Rank and Rivalry in Rural West Bengal

Davis, Marvin Gene

     This study is a descriptive analysis of rank -- relative highness and lowness -- and those rivalries by which distinctions of rank and the behavior between ranked units are variously maintained or altered in a village of West Bengal, India. It is also an argument for a sociology of India that is concerned equally with systems of meaning (cultural systems) and systems of action (social systems), and the nexus between culture and society. The first half of this study . . . offers a descriptive analysis of rank in the Bengali cosmos and society, including sections on the ecology and social composition of a Bengali village and kingdom; a description of the Bengali cosmos and society in local, cultural terms; an expanded ethnography of rank, one that moves beyond the usual discussion of caste as a unique institutional system of rank to a recognition that Bengalis view the several worlds of the universe, the various life forms which inhabit those worlds, and all birth groups into which men in society are divided as organized into a series of ranked orders and ordered ranks; and finally, a discussion of the place and importance of individuals in Bengali society.
     The second half of this study considers how the ranked orders and ordered ranks of the Bengali cosmos and society are maintained or altered, supported or challenged, by day to day social acts and situations. The acts and situations considered include both village and government politics. Topics considered on the level of village politics include the maintenance of social and moral orders . . . as prescribed in Hindu teachings, . . . the prizes of political competition, the organization of political teams, their leadership and personnel, and the manner and means by which rivalries are pursued. Next follows an analogous discussion of government politics, which seem to aim at leveling, if not completely eliminating, the premise and actuality of ranked inequalities in the name of progress and change in accord with the ideals of a modernizing nation-state. This section includes a discussion of the cultural premises informing village politics and government politics, and how each posits a very different understanding of the nature of politics and the relationship between polity, society and cosmos.

Bernard S. Cohn (chair), McKim Marriott, Ralph Nicholas