parents, it is not a matter of choice. Thus, one can never leave, change or choose to join it. A person can, however, be expelled from it.

(ii) Membership in a caste involves strict marriage rules : Caste groups are endogamous i.e. marriage is restricted to the members of the group.

(iii) Caste membership involves rules about food and food sharing : The kinds of food that one can eat and the people with whom food can be shared is prescribed.

(iv) Caste involves a system consisting of many castes arranged in a hierarchy of rank and status : A person always has a caste and a caste also has a place in the hierarchy. The place of a caste in the hierarchy can differ from region to region.

(v) There is a segmental organisation in caste system : Caste involves sub-divisions within themselves as  castes have sub-caste and sometimes sub-castes may also have sub-sub-castes.

(vi) Caste were traditionally linked to occupation : A person born into a caste would have to practice prescribed occupation. Thus, occupation became hereditary as a result of which occupation could only be pursued by one caste. Members of other caste could not enter the occupation.

The features given above are prescribed in the ancient scriptural texts and were not always practiced. Thus, one cannot understand the extent to which they tell about the practical aspect of caste. However, one thing is very evident that they are all restrictions and prohibitions. This fact states that caste was an unequal institution wherein one caste was greatly benefitted while another suffered without any hope of change in circumstances.

Principles of Caste System

The caste system can be understood as the combination of two sets of principles. These two are:

(i) Based on Difference and Separation : Each case is different and is strictly separated from every other caste. Many scriptural rules prevent the mixing of castes. These rules include marriage, food sharing social interaction, occupation etc.

(ii) Based on Wholism and Hierarchy : The different and separated castes do not have an individual existence. In other words, they do not exist in isolation but only exist in the relation to the whole society that is comprised of all other castes. Further, the caste-based society is not based on equality. It is essentially hierarchical wherein each individual caste occupies a distinct place in the ordered rank.

Hierarchy of Castes

The hierarchical order of caste is based on the distinction between purity and pollution. The word ‘purity’ connotes division between something believed to be closer to the sacred and the word ‘pollution’ represents something which is distant from or opposed to the sacred. Castes that are considered to be ritually pure have high status, while those considered less pure have low status.

Apart form purity, material power, economic power or military power is also associated with social status. Therefore, those in power have higher status and those defeated have lower status.

Castes in the past were not only unequal to reach other in ritual terms, but also complementary and non-competing. Thus, each caste has his own place in the system which cannot be taken by any other castes. Further, as castes are associated with occupation. The caste system often functions as the social division of labour wherein there is no movement or mobility.

Colonialism and Caste

Colonial period or the period before Indian independence strongly shaped the future of caste system and the formation of caste as a social institution. According to many scholars what we know today as caste is merely a product of colonialism than of the ancient Indian tradition.

Not all the changes that occurred in the caste system within the colonial period were deliberate or intended. The British administration initially began to understand the complexities of caste system in an effort to learn a way to efficiently govern the country. This learning included methodical and intensive surveys as well as reports on the customs and manner of the tribes and castes of the country.

The most important of these efforts to collect information on caste was through census which began in 1860s to become a regular ten-yearly exercise by 1881. The 1901 Census under Herbert Risley is central as it sought the data on social hierarchy prevalent in regions. This effort had a huge impact on social perception of casts as many castes claimed higher position in the social scale while offering historical and scriptural evidence.

Scholars feel that his kind of direct attempt to count caste and to officially record caste status changed the institution. As caste began to be counted and recorded, the system became more rigid and less fluid.

Intervention by the colonial states had a huge impact on the institution of caste by the following means:

(a) The land revenue settlements and related arrangements as well as laws gave legal recognition to the customary caste based rights of the upper castes making them land owners in a modern sense.

(b) Large scale irrigation schemes like that of Punjab as an effort to settle populations there, also had caste dimensions.

(c) The administration interest in the welfare of downtrodden class, also known as depressed class, led to the Government of India Act of 1935. This act gave legal recognition to the lists of schedules of castes and tribes (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) and made them legible for special treatment. The most discriminated ‘untouchables’ were included in Scheduled Castes.

Thus, colonialism brought about major changes in the institution of caste.

Caste in the Present

Indian independence in 1947 bought about a partial break in the institution of caste system prevalent the colonial past. Caste consideration had inevitably played a role in the mass mobilisation of the national movements. The efforts to organise the depressed class, specially the untouchables began before the nationalist movement in the late 19th century.

Initiatives were taken by the upper caste progressive reformers and by the member of lower castes such as Mahatma Jyotiba Phula, Baba Saheb Amdebkar in the Western India. Ayyankali, Sri Narayana Guru, Iyotheedass and EV Ramaswamy Naickar in the South.

Both Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar began organising protests against untouchability from the 1920s. Infact, untouchability became a central agenda of Congress. By the time of the Indian independence, there was an agreement to abolish caste distinctions. The dominant view of the nationalist movements was that caste was a social evil devised to divide India.

The nationalist leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi worked hard for the upliftment of the lower castes. He advocated the abolition of untouchability and other caste restrictions and at the same time, reassured the upper castes that their interests would be looked after.

Problems of Caste in Post Independent India

The post-Independence Indian state reflected these contradictions about caste system and upper caste’s interests. On the one hand, the state was committed to the abolition of caste and mentioned it into the Constitution. On the other, it was unable as well as unwilling to bring fundamental reforms which would remove case inequality.

The state assumed that completely ignoring the caste would undermine the caste based priviledges, automatically abolishing it.

For example, in the case of government job all individual compete on ‘equal’ terms irrespective of their castes. The only exception to this was in the from of reservations for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. Thus, state did not put much efforts towards caste inequality prevalent in the society.

The development activity of the state and the growth of private industry also affected the caste hierarchy through the speedy and intense economic changes. Modern industry created all kinds of new jobs without any caste supremacy. Urbanisation and conditions of collective living in the cities made difficult for caste system to survive.

At a different level, the liberal ideas of individualism and meritocracy (merit based credit) attracted modern educated Indian, because of which they began abandoning extreme caste practices. But on the other hand, the recruitment in industries, whether in the textile mills or elsewhere, continued to be organised along the lines of caste and kinship.

The middle-men to recruited labour from their own caste and region. As a result, even industries were often dominated by specific castes. Therefore, prejudice against the untouchables remained quite strong and was not absent from the city as well.

The resilience of caste proved most strong in cultural and domestic front. This is clearly evident in marriages and politics.

Endogamy : or the practice of marrying within the caste, remained largely unaffected with modernisation and change. Even today, most marriages are within caste boundaries. While some flexibility is allowed, the border of castes of similar socio-economic status are still very rigid. For example, inter-caste marriages between upper caste are still prevalent but that between upper castes and SCs/STs are rare.

Politics : Democratic politics in the independent India is still deeply conditioned by caste. Since the 1980s caste based political parties have emerged and caste became decisive in winning elections.

Many sociologists have coined new concepts to understand such changes. The most common amongst them were given by MN Srinivas. They are as follows:


It refers to a process whereby members of a (usually middle or lower) caste attempts to improve their own social status by adopting the ritual, domestic and social practices of higher status. In simple words, it is copying of the model of upper caste by lower or middle caste.

Sanskritisation practices included adopting vegetarianism, wearing of sacred thread, performances of specific prayers and religious ceremonies etc.

Sanskritisation usually accompanies the rise in the economic status of the caste attempting it, though it may also occur independently. Many suggestions and modification believed that such claim is defiant rather than just a mere imitation.

Dominant Caste

The term ‘dominant caste’ is used for those cases which had a huge population and were granted landrights by the partial land reforms effected after the independence. The land reforms took away the claiming rights of the upper castes or the absentee landlords who lived mostly in towns and cities, and had no role to play in the agricultural economy other than taking rent.

With the reforms , the lands were claimed by the next layer of caste, who were involved in the management of the land. These people depended on the labour of lower castes especially untouchable for tilling and tending the land. With land, these people gained economic as well as political power thus becoming the dominant caste in the countryside. Examples of such dominant castes are:

  • Yadavs of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh
  • Vokkaligas of Karnataka
  • Reddys and Khammas of Andhra Pradesh
  • Marathas of Maharashtra
  • Jats of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh
  • Patidars of Gujarat

One of the most significant changes in the caste system is that it was becoming invisible for the upper caste, upper middle and the upper class.

For them, the concept of castes seems to decline. Paradoxically, their caste status ensures that these groups have the economic and educational resources to take advantage of the opportunities offered by rapid development. They were able to take advantage of the following:

The subsided education especially professional education in science, technology, medicine and management.

Expansion of state sector jobs in early decades for independence.

Their superiority ensured that they did not face any serious competition. As this privilege was passed to their future generations, they came to believe that their advancement was not related to caste. The matter is further complicated by the fact that such a privilege was not enjoyed by every upper caste person.

On the other hand, for the SCs and STs, caste has been more visible eclipsing other dimensions of their identity. Because of their lack of education, social capital as well as the fact they they must face competition, they cannot lose their caste identity which is the only thing that the world recognises.

The policies of reservation and other forms of protective discrimination instituted by the state in response to political pressure serve as their lifelines. Such a contradiction is central to the institution of caste prevalent in the present India.

Tribal Communities

Tribe is a modern term used for communities that are very old, whose people are among the oldest inhabitants of the sub-continent. These are the communities that did not practice a religion with a written text, that did not have a state or political form of normal kind; did not have sharp class or caste divisions. The term ‘tribe’ administrative convenience.

Classification of Tribal Societies

Tribes have been classified according to their ‘permanent’ and ‘acquired’ traits. Permanent traits include region, language, physical characteristics and ecological habitat.

Permanent Traits

The tribal population of India is widely spread with concentration being visible in certain regions. About 85% of the tribal population lives in ‘middle’ India, stretching from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the West to West Bengal and Odisha in the East, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and some part of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Of the remaining 15% over 11% is in the North-Eastern states and 3% in the rest of India.

The North-Eastern states have the highest concentration of tribal’s ranging more than 60% going up to 95% in states like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and country the tribal population is less than 12% except Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.

Tribal categorisation takes place into various divisions:

Language : On the basis of language, tribes are categorised into four categories. Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austric and Tibeto-Burman. The Indo-Aryan accounts for 1% of the population and the Dravidian accounts for 3%. The other two languages are primary spoken by tribals having 80% of the ceoncentration.

Physical Racial : Concerning physical racial terms, tribes are classified under the Negrito, Australoid, Mongoloid, Dravidian and Aryan categories. The last two are shared by the majority of the Indian population.

On Size : Tribes sizes vary in great number with some having 7 million people to some Andamanese islanders with only 100 people. The biggest tribes one the Gonds, Bhils, Santhals, Oraons, Minas, Bodos and Mundas.

The total population of tribes amounts to about 8.2% of the Indian population or 84 million people according to 2001 Census which has grown to 8.6% of 104 million tribal population according to 2011 Census Report.

Acquired Traits

Acquired traits are based on two criteria i.e. mode of livelihood and extent of incorporation into Hindu society or a combination of the two.

One the Basis of Livelihood : On the mode of livelihood, tribes can be categorised into fishermen, food gatherers and hunters, shifting cultivators, peasants and plantation and industrial workers.

Extent of Incorporation into the Hindu Society : The dominant classification of tribes as used in academic sociology as well as public and political affair is the extent of assimilation in Hindu mainstream. This assimilation can further been seen from the point of view of tribes and from the Hindu mainstream.

  • From the tribes’ point of view, the attitude of the people towards the Hindu mainstream is important with the differentiation between tribes that are positively inclined towards Hinduism and those who oppose it.
  • From the mainstream point of view, tribes may be viewed according to the status in the Hindu society, wherein high status is given to some, and low status accorded to most.

Tribe-Caste Distinction

The argument for a tribe-caste distinction was founded on an assumed cultural difference between Hindu castes, with their beliefs in purity and pollution and hierarchical integration and the tribals with their equal and kinship based modes of organisation. The debate posed whether tribal was one end of the caste based society or a different kind of community.

Some of the scholars view who were the part of this debate mentioned that:

(i) Tribes should be seen as one of the whole society with caste-based (Hindu) peasant society which is just less stratified and more community based. However, some opponents argued that tribes were wholly different from caste because they had not notion of purity and pollution which is central to the caste system.

(ii) Some argued that the tribe-peasantry distinction did not hold in terms of any of the commonly advanced criteria: size, isolation, religion, and means of livelihood. Some tribes such as Santhal, Gonds and Bhils are very large with extensive territory. Some other tribes such as Munda, Hos and other are pursuing settled agriculture while hunting gathering tribes like Birhors of Bihar employ special households to make basket, etc.

(iii) Caste-tribe differences was accomplished by large body of literature through tribes were absorbed into Hindu society with Sanskritisation, acceptance into Shudra fold following conquest by caste Hindus, through acculturation, etc. The Hindu society history is often seen as an absorption of different tribal groups into Hindu society at varying level of hierarchy as their land was colonised and forests cut down. Such processes are either seen as natural or exploitative.

(iv) Most common arguments of scholars are that there is no coherent basis for treating tribes as pristine (pure or original) or societies uncontaminated by civilisation. Rather, tribes should be seen as secondary phenomena arising out of exploitative and colonialist contact between pre-existing states and non state groups. This contact creates the ideology of tribalism wherein tribals defined themselves as tribal to distinguish themselves from others.

(v) The belief that tribes are like stone age hunting and gathering societies have remained untouched is still common, even though it is not true. Adivasis were initially not oppressed. There were several Gond kingdoms in Central India such as Garha Mandla or Chanda. In addition, many Rajput kingdoms of Central and Western India emerged through a process of stratification. Adivasis exercised dominance over plains through their capacity to raid and through their services as local militias. They also occupied special trade niche, trading forest produce, salt and elephants.

The capitalist economy’s drive to exploit forest resources and minerals as well as to recruit cheap labour has brought tribal societies in contact with mainstream society.

Mainstream Attitudes Towards Tribes

Colonialism had bought about irreversible changes in the world including the tribal communities.

  • On the political and economic front, tribal societies faced the incursion of money lenders.
  • Tribal societies were losing their land their access to forests to the non-tribal immigrant settlers because of the government policies and mining operations. The forest land resources of the tribal’s became the main source of income for the colonial government.

The various rebellions in tribal areas in the 18th and 19th centuries, forced the colonial government to set up ‘excluded’ and ‘partially excluded’ areas, where the non-tribals were prohibited or regulated. In these areas, the British favoured indirect rule through local kings or headmen.

If we consider the isolation side of the tribal (i.e. if we believe the tribe society as a separate society) of 1940s we find that they needed protection from traders, moneylenders and Hindu and Christian missionaries, who intended to reduce tribals into detribalised the act of causing tribal people to abandon their customs and adopt urban ways of living landless labour.

The integrationist i.e. the scholars who believed that tribes are just a category of Hindus. On the other hand, argued that tribals were merely backward Hindus, and their problems had to be addressed within the same framework as other backward classes. In these areas, the colonial government exercised indirect rule.

The opposition in these two views had led the Constituent Assembly which as settled along the lines of a compromise advocated welfare schemes that would enable controlled integration. The subsequent scheme such as , Five Year Plans, tribal sub-plans, tribal welfare blocks etc. work for the same.

The basic issue concerning the tribes is that in the process of integration, tribes had neglected their own needs and desires. Integration till now has been done according to the mainstream society for its benefit. In the name of development, their resources are taken away and their communities are shattered.

National Development Versus Tribal Development

The imperatives of ‘development’ has not only governed the attitudes towards tribes but also shaped state policies. The National development taken under the leadership of Nehru focused on the construction of dams, factories and mines. As tribal areas were located in mineral rich forested areas, they were largely affected.

(a) The benefits of development that took place were at the price of the tribal communities who were displaced from their land for the exploitation of minerals and utilisation of land sites for setting up hydroelectric power plants.

(b) The forest land taken away from the tribals were systematically exploited during the British rule and still continue to be exploited.

(c) The coming of private property in land has also adversely affected tribals, whose community-based forms of collective ownership were placed at disadvantage in the new system.

(d) Another problem that development had bought for the tribes is the heavy in-migration of non-tribals. This not only disrupts and overwhelms the tribal communities and culture but also increases their exploitation.

One can find many examples of such disadvantages faced by development.

(i) Most of the costs and benefits flowing from the series of dams being built on the Narmada, disproportionately to different communities and regions.

(ii) The industrial areas of Jharkhand have suffered a dilution of the tribal share of population.

(iii) The North-Eastern states like Tripura had the tribal share of its population halved within a single decade, reducing them to a minority. Similar pressure is being felt by Arunachal Pradesh.

Tribal Identity Today

The forced incorporation of tribes into the mainstream society had impacted the tribal culture, society and economy significantly. Tribal identities are formed by the process of interaction rather than any primordial (original, ancient) characteristics peculiar to tribes. As interaction with the mainstream turned unfavourable to tribal communities, many tribal identities are now based on the ideas of resistance and opposition to the force of non-tribal world. The positive impact of the resistance and opposition were:

(a) Achievement of Statehood for Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh : However, this is not free from problems. These states are still to make complete use of its statehood and the system still leaves the tribal communities powerless.

A similar problem occurs in the North Indian states wherein individuals do not enjoy the civil liberties enjoyed by other citizens of the country. State repression in cases of rebellion paves the way for further rebellions which heavily impacts the economy, culture and society of the North-Eastern states.

(b) Emergence of Educated Middle Class  communities among tribal communities with the policies of reservation. The resultant of such an emergence is the creation of an urbanised professional class.

(c) Emergence of Identity Assertions with tribal societies becoming more differentiated, different bases for the assertion of tribal identity are also emerging.

(c) There are two sets of issues that gave rise to tribal rebellion or movements. They are :

  • Issues relating to control over economic resources.
  • Issues relating to ethnic-cultural identity.

Generally, both these issues go hand in hand but with differentiation of the tribal society they may also diverge. Thus, the reason why middle class tribal people and poor tribal people join tribal movement may differ.

Family and Kinship

Family is where we begin our lives. It is a space of great warmth and care as well as a site of bitter conflicts, injustice and violence. Stories of disputes in family and kinship are as much a part as are stories of compassion, sacrifice and care. The structure of the family can be studied both as a social institution in itself and also in its relationship to other social institutions of a society.

A family in itself can be defined as nuclear or extended. It can be male-headed or female headed and the line of descent can be matrilineal patrilineal. This internal structures of the family represents the other structures of the society, namely political, economic, cultural etc. This implies that any change in the composition and structure of a family are linked to the other spheres of society.

For example, the migration of men from the Himalayan villages leads to the women-headed families or work schedules of young parents in software industry leads to the increasing number of grandparents moving in as care-givers to young grandchildren.

Therefore, the private family is linked to the public spheres such as economic, political, cultural and educational.

Each family, it can be said, has a different structure which undergoes change. Sometimes these changes occur accidently, such as in cases of wars or migration. Sometimes, they are deliberate as can be seen in cases where young people choose their own partners.

It is evident that the kind of changes that take place in the society not only changed the family structure but also the cultural ideas, norms and values.

Nuclear and Extended Family

The term ‘nuclear family’ refers to the family that consists of only one set of parents and their children. On the other hand, an extended family also known as ‘join family’ can take different forms, but typically has more than one family couple with two generations, living together.

The term extended family is often considered to be symptomatic indicative of India. This is not true as extended family is confined to certain sections and regions of community. In fact, the term ‘joint family’ according to IP Desai is not native. The words used for joint family in most Indian languages are just equivalent translations of the English word.

The Diverse Form of the Family

Different societies have diverse family forms. We can understand such societies with regards to different rule.

On the basis of residence:

(i) Matrilocal : In such a society, a newly married couple stays with the women’s parents.

(ii) Patrilocal : In this society, the couple lives with the man’s parents.

On the basis of inheritance:

(i) Matrilineal : This society passes on property from mother to daughter.

(ii) Patrilineal : In this society, there is a property shift from father to son.

A patriarchal family structure exists where the men exercise authority and dominance, matriarchy where the women plays a similar dominant role. It is to be noted here that matriarchy is more theoretical as there is no evidence of such a society. Matrilineal societies do exist where women inherits property but do not control it. For example, the khasi and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya.