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The resilience of caste: Dalits, psychological essentialism, and intercaste marriage in the Himalayan foothills of Eastern Nepal

Deschenaux, Ivan (2019) The resilience of caste: Dalits, psychological essentialism, and intercaste marriage in the Himalayan foothills of Eastern Nepal. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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This thesis discusses caste-based discrimination in the Himalayan foothills of East Nepal. It is based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork among the Bishwakarma (previously known as Kāmi), a Dalit caste whose traditional occupation is blacksmithing. While social practices that denote the Bishwakarma as ‘untouchable’ have largely disappeared from the public sphere, they endure in domestic contexts. In the face of this ongoing discrimination, the Bishwakarma deploy a number of strategies to improve how they are perceived by others. The first part of the thesis discusses these strategies as well as their limitations. The second part argues that a cognitive bias known as ‘psychological essentialism’ plays a significant role in the ongoing stigmatisation of the Bishwakarma and Dalits more generally. The extent to which this is the case has been overlooked in previous anthropological studies, and this has been detrimental to academic understandings of the phenomenon and to efforts to improve Dalits’ social status. Conversely, caste has largely been overlooked in existing studies of psychological essentialism, which have focused on gender, race and ethnicity. The recognition of the role that psychological essentialism plays in the social construction of caste leads to a different interpretation of two types of action that have been used to alleviate caste-based discrimination. One is based on identity politics; the other tries to reduce the essentialisation of Dalits by promoting mixing with non-Dalits. Promoting intercaste marriage between Dalits and others, a fringe phenomenon in Nepal, is an example of the latter; an analysis of the promotion of such marriages is offered in the last part of the thesis. Finally, a suggestion is made that recognising the role of psychological essentialism can lead to a more informed comparative study of discriminatory social systems across different cultural contexts.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2019 Ivan Deschenaux
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: Stafford, Charles and Astuti, Rita

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