Can Inter-caste Marriage Change Perceptions of Caste?
Research question: This paper is an inquiry into the psychology of caste and identity in Nepal. It asks whether intercaste marriage can change the way in which people think of caste, and if so, how and to what extent. A central matter of scrutiny in the paper is whether people who enter intercaste marriages are thought, by themselves or by others, to thereby change the caste which they belong to.
Outline: The vast majority of people in Nepal view caste and ethnicity as categories or properties which are acquired at birth and which remain stable throughout the life course. This way of thinking is remarkably in line with ‘psychological essentialism’, a cognitive bias well-known among psychologists and which has more recently come under anthropological scrutiny.
Endogamy is believed to play a central role in psychological essentialism. Thus, it is argued that rigid and immutable construals of identity most readily emerge and most reliably persist in societies where members of different groups do not marry each other, thereby avoiding ‘mixing’. If this description holds true for caste, several questions arise when considering intercaste marriage: what happens for non-endogamous couples? Do they, so to speak, ‘escape’ or ‘renounce’ essentialist construals of caste? If this is not the case, does each partner ‘keep’ the caste they had before the marriage? Does the caste of one partner change, and if so, whose? Is it always, as patrilineality would suggest, the woman’s caste that must change? What exceptions to this patrilineal ‘rule’ are there in the case of intercaste marriage between Dalits and non-Dalits?
Anthropologists have noted dramatic shifts in marital practices in Nepal, yet the specific cases of intercaste and interethnic marriages remain understudied. This paper focuses specifically on marriages between Dalit and non-Dalit people, by far the most controversial kind of marriage in Nepal because of the ongoing stigma of untouchability associated with Dalits. The paper will show that, while a small number of people are promoting ‘mixing’ through exogamy in Nepal, such as the political actors behind the policy whereby NRs. 100’000 is offered to newly-wed Dalit/non-Dalit inter-caste couples, the idea of ‘mixing’ and the notion that one might be of ‘mixed identity’ is still mostly absent in the general population, especially in rural parts of the country. Surprisingly perhaps, this notion also seems foreign to many people themselves in intercaste marriages.
Methodology: The paper is based on observations and interviews conducted and collected during 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the hills of East Nepal, where I lived with a Bishwokarma family.
Please note: This abstract is similar (in some parts identical) to the one which was submitted and accepted for the 2016 conference, which I could not attend for personal reasons. I hope that the organisers will kindly reconsider my submission for 2017, in the context of this panel.