André Béteille and Alexis de Tocqueville
[From Institutions and Inequalities; Essays in Honour of André Béteille (Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi, 1999), eds. Ramachandra Guha and Jonathan P.Parry]
There is an old Chinese saying that it is unlikely to be a fish that
discovered water or a bird that discovered air. Most of us live in a
world where we take our culture as 'natural', and seldom more so
than in relation to the ideology and actual distribution of rank and power.
Occasionally, however, a dramatic change or set of contrasts leads one or
more thinkers to question these basic and largely unquestioned assumptions.
One famous occasion was in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment when,
for example in the work of John Millar, Adam Ferguson and Jean Jacques
Rousseau and others a systematic analysis of equality and inequality was
Another formidable attempt to understand equality and inequality was
made by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-58). There were a number of conditions
which seem to have played an important part in directing Tocqueville's
attention to the question of equality and which gave his analysis an unusual
depth. First there was his family background. An aristocratic pedigree
contrasted with an upbringing within a post-Revolutionary France formally
dedicated to equality and the abolition of privileged ranks. Then there were
his travels from a land so recently hierarchical to the most dramatically free
and equal civilization in the world, America, as well as to England. Finally
there were the revolutionary changes in France itself, as an inegalitarian system
tried to adapt to the new ideology of equality. All this made equality his
obsession and his life's work was concerned with trying to reconcile liberty
and equality. He was a man divided between two worlds, caught in an endless
struggle between his head and his heart. As he put it in a discarded note,
there were standing against each other 'Mon Instinct, Mes Opinions'. 'I have
an intellectual taste for democratic institutions, but I am an aristocrat by
instinct . . .' (Drescher 1964: 15). Out of this clash emerged his great works
on Democracy in America and the Ancien Regime.
It is attractive to see Andre Beteille as someone in a similar position,
reflecting deeply on the essence of equality and inequality partly because of
his personal circumstances, partly through the changing and contrasting world
he experienced. With his French father and Indian mother, Beteille is an heir
to diverse philosophies and traditions. I As an academic who never permanently
left India, yet frequently spent periods in Europe and America, he is deeply
aware of the contrasts of 'East' and 'West'. As someone who participated in
the rapid changes in India over the period since Independence, he could see
the battle of ideologies based on inequality and equality on his own doorstep.
It is thus no surprise to find that his lifelong obsession has been with equality
and inequality. His Ph.D. thesis was published under the title of Caste, Class
and Power; Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village (1965)
and was soon followed by his influential edited set of readings
on Social Inequality (1969), and then by Inequality among Men (1977) and The Idea
of Natural Inequality and Other Essays (1983).
There is not merely a resemblance between these two thinkers. There is
clearly a very great amount of continuity. In some ways Beteille can be seen
as one of the heirs of Tocqueville, as someone who has applied Tocqueville's
earlier insights and broadened and updated his analysis. His debt and the
way in which his work complements Tocqueville's can be seen if we consider
first some of his explicit comments on Tocqueville's writings and the way in
which they provide a framework for his own comparative analysis.
THE FIRST DISTINCTION: HIERARCHICAL AND
As a first step, Beteille follows Tocqueville in proposing a simple binary
model in space and time which suggests that until the eighteenth century all
the world was based on the premise of natural inequality, but after that western
Europe and America moved rapidly to the premise of natural equality, leaving
India and much of Asia to 'catch up' later. It can also be shown in certain
parts of Beteille's earlier work. Let us briefly examine this use of Tocqueville's
ideas and the way Beteille proposes an initial binary opposition between two
systems of equality. Beteille wrote that
For Tocqueville there were two kinds of societies, aristocratic society with its fixed
and stable hierarchy of estates or castes, and democratic society which allowed or
even encouraged the free movement of individuals across its classes. Aristocratic
societies prevailed in Europe prior to the nineteenth century; and America in the
first half of that century was the best example of democratic society. (1983: 39)
Beteille reiterates the contrast many times.
The first feature that strikes us is that the major civilisations of the past were all
hierarchical by design, although the logic of the hierarchy was not everywhere the
same. The design was most elaborately and consistently worked out in the case of
traditional India, although it was very much in evidence in medieval Europe and also
in China from the time of Confucius onwards. (1977: 25)
Thus until the eighteenth century, all the world was 'hierarchical'.
It is not as if the principle of hierarchy enjoyed legitimacy only in traditional Indian
society; in this matter India was not unique among the civilisations of the past. In pre-
industrial Europe also society was not only divided into unequal ranks., orders or
estates, but these divisions were broadly accepted in principle. There also the social
hierarchy was invested with a measure of unity and coherence so that what existed
was considered to be by and large right, proper and desirable. (Ibid.: 150)
Beteille shows how this was elaborated in relation to the legal structure.
As is well known, feudal society in Europe was divided into estates. This division did
not just exist as a fact of experience, it was supported by legal sanctions. The same
laws did not apply to all, and there were separate courts to deal with cases relating to
persons of different estates; for a person of a superior estate to be tried in an inferior
court would have been a violation of honour. (Ibid.: 43)
It was enshrined in the value system.
The civilizations of Europe and Asia were in pre-modern times marked by the
prominence of ranked social divisions and by the attention paid to rank in the various
spheres of life. The attention to rank was carried over into legal rules and religious
beliefs which are in such societies closely intertwined. Moreover, as Tocqueville points
out, different standards of right conduct and different conceptions of honour, virtue
and even morality are associated with the different ranks or orders into which society
is divided. (1983: 56-7)
According to Beteille, all this changed in the West somewhere between the
mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. The timing of this revolutionary
change also gives us a clue as to the causes of the dramatic shift.
Many things contributed to the kinds of change which Tocqueville and others
witnessed and foresaw. Foremost among these were the Industrial Revolution and
the French Revolution which both began in the second half of the eighteenth century.
They set about in a hundred different ways to destroy the material as well as the
moral foundations of the traditional social order with its old hierarchies and myths.
In Europe people were not only being imbued with new aspirations, but new
opportunities were being created by and for them on an unprecedented scale.
It is a familiar story and one which has deeply influenced sociological thought:
the birth of the 'modem' in the West, separating off a certain part of the
globe from the rest in the 'revolution' of the later eighteenth century. Beteille
specifically locates the argument in Tocqueville's work and links it to
Tocqueville's own personal position as torn between the two worlds.
The first and in some ways still the most outstanding contrast between the hierarchical
social order of the past and the emerging social order with its commitment to equality
was the one made by Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville's contrast between aristocracy
and democracy is not confined to two modes of political organization; it extends to
patterns of social distinction, forms of religious experience and consciousness, and
types of aesthetic sensibility. Although born a few years after the French Revolution,
he came from an aristocratic family, one which had suffered by it, and he spoke of the
life and ideals of the aristocracy with the insight of personal knowledge. On the other
hand, democracy still lay largely in the future, although the promise of that future
infused his writing with an astonishingly vivid quality. (1983: 74)
Or again, Beteille writes
Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to bring out the full significance of the normative
order of the new society that was emerging in the United States. A European, steeped
in the traditions of aristocracy, he could not but be impressed by the pervasive influence
of the principle of equality in every sphere of life. The idea that people should be
permanently divided into ranks invested with unequal rights and obligations was,
according to Tocqueville, contrary to the spirit of American society; it was of equality
and not hierarchy that custom religion all spoke in one voice. Tocqueville
maintained further that the spirit of equality would come to prevail over the spirit of
hierarchy, in Europe , and in the world as a whole. (1977: 151)
THE SECOND DISTINCTION: HARMONIC AND
Beteille is not content to stop here and is again guided by Tocqueville to
search for a more complex formulation. He argues that dichotomized thinking,
except in terms of 'ideal types' is dangerously misleading. Thus he writes,
I find it false to represent the opposition between equality and inequality as a contrast
between two societies in two different parts of the world. On the contrary, each society
is an arena within which the two interplay, and if we fail to examine this interplay
within societies, the comparisons we make between societies will be shallow and
misleading. (1983: 38)
He praises Tocqueville himself for breaking Out of just such dichotomized
The attraction of Tocqueville's work lies in his refusal to be a prisoner of his own
dichotomy. While he dwells at great length on the opposite natures of aristocratic and -
democratic societies, he leaves room for considering the contradictions "-]thin each
type of society. (ibid.: 41)
Indeed some of Beteille's best insights come out of his recognition of the
contradictions within systems.
This uneasiness at the over-simple dichotomizing of' Past: Present, and
West: Rest is shown in certain passages where Beteille questions some of his
own earlier assumptions about the 'hierarchical' nature of 'the West' before
the eighteenth century. He writes that 'The more closely one examines the
old order in the West the less plausible the argument appears that it knew
nothing of equality as a value' (ibid.: 43). ',"his is a summary of an earlier
passage where he points to one contradiction, also noted by Tocqueville
It is clear that equality as an ideal and a value was never wholly alien to Western
civilization even when its organization \\/as most elaborately hierarchical. No institution
within that civilization was more hierarchical than the Catholic church, and indeed
the concept of hierarchy 1, in its meaning a Christian concept. Tocqueville
recognized and noted this-, at the same time he did not fall to point out that 'Christianity,
which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of God, will not refuse to
acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law.' It Is as if a value and an
ideal that had lain dormant under a hierarchical organization came into its own when
external conditions favoured its awakening, and then invested these external conditions
with a new significance. (ibid.: 41-2)
Thus Beteille picks up Tocqueville's idea that all systems are mixed: that
I pure' hierarchy or equality only exists as an ideal type, and that in reality
any society at any point in time will be the result of a dynamic and moving
equilibrium between incompatible and ever-varying forces. Systems are
neither static nor consistent and Beteille has often pointed this out in relation
to the Indian past.
In trying to proceed beyond unsatisfactory dichotomies, Beteille has
proposed a distinction between two kinds of social system which he calls
'harmonic' and 'disharmonic' He defines a 'harmonic' system as follows: it is
one in which there is consistency between the normative order and the existential
order: society is divided into groups which are placed high and low, and the divisions
and their ordering are considered as right, proper and desirable or as a part of the
natural scheme of things. (ibid.: 54)
He then describes India as a good example of such a system; there is a premise
and a practice of inequality, there is no fundamental contradiction (ibid.: 57-
A second form of 'harmonic' system can be envisaged 'in which there is
equality in both principle and practice'. Beteille does not give any worked
examples of such a harmonic system, though he does consider the question
generally (1977: ch. 7). The most obvious examples are some of the very
simplest hunter - gatherer bands (Woodburn 1982), but once mankind
established settled agrarian civilizations it is difficult to see examples. We
know too much to believe that communism, where all are in theory equal but
some more equal than others, has produced durable instances. 'America' as
encountered by Tocqueville came closer than most instances, for a time, to
this condition, as Tocqueville himself noted. In America Tocqueville found a
land which had explicitly enthroned the premise of equality, rather than of
inequality. It made it a central tenet that man was born free and equal. This
was still a peculiar way of looking at things and Tocqueville consequently
noted that 'No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during
my stay there than the equality of conditions' (Tocqueville 1968a: 1, 5).
Equality, or democracy as he often called it, became the key to understanding
America. 'So the more I studied American society, the more clearly I saw
equality of conditions as the creative element from which each particular
fact derived, and all my observations constantly returned to this nodal point'
(ibid.). There had been some early attempts to take inequality over from the
Old World, but they had failed. 'Laws were made there to establish the
hierarchy of ranks, but it was soon seen that the soil of America absolutely
rejected a territorial aristocracy' (ibid: 1, 37).
Beteille does not stop here, however, for he suggests a further distinction,
that is the idea of 'disharmonic' systems which 'by contrast show[s] a lack
of consistency between the existential and the normative orders'. One form
is where 'the norm of equality is contradicted by the persuasive existence of
inequality'. This seems to characterize much of modern 'western' civilization,
including America in its later history, where 'Despite the idealization of
equality, the class structure continues to be an important part of Western
social reality, some would say its most important part' (1983: 76). Beteille
quotes Raymond Aron to the effect that 'Modem industrial societies are both
egalitarian in aspiration and hierarchical in organization' and adds the comment
that 'Modem societies are in this sense disharmonic: there is in them a lack of
consistency between the normative and the existential order' (1977: 15 1). The
clash between ideology and practice, and even within the ideology, is shown
even more clearly when the 'West' dominated much of Asia and elsewhere.
Those who trace the historical conditions of the emergence of homo equalis in the West
generally overlook the adventures of the same homo equalis abroad. As if the destruction
of aboriginal society in Australia and America, the enslavement and brutal use of millions
of Blacks, or the imposition of the most unequal conditions between European and
natives throughout Asia took place in another epoch or on another planet. (1983: 52-3)
This is written with feeling by someone brought up in the shadow of the Raj.
We may summarize the theoretical structure which Beteille has suggested
in a diagram (see Fig. 1).
A DISHARMONIC SYSTEM IN THE 'WEST'
Beteille is in many ways most interested in the 'disharmonic' case (D), where
a civilization proclaims equality but practises inequality, for this, in essence,
is the modern situation.
The great paradox of the modem world is that everywhere men attach themselves to
the principle of equality and everywhere, in their own lives as well as in the lives of
others, they encounter the presence of inequality. The more strongly they attach
themselves to the principles or the ideology of equality the more oppressive the reality
becomes. (1977: 1)
INSERT FIGURE HERE
FIG. 1. Four types of stratification
When did this contradiction emerge and what are its deeper features? Here
Beteille can only set us on the path.
Beteille notes at several places that within the general harmonic ancien
regime of western Europe before the French Revolution, there seems to have
been something unusual about England which hints at 'disharmony'. For
instance he notes that England seems to have been different in certain respects.
Moreover, the system varied considerably from one region to another even within
Western Europe not only in its formal arrangement but also in its course of growth,
maturity and decay. The contrast between France and England-the 'exceptional case
of England'-is a commonplace of medieval European history. (1983: 65)
Or again Beteille writes that
Even between France and England, neighbours who shared many things in common,
there were important differences. The nobility never acquired in England the array of
privileges it enjoyed in France, and English historians frequently point to the antiquity
of their own traditions of equality.
He continues, however, by qualifying this remark by noting that 'for all its
distinctiveness, England also developed a social hierarchy, many elements of
which lasted longer there than in other West European countries' (ibid.).
Beteille's hints of an unusually early disharmonic system in England lead us
straight back to Tocqueville.
On his first visit to England in 1833 Tocqueville wrote as follows:
But what distinguishes it [the aristocracy of England] from all others is the ease, with
which it has opened its ranks ... with great riches, anybody could hope to enter into
the ranks of the aristocracy. Furthermore since everybody could hope to become rich,
especially in such a mercantile country as England, a peculiar position arose in that
their privileges, which raised such feeling against the aristocrats of other countries,
were the thing that most attached the English to theirs.... The English aristocracy in
feelings and prejudices resembles all the aristocracies of the world, but it is not in the
least founded on birth, that inaccessible thing, but on wealth that everyone can acquire,
and this one difference makes it stand, while the others succumb either to the people
or to the King. (1968b: 43)
Thus England combined very great de facto differences, with few de jure
As Tocqueville left England he summarized many of his impressions.
In England an illustrious name is a great advantage . . . but in general one can say that
the aristocracy is founded on wealth, a thing which may be acquired, and not on birth
which cannot. From this it results that one can clearly see in England where real
aristocracy begins, but it is impossible to say where it ends.
Furthermore, the real difference can be pinned down on to one word.
The difference between England and France in this matter turns on the examination
of a single word in each language. 'Gentleman' and 'gentilhomme' evidently have
the same derivation, but 'gentleman' in England is applied to every well-educated
man whatever his birth, while is France gentilhomme applies only to a noble by birth.
The meaning of these two words of common origin has been so transformed by the
different social climates of the two countries that today they simply cannot be
translated, at least without recourse to a periphrasis. This grammatical observation is
more illuminating than many long arguments. (ibid.: 51-2)
The situation partly arose from the commercial nature of England, whose
wealth could be acquired from sources other than land and hence a parallel
I aristocracy' constantly emerged and challenged the older families.
In this way an aristocracy of wealth was soon established and, as the world became
more civilized and more opportunities of gaining wealth presented themselves, it
increased, whereas the old aristocracy, for the same reasons, continually lost ground.
The consequences were status competition and uncertainty, a constant pre-
occupation with small marks of difference and attempts to outdo others.
Paradoxically this meant that in the middle of the nineteenth century England
was more snobbish than France.’ The French wish not to have superiors. The
English wish to have inferiors. The Frenchman constantly raises his eyes
above him with anxiety. The Englishman lowers his beneath him with
satisfaction' (ibid.: 60). Ranks still existed in England, but they were confused.
'When birth alone, independent of wealth, decides a man's class, each knows
exactly where he stands on the social ladder. He neither seeks to rise nor
fears to fall.' But when 'an aristocracy of wealth takes the place of one of
birth, this is no longer the case.' This is because
As a man's social worth is not ostensibly and permanently fixed by his birth, but
varies infinitely with his wealth. ranks -Still exist, but it cannot be seen clearly at first
sight by whom the\, are represented. The immediate result is an unspoken warfare
between all the citizens. One Idea tries by a thousand dodges to infiltrate, in fact or in
appearance. among those above them ']'he others are constantly trying to push back
these usurper.,, of their rights. Or rather the same man plays both parts ... (1968a: Il,
This was one of the reasons the English were so guarded with each other:
they found it difficult, especially if they met away from England, to know
who they were dealing with (ibid.: 11, 73 1). It was also an explanation of why
it was so difficult to envisage a revolution in England. De Tocqueville believed
that 'The English aristocracy can therefore never arouse those violent hatreds
felt by the middle and lower classes against the nobility in France where the
nobility is an exclusive caste . . .'In England, 'The English aristocracy has a
hand in everything; it is open to everyone; and everyone who wishes to abolish
it or attack it as a body, would have a hard task to define the object of his
onslaught' (1968b: 52). One of de Tocqueville's greatest puzzles, taking up a
theme from Montesquieu, was why England had become so different. (2)
De Tocqueville suggested that out of a common European feudalism, that
is the odd mixture which arose out of a decomposing Roman civilization and
Germanic customs, the subsequent paths of continental Europe and England
were different. He started with the premise that there had been very little
difference between the parts of western Europe in the Dark Ages. The system
which emerged in about the ninth century covered the whole of western and
central Europe (ibid.: 2). Then came the invasion of England by de
Tocqueville's Norman ancestors. At this point, Normandy and much of France,
as well as most of the Continent, were identical to England. Yet this identical
system produced contrary results. By the seventeenth century there was a
great divergence. 'Everywhere on the Continent at the beginning of the
seventeenth century absolute monarchies stood triumphantly on the ruins of
the feudal or oligarchic freedom of the Middle Ages' (1968a: 1, 52-3). Yet in
Shutting your eyes to the old names and forms, you will find from the seventeenth
century the feudal-system substantially abolished, classes which overlap, nobility of
birth set on one side, aristocracy thrown open, wealth as the source of power, equality
before the law, office open to all, liberty of the press, publicity of debate.... Seventeenth-
century England was already a quite modem nation, which has merely preserved in its
heart, and as it were embalmed, some relics of the Middle Ages. (1956: 21)
In these ways it diverged dramatically from what happened elsewhere in
Europe. What then is the great difference according to de Tocqueville?
It was far less its Parliament, its liberty, its publicity, its jury, which in fact rendered
the England of that date so unlike the rest of Europe than a feature still more exclusive
and more powerful. England was the only country in which the system of caste had
been not changed but effectively destroyed. The nobles and the middle classes in
England followed together the same courses of business, entered the same professions,
and, what is much more significant, intermarried. (ibid.: 89)
The fact that inequalities on the basis of birth had been abolished, or had
never properly arisen, in England, did not mean that there was little inequality.
Ironically, the aristocracy was flourishing in eighteenth -century England while
it was decaying all over Europe.
This gradual impoverishment of the nobles was seen more or less not only in France
but in all parts of the continent where the feudal system, as in France, disappeared
without being replaced by a new form of aristocracy. Among the German peoples, who
bordered the Rhine, this decay was everywhere visible and much noticed. The contrary
was only met with in England. In England the old noble families which still existed
had not only preserved, but also had largely increased their wealth.... (ibid.: 86)
Thus one found in England, 'apparent equality, real privileges of wealth,
greater perhaps than in any country in the world' (1968b: 79). Of course they
proclaimed the universal rights and equality of men. But what did these consist
of? The English have left the poor but two rights: 'that of obeying the same
laws as the rich, and that of standing on an equality with them if they can
obtain equal wealth' (ibid.: 78).
This clash between a de jure situation where everyone in theory was equal,
but some definitely ended up as richer and more powerful, was made more
difficult to bear by the loss of religious faith. In most societies, the poor
could reconcile themselves to their position by realizing that there was no
alternative: they were born into a fixed social position. Or again, in many
religions their position was determined by their activities in previous lives. It
was not their fault, a result of their fecklessness or inability. Even Christianity
had provided the solace that even if this life was one of poverty, there would
be recompense in eternity. The rich would find it virtually impossible to get
through the eye of the needle into heaven. The poor and meek would inherit
the earth, and heaven too. Yet as faith evaporated, men and women were
faced not only with physical misery, but no consolation prize in the after life.
Thus inequalities were particularly hard to bear 'in an epoch when our view
into another world has become dimmer, and the miseries of this world become
more visible and seem more intolerable' (1948: 84). The English case is
relatively familiar to many of us since, to a certain extent, it is part of the air
we breathe now, through its extension to America and Europe over the last
three hundred years. Through de Tocqueville's analysis, this third case, the
origins and spread of the major disharmonic form which now dominates the
world, become less mysterious.
A DISHARMONIC SYSTEM IN THE 'EAST'
Beteille also considers briefly the last logical possibility (A), that is a
'disharmonic' system in which 'people practise equality while professing its
opposite'. Yet he excludes this category from consideration 'as being remote
from historical experience' (, 1983: 54). In fact, in small-scale instances, it is
probably fairly common. One variant is to be found, for instance, in the area
where I do anthropological fieldwork in the central Himalayas. The 'Gurungs'
were at one stage transhumant shepherds and hunter-gatherers and, on the
whole, their ideology and practice was towards the egalitarian end of the
continuum. During the last three hundred or more years they have gradually
been absorbed into a hierarchical model based on the Hindu caste system.
There is a marked tension, however, for while the ideology is often explicitly
hierarchical, with 'Untouchable' groups, ritual impurity and so on, in practice
the interpersonal relations and distribution of wealth have manifested a
considerable amount of de facto equality (Macfarlane 1976, 1993). No doubt
many similar examples could be found on the interface between tribal and
Here, however, I would like to conclude by considering a civilization which
has for at least a thousand years manifested a notable tension or contradiction
between an ideology of inequality and a practice of much de facto equality.
This is the puzzling case of Japan. Although the following account is necessarily
schematized and over-simplified, it is worth exploring briefly the one large-
scale case which seems to fit the last of Beteille's four major ideal types.
At the ideological or cultural level of interpersonal relations, Japan has
long been and remains today one of the most hierarchical or inegalitarian
societies ever known. We are often told that equal relationships are
impossible in Japan. Japan is and always has been a 'vertical' society, where
every relationship is of an inferior to a superior. This is built into the
language, etiquette and all of life. Chie Nakane's work epitomizes this view.
'The relationship between two individuals of upper and lower status is the
basis of the structural principle of Japanese society.' 'In fact, in Japan it is
very difficult to form and maintain the sort of voluntary association found
so often in western societies, in that it does not have the basis or frame of
existing horizontal personal relations.' 'The golden rule is that the junior
man should invariably carry out any order from his immediate superior, for
this immediate link between the two men is the source of the existence of
the junior man in the organization.' 'The core of the Japanese family, ancient
and modern, is the parent-child relationship, not that between husband and
wife. So the family today also reflects the predominance of vertical
relationships' (Nakane 1973: 44, 62, 55, 133).
Although Nakane is the most systematic in her analysis of the vertical nature
of Japanese society, others are in broad agreement. Robert Bellah wrote,
The particular characteristic of the Japanese institutional system was its strong
emphasis on the vertical axis and relatively small reliance oil horizontal ties. That is,
the institutional structure was held together largely through ties of loyalty between
superior and inferior. (1957: 55)
Ruth Benedict had written earlier that 'Whatever one's age, one's position in
the hierarchy depends on whether one is male or female. The Japanese woman
walks behind her husband and has a lower status' (1967: 37). Takie Lebra
explains that Japanese 'siblings are also hierarchically graded in a strikingly
elaborate system based on seniority. One is a junior brother or a senior brother
vis-a-vis every other brother, unless the two happen to have entered the group
at the same time' (1976: 179).
Indeed language itself makes an -equal relationship impossible. As Paul
Bohannan noted, all Japanese verb endings must denote relative rank (1969:
43). and hence, for example as Robert Smith, quoting Miyoshi, observed
In such interaction between young male equals, each speaks as though the listener
were his inferior [that is, both use less polite speech]; between female equals, each as
though the listener were her superior [that is, both use more polite speech]; between
male and female equals, she speaks with [deference], he without it .... (1983: 75)
It is difficult, in one sense, to conceive of a less egalitarian society.
Yet, in practice, the pervasive inequality is situational; a person is not
intrinsically unequal by virtue of birth (unless he or she happens to be a
foreigner or a member of the discriminated croup, the burakamin). Hence,
many see Japan as one of the few truly egalitarian societies, with little
permanent ranking, orders, castes or classes, and with very considerable
opportunities for social mobility. This was noted long ago by Basil Hall
Some have used the word 'caste' to denote these divisions-, but the term is inappropriate,
as there exists no impassable barrier between the different classes. nor yet anything
approaching to Indian caste prejudice. The feeling only resembles that to which we
are accustomed in England, if indeed it is as strong.
Chamberlain comments, 'And how this moderation makes for happiness!
The rich not being blatant, the poor are not abject-, in fact, though poverty
exists, pauperism does not. A genuine spirit of equality pervades society'
(1971: 95, 449).
The fact that Japan is at the opposite extreme from a 'caste' society has
been echoed by anthropologists. For example, some years ago A.L. Kroeber
wrote that 'Japan is often cited as a land of caste', but believed that 'this
was true to perhaps the same degree as of medieval Europe', and believed
that 'occupational elaboration and integration with religion remained vague'
(Kroeber 1935). More recently, Chie Nakane. who has also worked on the
fringes of a caste society, in Assam, writes that the general ideology of
Japan shows itself to be 'completely~. the opposite of the caste ideology, in
which division of labour and the interdependence of groups are the basic
principles of social organization . ton In ,i caste society groups are formed of
homogeneous elements. while in Japan they consist of heterogeneous
elements' (1973: 105).
The contradiction is captured by Edwin 0. Reischauer. 'Status is
vastly important. But i of' (:lass and actual class differences are both
extremely weak-. In essential ways, Japan today has a very egalitarian
society-more so in fact than those of the United States and many European
countries.' He believes that this is partly related to the strength of the small
group. "Otherwise, groups associations, by emphasizing discrete hierarchical
relationships and reducing lateral contacts with groups of similar function
and status, play down class feelings as these are known in the West.' He
concludes that 'Japanese society is rent by no sharp cleavage. There is virtually
no great inherited wealth and very little degrading poverty' (1988: 150, 152,
174)., It is perhaps this which makes the Japanese themselves uncomfortable
with the label of 'vertical society'. 'There-- is a popular, conventional theory
that Japan is a vertical society. Nothing could be more mistaken. Japan is a
circular society.' Michiro Matsumoto himself, visiting the land of equality
reports that 'I learned the hard way that it is the American society that is
intrinsically vertical' (1988: 121, 126).
Japan is thus famously a 'small group society'. Within the group there
are vertical differences, but between the groups there is a great deal of equality.
There are no fixed and permanent strata, just powerful internally stratified
entities. This is described by Nakane as follows: 'There is no obvious status
group formed by masters or landlords, excluding peasants: on the contrary, a
functional group was formed by landlord and tenant, master and servant, and
the master or superior was always one of them in the same group' (1973:
152). This explains why, for instance, there was no distinct aristocracy or
ruling class. As Lebra, citing Hasegawa, puts it, 'the aristocracy in Japan,
compared with its European, Chinese, and Indian counterparts, has formed a
less distinct cultural elite, less separate from the working mass' (1976: 83).
It is thus impossible to speak of the 'upper class' or the 'ruling class'. (3)
Thus what is curious about Japan is that the whole society;. is based on the
premise of situational inequality, yet de facto there is little ranking of groups.
It teaches us that there is a strong middle position between the two extremes
represented in the usual sociological models. Such situational inequality see,-ns
perfectly compatible with advanced industrialism. Thus Japan is, depending
on how one looks at it, the most egalitarian, or the least egalitarian of societies.
At the cultural level of language, kinship, gender and age, there is hierarchy
everywhere; no one is equal. At the level of formal stratification in terms of
class, caste and wealth, there is surprisingly great equality for most. We thus
have a system that combines two apparently contradictory principles-
extreme inequality and extreme equality.
We can understand the situation a little better if we look very briefly at
Japanese history. I shall do so here by using one source alone, that is the
multi.- volume Cambridge History of Japan, which has recently been published
(see Macfarlane 1997). Between the twelfth and late sixteenth centuries, it
would appear that Japan was an unusually 'open' society. It is difficult to
speak of castes, classes or even estates. Thus Barbara Ruch writes that 'there
was as yet no particular differentiation among an artisan, manufacturer, peddler,
merchant, or a worker engaged in providing services, except perhaps in their
economic success or failure' (Yamamura 1990: 514). Neither in theory nor
practice was there rigidity in the large urban and commercial sector. The
same was true among the large numbers of those who worked on the land.
We may note, for example, the absence of slavery in the normal sense of
the word, or even of unfree peasants. The situation was complicated because
there were numerous different sub-groups 'based on a complicated status
system', with each group having a different name 'indicating the group's
relative degree of freedom or subordination'. The largest group, that is the
normal workers on the land, what Japanese historians term 'peasants', were
relatively free. Oyama Kyohel writes that 'from observations of the various
representative shoen [landed proprietors], it is clear that the shoen peasants
could act fairly freely and that on occasion they both allied with and resisted
the jito [estate manager] and shoen (Yamamura 1990: 120). Thus the same
author concludes that 'the medieval peasant was basically a 'freeman' (jijymin)
(ibid.: 121). A 'free' peasantry of this kind is unusual, probably only to be
found in parts of western Europe and Japan at this early date. That it remained
free in England and Japan over the centuries that followed is of great
As in so many features the reforms of the early Tokugawa seemed to
change all this.' They aimed at imposing, for the first time, a rigid system of
social stratification. The actual fact of stratification seems at first sight to
have destroyed the openness of the medieval period. The closure was meant
to prevent all kinds of mobility, not only social, but occupational and
geographic. Thus, for example, Gilbert Rozman writes that 'Peasants were
barred from entering the samurai class, and in principle, from moving to the
cities, from switching to non-agricultural pursuits, and from selling or using
their land as they might see fit' (Jansen 1989: 516). Yet the policy seems to
have been fairly ineffective. Donald Shively writes that 'From the early Edo
[Tokugawa] period, the government recognized the order of the four classes
as samurai (shi), farmer (no), craftsmen (ko) and merchant (sho) (quoted in
Hall 1991). But 'Although Confucianists often spoke of this class order, it
was never given a legal basis, and its artificiality and imprecision must be
kept in mind'(Hall 1991: 708). The outward signs of the failure to create and
maintain rigidity are numerous. In relation to geographic mobility it failed;
there was massive mobility. Furthermore, there was much movement between
occupations, with many farmers having bi-occupations. This fluidity was
shown in externals such as dress. As Susan Hanley observes, 'one would
expect to find that dress varied by class and income in a highly stratified
society' yet 'what is remarkable for Tokugawa Japan is how similar the basic
cut of the clothing was for each Thus we are told that the 'daily wear
of men of both the samurai and merchant classes was remarkably similar in
basic style . . . dress in fact was gradually being standardized and class
differences minimized (Hall I 1 91)1: 69"1-3). The blending emerged as a result
of a number of factors, some of which may be briefly mentioned.
Following Shively, we learn that it was impossible to maintain the
supposed distinction between the two classes of craftsmen and merchants.
'In practice, no attempt was made to distinguish craftsmen from merchants:
both were treated as a single group' (Hall 1991: 709). Secondly, within each
supposed 'class' there were great differences in actual wealth and hence
instability was introduced into the classification system. We are told that
'Bushi [warrior class] included not only the shogun and the daimyo [higher
lords] but also the humble servants of samurai. Farmers ranged from rich
landowners and village headmen to tenants and agricultural servants' (ibid.:
711). Thirdly, the distinctions between the samurai and the rest were soon
blurred. For instance, while 'Intermarriage between samurai and commoners
was considered inappropriate', in fact 'bushi were permitted, not uncommonly,
to take commoner wives' and hence 'A kind of cultural levelling occurred I
(ibid.: 7 11). The mechanism of adoption added to this fluidity; many rich
commoners' children were adopted into the samurai ranks. The alliance
between ancient blood and new wealth, which was a distinct characteristic of
late medieval and early modern England, was also common in Japan.
Thus there was a growing mingling and mixing of groups as wealth
increased. The tendency of money to undermine the supposedly separate ranks
is summarized by a number of authors and Rozman cites Kozo Yamamura to
the effect that under the pressure of economic necessity, class distinctions
became 'virtually nonexistent' (Jansen 1989: 531). Everything became
purchasable on the market-including rank. For instance, as early as 1783,
'the han [lordly domains] provided the convenience of a price list for status,
from 50 ryo for wearing a sword to 620 ryo for full warrior standing' (ibid.:
79). This was merely regularizing what was already in place; the possibility
of exchanging wealth for status, the hallmark of the stratification system of
modern societies. All this helps to explain why at the Meiji restoration the
remains of the system of separate estates evaporated so very quickly. A
summary also captures the gap between the formal rules and the practice. 'If
we look only at how Japanese society was supposed to operate, we will find
a rigid class society in place throughout the Tokugawa period.' On the other
hand, as Hanley writes, in practice. 'Japan lost its class distinctions far more
quickly and are more thoroughly than England did.' It seems very likely that 'much of the reason has to be the blurring of class lines before the Meiji Restoration' (Hall 1991: 703-4)
I have suggested that de Tocqueville was Beteille's unacknowledged mentor, helping to set his intellectual agenda and providing guidance on a number of the deepest issues. His openly acknowledged inspiration was, however, Max Weber, who not only reinforced the need for comparison and contrast in all social scientific research, but also encouraged Beteille to develop 'ideal type' analysis. Beteille's ideal types of harmonic and disharmonic are valuable because they show that while remaining 'pure' in principle, an ideal type can contain within itself a structural contradiction or opposition. 'Disharmonic' systems are essentially unstable; they contain a clash of ideology and practice Of course there are even more complicated contradictions than those discussed here, for the ideology itself, as Beteille frequently acknowledges in relation to both 'India' and the 'West', is usually founded on contradictions. But for the present we can limit ourselves to a simple model. The conclusions emerging from combining de Tocqueville, Beteille and a brief discussion of the Japanese case can be summarised in a further diagram (see Fig.2).
INSERT FIG. 2 HERE
FIG.2. Instances of the Four Systems of Stratification
Of course, none of these cases is fixed and like the famous instance
documented by Edmund Leach in Highland Burma, they swing back and
forth along both poles over time (Leach 1964). What is intriguing, however,
is to see in the two cases analysed more full\' here, England and Japan.
how there are both fluctuations and continuities. Likewise, if there is any
truth in this analysis, it helps to explain why both Japanese and western
observers feel a mixed sense of familiarity and difference when they
contemplate or experience each other's civilizations. They recognize an
affinity, another disharmonic or contradictory system, a good deal of equality
in practice. Yet they also sense a deep difference. There is indeed a gulf and
in certain ways the two civilizations are inversions or mirror images of
each other. The two different disharmonic systems are both alike and unlike
at the same time.
At a wider level, it is worth being reminded that the 'Us' and "Them'
dichotomy. which Louis Dumont among others exemplifies, is unsatisfactory. (5)
We all experience It and nearly all of us can see the 'Other' as a complete
reversal of ourselves. Hence to see 'India' as part of the 'Orient', as the
reverse of ourselves is tempting, as discussion of 'Orientalism' has shown.
The simple bifurcation of Homo Hierarchicus and Homo Equalis, made not
only into a geographic contrast, but also an historical one, the past being
'hierarchical' until the sudden emergence of 'modernity', is very tempting.
Most of us stand here and now, and we see 'them', whether in other
civilizations or past ages, as very different and there is always enough
substance in the view to give it an initial plausibility.
What is rarer is to proceed to the second step, that is to see that in both
'Us' and 'Them', whether this is conceived of geographically or temporally,
there are contradictions. It needs a special sort of person, living in special
conditions, to do so. Here we may be able to guess at something which unites
de Tocqueville and Beteille. Their experience means that they lived in two
worlds, with an allegiance to both. For somewhat different, but overlapping,
reasons de Tocqueville and Beteille sense the attractions of both hierarchy
and equality, and even more importantly sense that a pure state of one or the
other is rare. They know from their own experience that there is disharmony,
a telling word in Beteille's formulation, or contradiction, in which ideology
and practice clash. They are thus able to move beyond the first step of
recognizing contrast to the deeper recognition of similarity with difference;
that is to the recognition of dialectical tensions and the clash of contradictory
forces which gives their work a much more realistic approximation to the
movement of societies in history.
Because of his personal and structural position Beteille has been one of
the few recent writers to have significantly advanced our understanding of
equality a,-id inequality. In this respect, as in others, we are grateful to him
for his clear, insightful and beautifully coherent writing which reveals so
much about our predicament. Like de Tocqueville facing 'America', Beteille
shows us in an indirect way the struggles of an upright and sensitive man,
deeply imbued with his mother's love of truth and Gandhian ideals of equality,
trying to come to terms with the excitement, but also the hypocrisies, dangers
and scarcely hidden injuries of the proclaimed 'equalizing' mission of the
West. Like other major thinkers he stands between worlds and helps to
illuminate our options.
I am grateful to Ramachandra Guha and Jonathan Parry for their insightful
comments on an earlier draft of this article which have helped me to
reformulate the argument
I For the first instalment of Beteille's autobiography, which will clarify issues in
his background, see Beteille (1997).
2 Montesquieu's arguments, and an expanded version of this account of de
Tocqueville's theories, will be given in my book provisionally titled The Riddle
of the World.
3 Of course this does not mean that there are not tensions, for example frequent
.peasant' revolts, see for instance Vlastos (1986.)
4 The Tokugawa shogunate, also known as the Edo period (after the capital city of
Edo or Tokyo as it is now known), was from 1603 to 1868.
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