Social Organization

Chapter 19: The Conditions Favoring or
Opposing the Growth of Caste

Charles Horton Cooley

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THERE seem to be three conditions which, chiefly, make for the increase or diminution of the caste principle. These are, first, likeness or unlikeness in the constituents of the population; second, the rate of social change (whether we have to do with a settled or a shifting system), and, finally, the state of communication and enlightenment. Unlikeness in the constituents, a settled system and a low state of communication and enlightenment favor the growth of caste, and vice versa. The first provides natural lines of cleavage and so makes it easier to split into hereditary groups; the second gives inheritance time to consolidate its power, while the third means the absence of those conscious and rational forces which are its chief rivals.

The most important sorts of unlikeness in the constituents of the population are perhaps three: differences in

(218) race; differences, apart from race, due to immigration or conquest, and unlikeness due to the gradual differentiation of social functions within a population originally homogeneous

Two races of different temperament and capacity, distinct to the eye and living side by side in the same community, tend strongly to become castes, no matter how equal the social system may otherwise be. The difference, as being hereditary, answers in its nature to the idea of caste, and the external sign serves to make it conscious and definite.

The race caste existing in the Southern United States illustrates the impotence of democratic traditions to overcome the caste spirit when fostered by obvious physical and psychical differences. This spirit is immeasurably strong on the part of the whites, and there is no apparent prospect of its diminution.

The specially caste nature of the division—as distinguished from those personal differences which democratic tradition recognizes—is seen in the feeling, universal among the whites, that the Negro must be held apart and subordinate not merely as an individual, or any number of individuals, but as a race, a social whole. That is, the fact that many individuals of this race are equal, and some superior, to the majority of whites does not, in the opinion of the latter, make it just or expedient to treat them apart from the mass of their race. To dine with a Negro, to work or play by his side, or to associate in any relation where superiority cannot be asserted, is held to be degrading and of evil example, no matter what kind of Negro he may be. It is the practice and policy of

(219) the dominant race to impress upon the Negro that he belongs by birth to a distinct order out of which he can in no way depart. There or nowhere he must find his destiny If he wishes to mingle with whites it must be as an acknowledged inferior. As a servant he may ride in the same railway car, but as a citizen he may not do so.

Thoughtful whites justify this attitude on the ground, substantially, that a race is an organic whole—bound together by heredity and social connection—and that it is practically necessary to recognize this in dealing with race questions. The integrity of the white race and of white civilization, they say, requires Negro subordination (separation being impracticable), and the only available line of distinction is the definite one of color. A division on this line is even held to be less invidious—as involving no judgment of individuals—as well as more feasible, than one based on personal traits. Particular persons cannot, in practice, be separated from their families and other antecedents, and if they could be the example of mixture on an equal footing would be demoralizing.

This argument is probably sound in so far as it requires the recognition of the two races as being, for some purposes, distinct organisms. In this regard it is perhaps better sociology than the view that every one should be considered solely on his merits as an individual.

At the same time it is only too apparent that our application of this doctrine is deeply colored with that caste arrogance which does not recognize in the Negro a spiritual brotherhood underlying all race difference and possible inferiority." The matter of unequal ability, in races as in individuals, is quite distinct from that sharing in a

(220) common spirit and service from which no human being can rightly or Christianly be excluded. The idea that he is fundamentally a man like the rest of us cannot and should not be kept from the Negro any more than from other lowly orders of people. Science, religion and the democratic spirit all give him a right to it; and the white man cannot deny it to him without being false to his own best self. Anything in our present attitude which does deny it we must hope to be transitory, since it is calculated, in a modern atmosphere, to generate continuing disquiet and hatred. It belonged with slavery and is incongruous with the newer world.

These may be subtleties, but subtlety is the very substance of the race question, the most vital matter being not so much what is done as the spirit in which it is done.

The practical question here is not that of abolishing castes but of securing just and kindly relations between them, of reconciling the fact of caste with ideals of freedom and right. This is difficult but not evidently impossible, and a right spirit, together with a government firmly repressive of the lower passions of both races, should go far to achieve it. There seems to be no reason in the nature of things why divergent races, like divergent individuals, should not unite in a common service of the ideals to which all human nature bears allegiance—I mean ideals of kindness, fair play and so on. And the white man, in claiming superiority, assumes the chief responsibility for bringing this state of things to pass.

When peoples of the same race mingle by migration, the effect, as regards classes, depends chiefly on their

(221) states of civilization and the character of the migration as hostile or friendly. The peaceful advent of kindred settlers, like the English immigrants to the United States, creates no class divisions. If they differ in language and customs, like the Germans, or are extremely poor and ignorant, like many of the Irish, they are held apart for a time and looked down upon, but as they establish themselves and gradually prove their substantial equality with the natives, they may become indistinguishable from the latter. Of recent years, however, the arrival by millions of peoples somewhat more divergent especially Italians, Slavs and Jews—has introduced distinctions in which race as well as culture plays an appreciable part.

Much depends, of course, upon the special character of the institutions and traditions that thus come into contact. Some societies are rigid and repellent in their structure, while others, like the United States, are almost ideally constituted to invite and hasten assimilation.

Conquest has been one of the main sources of caste the world over. The hostile tradition it leaves may continue indefinitely; servile functions are commonly forced upon the conquered, and the consciousness of superiority leads the conquerors to regard intermarriage as shameful. A servile caste, strictly hereditary, existed even among the primitive German tribes from which most of us are descended, and intermarriage with freemen was severely punished. " The Lombard," says Mr. Gummere, "killed a serf who ventured to marry a free woman, . . . West Goths and Burgundians scourged and burnt them both,

(222) while the Saxons punished an unequal marriage of any sort with death of man and wife." [1]

The unlikeness out of which caste grows may not be l original, as in the case of race difference or conquest but may arise gradually by the differentiation of a homogeneous people. Any distinct social group, having its special group sympathies and traditions, has some tendency to pass on its functions and ideas to the children of its members, promoting association and intermarriage among them, and thus taking on a caste character.

Accordingly, any increase in the complexity of social functions—political, religious, military or industrial— such as necessarily accompanies the enlargement of a social system, may have a caste tendency, because it separates the population into groups corresponding to the several functions; and this alone may without doubt produce caste if the conditions are otherwise favorable.

Something of this sort seems to have followed upon the conquest by the Germanic tribes of Roman territory, and the consequent necessity of administering a more complex system than their own. As the new order took shape it showed a tendency toward more definite inheritance of rank and function than existed in the tribal society. This was due partly, no doubt, to the influence of Roman traditions, but the very nature of the civilization required it. That is, functions became more diverse and of such a character as to separate the citizens into distinct classes, the principal ones being warriors of various degrees (combining military functions with the control of land), clergy,

(223) artisans and peasants. The military and landholding class, uniting the force of arms with that of wealth, naturally dominated the others; the artisans, especially in the towns, maintained a free status which served later as the nucleus of a democratic tendency; the peasants became serfs. As the conditions did not permit organization on any free or open principle—there being little facility of travel, diffusion of knowledge or unfixed wealth—the hereditary principle naturally prevailed. Only the clergy, monopolizing most of the knowledge and communication of the time and fortified by celibacy against inheritance, maintained a comparatively open organization. It is well known that lands, and the local rule that went with them, held at first as a personal trust, gradually became a family property, and we are told that when the Emperor Conrad, in 1037, issued his edict making chiefs hereditary in Italy, he only did for the south "by a single stroke what gradual custom and policy had slowly procured for the north."[2] Offices, armorial devices and other privileges generally followed the same course, and the servile status of serfs was also transmitted to children.

The feudal system was based on inheritance of function and had two well-defined castes, the knightly, consisting originally of those whose ability to maintain a horse and equipment placed them in the rank of effective warriors, and the servile. Between these marriage was impossible Intercourse of any kind was scanty and, on the part of the superior order, contemptuous. "A boy of knightly birth was reared in ceremony. From his earliest childhood he learnt to look upon himself and his equals as of a differ-

(224)-ent degree and almost of a different nature from his fellow creatures who were not of gentle condition. Heraldic pride and the distinction of degree were among his first impressions," [3] Socially and psychologically the mediaeval nobility lived in their caste, not in the world at large. It was the sphere of the social self; the knight looked to it and not to a general public for sympathy and recognition: he was far closer in spirit to the chivalry of hostile nations than to the commons of his own. But the plain people were out of all this, and were regarded with a contempt at least as great as that felt in our day for the Negro at the South. The whole institution of chivalry, with its attendant ideas, ideals and literature, was a thing of caste which recognized no common humanity in the lower orders of society, and whatever it did for the world in the way of developing the knightly ideal of valor, devotion and courtesy—an ideal later transformed into that of the gentleman and now coming to pervade all classes—was a product of caste spirit.

The feudal courts, large and small, the tournaments, festivals and military expeditions, including the crusades, were facilities of communication through which this caste, not only in single countries but throughout Europe, was enabled to have a common thought and sentiment.

Without doubt, however, the lower caste had also its unity and organization, its group traditions, customs and standards; mostly lost to us because they never achieved a literary record. This was an inarticulate caste; but it is probable that village communities were the spheres of a

(225) vigorous cooperative life in which the best traits of human nature were fostered.

In India also the elaborate caste systems, although due in part to conquest, seem also to have come about by the hardening of occupation-classes. The priests, powerful because of their supposed intercourse with superhuman powers, taught their mystic traditions to their children and so built up a hereditary corporation, known, finally, as the Brahman caste. The military caste was apparently formed in a similar manner, while in industry "veneration for parental example and the need of an exact transmission of methods " [4] rendered all employments hereditary. In fact, says one writer, the caste system was in its origin "simply an instinctive effort for the organization of labor."[5] In the case of so intricate a caste society as that of India much may also be ascribed to the reaction of the theory upon the system. When the idea that caste is natural had become prevalent and sanctified, it tended to create caste where it would not otherwise have existed.

A settled state of society is favorable, and change hostile, to the growth of caste, because it is necessary that functions should be continuous through several generations before the principle of inheritance can become fixed. Whatever breaks up existing customs and traditions tends to abolish hereditary privilege and throw men into a rough struggle, out of which strong, coarse natures emerge as victors, to found, perhaps, a new aristocracy. Thus the conquest of southern Europe by northern

(226) tribes led to a period of somewhat confused readjustment, in which men of natural power bettered their status. The classes which emerged were as much the result of competition as derived by inheritance from those of tribal society. And so the openness of classes in our own day may be due as much to confusion as to a permanent decline in the caste principle.

That a low state of communication and of enlightenment are favorable to caste, while intelligence—especially political intelligence—and facility of intercourse antagonize it, becomes evident when we consider what, psychologically speaking, caste is. It is an organization of the social mind on a biological principle. That functions should follow the line of descent instead of adjusting themselves to individual capacity and preference, evidently means the subordination of reason to convenience, of freedom to order. The ideal principle is not biological but moral, based, that is, on the spiritual gifts of individuals without regard to descent. Caste, then, is something which, we may assume, will give way to this higher principle whenever the conditions are such as to permit the latter to work successfully; and this will be the case when the population is so mobilized by free training and institutions that just and orderly selection is practicable

The diffusion of intelligence, rapid communication, the mobilization of wealth by means of money, and the like, mark the ascendancy of the human mind over material and biological conditions. Popular government becomes possible, commercial and industrial functions—other things equal—come under more open competition, and

(227) free personal development of all sorts is fostered. The general sentiment also, perceiving the superiority of free organization to caste, becomes definitely hostile to the latter and antagonizes it by public educational and other Opportunities. The most effective agent in keeping classes comparatively open is an adequate system of free training for the young, tending to make all careers accessible to those who are naturally fit for them. In so far as there is such a system early education becomes a process of selection and discipline which permits ability to serve its possessor and the world in its proper place. In our own society—we may note in passing—this calls for a great development of public education, especially in the way of trade schools and the like, and also for an effective campaign against child-labor, bad housing and whatever else shuts off opportunity.

But before this mobility is achieved, caste is perhaps the only possible basis for an elaborate social structure; the main flow of thought is then necessarily in local channels The people cannot grasp the life of which they are a part in any large way, or have a free and responsible share in it, but are somewhat mechanically held in place by habit and tradition. Those special relations to the system of government, religion or industry which are implied in classes, since they cannot be determined by rational selection must be fixed in some traditional way, and the most available is the inheritance of functions.

We may expect, then, that complex, stationary societies of low mental organization will tend toward caste. That this is true, in a general way, is shown by the prevalence of

(228) caste in Oriental nations to-day, and in the later history of the great empires of antiquity. It goes without saying that each society has its peculiarities which only special study could elucidate


  1. Germanic Origins, 154
  2. Tout, The Empire and The Papacy, 59.
  3. Cornish, Chivalry, 183.
  4. Samuel Johnson, Oriental Religions, India, 241.
  5. Ibid.

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