Critical Scholarship in Perilous Times: a Conversation with David Mosse, Winner of the 2021 Jack Goody Award

David Mosse, recipient of the 2021 Jack Goody Award, has now had several weeks to savor his win, and we have had time to re-read his essay, “Outside Caste? The Enclosure of Caste and Claims to Castelessness in India and the United Kingdom” (CSSH 62-1), and appreciate again the qualities that appealed to the Goody jury and have attracted so many CSSH readers. The article was among our most viewed and downloaded even before the Goody Award was announced. We are happy to see that interest in “Outside Caste?” remains high and that, in the spirit of comparison, people are reading it not only for what it tells us about caste, but also for what it suggests about parallel articulations of race and anti-racism.

What does Mosse think of all this? We asked him, and he gave us some interesting answers.

CSSH: First things first, David. Congratulations! “Outside Caste?” is exceptional work. It’s wonderful to see it covered in accolades and, even better, so widely read.

2021 Goody Award Winner David Mosse

Mosse: Thank you. I am thrilled to receive the Jack Goody Award. It was quite unexpected and a delight to discover that this article with its risky comparative reach has found such an appreciative readership. Many thanks to the jurors for their attention to the piece.

CSSH: They clearly enjoyed it. What impressed them most is how you deal with the two-sided nature of caste, showing how it doubles as a kind of cultural/religious essence when embraced as “our heritage” and an Orientalist imposition when viewed as negative, as a form of inequality or racism. Your essay is timelier now than when it first arrived at CSSH. Caste has been invoked constantly in anti-racism activism and social commentary in the US over the last year. Race and caste have been travelling companions for decades, of course, along with class. But I’m sure you’ve noticed the renewed interest in caste as a kind of alternative to, or variant on, race. What do you make of this? Is anti-racist politics disrupting or reinforcing the caste dynamics you analyze in the paper, and do you think your approach offers something that popular discourses miss?

Mosse: Yes, I’ve noticed the recent interest in caste as a language for race in the US. Offering “caste” as the metaphorical “bones” for understanding diverse ways of grading humans – including US race and Indian caste – as Isabel Wilkerson does in her book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us has a complex relationship to the caste dynamics I analyze.  If “caste” has been revived as a fruitfully novel way to describe race, in the US,  “race” (racism) has been used to heighten outrage against Indian caste; hence the slogans of “caste is race” or “India’s hidden apartheid” used by Dalit activists at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban. Here Dalits were representing casteism as a global form of discrimination subject to international human rights monitoring (of course resisted by the Indian state). But use of caste for race and race for caste are not just rhetorical devices. While parallels between Indian caste and US race can be drawn strikingly (as Wilkerson does), the suggestion that caste is the common unseen determining “infrastructure” is fraught with problems (as others have pointed out). Nonetheless, what the shifts in language allow is attention to Indian caste beyond its various religious and national enclosures, as a form of hierarchy, discrimination, subordination, or opportunity hoarding in contemporary society and economy that can be described in general terms that are relevant to other forms of identity-based inequalities – the work of values, networks, property vested in identity, or psychological effects. Perhaps what my approach offers is attention to the political significance of categories of description and how these make caste available or unavailable for public debate and for the law; and how the contests that then ensue reshape the social identities involved.

CSSH: You mentioned in our earlier interview that writing about caste in diaspora settings calls for a special alertness to how scholarship is woven into identity formation, developing with and against trends dominant in the communities studied. We suspect that your essay has triggered a mix of responses from interested parties, lay people and academics. Have you received any love letters or hate mail over this one? How do you deal with this, when it happens?

Mosse: When I first presented the argument as a public lecture, unsurprisingly it found support from Dalits and Ambedkarites, and criticism from certain Hindu activists who used twitter to level accusations that this was an attempt to justify the “UK caste law” and an apologetic for Christian proselytism in India. After one lecture, raised fists and loud voices were exchanged across the hall between Dalit and Hindu activists, altercations that apparently spilled onto the street as I was bundled off to an orderly reception. Such action and the polarized positions enacted only demonstrate and further evidence the argument the essay makes. Of course, the public debate and controversy around the implementation of law against caste discrimination (its extent surprising at the time) were the data upon which I built part of the analysis in the first place. This is one way in which I have dealt with such responses. But this is not to say that I have no view on the merits of the opposed positions. The collaborative work to inform policy debate on the inclusion of caste as a characteristic in the UK Equality Act 2010, made me ever more aware of the global reach and injustice of caste effects. So another response is to use scholarship to shape policy debate for progressive change.

CSSH: Another thing the jurors admired in your essay was its artful, “evenly grounded” combination of historical and ethnographic analysis. Your comparisons are livelier and have more subtlety because of this particular footing. We consciously select for this style at CSSH. It’s our brand. But I’m curious to know how you create this “evenly grounded” effect. Is it a method, a mentality, an artifact of training? Do you ever think, as you write, “I must put in a bit more ethnography now” or “Hmmm. It’s starting to sound too anthropological.” If what the jurors perceived as “even grounding” is not something you were explicitly committed to, that would be even more fascinating. It might be the subject matter that produces the effect, not writerly tactics.

Mosse: I became a historian anthropologist by chance through the discovery of a particularly rich regional and local archive. Ethnography shaped my reading of the archive, and the archive gave me a perspective on the encounters and practices on which my fieldwork focused; and like many, I was drawn to the great storytellers of the Tamil village where I first stayed. But I have also been struck by the enduring and repeating controversies around caste. I first drafted the paper on returning from a visit to India in 2016, where I had the honor of being invited to speak to a large gathering celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in Nagpur at the Deekshabhoomi, site of his conversion to Buddhism in 1956. Back in London, Dalit and Ambedkarite gatherings celebrated Ambedkar and pressed for legislative change on caste in his name, while Hindu organizations invoked colonial and missionary legacies. In this case the interweaving of history and ethnography was already in play in my unfolding subject matter, which is at least one source of the “evenly grounded effect.”

CSSH: Do you have additional plans for this article or the research that went into it? Will it morph into a book? Even if it doesn’t, it’s being widely read and enjoyed; it will continue to evolve in the work other scholars and activists do. That’s a pleasant thought! Is there a kind of research, or a set of questions, you’d like others to take up after reading and thinking about your essay?

Mosse: As I mentioned, I think it is high time caste was studied as a modern institution, a structural aspect of economic life and markets in South Asia and globally. I have written on why it proves so difficult to see caste beyond the lens of religion and politics, and what drives inattention to caste’s modern forms. I have also looked at how Dalit activists and organizations in India try to re-center caste in debates on poverty, inequality, and social justice. These different aspects of the analysis of modern caste studied across borders deserve to be brought together as a book; and maybe they will. And more work on the considerable stakes in how “the social” is made available for public debate is needed. I am meanwhile aware that these are perilous times for critical scholars and anti-caste activists in India, where an authoritarian regime has used legal apparatus against some of them. Anthropology may animate change in the social world that is its subject; but we are increasingly aware that the space for such critical social science disciplines is contingent on the political environment in more or less direct ways.

CSSH: Good luck with these projects. The relationship between “the social” and public debate is something we desperately need to re-assess, as is the relationship between critical analysis and “the political environment.” You are showing us how to do this vital work, in theory and in practice. We’re eager to see more.

David Mosse is Professor of Social Anthropology at SOAS University of London. His research ranges across the anthropology of religion, the environment, international development, and mental healthcare. He is author of The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India (University of California Press, 2012); Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice (Pluto Press, 2005) ; and The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India (Oxford University Press, 2003). He recently undertook a collaborative research project, “Caste out of Development,” concerned with civil society activism and transnational advocacy for Dalit rights and development. He is currently engaged in anthropological research on psychiatric crisis care.