Ajantha Subramanian on the Caste of Merit


Before she became the host and star of Violent Majorities, the RTB series on Israeli and Indian ethnonationalism, Ajantha Subramanian sat down with Elizabeth and John to discuss The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India (Harvard UP, 2019). It is much more than simply an historical and ethnographic study of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. Ajantha talked to JP and EF about the language of “merit” and the ways in which it can conceal the continuing relevance of caste (and class, and race) privilege–in India, yes, but also in American and other meritocratic democracies as well.

The wide-ranging discussion explored how inequality gets reproduced, passed on and justified. Caste–often framed as a fundamentally “Eastern” form of difference–not only seems to have a lot in common with race, but also shares a history through colonial, plantation-based capitalism. This may explain some of the ways “merit” has also made race (and class) disparities invisible in the United States. This helps explain ways in which dominant groups excoriate the “identity politics” of those seeking greater access to privileged domains, and claim their own independence from “ascriptive” identities--while silently relying on the privilege and other hidden advantages of particular racial or caste-based forms of belonging.

The companion text for this episode--Privilege by Shamus Khan--addresses very similar issues in the elite high school where he was a student, teacher and sociological researcher, St. Paul’s School. Khan traces a shift over the past decades (we argued a bit about the time frame) from a conception of privilege defined by maintaining boundaries, to one based on the privileged person’s capacity to move with ease through all social contexts.

Discussed in this episode:

Listen and Read Here

Your Host

Elizabeth Ferry and John Plotz

Free-ranging discussion of books from the past that cast a sideways light on today's world. Recall This Book is hosted by Elizabeth Ferry, Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and John Plotz, Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative.

View Profile