INEQ Research Seminar 25 April 2024

Join us for the INEQ Research Seminar addressing inequalities relating to the Indian caste system.
Caste system: Indian exceptionalism or a complex system of durable and structural inequalities?

When & Where 

10:00 – 12:00 on Thursday April 25, 2024 
Format: Zoom link to be sent to all registered participants. 

Please register your participation here by April 23, 2024.


Historically, the caste system has been perceived as a hierarchical social system linked to Hinduism. However, this limiting view obscures the complexity of this system, where structural inequalities intersect to ensure that they are durable across generations. Indeed, the contemporary links between the caste system and the occupational mobility of historically marginalized “Dalits” or “untouchables” and people from lower castes show how the caste system is institutionalized, affecting the social mobility of people across generations. The social justice movement led by Dr B.R Ambedkar successfully obtained legal rights and constitutional protection for people who belonged to these marginalized communities through affirmative action in post-independence India. But with the persistence of caste-based inequalities in contemporary India and the nexus with neoliberal capitalism, people belonging to higher castes manage to control resources and opportunities in their favor through social capital acquired through unearned privileges of higher social status and social and occupational mobility. Therefore, the caste system can be articulated with other similar complex systems of structural and durable inequalities like racism, ableism, and gender bias, whereby resources and opportunities are accessible to a select few who are a historically privileged section of the population.

This panel will revolve around the caste system as a complex system of durable and structural inequalities and how these inequalities are reproduced in post-independent India through network-based economic systems and neoliberal ideologies of industrialization and economic redistribution. Although agrarian transformation in rural India has led to some social and economic change and even a decrease in poverty, the caste system has not been erased from the face of contemporary India. Instead, individuals have been hierarchized based on their economic status and cultural and social capital, which are interrelated and affect the social and occupational mobility of erstwhile “Dalits” and people who belonged to lower castes. 

The speakers of this panel will tackle this complex issue through a postcolonial and intersectional lens, articulate this theme to current trends of research in inequality studies and decolonization, and discuss it in depth.


Social Mobility and Caste - Divya Vaid

Opportunities for social mobility are an essential indicator of openness in a society. Social mobility has often been studied as the intra- or inter-generational movement between strata. Within the Indian context, studies have looked at the social mobility of entire caste groups or individuals from different castes. Drawing on macro-level data, this talk begins by exploring the intersection between caste and social class in contemporary India and whether this has evolved over time. It then moves on to study the patterns of social mobility of women and men from various castes and the changes in these patterns over time. The critical question here is whether certain castes are disadvantaged when it comes to social class mobility opportunities. The third part of the talk focuses on the impact of caste, class of origin, gender, locality, and education on access to professional occupations where there is a higher expectation that ‘merit’ would matter more than ascription. The final section of the talk briefly discusses the significance of space and spatial mobility, which can constrain or boost social mobility chances.

Caste and its Reproduction in Contemporary India - Surinder S. Jodhka

Social science literature on caste tends to view it as a peculiar institution of the Hindus of India, emanating from their tradition and religious beliefs inscribed in ancient scriptures. Such view ipso facto also presumes that the processes of modernisation, development of industrial capitalism, and the accompanying urbanisation processes would/should end caste, helping India move from a closed system of social hierarchy to an open system of social stratification based on individual merit and achievement. 

Drawing from a large volume of rent writings and my empirical work on aspects of caste in contemporary India, I hope to show in my presentation that such an understanding of caste is empirically and conceptually flawed. It is grounded on the assumptions of Indian exceptionalism, primarily drawn from the orientalist framings of the South Asian region and colonial theories of the things Indian. Such a framing of caste also denies the possibility of approaching it from a comparative perspective, it being similar/comparable to ascriptive hierarchies in many other (if not all) societies.  


Associate Professor Divya Vaid, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

Divya Vaid is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has an MSc and a DPhil from Oxford, UK. She has held postdoctoral positions at the Department of Sociology at Yale University and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Her research interests include the study of social mobility and inequalities, educational attainment, work, economy and the labour market, gendered inequalities, and class and political participation, with an interest in applying quantitative and mixed methods. Her work has appeared in the Annual Review of SociologyContemporary South AsiaAsian Survey, Studies in Indian Politics and the Economic and Political Weekly, among others. She is the author of Uneven Odds: Social Mobility in Contemporary India, OUP, 2018, and has co-edited a volume on Marginalities and Mobilities Among India’s Muslims, Routledge, 2023.

Professor Surinder S. Jodhka, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Surinder S. Jodhka is a full Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Professor Jodhka has received numerous honours and awards, including the Amartya Sen Award, which was conferred to him by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (2012). He was invited to deliver Radhakrishna Memorial Lectures at the University of Oxford in 2018. He also served as visiting professor and chair of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations at the University of Lund in Sweden between 2012-2013 and as visiting associate professor at the University of Bergen, Norway, in 2005. He researches different dimensions of social inequalities, contemporary caste dynamics, agrarian change, rural India, and the political sociology of community identities. His work has been published in Journals such as Economic and Political Weekly, Journal of Peasant Studies, Current Sociology, and Oxford Development Studies. He has authored/edited more than 20 books. His most recent books include The Oxford Handbook of Caste. OUP 2023 (edited with Jules Naudet); The Indian Village: Rural Lives in the 21st Century. Aleph 2023; India’s Villages in the 21st Century: Revisits and Revisions OUP 2019 (edited with Edward Simpson); Mapping the Elite: Power, Privilege, and Inequality. OUP 2019 (edited with Jules Naudet); Contested Hierarchies: Caste and Power in the 21st Century. Orient Blackswan 2018 (co-edited with James Manor). Inequality in Capitalist Societies. Routledge 2018 (co-authored with Boike Rehbien and Jesse Souza). The Indian Middle-Class OUP 2016 (co-authored with Aseem Prakash); Caste in Contemporary India Routledge 2015; Caste: Oxford India Short Introductions. OUP 2012. He is the editor of the Routledge India book series on ‘Religion and Citizenship’ and co-editor of the OUP book series on ‘Exploring India’s Elite’. 


Associate Professor Johanna Rainio-Niemi, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki

Johanna Rainio-Niemi is an Associate Professor of Political History at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki. She is also one of the professors of the Helsinki Inequality Initiative (INEQ) and has vast experience in studying the history of the Nordic welfare states. Her research interests range from histories of crisis governance comparing the Finnish and Swedish contexts, histories of democracy, comparative and connected history and cross-societal history methodologies. She is one of the principal investigators of a research project funded by the Academy of Finland from 2023 to 2026 for strengthening university research profiles (PROFI) and titled “WellKnowHow: State Committees Institution in Finland and Sweden: A Case for Inclusive Democracy and Good Quality Policy Preparation?”. Her work has been published in several journals such as the European Journal of Modern History, The Defence Horizon Journal, Kosmopolis, Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Journal of Cold War Studies, International Studies in Social and Social Anthropology and Historiallinen Aikakauskirja. Her most recent journal article in The Defence Horizon Journal in 2023, titled “Neutrality Law in a Comparative Perspective: Austria, Switzerland and Finland”, explores legal issues by comparing these three political contexts. 

Mari Metso, PhD researcher, University of Eastern Finland, President of Dalit Solidarity Network in Finland

Mari Metso is a PhD researcher at the University of Eastern Finland and is working on “Dalit women in special religious positions transforming caste and gender boundaries in contemporary India”. She has been a board member of the Dalit Solidarity Network in Finland since 2016. Recently, she was selected to join the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) board. Currently, she is the chair of the Finnish network and is responsible for advocating awareness about caste issues in Finland, e.g., in global supply chains. Her research interests relate to caste within minority religions in India, feminist Dalit theology, Dalit women’s agency and leadership, urban forms of caste and gender discrimination, and caste in modern yoga.


Mandira Halder, visiting researcher, University of Helsinki       

Mandira Halder obtained a Ph.D. in Educational Sciences from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in 2024 on teacher multilingualism and German in a primary context of French-speaking Switzerland. She is a visiting researcher at the Helsinki Inequality Initiative (INEQ), University of Helsinki, and a guest lecturer at the Swedish School of Social Sciences and Communication (Soc&Kom). Her research interests lie in foreign language didactics, teacher education, raciolinguistics, social inequalities, multilingualism, social justice, and migration.