Lecture / Reading

Meritocracy and Democracy: the social life of caste in India

Sponsored by Center for South Asia


Thursday, May 20, 2021
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
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How does the utopian democratic ideal of meritocracy reproduce historical inequality? Subramanian pursues this question through a historical anthropology of technical education in India. Her work looks at the operations of caste, the social institution most emblematic of ascriptive hierarchy, within the modern field of engineering education. At the heart of the study are the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, a set of highly coveted engineering colleges that are equally representative of Indian meritocracy and, until recently, of caste exclusivity. This talk will show that the politics of meritocracy at the IITs illuminates the social life of caste in contemporary India. Rather than the progressive erasure of ascribed identities in favor of putatively universal ones, what we are witnessing is the rearticulation of caste as an explicit basis for merit and the generation of newly consolidated forms of upper casteness.

Moderated by: Shantanu Nevrekar and Isabel Salovaara


Ajantha Subramanian is Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at Harvard University. Her research interests include political economy, political ecology, colonialism and postcoloniality, space, citizenship, South Asia, and the South Asian diaspora. Her publications include: Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India (Stanford University Press, 2009) and The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India (Harvard University Press, 2019). 


If you need a disability-related accommodation, please contact southasiainfo@stanford.edu. Requests should be made by May 13th.