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Meritocracy and Democracy: The Social Life of Caste in India

With Ajantha Subramanian, professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Harvard University.

Feb 27, 2017
from 04:00 PM to 06:00 PM

Andrews Conference Room, 2203 SS&H

How does the utopian democratic ideal of meritocracy reproduce historical inequality? My larger project pursues this question through a historical anthropology of technical education in India. It looks at the operations of caste, the social institution most emblematic of ascriptive hierarchy, within the modern field of engineering education. At the heart of the study are the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, a set of highly coveted engineering colleges that are equally representative of Indian meritocracy and, until recently, of caste exclusivity. In this talk, I argue that the politics of meritocracy at the IITs illuminates the social life of caste in contemporary India. The IIT graduate’s status depends on the transformation of privilege into merit, or the conversion of caste capital into modern capital. Moreover, claims to merit are responses to subaltern assertion.

Analyzing meritocracy in relation to subaltern politics allows us to see the contextual specificity of such claims: at one moment, they are articulated through the disavowal of caste, at another, through caste affiliation. This marking and unmarking of caste suggests a rethinking of meritocracy, typically assumed to be a modernist ideal that disclaims social embeddedness and disdains the particularisms of caste and race. I show instead that claims to collective belonging and to merit are eminently commensurable, and become more so when subaltern assertion forces privilege into the foreground. Rather than the progressive erasure of ascribed identities in favor of putatively universal ones, we are witnessing the rearticulation of caste as an explicit basis for merit and the generation of newly consolidated forms of upper casteness.

A public lecture hosted by the Department of Anthropology, the Middle East/South Asia Studies program (ME/SA), the South Asia Without Borders Initiative, and the Center for Science and Innovation Studies.

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