Pioneer of caste studies

Gerald Berreman (1930-2013) was a proponent of socially responsible anthropology who spent 40 years studying the caste system in India.

Published : Feb 05, 2014 12:30 IST

Gerald Berreman.

Gerald Berreman.

“A SOFT and gentle man has passed,” said a tribute by a former student on Facebook, reflecting the love and respect Professor Emeritus Gerald Berreman commanded at the University of California, Berkeley. Berreman, 83, succumbed to a long-term illness on December 23, 2013, at an assisted living home in El Cerrito in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A proponent of socially responsible anthropology, Berreman’s work on institutionalised inequality in the context of caste, class, race, gender and ethnicity was hard-hitting compared with his soft persona and much ahead of its time.

Berreman first came to India in 1954 where he attempted to correlate race relations in the United States with the caste system of India, and he spent 40 years exploring and writing about the “twice-born castes and untouchables” in Sirkanda, a remote village in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. In his own words, he was “pursuing a longitudinal study of social inequality (caste, class and gender) and environment in their historical context in Sirkanda”. He also focussed on the ethnic diversity and inequality in the urban setting of the central bazaar of Dehradun and its surroundings.

Berreman belonged to a new breed of Western scholars who tried to give an accurate account of the caste system as it existed. This marked a step up in critical engagement from the earlier ethnocentric or polemical observations of the Indian scenario that most discomfited the Western viewers. The writings of earlier European observers were mainly descriptive, anecdotal and superficial. “Most U.S. observers who wrote about India in the middle of the 20th century saw the place through Gandhian eyes. They tended to be somewhat sentimental about all things Indian, including the caste system, which they regarded as a benevolent tradition, or at least one which Dalits were happy to accept. Berreman was one of the few people writing about India in the U.S. who understood the Ambedkarite position, and he was wonderfully articulate about it,” according to Prof. Daniel Immerwahr of Northwestern University, Illinois.

Immerwahr is coming out with a book with Harvard University Press about U.S. development policy in India. “There again, Berreman is the hidden hero. His ‘Caste and Community Development’ article from 1963 just gets everything right, in my view. He saw the ways in which caste (which, remember, most U.S. observers weren’t bothered by) would inevitably interfere with any attempts to devolve development planning to the panchayats. Which is pretty much what happened in the 1950s,” he says.

‘Lifelong commitment’

Berreman was informed and influenced by the movements against the war in Vietnam and apartheid and those for civil rights in the U.S. and free speech. In 1959, Berreman joined the faculty at Berkeley and remained there for 41 years, retiring in 2001. To friends and family, he was Gerry, a humane and humorous person. Prof. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, in her remembrance on the UC Berkeley anthropology page, states: “Gerry’s lifelong commitment to the study of social inequality alongside his masterful theoretical and methodological contributions to anthropological ‘symbolic interactionism’ shaped and transformed generations of Berkeley graduate students, among whom I was extremely lucky and grateful to have been numbered.”

Berreman’s methodology consisted of long-term anthropological investigations in rural areas. He described the caste system as “a hierarchy of endogamous divisions in which membership is hereditary and permanent”. His work on the issues of development and the environment led to an engagement with the non-violent Chipko movement in India, and in 1989, Berreman informed the world that “by the time the movement began, this region of India was undergoing a series of changes, all surrounding development activities, which caused depletion of the forests, erosion of the soil, drying up of water resources, pre-emption of the firewood, the fodder, and building materials, and co-optation or destruction of much of the viable agricultural land and pasture”.

In 2011, Immerwahr interviewed Berreman, who told him that the racism he had seen in Montgomery, Alabama, where he had lived for a while, resembled the casteism in Sirkanda: “.... I really think the experiences of blacks and untouchables are phenomenally similar.”

“In India, when he studied it, there had been lynching—not quite as in the United States, but similar,” Immerwahr writes. “A blacksmith (an untouchable) was suspected of having a sexual relationship with a high-caste woman. One night, the blacksmith and this woman (who claimed to be his disciple) were ambushed and badly beaten. They escaped the village, but barely,” Berreman told Immerwahr.

During their interactions, Berreman made it clear that he missed India terribly and, with great pride, showed Immerwahr the framed photographs on his wall of Indian friends that he had taken over the years. Berreman told Immerwahr that he became interested in India because of the debate between Oliver Cox and Lloyd Warner. “I could not believe that black [Dalits] people would accept their situation. It’s a ridiculous idea that you could treat people that way, and anybody that gets to know untouchables in India would back me up. But, of course, they have to use all of the ruses and mechanisms to survive that blacks in the South use.” Berreman said: “The main reason that untouchables aren’t more assertive about their rights is that they face retribution if they do.”

Racial bias in U.S. Air Force

A transcript of Immerwahr’s interview with Berreman states:

“He had lived in Montgomery, Alabama, because he was stationed there for the Air Force. He was in an Air Force unit that had a lot of social scientists in it, and he saw this as a way to avoid actual combat in Korea. Berreman’s role was to research efficiency. But he was interested in race relations coming into it and became even more interested once he arrived in Montgomery, as he had never been to the South before. The first day he went into the Air Force, the guy who introduced Berreman to his job was Alphonso Pinkney, the black sociologist, who would later go on to write a lot about racism. Pinkney and Berreman were of the same rank (second lieutenant) and they did a lot of social scientific research together. They sent regular letters to [Dwight] Eisenhower, in which they gave information about racism on the base. The base was ostensibly integrated but it was not actually so. They would send letters to a ‘Major Green’, circumventing the colonel who was in charge of them. Berreman got called in and reprimanded for this. Pinkney and Berreman used the fact that one of them was black and another was white to study and undermine the system. Berreman lived in an all-white area, but the two of them had all kinds of projects to test the extent of racism. They tested the gas station, the bathrooms, the barber shop, etc., by sending in one of them and then the other to see if they were treated differently. This was all in areas that were ostensibly integrated. Pinkney was always getting into trouble, and Berreman had a lot more security and power within the Air Force. Once, a black soldier came to Berreman’s office and asked to sit down. He took off his boot and had a message written there. He was a soldier who was in trouble and felt he was being discriminated against (which he was). They created a record of how often they were told to quit investigating discrimination and inequality within the military. ‘We were really buddies, and he’s one of my best friends. Ultimately, he was put into an Air Force psychiatric hospital in Ohio.’ But the military psychiatrist let him out. He was never officially discharged; he was just told to leave. He was accused of being a Communist and called the general who thus accused him a ‘son of a bitch’. He got hit for that. But Pinkney got a PhD at Cornell and has written a bunch of books since.”

Berreman named the poet Ved Prakash Vatuk as someone who saw things the way he did. In his homage, Vatuk praised Gerry for having “supported the freedom of Indians… Vietnamese, Cubans, blacks of the U.S. and Brazilian Indians. During the Vietnam crisis, his dignified method of non-cooperation was apparent. He not only opposed the war but he refused to train Peace Corps Volunteers going to India because he thought that a nation which was annihilating a people in one country cannot be truly interested in doing good to another. His friends chose power, money and comfort, while he laid his life on the line to voice the fears and hopes of the downtrodden” (as quoted by Nancy Scheper-Hughes).

The anthropologist Nathaniel Roberts, based at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, in Göttingen, Germany, is editing a volume that brings together some of Berreman’s lesser-known and inaccessible writings.

“His most cited piece is ‘The Brahmanical View of Caste’ [ Contributions to Indian Sociology , n.s. 5, 1971, pages 16-23]. This has some good lines that are often quoted, but to focus on this one article (a critique of Louis Dumont) is to miss out on his much more serious writings. The purpose of my edited volume is in fact to bring these other pieces to light,” he told Frontline .

Roberts says that though Berreman did not cite B.R. Ambedkar, or draw explicitly from his work, his conclusions and Ambedkar’s are highly compatible. “One could say that they independently came to many of the same conclusions because the realities they focussed on were one and the same.”

Berreman was a contemporary of the anthropologists Louis Dumont and McKim Marriott and the sociologists M.N. Srinivas and André Béteille. One of Berreman’s last published papers was something he wrote for the memorial service in Delhi for M.N. Srinivas, who passed away in 1999. The topic he chose to speak on was affirmative action (America’s version of reservation): “Inequality in America: Action and Reaction”. “While he was friends with most of them, he did not agree with them on all things. Another contemporary, the recently deceased Owen Lynch, also worked on Dalits and reached conclusions similar to those of Gerry. He too was never given the recognition that his work merited, largely because his research on Dalits swam against the orthodoxies of his day,” said Roberts.

Caste as a lived reality

Michael Collins, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of South Asia Studies looking at Dalit movements in Tamil Nadu, says early analyses often interpreted caste as an ideational system that pivoted around values of purity and pollution, a holistic approach that Berreman vociferously contested.

“In his influential critique of Louis Dumont, Berreman (1971) emphasised that caste exists empirically through lived experience and because power, economy and politics are not epiphenomenal to caste, ritual hierarchy cannot be independently bracketed from such forms of power, which is precisely what Dumont had suggested. While many scholars had generalised or, moreover, essentialised Hinduism and caste by mining key texts like Dharmasastras, it was precisely the early fieldwork by scholars like Berreman… and others that highlighted discrepancies between textual prescriptions and lived realities; this, in effect, disrupted earlier generalisations of both caste and Hinduism.

“Throughout his tenure as a scholar, Berreman never lost sight of how caste functioned as an economically exploitative system, and I think this key observation was often either lacking or underemphasised in earlier scholarship.”

Honorary degrees

Berreman received honorary degrees from the University of Stockholm in Sweden and Garhwal University, where he was a guest lecturer.

Berreman was previously married to Evelyn Marsh, and they had three children, Janet Berreman, Lynn Holzman and Wayne Berreman, before they divorced. Berreman is survived by his children; his brother, Dwight Berreman; eight grandchildren and his wife, Keiko Yamanka, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department who researches transnational migration and social transformation in East Asia, primarily in Japan and South Korea.

In the UC Berkeley obituary she is quoted as saying, “Gerry and I travelled together, worked together on research trips, and had lots of fun in the many places we visited. I cherish these memories.”

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment