Wednesday, July 27, 2011

(i) Rural and Agrarian Social Structure

B. Social Structure:

(i) Rural and Agrarian Social Structure

social structure is conceived as the pattern of inter-related statuses and roles found in a society, constituting a relatively stable set of social relations. It is the organised pattern of the inter-related rights and obligations of persons and groups in a system of interaction.

Rural people live in settled villages. Three main types of settlement patterns have been observed in rural areas:

i) The most common type is the nucleated village found all over the country. Here, a tight cluster of houses is surrounded by the fields of the villagers. An outlying hamlet or several satellite hamlets are

also found to be attached to some villages in this case.

ii) Secondly, there are linear settlements in some parts of the country, e.g. in Kerala, in Konkan and in the delta lands of Bengal. In such settlements, houses are strung out, each surrounded by its own compound. However, there is little to physically demarcate where one village ends and another


iii) The third type of settlement is simply a scattering of homesteads or clusters of two or three houses. In this case also physical demarcation of villages is not clear. Such settlements are found in hill areas, in the Himalayan foothills, in the highlands of Gujarat and in the Satpura range of


Further, rural life is characterised by direct relationship of people to nature i.e., land, animal and plant life. Agriculture is their main occupation.

Family in Rural India

Broadly speaking there are two types of family: (a) nuclear family consisting of husband, wife and unmarried children, and (b) joint or extended family comprising a few more kins than the nuclear type. Impotant dimensions of ‘jointness’ of family are coresidentiality, commensality, coparcenary, generation depth (three), and fulfillment of obligation towards kin and sentimental aspect. Coresidentiality means that members of a family live under the same roof. Commensality implies that they eat together i.e., have a common kitchen. Coparcenary means that they have joint ownership of property. Further, generation depth encompasses three generations or more, i.e., grandfather, father and the son or more. Members of the family also have obligations toward

their kin. Moreover, they have a sentimental attachment to the ideal of joint family.

Change in Family

Traditional joint family occupied a predominant position in rural areas in India. It was largely prevalent among the landed gentry and priestly caste. But nuclear family also existed in India. Lower caste families whose main occupation was agricultural labour were mostly nuclear. However, they appreciated the ideal of joint family.

Various studies have been conducted to diagnose the change taking place in family in India with increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, changes in economy, technology, politics, education and law in modern times. There are two approaches. The first assumes that the family structure in India has undergone the process of unilinear change from the joint to nuclear form as in

the West.

Secondly, I.P.Desai (1964), S.C. Dube (1955), T.N.Madan (1965), and others argue that it is necessary to observe family as a process. They adopt developmental cycle approach to understand changes in the family structure in India. They advocate that the presence of nuclear family households should

be viewed as units, which will be growing into joint families when the sons grow up and marry. The ‘developmental cycle’ approach implies that a family structure keeps expanding, with birth and marriage, and depleting with death and partition in a cyclical order during a period of time.

Further, empirical studies show inter-regional and intra-regional variations in the distribution of family types. This is evident from the study by Pauline Kolenda (1967)

Inter-regional and Intra-regional variations in the distributions of family types

State/Region Village Percent of Families

Joint Nuclear

U.P. (Plains) Senapur (Thakur) 74.5 25.5

U.P.(Hills) (Lower Caste) 34 66

Sirkanda (Rajput) 39 61

Maharashtra Badalpur 14 86

Andhra Pradesh Shamirpet 18.5 81.5


Here, Kolenda has made a few generalisations. She observes that between regions, the rural areas of the Gangetic plains have higher proportion of joint families than those in the Central India, Maharashtra, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. In the Gangetic plains itself, joint families are more common among the Rajputs and nuclear families predominate among the lower castes.

Lineage and Kinship

Within the village, a group of families tracing descent from a common ancestor with knowledge of all the links constitute a lineage; and the children of the same generation behave as brothers and sisters. They form a unit for celebrating major ritual events. Sometimes the word Kul is used to describe these units. Usually these families live in closeness and a guest of one (e.g. a son-in-law)

could be treated as such in all these families. These bonds of families may go back to 3 to 7 generations. People do not marry within this group. Beyond the known links, there are further connections ? people know the common ancestor but are unable to trace every link. Such families use a more generic term like being “bhai-bandh” of one another. They are also exogamous. The word Gotra or clan may be used for them.


There are six characteristics of caste, offered by G.S. Ghurye. In his thesis to Cambridge University on Race and Caste in India, which has been revised and published several times, G.S. Ghurye (1961) suggested that caste names could indicate six different possibilities.

(i) it is an endogamous group;

(ii) it has a common ancestor. As a part of this arrangement descendents of a common ancestor are divided into two groups, the smaller exogamous group, and the wider endogamous group.

(iii) Occupation is in some ways connected with caste, but not to the extent of prescribing it. Hence Ghurye used the phrase — lack of choice regarding occupation.

Sub- Caste

A sub-caste is considered a smaller unit within a caste. In the village setting usually we find that there is only one sub-caste living there. A larger number of sub-castes indicate the late arrivals to a village. Thus for all practical purposes a sub-caste represents the caste in the village. In the wider setting of a region, however, we find many sub-castes. One example from Maharashtra is of

kumbhar (potters). There are several groups among them; those who tap the clay, those who use the large wheel, those who use the small wheel. All the three are endogamous groups.

Changes in the Caste System

The main traditional avenues of social mobility were Sanskritisation, migration and religious conversion. Lower castes or tribes could move upward in the caste hierarchy through acquisition of wealth and political power. They could consequently claim higher caste status along with sanskritising their way of life, i.e., emulating the life-style and customs of higher castes.

Some important changes have taken place in the caste system in rural areas in the contemporary period due to the new forces of industrialisation, urbanisation, politicisation, modern education and legal system, land reforms, development programmes and government policy of positive discrimination in favour of the lower castes.

Occupational association of caste has marginally changed in rural areas. Brahmins may still work as priests. In addition, they have taken to agriculture. Landowning dominant castes belonging to both upper and middle rung of caste hierarchy generally work as supervisory farmers. Other non-landowning lower castes, including small and marginal peasants, work as wage labourers in agriculture. Artisan castes, namely, carpenters and iron-smith continue with their traditional occupations. However, migration to urban areas has enabled individuals from all castes including untouchables to enter into non-traditional occupations in industry, trade and commerce, and services.

Further, inter-caste marriage is almost non-existent in rural areas. Inter-caste restrictions on food, drink and smoking continue but to a lesser degree because of the presence of tea stalls in villages which are patronised by nearly all castes. The hold of untouchability has lessened. Distinction in dress has become more a matter of income than caste affiliation. In traditional India, the upper

castes were also upper classes but it is not absolutely true today because now new occupational opportunities to gain income have developed in villages. People migrate to cities and bring money back to their villages. This has changed the traditional social structure.


In the modern period, the British land revenue system gave rise to a more or less similar agrarian class structure in villages in India. They were the three classes of the landowners (zamindars), the tenants and the agricultural labourers. The landowners (zamindars) were tax gatherers and non-cultivating owners of land. They belonged to the upper caste groups. The agricultural labourers

were placed in a position of bondsmen and hereditarily attached labourers. They belonged to the lower caste groups.

The impact of land reforms and rural development programmes introduced after independence has been significant. Land reforms led to the eviction of smaller tenants on a large scale. But the intermediate castes of peasants, e.g., the Ahir, Kurmi etc. in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh benefited. Power of the feudal landed families started declining all over the country. The onset of the Green

Revolution in the 1960s led to the emergence of commercially oriented landlords. Rich farmers belonging generally to upper and intermediate castes prospered. But the fortune of the poor peasantry and the agricultural labourers did not improve. This has led to accentuation of class conflicts and tensions. Agrarian unrest in India has now become a common feature in various parts

of the country.

P.C. Joshi (1971) has summarised in the following manner the trends in the agrarian class structure and relationships. (i) It led to the decline of feudal and customary types of tenancies. It was replaced by a more exploitative and insecure lease arrangement. (ii) It gave rise to a new commercial based rich peasant class who were part owners and part tenants. They had resource and enterprise to carry out commercial agriculture. (iii) It led to the decline of feudal landlord class and another class of commercial farmers emerged for whom agriculture was a business. They used the non-customary type of tenancy.


The Issue of Village Autonomy

The Indian village was portrayed as a ‘closed’ and ‘isolated’ system. In a report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, Charles Metcalfe (1833), a British administrator in India, depicted the Indian village as a monolithic, atomistic and unchanging entity. He observed, “The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything that they want within themselves and almost independent of any foreign relations”.

Recent historical, anthropological and sociological studies have however shown that Indian village was hardly ever a republic. It was never self-sufficient. It has links with the wider society Migration, village exogamy, movement for work and trade, administrative connection, interregional market, inter-village economic and caste links and religious pilgrimage were prevalent in the past, connecting the village with the neighbouring villages and the wider society.

The Jajmani System

A very important feature of traditional village life in India is the ‘jajmani’ system. It has been studied by various sociologists, viz., Willian Wiser (1936), S.C. Dube (1955), Opler and Singh (1986), K. Ishwaran (1967), Lewis and Barnouw (1956). The term ‘jajman’ refers to the patron or recipient of

specialised services and the term ‘jajmani’ refers to the whole relationship. In fact, the jajmani system is a system of economic, social and ritual ties among different caste groups in a village. Under this system some castes are patrons and others are serving castes. The serving castes offer their services to the landowning upper and intermediate caste and in turn are paid both in cash and

kind. The patron castes are the landowning dominant castes, e.g., Rajput, Bhumihar, Jat in the North, and Kamma, Lingayat and Reddi in Andhra Pradesh and Patel in Gujarat. The service castes comprise Brahmin (priest), barber, carpenter, blacksmith, water-carrier, leatherworker etc.

The jajmani relations essentially operate at family level (Mandelbaum 1972). A Rajput land-owning family has its jajmani ties with one family each from Brahmin, barber, carpenter etc., and a family of service caste offers its services to specific families of jajmans. However, jajmani rules are enforced by caste panchayats.

But the jajmani system also possesses the elements of dominance, exploitation and conflict (Beidelman 1959 and Lewis and Barnouw 1956). There is a vast difference in exercise of power between landowning dominant patrons and poor artisans and landless labourers who serve them. The rich and powerful jajmans exploit and coerce the poor ‘kamins’ (client) to maintain their

dominance. In fact, there is reciprocity as well as dominance in the jajmani system.

Changes in Village Power Structure and Leadership

Marginal changes of adaptive nature have occurred in power structure and leadership in villages after gaining independence due to various factors e.g. land reforms, panchayati raj, parliamentary politics, development programmes and agrarian movements. According to Singh (1986), upper castes now exercise power not by traditional legitimisation of their authority but through

manipulation and cooption of lower caste people. The traditional power structure itself has not changed. New opportunities motivate the less powerful class to aspire for power. But their economic backwardness thwarts their desires. B.S. Cohn (1962), in his comparative study of twelve villages of India, found a close fit between land-ownership and degree of domination of groups. Now

younger and literate people are found increasingly acquiring leadership role. Moreover, some regional variations also have been observed in the pattern of change in power structure in rural areas.


  1. Thank you so much for this article.... This is really very helpful....
    but I have a question.... How to preapare for sociology IAS......
    Best Sociology IAS Coaching in delhi............

  2. Useful Information, your blog is sharing unique information....
    Thanks for sharing!!!
    agricultural farming service providers
    agricultural value chain