Caste and Marriage in Urban Middle-Class India

Only 5 percent of Indians report they are in intercaste marriages. This often results in the casual observation that caste drives matrimonial choices. Traditionally, marriage outside caste has not found social approval, as honor killings continue to be reported across the country. However, in urban, middle-class India, young people are no longer limiting their search for marriage partners within their own caste.

For centuries, marriage has been an important mechanism through which the hierarchical caste system has reproduced itself. Individuals are born into a caste, generally marry someone within their own group, and then go on to have children who do the same. Openness to intercaste marriage signals the weakening of caste boundaries.

    Outcomes are Deceptive:

    Social outcomes do not necessarily reflect people’s actual preferences and are an unreliable indicator of social attitudes, as illustrated by the case of black and white marriages in the United States. Today, the percentage of black and white marriages remains close to 1 percent of all marriages in the United States, but the social acceptance of these marriages has increased dramatically.

    Interest in Intercaste Marriage:

    Evidence increasingly suggests that interest in intercaste marriage is higher than the actual reported rate. The 2004 Indian National Election Study, conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, asked a sample of 27,000 respondents if the intercaste marriage should be banned. 60 percent approved of such a proposition. Urban residents were less enthusiastic, with 47 percent in favor of a ban. A study of more than 10,000 matrimonial advertisements that appeared across major national dailies between 1970 and 2010 found that the requests for within-caste proposals fell from 30 percent for the decade of 1970-80 to 19 percent for 2000-10.

    What Motivates Interest in Intercaste Marriage?:

    To better understand the motivations that drive interest in intercaste marriage, Dr. Susan Osterman and I studied the preferences of Dalit (untouchable) and upper-caste women in the urban, middle-class arranged marriage markets in three large Indian states: Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. We focused on women’s behavior because the taboos against intercaste marriage are stronger for women than men. Intercaste marriage is more consequential for women since they adopt the caste of their husbands.

    Besides many other proposals, each of these women received expressions of interest from three potential high-income, high-status matches who were similar in height, age, skin tone, and educational status. They differed only in one respect; each belonged to a different caste—upper caste, backward caste, and Dalit.

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