An Untouchable Community in South India
Structure and Consensus
Michael Moffatt


While many studies suggest that Indian Untouchables do not entirely share the hierarchical values characteristic of the caste system, Michael Moffatt argues that the most striking feature of the lowest castes is their pervasive cultural consensus with those higher in the system. Though rural Untouchables question their particular position in the system, they seldom question the system as a whole, and they maintain among themselves a set of hierarchical conceptions and institutions virtually identical to those of the dominant social order.

Based on fourteen months of fieldwork with Untouchable castes in two villages in Tamil Nadu, south India, Professor Moffatt's analysis specifies ways in which the Untouchables are both excluded and included by the higher castes. Ethnographically, he pursues his structural analysis in two related domains: Untouchable social structure, and Untouchable religious belief and practice.

The author finds that in those aspects of their lives where Untouchables are excluded from larger village life, they replicate in their own community nearly every institution, role, and ranked relation from which they have been excluded. Where the Untouchables are included by the higher castes, they complete the hierarchical whole by accepting their low position and playing their assigned roles. Thus the most oppressed members of Indian society are often among the truest believers in the system.

First published in 1979.

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