India’s well-known Varna caste system may, according to some scholars, be a colonial exaggeration. In Indian society, Brahmins are the highest caste—a born priestly caste—below which there are three other castes (noble warriors, tradesmen, and merchants) alongside the casteless untouchables. In reality, there are thousands of Jāti—clans and tribes—to which the English, and later colonial Indians, interpretively superimposed upon them the broad Varna caste system. Thus, many tribes or clans might be described as Brahmin (e.g. Nambudiri Brahmins) but such distinctions may be rather arbitrary and adamantly debated amongst the tribes they describe. The Jāti—I have read—don’t necessarily consider supposedly higher classed Jāti as superior but often do consider their own clan superior. I imagine it as something of the classic latent virtue proposition of one’s own social role; for instance, a mason might insist that working with the hands is honest work—a proposition that presupposes that otherwise is more likely immoral or corruptible.
The Indian caste system has evolved through cultural conventions but statuses and status groups seem inherent to the human social condition, at least in regards to societies possessing any type of economic surplus on which to organize a community. Economic statuses are eventually legitimized through symbolic means, which gives rise to cultural capital and which inadvertently can stand outside of economic capital after elitist cultural conventions become entrenched in a given society. The classification of Jāti as caste divisions is an example of cultural capital to those groups that symbolically gain from such classification. But even without the Varna caste division, Jāti, which regularly interact with one another have developed specific and complex statuses amongst one another organically and independent of the broader Varna caste conventions. Such seems the natural nature of intergroup societies. Such a proposition isn’t new, it’s understood within the scheme of social identity theory, which proposes that an individual’s self-esteem is achieved by perceived and salient social classifications against downward comparisons.
But it serves well to demarcate the fact that there is no such thing as a unified upper class or unified class of any sort. There are social cliques that may have an upper or middle class feel by nature of their dominance or influence over other classes but in reality might be quite different from other cliques that fall within the same broad class division. For instance, it’s possible to find old middle-class WASP families which carry the virtue and memory of Anglo-Saxon Americana and as such possess influence and cultural capital as to be comparable in influence to an upper class but are yet distinct from an intellectually inclined upper class that supports different values and aesthetics, “progress,” for example. Significant aesthetic differences might mark such groups; for instance, a preference for classic art vs. contemporary art. I reference such groups as generic models, presupposing there are many other “cliques” that fall along subcultural divisions and contradict the values and conventions of other social-economic peer groups as to stand on their own but deserve, nonetheless, designation as belonging to an “upper class” or “upper-middle class,” by virtue of their social and or economic influence.
Defining class in terms of economic capital is elusive. Though Marxist theorists might insist the upper class—the bourgeoisie—hold the only effective power in capitalistic culture (until the proletariat become organized), there remain many groups that exercise effective power by means other than economics—culturalists, artists, ideologues, traditional elites, and intellectuals are such examples and even public servants sometimes wield tremendous political and military influence while possessing modest personal economic means. It might be arguable that all such class divisions serve the grand bourgeoisie scheme of things but such broad sweeping claims seems to detract from the possible insights that might be gleamed from studying “status groups” as specific cultural entities nested in complex intergroup/intersubcultural societies as opposed to broad class divisions.
In short, I believe it would be much more insightful to study actual “cliques” “subcultures” or “groups” and carry out-network analysis, working out detailed descriptions of relationships and dynamics rather than to broadly sweep all affluent cliques into a single grand classification or two. For instance, earlier, I used the example of middle-class WASP that retain upper-class cultural capital but such distinction may STILL be rather arbitrary as even WASP values are a matter of historical interpretation. And though history should serve analysis, it would be more useful (on an empirical scheme) to find an actual group—The Social Register, a Country Club, Executive’s Club, or the affluent of a small town—then begin tracing networks, describing relationships, dynamics, and subcultural distinctions, intergroup communications and significations. In doing so I suspect we’ll find that broad classifications are somewhat artificial, while actual cliques are real, distinct, and specific.
–a purely theoretical note on methodology–
I do not deny the dynamics of a general human nature but rather insist on discovery from the bottom up, after which theoretical classification can be made by broad and careful comparisons. In other words, I place greater scientific stature on social theory developed by careful analysis of specific phenomenon (e.g. intergroup status negotiations) than on theory developed by historical introspection of society as a sum. Focusing on specific phenomenon allows for the recognition of specific behaviors that may be inherent to the general human condition; only once the evolutionarily dispositions of Homo sapiens are known can the emergent properties of human social nature be reasonably ascertained. Though social properties are not reducible to individual or psychological properties, such properties make social phenomena possible; without knowing the nature of the individual it’s impossible to know the adaptive purpose of any social phenomena as it bears on the individual or the propagation of the individual’s genetics (and from the perspective of the Darwinian social-cultural psychologist, the propagation of culture, which is presumably in the service of biology).