Practice Question – Critically evaluate Louis Dumont`s Homo Hierarchicus . (UPSC 2013)

Approach  – Introduction, Explain Homo Hierarchicus and its relevance, Illustrate its validity, Criticism, Conclusion.



Louis Dumont (1911-1998) an eminent sociologist and Indologist was a towering figure in the fields of sociology and anthropology in the world. His focus of debate has been India and the West. As a study of the caste system in India, Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus offers several new perspectives of social structure. The notions of ideology and tradition are intrinsic parts of his paradigm. He has brought the method of structuralism to bear upon his study of the caste system. Dumont seeks the ideology of caste in Indology and in the assumption of the unity of Indian civilization. Defining ideology according to him it designates a more or less unified set of ideas and values. Indian civilization is a specific ideology whose components are in a binary opposition to that of the West – Modern against traditional, holism against individualism, hierarchy against equality, purity against pollution, status against power etc. This opposition is basis for comparison at the level of global ideology within the specific ideology of the caste system. The opposite is between the principles of purity and pollution. The notion of hierarchy has a pivotal place in Dumont’s study of caste system. Hierarchy implies opposition between pure and impure which also determines its dialectics. It also suggests the relationship of encompassing and being encompassed. In the caste system the principle of purity encompasses the impure.



Dumont’s main areas of interest are social anthropology and Indology. He has written on wide range of subjects such as Hinduism, caste, kinship and social and political movements in India. The major works are
• La Tarasque 1951
• Hierarchy and marriage alliance in South India
• Homo Hierarchicus-The caste system and its implications.
• Religion, politics and history in India: collected papers in Indian Sociology
• Homo Aequalis



  • 1. Ideology and structure
  • 2. Dialectic transformational relationship and comparison
  • 3. Indological and structuralist approach
  • 4. Cognitive historical approach



The Caste System and Its Implications (1966) is an unusual work of Dumont in its conception, design and execution. This is a complete, theoretical work that helps us to access the vast body of available ethnographic data on caste. This work is different from others as it begins with a cardinal explan­atory principle – hierarchy – and wholly sets out to build a model. Hierarchy is said to distinguish Indian society from ‘modern’ societies whose fundamental social principle is equality. The major theme of this review can be anticipated thus: any hierarchy, like any equalitarian system, is opposed by those who see its effect upon themselves as disadvantageous, no matter how loudly or piously it is advocated by those who benefit from it. Those low in a hierar­chical system universally see it as disadvantageous to themselves and object either to the system or to the manner in which it is applied to themselves. Any social hierarchy, then, is perpetrated and perpetuated by elites and is struggled against as circumstances permit, by those they oppress. This is true in India and anywhere else.



Dumont starts with Bougie’s definition of caste and says that it divides the whole Indian society into a larger number of hereditary groups distinguished from one another and connected together by three characteristics:

  • (a) Separation on the basis of rules of the caste in matters of marriage and contact, whether direct or indirect (food);
  • (b) Interdependent of work or division of labour, each group having, in theory or by tradition, a profession from which their members can depart only within certain limits; and
  • (c) Finally, gradation of status or hierarchy, which ranks the groups as relatively superior or inferior to one another.

Dumont views that this definition indicates the main apparent characteristics of the caste system. He describes mainly three things:

  • 1. India is composed of many small territories and castes;
  • 2. Every caste is limited to particular and definite geographic area
  • 3. Marrying outside one’s own caste is not possible in the caste system

In fact, Dumont highlights the ‘state of mind’, which is expressed by the emergence in various situations of castes. He calls caste system as a system of ‘ideas and values’, which is a ‘formal comprehensible rational system’. His analysis is based on a single principle, i.e., the opposition of pure and impure. This opposition underlies ‘hierarchy’, which means superiority of the pure and inferiority of impure. This principle also underlies ‘separation’, which means pure and the impure must be kept separate.

Dumont felt that the study of the caste system is useful for the knowledge of India, and it is an important task of general sociology. He focused on the need to understand the ideology of caste as reflected in the classical texts, historical examples etc. He advocated the use of an Indological and structuralist approach to the study of caste system and village social structure in India. He viewed that ‘Indian sociology’ is that specialized branch which stands at the confluence of Indology and sociology and which he advocates as the right type of ‘mix’ prerequisite to the understanding of Indian sociology. From this perspective, Dumont himself, in his Homo Hierarchicus, has built up a model of Indian civilization, which is based on a non-competitive ritual hierarchical system. Dumont’s analysis of caste system is based on the classical literature, historical examples etc.



The notions of purity and pollution are critical for defining and understanding caste hierarchy. According to these concepts, Brahmins hold the highest rank and Shudras the lowest in the caste hierarchy. The Varna System represents a social stratification which includes four varnas namely- Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras. The Shudras were allocated the lowest rank of social ladder and their responsibilities included service of the three Varnas. The superior castes tried to maintain their ceremonial purity. Dumont holds the notion of purity and pollution interlinked with the caste system and untouchability. The hierarchy of caste is decided according to the degree of purity and pollution. It plays a very crucial role in maintaining the required distance between different castes. But the pollution distance varies from caste to caste and from place to place. Dipankar Gupta observes that the notion of purity and pollution as Dumont observed is integrally linked with the institution of untouchability .But unlike untouchability the notion of purity and pollution is also
a historical accretion. Over time this notion freed itself from its specific and original task of separating untouchables from the others and began to be operative at different planes of the caste system. The concept of purity and pollution plays a very crucial role in maintaining the required distance between different castes. But the pollution distance varies from caste to caste and from place to place.



  1. Gupta says that Dumont’s understanding of the hierarchy of caste is not right.
  2. In some of his work, it shows that Dumont thinks the caste system in Indian society has not changed but in reality, it has changed over time.
  3. Bailey and Yogendra Singh that Dumont has left many key ideas in the sociology approach to provide into Sociology of Development.
  4. Dumont’s contradicting ideas of purity and impurity are not universal.
  5. Dumont left out many protest movements that took place in Indian history as he questioned the ideology behind the caste division.
  6. McKim Marriott opposed Homo Hierarchicus as he thinks it is all noted down from a textual perspective of social science.



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