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A gender-based theory of the origin of the caste system of India

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  • Bidner, Chris
  • Eswaran, Mukesh

Abstract

We propose a theory of the origins of India's caste system by explicitly recognizing the productivity of women in complementing their husbands' occupation-specific skill. The theory explains the core features of the caste system: its hereditary and hierarchical nature, and its insistence on endogamy (marriage only within castes). Endogamy is embraced by a group to minimize an externality that arises when group members marry outsiders. We demonstrate why the caste system embodies gender asymmetries in punishments for violations of endogamy and tolerates hypergamy (marrying up) more than hypogamy (marrying down). Our model also speaks to other aspects of caste, such as commensality restrictions and arranged/child marriages. We suggest that India's caste system is so unique because the Brahmins sought to preserve and orally transmit the Hindu scriptures for over a millennium with no script. We show that economic considerations were of utmost importance in the emergence of the caste system.

Suggested Citation

  • Bidner, Chris & Eswaran, Mukesh, 2015. "A gender-based theory of the origin of the caste system of India," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 114(C), pages 142-158.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:deveco:v:114:y:2015:i:c:p:142-158
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jdeveco.2014.12.006
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    Cited by:

    1. Munshi, K., 2017. "Caste and the Indian Economy," Cambridge Working Papers in Economics 1759, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge.
    2. repec:spr:jopoec:v:32:y:2019:i:3:d:10.1007_s00148-018-0713-0 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Lawson, Nicholas & Spears, Dean, 2019. "Those Who Can't Sort, Steal: Caste, Occupational Mobility, and Rent-Seeking in Rural India," IZA Discussion Papers 12538, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    4. Sampreet Singh Goraya, 2019. "How does Caste Affect Entrepreneurship? Birth vs Worth," Working Papers 1104, Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.
    5. Momoe Makino, 2019. "Marriage, dowry, and women’s status in rural Punjab, Pakistan," Journal of Population Economics, Springer;European Society for Population Economics, vol. 32(3), pages 769-797, July.
    6. Gupta, I. & Veettil, P.C. & Speelman, S., 2018. "Caste, Technology and Social Networks," 2018 Conference, July 28-August 2, 2018, Vancouver, British Columbia 277048, International Association of Agricultural Economists.
    7. repec:gam:jgames:v:9:y:2018:i:4:p:102-:d:190380 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Dasgupta, Indraneel & Pal, Sarmistha, 2018. "Touch Thee Not: Group Conflict, Caste Power, and Untouchability in Rural India," IZA Discussion Papers 12016, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).

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    Keywords

    Caste; Endogamy; Gender;

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