BOOK REVIEW: Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus


Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Complete Revised English edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Louis Dumont expands upon his fieldwork on the Pramalai Kallars of South India in 1949 (Une sous-caste de l’Inde du Sud) and the Indological literature on caste to produce his theoretical study of caste and hierarchy, Homo Hierarchicus. Dumont engages with the historiography of India and sociological theories of J.H. Hutton, M.N. Srinivas, McKim Marriott, Emile Durkheim, and Eugene Weber. With the question of ‘caste’ as the central problematic, Dumont argues that caste is not social stratification, but a system of hierarchy based on inequality. As stated in his preface, Dumont attempts to move away from Western, exogenous concepts of social class to understand caste as a total social fact. Dumont sought to ‘isolate’, study, and develop new theories on ‘hierarchy’ and at the core, concepts of the pure and impure—what he believed to be the predominant ideological facet of the Indian social system. (Dumont, xxi).

Dumont begins his study by framing the essential questions of the individual, society, equality, and hierarchy within the study of caste. Through this introductory reference to the Victorian evolutionary concepts of the ‘unity of mankind,’ Dumont demonstrates his Maussian and Durkheimian influences to study hierarchy to reveal larger ‘elementary aspects’ of society. Furthermore, Dumont’s introductory chapter demonstrates his comparative approach that carries on throughout the work; rather than a focused historical study of Indian caste, Dumont examines social relations and hierarchy in order to make theoretical comparisons and conclusions. This is most evident in his question of the individual. Dumont argues that ‘traditional’ societies emphasize society as a whole, collective Man, and how individuals fit within order and hierarchy. Meanwhile ‘modern’ societies emphasize the individual as the ”indivisible elementary man.” (Dumont, 11) The concept of the individual is core to the progression of Dumont’s analysis on equality and hierarchy.[1] Dumont argues that hierarchy emerges from a consensus of values and ideas and is essential to social life. In this way, hierarchy reveals elementary aspects of society since “hierarchy encompasses social agents and social categories.” (Dumont, 20)

Dumont defines caste as a pan-Indian institution, a “system of ideas and values, a formal, comprehensible rational system.” (Dumont, 35) Most importantly, he explains how caste groups are distinguished from and connected to one another through (1) separation of matters of marriage and contact, (2) division of labor, traditions, and professions, and (3) hierarchy ranking groups as relatively superior or inferior to one another. Dumont argues that this last aspect of hierarchy is the most important and is manifested in the separation between the pure and impure.

Expanding on the concept of hierarchy, Dumont distinguishes between Western ideas of hierarchy as progressive subordination and Indian theories of hierarchy. Rather than hierarchy resting upon western ideas of linear power and authority, Dumont connects Indian hierarchy to religious values, the four varnas, and the relationship to the whole. Building upon McKim Marriott’s interactional theories of rank, Dumont explains that hierarchy is the “principle by which the elements of a whole are ranked in relation to the whole.” (Dumont 91) Dumont later expands upon the idea of the hierarchy and relationship to the whole in his example of the jajmani system. Dumont describes the jajmani system not as economics, but as a hereditary system of labor and relationships, of prestations and counter-prestations. Dumont explains that the system is “founded on an implicit reference to the whole, which, in its nature, is religious, or if one prefers, a matter of ultimate values.” (Dumont 106) However, Dumont does not disregard concepts of politics and power in its entirety and disaggregates the authority between and within caste groups. Religious authority, Dumont argues, rests within the hands of the Brahmans and temporal authority in the hands of kings, judges, and law of dharma. Furthermore, the unit of the village has intricate, plural forms of authority rather than simply linear. (Dumont, 182)

The conclusion chapter returns to the possibility to compare and export the idea of caste to other societies. Dumont reminds the reader that throughout the book, he had attempted to understand the indigenous concepts, values, and ideas of social groups and social facts, “bound together in a structural whole.” (Dumont, 201) Additionally, he had linked caste to Hindu beliefs about pure and impure. Dumont reasserts the difference between caste and ‘social stratification’, where the concept of caste is tied deeply to the relationship between status and power. In this way, is Dumont attempting to write an ethnosociology of Indian caste, or does he still privilege a Western lens in his repeated comparison to social stratification?


[1] Rousseau on Equality: “The ideal of liberty and equality follows immediately from the conception of man as an individual. In effect, if the whole of humanity is deemed present in each man, then each man should be free and all men are equal. This is the foundation of the two great ideals of the modern age. By contrast, as soon as a collective end is adopted by several men, their liberty is limited and their equality brought into question.” P. 11. However, later Dumont explains how equality is a ‘superior’ idea, but essentially ‘artificial.’

One comment

  1. Your concise and crisp write-up helped me a great deal to understand Dumont’s perspective on caste. Thanks for the effort!

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