Food, Social Structure, and Status

The treatment of the topic of food in India, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, has to be viewed in connection with the debate over caste and status. Eating and food were studied in relation to social morphology, that is, in relation to the caste system, understood as an order of institutionalized distinctions between social groups and categories. Ritual dietary laws were understood as an expression of hierarchy, although some authors focused more attention on the analytical level of behavior, and others on that of norms and values (cf. Dumont 1980, 130 - 51).

In a study of the articulation of ritual status through food in the village context, Adrian C. Mayer (1960, 33 - 60) saw commensality, which for him includes both eating in company and the exchange of food, as the most important criterion of caste status. Accepting food from a member of another status group implies either equality or the subordinate status of the recipient. Non-acceptance or the absence of commensality can signify equality or superior status. Independent of the facts of giving and receiving, the type of food is significant. Food cooked in water - so-called kacca or “unripe” food - is considered highly susceptible to ritual pollution and consequently exchanged or shared only within very narrow social boundaries. In contrast, food prepared with clarified butter (ghi) - so-called pakka or “ripe” food - is less affected by the ritual qualities of the cook, less susceptible to ritual pollution, and can therefore be consumed among wider circles. Mayer investigates concrete examples (e. g., festivals) of this “commensal hierarchy” (33 f), in which all the castes present in a village are asymmetrically ordered in accordance with this underlying principle of ritual purity. Over nearly forty years following his first research trip in 1954, the author visited the same village or region multiple times in order to investigate both the changes and the continuities in commensal structures (Mayer 1997).

While Mayer’s research primarily laid the ethnographic foundation for further discussion, the influence of McKim Marriott’s works consists especially in his methods and theoretical reflections. In an article from 1968, Marriott seeks, as he describes it, to extract the local models of symbolic interaction through a “matrix analysis” (1968, 133). Marriott’s “master conception” (145) is the transaction. The inherent qualities of different foods and the distinction between kacca and pakka foods are secondary in his view, while the fact of the transaction of substances in itself is central (145f). The simple formula is that receiving signifies a lower status, giving a higher one. Those castes in a village that give food to many castes and accept nothing occupy the highest position within the hierarchical constellation. Food transactions are equivalent to a status game in which the actors may win or lose. The sum of all observed and hypothetical transactions among all castes (or members of different castes) in a particular village produces a rank order that the author presents in a table or “matrix.” Through a dizzying mathematical analysis, Marriott achieves ever more abstract representations of the local caste hierarchy. He sees the “correctness” of his transactional model as confirmed by the fact that the results of his analysis essentially correspond to his informants’ opinions about the rank order of the castes (169).

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