Intergenerational perspectives on caste in the UK

n a recent study, Rina Arya investigated how attitudes to caste varied between generations in the Hindu Punjabi community living in the Greater Manchester area. Here she offers a summary of the research and writes that it points to the continuing – albeit evolving – significance of caste in the diaspora.

Image: Gita Bhavan Hindu Temple, Chorlton-Cum-Hardy. Credit: R Greenhalgh CC BY-SA 2.0

Caste and class are significant issues within Hindu society, both in the Indian subcontinent and the diaspora, although views about these subjects are not uniform from place to place. My recent research concerns the generational difference (if any) between first-generation Hindu Punjabis within Greater Manchester who migrated to the UK from the 1960s to 1970s, and their progeny. This ethnic group has a distinctive profile in that, whilst Punjabis form the largest South Asian ethnic group in India, the religious affiliation of this group, namely Hindu Punjabis, makes them a minority. Many of the first-generation subjects had also experienced the political upheaval of Partition.

The first-generation individuals approached were white-collar workers, professionals from different fields including medicine and engineering. All these individuals had attained their qualifications from India (some had supplemented their education within the UK) and had migrated primarily for economic reasons. One of the objectives of the research was to investigate how caste conceptualised as jati – that is, ranked groups separated from each other along various lines – had an impact on their social behaviour within the UK, and to establish whether there were substantial differences between the socio-hierarchical beliefs they were raised with and the ones they held post-migration. The subsequent objective was to contrast these views with those held by second-generation Hindu Punjabis to determine the extent of generational difference.

Caste, in its complex formulation, is one of the most influential forces that determines socio-economic realities within India particularly, but has been subject to reform in recent decades. In the UK there have been calls for legislation to recognise the realities of caste discrimination, as reflected in the inclusion of the issue of caste in the Equality Act 2010. Recent studies, for example authored by Hilary Metcalf and Heather Rolfe, and Rusi Jaspal and Opinderjit Kaur Takhar, on the role that caste exerts within everyday life in the UK take seriously its continuing presence within Hindu and even more widely South Asian societies. The need to capture the views of the first-generation decades after they have settled has now become critical given that they are in the later stages of their lives. The fact that they had spent much of their adult lives in the UK prompted questions as to whether their attitudes about caste had changed over the period.

The research methods deployed were chiefly interview-based. A set of semi-structured questions based around guiding themes were put to the interviewees and through their elaborations information was elicited about their attitudes towards caste. Since caste informs all aspects of life, subjects invariably explored different facets of their life experience. Interestingly, conversations were less lucid when I asked specific questions about caste (to the first-generation cohort). It was profitable to explore the significance of caste indirectly by talking about social relationships in tangible terms. Many of the first-generation cohort chose to be interviewed as couples, so their responses were combined, and this gave an interesting perspective on the dynamics of family life. It also yielded fruitful results as the interviewer became privy to the musings of couples, who, as the interviews developed, ended up facing each other, almost locked in their own private worlds. Some of the second-generation interviewees were the children of the first-generation subjects and this generational divide provided grounds for useful comparison.

On the whole, the findings concerning the generations varied with the exception being the subject of marriage. In general, the first-generation felt more strongly about the need for separation along caste lines. What emerged is that while these views held sway, the exercise of the intermingling of castes became blurred during the early years of migration when the number of South Asians in the diaspora was low. During these initial years, comfort was sought in the kinship of other Indian migrants, who shared places of worship and other facilities but this gave way to the imposition of boundaries when groups became more settled. While some were more open than others to lower castes, the general feeling was that South Asians ought to adhere to the social status bestowed on them by their family name and identity. However, there was an acknowledgement that social mobility gained through education was desirable and had the potential to change one’s position in society. In most discussions about caste with the first-generation cohort, fears were raised about those lower in caste to them. Higher castes, on the other hand, were not mentioned as being threatening. The perception then was that the dangers lay in contaminating boundaries incurred by those lower in the hierarchy but not from above.

Second-generation interviewees were less certain about the typology of caste. Their understanding of different castes was not as deep-rooted as it was for the previous generation. They spoke less about their interactions with different castes, preferring instead to vocalise their thoughts about caste-based discrimination in the abstract. Many did not agree with treating people (favourably or otherwise) based on their caste identity. While caste was insignificant or unimportant for many when it came to choices about friendships or social interactions, it was often key in questions of marriage, mainly because of parental pressure. Caste was regarded as an unavoidable issue that presented itself during discussions of marriage when they reached a certain age, and this was a situation that all interviewees had encountered. Some had succumbed to family pressure concerning their matrimonial decisions whilst others had steered a different path.

This study has shown the continuing significance of caste within a group of Hindu Punjabis within Greater Manchester. One of the main challenges continues to be the extent of variation concerning how the term ‘caste’ is used. It is fair to conclude that the concept itself is polysemic in that it means different things to different users. And even within individual use there was variation of use over time. First-generation interviewees were more structured in their use of the term when reflecting on their experiences of caste interaction in their lives prior to migration where their impressions were more vivid. The pertinence of caste manifests itself in fewer ways for the second-generation. Further research on the attitudes of caste will enrich the literature, especially those that capture the views of the third-generation and those following.

Religion is not what it used to be. Consumerism, neoliberalism, and the global reshaping of religion

The last half-century has seen a shift, not from religion to no religion but from one type of religion to another. François Gauthier argues that scholars of religion have often ignored the rise of economics as a dominant and structuring social force beginning in the 1980s and, as such, how consumerism and neoliberalism have shaped religion. He finds that entrepreneurial types of religion and those that cater to the culture of authenticity and expressivity are experiencing vitality and growth.

Image: Flickr, R Barraez D´Lucca

Religion is not what it used to be. Not so long ago, this statement would have been understood as meaning the decline of religion. A claim that seems supported by the recent survey that shows that over 50% of British adults today declare to be “non-religious”. Yet this trend is only a very superficial appraisal of what is really going on. If we look closer, the last half-century has not been a shift from religion to no religion¾what we commonly refer to as “secularization”¾as it is a shift from one type of religion to another. What are the forces that are driving this shift? I believe these can be boiled down to two complementary processes: the joint rise and globalization of consumerism and neoliberalism. Not as monolithic and unidirectional forces, but as the two heads of a process that has eroded the National-Statist foundations of our societies in favour of a new configuration in which the mechanisms and the idea of Global Market are determining. As a consequence, we are shifting from what I call a “National-Statist regime” of religion towards a “Global Market” one.

It is fascinating that scholars of religion have all but ignored the obvious: the incredible rise of economics as a dominant and structuring social force in the beginning of the 1980s. We have all noticed that education, health and the state’s mission in general are now all submitted to the logics of economic efficiency. And we have all noticed that consumption impregnates social life in such a way that it is impossible to relieve oneself in public facilities without having to stare at publicity. Branding has become a must for political parties, hospitals, NGO’s and even people. Still, the most prominent authors typically make no mention of the recent developments of capitalism in their analyses of religion, contrary to other disciplines which have acknowledged the neoliberal revolution.


In the West, consumerism came before neoliberalism. Consumption became a mass phenomenon starting in the late 1950s and especially the 1960s. It was not only an economic phenomenon: it was a cultural and social revolution. From that moment on, the consumption of objects and services became a vehicle for the expression of personal identity and became tied to the quests for an authentic life for all social classes. The concept of “consumerism” captures how consumption is more than simply buying goods in a market: it is a means of circulating symbols, meanings, identities and belonging.

Charles Taylor has argued that consumption provided a formidable vehicle for the democratization of the “culture of authenticity and expressivity”, according to which every individual is thought of as having a unique self, and that finding and realizing this self constitutes the very meaning of life. This authentic self, moreover, must be freed from external authorities, such as parents, political and religious institutions. Such a consumer culture is paradoxically hyper-individualistic and communitarian. Identities, collective and personal, become an important stake. They have no substance if they are not expressed and recognized by significant others. Hence the incredible success of “social media”.

How does this relate to religion? Rather than providing the basis for the progressive dislocation of religion, it recomposes it and gives way to novel expressions. It shapes religion from “below”. Religion becomes a matter of choice: born-again Muslims, Hindus and Catholics join Pentecostals in considering that religion must be chosen. The increase of “spiritual-not-religious” adhesions lies under the varnish of “non-religion”. Religion becomes de-institutionalized and event-based. De-territorialised, voluntary communities replace territory-bound, inherited ones. National religion cedes way to imagined global communities (the global ummah), transnational fluxes and/or subcultural, tribal or ethnic belonging. Expressive-authentic religion becomes publicized in more ways than the simple societal exposure and political relevance of religious institutions.


Neoliberalism consists of the remarkable return of the old neo-classical assumptions about the supposedly flawless and value-neutral virtues of the free-market with respect to optimal resource redistribution and social regulation. It found renewed credibility after three decades of Keynesian-led unprecedented economic growth and inequality reduction. Neoliberalism rapidly became an inescapable set of policies, enforced by new supranational institutions in the wake of Reagan and Thatcher’s (TINA: there is no alternative) deregulation of the financial sector. These macro-economic shifts gave the impulse for the latest and on-going wave of globalization, whose core is the enmeshing of the world into a single global market and corresponding networked culture.

Neoliberalism substantially transformed our societies by submitting all other social spheres, and the state’s mission in particular, to the laws of international commerce and economic “efficiency”. Its related ideologies and practices, such as New Public Management, branding and marketing, were imposed across the board to social service institutions. Neoliberalism, hand in hand with consumerism, naturalized a utilitarian and economic rapport to the world. It contributed to change the very language of social regulation, burying former talk about government under the new self-evidences of “governance”.

Neoliberalism shapes religion from “above”. It changes the environment in which religious institutions evolve, and imposes new ways of managing human and economic resources. Traditional religious institutions, which were bureaucratized, hierarchical and vertical, are forced to downsize, rationalize their activities, develop communication strategies and branded identities, outsource administrative tasks and cast their mission as the provision of services meeting individual “needs”. Meanwhile, new networked, supple, charismatic, horizontal and transnational religious organizations emerge which increase pluralism (now understood as “competition”) and challenge institutionalised privileges.

Religion spills out of its box 

Both consumerism and neoliberalism combine to blur the boundaries between the religious and “secular” spheres, to the extent that the religion/secular distinction becomes increasingly impotent. Religion comes out of its box. The social differentiations of National-Statist modernity break down as religion blends with tourism, business, media, entertainment, politics, psychology, medicine and healing. The private / public divide, which formed the basis for the political regulation of religion in both Republican and Liberal regimes, is dissolving under the expressive thrust. The neoliberalism induced “rollback” of the state leads to new religious initiatives in the field of healthcare, law, education, social work and welfare in general.

Overall, types of religion that remain closest to the former National-Statist model are those experiencing decline and facing the greatest pressures for reform. On the other hand, those which espouse an entrepreneurial type and cater to the culture of authenticity and expressivity in one way or another are experiencing vitality and growth. The self-realization tropes of New Age derived “holistic spiritualties” have become totally embedded in popular and managerial culture. They are also increasingly being recognized as acceptable forms of therapeutics by insurance companies and states alike. Charismatic trends, of which the wild development of Pentecostalism is only a small part, are similarly on the rise, often accompanied by the valuation and promotion of prosperity and success. The formidable rise and seemingly unbounded extension of the halal market (including sharia-friendly packaged vacations and five-star Mecca pilgrimages), the emergence of fashion or integral veil wearing, as well as the rise of a new globalization-friendly, capitalism-drenched Muslim pride, are only some of the phenomena which have transformed the face of Islam in Muslim-majority countries and Western diasporas.

Those who remain entrenched in the political-institutional paradigm barely consider these phenomena to be worthy of attention. They are wrong. If they would take notice of the obvious importance of economics in the foundation and dynamics of our societies, and conceive of the “market” as anthropologists rather than neo-classical economists, they would understand these trends not as marginal developments, but as the very core of what religion is becoming before our very eyes. Since the acknowledgment of this global shift sheds light on how religion is no longer where our institutionalized political regulations expect it to be, the consequences for policy and public debate are enormous.

The effect of neoliberal policies on the place of religion in England’s schools

The interim report of the Commission on Religious Education was published last month seeking to outline a vision for the subject in current education policy in England. Whilst debates around the place of religions in education seek to balance the place of an established religion with increasing religious diversity, they often ignore the rise in recent decades of a third policy voice – neoliberalism.

Nigel Fancourt finds that although neoliberalism is largely neutral on the position of religions in education it has generated conflicting policies.

The interim report of the Commission on Religious Education, Religious Education for All, was published in September. It seeks to outline a vision for the subject in current education policy in England. The purpose of the interim report is to allow for responses and comments, before producing the final version. However, as with any educational document, it can be placed within a wider analysis of the effect of neoliberal policies, and this analysis coincidentally echoes some themes from François Gauthier’s  recent piece.

Generally, debates about the place of religion(s) in schools in England are between educational traditionalists and educational progressives. To over-simplify, the former are those who look to the legacy of the past, seeing education as the passing on of the inherited wisdom of former generations, usually through traditional structures and disciplines: Latin, uniforms, independent and grammar schools etc. This group would be likely to envisage RE as a benign nurturing into the Christian tradition, with perhaps a nod to religious diversity, as a character-forming process of spiritual and moral education. They would consider RE and school assemblies as almost interchangeable, and welcome the presence of faith schools in the educational landscape. They might even prefer them as an educational model.

By contrast, progressives expect education to build a better future, as a way of ironing out current injustices, through wider access, preferential funding for the disadvantaged, non-selective schooling and a child-centred curriculum. Their vision for RE would be in opposition to the traditionalists, either by adopting a French-style secularism, or through a thoroughgoing, multi-religious impartiality, welcoming and celebrating religious diversity. They might also seek to include humanism in the RE curriculum, as a responsive widening out to other worldviews. For them, collective worship would not be part of RE, if it existed at all. They might be against faith schools on the grounds of divisiveness – though pragmatically they support a greater diversity of religions to offer faith schooling, on the grounds of equality.

These debates around the place of religions in education mirror wider debates around the place of religions within the public sphere in balancing the place of an established religion with increasing religious diversity. However, they often ignore the rise in recent decades of a third policy voice – neoliberalism – as Gauthier suggested.

Driven by an economic view of policy, manifest in international PISA rankings and big data analysis, this voice is heard in education in three key areas. The first is the marketization of education, through the encouragement of competition between different schools and through the provision of market choice for parents. This policy was introduced under Thatcher’s government, and has continued through New Labour to the current academisation and free schools programme. It has led to the weakening of many local authorities and the rise of academy chains. These are networks of schools, either locally or across the country. The second strand is in favouring subjects and qualifications offering obvious industrial or employability skills: information technology and business studies, and vocational awards. The third strand is an insistence on high stakes testing, with clear grading; pupils are to be differentially placed for the world of work. Neoliberalism is largely neutral on the position of religions in education, but generates conflicting policies.

First, greater marketization through the freeing up of possible educational providers has meant that ‘faith’ schools have burgeoned. Under the shift from government of education to governance of a market, religious institutions have the experience, resources and expertise. New faith schools open, either under the existing legal arrangements, or as academies, or as free schools. This opportunity also allows new kinds of religiously motivated organisations to be involved – not just the usual players, such as Church of England or Roman Catholic Church.  Religious identity has therefore re-emerged as a strategic tool in educational choice. This policy is likely to encourage the status of confessional RE and collective worship, reasserting a traditionalist model.

Second, the subject can be devalued because of its apparent lack of relevance to employment. This explains its absence from the current English Baccalaureate subjects, however it anomalously remains compulsory. Since 1944, a local SACRE – a consensus of local religious leaders, teachers and local councillors –has devised a non-partisan syllabus. This model assumes that religious leaders have relevant expertise in deciding on these issues. In 1944, the syllabus was Christian only. From 1988, five other religions were also included. This local consensus model has democratic appeal, and often produces a progressive syllabus, but may not be best placed to tackle the requirements of the world of work, though there is an obvious move to appeal to softer skills, such as empathy or collaboration.

Third, examination performance not curriculum content becomes the key marker for teachers in schools – especially secondary schools. Assessment processes and results determine its worth, rather than an intangible sense of religious nurture or multi-faith respect. Clearly the rigour of examination systems goes well beyond what a local committee can offer. More centralised processes, and more examinable cognitive skills are prioritised, so schools now offer more philosophical and ethical approaches. Note the rise of the rebranded ‘philosophy and religion’ department – including in faith schools. These approaches offer a degree of criticality, in which Dawkins is on the syllabus, but downplay religious diversity as philosophical and ethical material takes precedence. Also the effect of assessment processes in schools can cut against the subject’s justification – as a thirteen year old pupil observed:

The thing is, some people have an advantage because if you’re doing about Hindus and someone was a Hindu, in a test, they’d get more than you because they’d know a lot more

The unfair advantage of a believer in assessment becomes a concern, not greater respect for their beliefs.

And if all this sounds like a peculiarly English problem, think again. As noted above, National education systems are being compared by the OECD, in the famous PISA rankings. Countries react to their position within them, abandoning or adopting policies to further neoliberal goals. For RE, those countries which have maintained a model of choice between different confessional approaches, such as Germany with a choice of Protestant, Catholic – and increasingly, Muslim – education, also have to consider whether to continue this model, and then how any model is to be assessed. Sweden has recently introduced national ethics tests in primary RE. Even that most secular of countries, France, introduced the ‘teaching of facts about religion’ across the curriculum to tackle religious literacy and religious diversity – and then had to decide how this is to be assessed.

This then is the landscape through which the interim report must steer, in finding a compromise for RE that is reasonably acceptable to all three voices. Simplistically, its core recommendations can be labelled accordingly. To establish a core entitlement for RE across all types of schools, both faith and maintained, is a largely progressive policy. To hold schools more accountable, such as through formal examinations, is a neoliberal policy.  To reorganise the local decision-making of the syllabus is a traditionalist policy. To develop a National Plan for supporting teaching is a progressive policy. This is not to criticise the document. However, the status of the subject is embroiled in wider issues of the value of the religious establishment, the formal status of religious diversity, and increasing agnosticism, as well as in the educational pressures of an increasingly neoliberal age.