Accepted paper:

Hierarchy redux

Author:

Anastasia Piliavsky (King's College London)

Paper short abstract:

In the anthropology of South Asia Dumont—and hierarchy—is but a horse not worth flogging. I argue that while Dumont’s total social edifice was rightly abandoned, the removal of hierarchy from our arsenal of analytical tools obscures the relational principle of mutual dependence across differences of rank, which has not lost its force.

Paper long abstract:

In the anthropology of South Asia Louis Dumont is but a horse not worth flogging. His Homo Hierarchicus remains on student reading lists largely as a lesson in how not to think: how not to generalise, essentialise, and ‘Orientalise’ India, how not to treat it as a timeless totality inimical to history and political change. Indian homo, write anthropologists, is hierarchicus no more. The arrival of democracy, public sphere, civil society, and other goods of political modernity have flattened the pyramid of ranked interdependence into a collection of increasingly independent ‘societies’ (samaaj) or ‘ethnic groups’, which castes have become. In this paper I argue that while Dumont’s total social edifice built of purity and pollution was rightly abandoned, the relational principles he said were constitutive of hierarchy were discarded at a cost to our understanding of India. If the story of ‘flattening’ of India’s hierarchies captures much of the plotline in South Asia’s changing recent past, the removal of hierarchy from our arsenal of analytical tools has obscured the relational principles of mutual dependence and intimacy across differences of rank which have not lost all their force.

panel P018
What to do with 'old' anthropology? Zeitgeist, knowledge and time